Agni & Autonomic Nervous System (Part 2)

Namaste and welcome to Athreya Herb's podcast listeners. The second section of this podcast is about how the nervous system, which is not under our control, is essential from both scientific and Ayurvedic points of view to heal ourselves and lead a healthier life. To discuss this topic, we have Vaidya Victor, who has generously agreed to share his expertise. Vaidya Victor has been practicing Ayurveda for about 10 years. He comes from a scientific background and has embraced Ayurveda with a scientific approach. He believes that Ayurveda validates every point of these neuro discoveries that has been happening in the last 10 years. He also teaches, and his Institute is called the International Institute of Ayurveda, located in Central California. I am Vaidya Jay, a longtime practitioner of Ayurveda. I teach Ayurveda in several institutes. We do these podcasts to empower people about Ayurvedic knowledge to lead a long healthy life. Welcome, Vaidya Victor.

March 03, 2022 | 36 minutes 17 seconds
By Vaidya. Jay Parla

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Victor - Thank you for having me again, Dr. Jay.

Vaidya - Of course. In the previous podcast, we introduced all our listeners to the role of the autonomic nervous system and the importance of the vagus nerve. I'm revamping everything; if somebody is joining now, they can go back and listen to the first podcast and get some basic information. Today's topic will be the Ayurvedic approach towards the autonomic nervous system how Ayurveda balances this vital system of the body, which is a hidden secret for a healthy gut and life. Have you seen how Ayurveda incorporates all balancing acts for the autonomic nervous system in your practice?

Victor - Yes. When I started practicing Ayurveda, on my first appointment, I thought I would give this person a food list and suggest to them the proper herbs, they'll do everything I suggest, and it'll be great. That was a naive view of how it works. Over the years, as I gained experience, I realized that people have a hard time putting suggestions into action. Even if they sit down and say they want to do this, in reality, when it comes down to it, they're stressed out, and that was a keyword. They say I want to stop drinking coffee but, if I don't drink coffee for a day, my desire or drive to satisfy the craving becomes more intense than the desire to heal. That lead me to do more profound research into Ayurveda about this. What good is telling someone to avoid certain foods if they are unwilling to or can't?

Vaidya - I want to look at it from the listener's point of view. Do you think that people have patterns that are difficult to erase? As you beautifully said, there is an intention, but the craving overrules the purposes. Do you see those patterns embedded deeply in the autonomic nervous patterns?

Victor - They're deeper than I imagined. I realized that the core principle of Ayurveda is you haven't found the root cause yet; you're dealing with the symptom, the craving is a symptom, and the root cause is buried somewhere hidden inside the nervous system. So it's our job as practitioners to help the rogi find that root cause because they often don't know what it is.

Vaidya - We know the Vata energy and talked about it in the last podcast. Is there a relation to a sub-type of Vata? Vata is movement-oriented bioenergy; energy is responsible for every movement possible in the body to simplify this to our listeners. Vata comes through the breath and is called Prana Vata. It descends in the body making all the physiological functions possible. It comes through the head, regulates all the higher cognitive functions, comes through the throat, makes the voice and breathing possible, goes to the gut, helps the digestion, and goes to the colon. I want our listeners to connect to the subtype of the Apana or Samana Vata. You have researched this aspect. Have you found any relation? Something like the Samana Vata is where the cravings come in, or this part is the motivation part where the Prana Vata comes. Have you correlated with seeing if that is something we can share with our listeners?

Victor - Vata is critical in this whole Nervous System game because it governs the nervous system to a large extent, at least all the information flowing through the nervous system. If I had to pick one sub dosha Vata primarily involved in this hunt, the root cause would be Prana Vata because of its associations with sense organs. If any of Vata's sub-doshas are disturbed, all sub-doshas are likely to be disturbed somehow. For example, prana Vata gets disturbed, causing anxiety or sensory difficulty when Apana Vata is disturbed. This is because they operate in tandem, not separately. Prana Vata is the most important because the vagus nerve connects directly to all organs, as does Prana Vata.

Vaidya - That's the pathway I wanted to connect. The descent is via the vagus nerve, which makes it obvious for an Ayurvedic practitioner to say, "The Vegas nerve comes from the head, and follows exactly the path of Prana becoming these subtypes and connecting to the gut." I liked your analysis. Can you define the relationship between the Prana and the mind? How is Prana, the life force responsible for higher cognitive functions, related to the mind?

Victor - The mind is capable of thousands of projections and functions, as well as extremely sophisticated maneuvering in our system. It unites with the sense organs to give us our experiences. Prana fuels the entire process. Prana is the driving force behind the mind or the mind's fuel to function throughout the body. The mind needs a stable source of Prana to experience the world and life in a healthy balanced way. If Prana gets disturbed, the mind can't perform its functions properly, and we get a disturbing depiction of reality.

Vaidya - It is also true from a yogic point of view because the connector between the physical and psychic bodies is the breath body or the pranic body. This point is also validated by yoga's five kosha or the five sheets of existence. The connections of the autonomic nervous system to the body and mind make sense because the autonomic nervous system is the key to understand the functional Prana and the Vata. Can you give an example of the Ayurvedic designed approach for the autonomic nervous system? One or two examples for the listeners to know, how Ayurveda is designed towards this process?

Victor - Yes. There are a few recurring things throughout the texts of Ayurveda and what the Wise Vaidyas have taught us over the generations. For this topic, if someone wants to heal, they need to be in a safe environment, all five senses must be addressed, and the sattva Guna must be increased. That needs to be done alongside any pure gross physical dot to healing because there's the acknowledgment and the wisdom that unless someone's dwelling in their parasympathetic nervous system, they're not going to heal properly. Panchakarma is a wonderful example and a sophisticated way of getting someone to reside in their parasympathetic nervous system. It's a long process of getting the digestion to calm down, which helps bring someone into their parasympathetic nervous system. There's a counseling component to it. Many therapies are done before the primary five karmas to get the body into a state of deep relaxation, start to release toxicity and Ama, and get in the GI tract to be evacuated.

Vaidya - For listeners, we want to go back a step towards the topic in which you said the mind needs to be in a Sattva or Sattvic state for healing. The mind and its constructs are of three types. The hyper mode of mind is called rajasic mode. Rajasic state is when somebody is in a fight-flight mechanism all the time; the adrenal functioning would cause all things to be hyper in the body. Tamasic is the opposite state, which brings sluggishness, non-interest, non-involvement, and ignorance; it is a depressed or a slow mode. These two are considered abnormal and non-sustainable states of mind. The Sattvic state is the balanced state, where we don't have too much of either one of them. However, we need some mental activity or actions to balance thoughts between the activity and the rest. Vaidya Victor, could you please explain briefly what the rajasic state is, what happens to the autonomic nervous system in the rajasic state, the tamasic state, and finally, Sattva to our listeners? Would you spend a few minutes on this, please?

Victor - Let's take the example of a typical day in the life of an American. They wake up, feel dizzy and tired, so their sleep is tamasic in a good way. One's body slows down to stop and rejuvenate, but when they wake up and are running late, they need to enter into a rajasic mode; their mind needs to engage rajas, which is activity or fanaticism. The first thing one does is reach for a cup of coffee or caffeine and drink it, which activates the adrenals, nervous system, and mobilizes them. It means that they enter their sympathetic nervous system, get busy and active, and start moving, walking, and talking faster. That enables one to go to work and do what they have to do. Many people notice that whenever they enter into a lot of rajas, it's much easier to be aggravated, get scared or experience fear, or feel frustrated. All those emotions come with a lot of activity, or sometimes exhilaration or excitement. We spend our day in rajas, primarily, and in at least the United States in the modern era, it's too much. We get home at 5 or 6 o'clock, sit down, and feel stressed out; our nervous system is still excited and overactive. Then instead of applying Sattva, people often engage in tamasic activities to slow themselves down. They'll eat a heavy dinner, maybe with red meat or any other kind of meat, drink alcohol and mix it with other tamasic foods like garlic and onion. That forcefully slows the nervous system down and makes the person feel relaxed enough; it's not a genuine relaxation but a slowed-down state. Then they go to sleep, and the cycle continues. That was an example of Rajas and Tamas not functioning well. If you insert Sattva into the equation, then that's the capacity of the mind to make clear, balanced decisions at any given moment. That person will decide to engage rajas or Tamas in a much-balanced way without using external substances to force their body into either a rajasic or tamasic state.

Vaidya - Beautiful. What happens if our state of mind and choices are kept in the Sattvic realm? How does it influence the autonomic nervous system?

Victor - All of the qualities of Sattva are the same when we compare them to the types of things that bring us into our parasympathetic nervous system, the part of our autonomic nervous system in which we are relaxed, able to digest, and sleep. We could say that the parasympathetic nervous system is the physical aspect of our body that upholds Sattva in mind.

Vaidya - Ayurveda makes use of breathing techniques for bringing the mind into this state. It employs dietary options, such as a sattvic diet protocol, primarily yogic, but Ayurveda has also embraced it. All our listeners now know what the sattvic state is and how it influences the nervous system, especially the autonomic nervous system. Your journey started with a trust that the patient will make the list of things you've advised and encountered a pattern versus the motivation issue. What have you learned and incorporated as time gone by from your first patient to now? What do you have to say about that aspect?

Victor - That was quite a journey. I kept trying different things and asking deeper questions because I, too, had faced this problem. It's like I know what I should do, but my drive to do what I shouldn't is so strong that I don't want to resist it. In Ayurveda, it is one of the three main causes of a disease and is called a crime against wisdom. What is the deep root cause of that? Why would someone commit a crime against wisdom? It's all over the place, and we all face that. We're all criminals right now.

Vaidya - In a way, our society is built on that.

Victor - Yes, because those pulls are so strong. I learned the art of Prashna in Ayurveda. It is the art of asking questions as a diagnostic method, and it was one of the most useful tools in assisting a rogi in determining what the deep drivers are to those desires to commit crimes against wisdom. It always leads straight to the autonomic nervous system. The past's stored experiences and trauma responses that food, lifestyle, tamasic, or rajasic activity were a compensation. As humans, we have a bad habit of identifying our nature with our pattern, which is a mistake. For example, because I'm Italian, I enjoy eating many tomatoes and garlic; this is a common thing I've heard in the clinic. The problem is not in the habit but the identification with the pattern because, in reality, the person is not that way; it is an autonomic nervous system pattern that has developed over a lifetime and is changeable. That brings us back to one of my favorite quotes that the root cause of all disease is separation from spirit, our spirit. When we misidentify a pattern in our autonomic nervous system, we take the identification away from our prakruti, or nature, as our spirit, core self, and identifying it with something else.

Vaidya - That is the prakruti establishing. Prakruti sama refers to establishing a treatment used to restore our true nature, which is to identify ourselves with our constitutional makeup rather than our patterns. Ayurveda allows those seeking help to go back and see how they can break the Rajas and Tamas patterns and enter into the sattvic state. The primary causes of diseases are crimes against our wisdom, designed to distract us from reality. Who we are and how we are designed to function in this time and space is changed by the rajasic and tamasic states and your experience of correcting it and making the person mindful. Can you give another example about the design of the autonomic nervous system and its Ayurvedic management?

Victor - I think this is where Ayurveda shines as a healing art. Let's take the example of a person. This is an example that everyone can understand. Throwback to our first podcast, the autonomic nervous system is designed to detect threats and safety. Threats and safety to each individual are unique because we all had have different experiences in our life. There are commonalities, but the details of the experience are unique to each person. One place in which we experience the most threatened safety is in our intimate relationships. By intimate, I don't just mean romantic; I mean any close relationship, whether it's with your parents, friends, romantic partners, pets, etc.

Vaidya - Even the relation to your surrounding, like nature and the ocean, all these are the cues.

Victor - Yes, everything. Let's say that when I was a kid, my father was distant and uninvolved. He would be giving constant feedback to me that he wanted to be alone. He was always working and was never around. As a child, my autonomic nervous system interprets an absent parent as a threat cue because a parent is a source of safety. The autonomic nervous system is wired to pick that up. There's no way to avoid it. It will detect that the father is not present, which will create a pattern in the system and may drive a specific compensation behavior. I might get overly attached to the mother, or there are 1000 ways I could play that out. The idea is that it's a threat. I grew up, became a young man, and got into a relationship with my boss, who's a male. I'm at the office one day, and he has a look on his face that I don't recognize consciously, but it reminds me of my father's look when he was about to walk out the door and leave for two weeks. My autonomic nervous system remembers that and triggers it as an interpretation of threat. Based on that, I activate a defense mechanism, which may be anything. I might lower my head, avert my eyes, go back to my desk, slump my shoulders and not talk to anyone for a day. That might be my defense mechanism. It might be to get angry, go out and drink alcohol. There are 1000 million defense mechanisms we all could engage in. The point is that when there is a threat, I engage in a defense mechanism. It is all based on the past. The important thing Ayurvedically is that if I start to sit at my desk with my head down, my physiology has changed, my shoulders are slumped. My digestion is hampered because I'm in sympathetic nervous system response. My digestion and Agni are weaker.Maybe I'm eating worse foods, and the Ama is building up. If I go to a doctor, an MD, I will get prescribed a pill. Let's say I have heartburn, so I would probably get prescribed Prilosec or some antacids. That will address the root cause, which is a pattern. I was threatened by my boss's look based on my father's habits when I was six years old. Ayurveda would acknowledge that and say we have to deal with that and help the nervous system recover from the relationship; that's part of your lifestyle. Men say they wake up at 6 AM and go to the gym, that's one aspect of lifestyle, but lifestyles have these deep roots in how we experience life.

Vaidya - The approach to these patterns from an Ayurvedic point of view is sleep, diet, and lifestyle. It's not a pill pop correction but a more sustainable, self-regulated approach to these lifestyle diseases that come up when we go through the stressors on the autonomic nervous system. So, we have another two minutes. We talked about diet and breathing. Tell us a little about any Herbs that, according to your practice, are helpful.

Victor - Ayurvedically speaking, there's a beautiful way of doing herbs, which is to do them in phases. It helps in dealing with the Ama, Agni, Dhatus, and Doshas. One is given different herbs depending on what their autonomic nervous system leanings. If someone is stressed out and constantly in the Rajas and Tamas cycle, you can give them herbs that help with sattvas, such as Brahmi, Shankhpushpi, and Jatamansi. Guduchi is a sattvic herb and is Deepana pachana, which helps digest and destroys toxicity. A lot of these herbs have a multi-fold effect.

Vaidya - You touched upon some of the important herbs. The spices are Ayurveda's secret weapon for influencing the digestive and the nervous system. Nutmeg is a calming spice and connects the gut to the brain. Coriander and cardamom can also be used. We can imagine the aroma ascending from the gut towards the brain. These herbs and spices help a person going through the crisis of the autonomic nervous system to disengage from those patterns and then reroute themselves towards a healthy state. I am grateful that we had this conversation to help our listeners about how these patterns can be changed using Ayurvedic protocols. Seeing an Ayurvedic practitioner is enlightening for correcting our problems and getting back to a long healthy life. Thank you, Vaidya Victor, for joining us at the Athreya Herbs podcast.
We look forward to seeing you again soon for the last part of the autonomic nervous system podcast. Thank you so much, Namaste.

Victor - Namaste.

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