“Could Ayurveda Solve My Hair and Skin Woes?”

Ages before everybody’s coconut-oil obsession, there was Ayurveda. Intrigued by her Indian grandmother’s beauty habits, Rachel Khona puts the ancient medicine to the test

by
Ayurveda

India gave the world yoga, meditation, and so much delicious food. Can its ancient medicine deliver wonders too?

Decades before every gorgeous-maned A-lister from Emma Stone to Gwyneth Paltrow began waxing poetic about coconut oil, my live-in Indian grandmother insisted the slimy substance was essential for shiny, thick hair. This, along with tongue scraping and waking up with the sun, was just part of her Ayurvedic practice, something I knew little about. I thought her dedication to coconut oil was weird and outdated; at best, a relic of the old world. I couldn’t understand why she didn’t just use Pantene like a normal human.

Ayurveda is one of the oldest holistic medicines. Developed thousands of years ago in India, it’s based on the belief that your well-being is dependent on the balance between mind, body and spirit. Per Ayurveda, health problems can be solved simply by harmonizing your dosha (A.K.A. your body’s energy system). Weight gain, weight loss, constipation, high blood pressure, eczema, depression, anxiety, arthritis: Ayurveda claims to solve all of these problems. Could it do the trick for my occasional heartburn, somewhat thin hair, and oily skin? I decided to give it a shot.

Ayurveda

My grandma, the original coconut-oil devotee

When I told my mom I intended to adopt Ayurvedic practices, she recalled the time my grandfather decided to listen to an Ayurvedic doctor instead of her (she’s an actual doctor, and, unlike my grandmother, firmly scientific), going off his blood pressure medicine in favour of a concoction of Indian herbs. He ended up in the hospital with congestive heart failure. But considering my complaints are far from life-threatening, I was undeterred. I made an appointment with Nisha Saini of New York Ayurveda. Excited, I wondered what she would recommend. My guess? A few extra spices in my cooking and a few rando foods I’ve never had before.

I was wrong. After a lengthy quiz, Saini determined that my dominant dosha is pitta (the other two types are vata and kapha). A pitta constitution is characterized by a fiery temperament, heartburn, assertiveness, impatience, and being prone to acne.

To start, Saini recommended some drastic life changes to boost my general well-being, aid in digestion, generate self-esteem, peace and happiness, and to bring about “a radical change in consciousness:”

  • Wake up at 5:30 a.m. to meditate and do yoga
  • Go to bed at 8 p.m.

Then, for my heartburn:

  • Give up alcohol
  • Give up peanuts
  • Give up spicy Indian pickle
  • Switch my green tea for a detox tea
  • Swish my mouth with coconut oil in the morning
  • Scrape my tongue
  • Eat tons of fruit

And for thicker hair:

  • Massage coconut oil onto my head
  • Eat sesame seeds every day
  • Avoid dairy except for butter, yogurt, and milk

Daunted by that long list, I spoke to Dr. Pratima Raichur of Pratima Spa New York for a second opinion. Much to my inner lazy girl’s disappointment, her recommendations were largely the same: cut out dairy and booze (oh, she added sugar and seafood to the list too), rub my scalp with coconut oil. She also advised me to drink half a cup of aloe vera juice every day to combat my heartburn, and prescribed several herbal pills to address my oily skin, plus a full skincare regimen using her own line’s cleanser, sunscreen, facial oil, vitamin C serum and a pink acne solution.

Ayurveda

The skincare regime that Raichur prescribed to me

I knew this challenge was going to be difficult. Biggest Loser-style difficult. I once went on a five-day ashram retreat, only to flee to the nearby all-inclusive resort so I could drink to my heart’s content. I’m also more night owl than early worm. And as for my beloved Indian pickle? That rule felt like a stab in the heart. It’s something I became obsessed with before I could even speak. At an age when most babies are content with pulverized spinach, my taste buds cried out for the fiery taste of pickled chilies and mangoes. (Perhaps it was my inner pitta craving more fire?) Disheartened but committed, I supposed the pain of it would dissolve if my hair looked like an eighties supermodel’s and my skin like that of a newborn baby.

Challenge #1: Getting up at the crack of dawn. My first thought when my alarm clock blared at 5:30 the next morning was, why is my life so hard? The second, I hate this. I resisted the urge to hit snooze and stumbled out of the room to meditate in front of my makeshift altar. Sadly, my feet fell asleep ten minutes later, making it hard to relax. After 20 minutes of pretending to find my Zen, I put on one of my Bryan Kest yoga DVDs and went through an hour-long flow. By the time I was done, it was still only 7:15 a.m. I munched on toast and strawberries—obeying the fruit command—for breakfast, then headed to the bathroom to begin my morning skincare regime.

Months ago, my dermatologist (who also happens to be Indian, which I feel lends this experiment some scientific control) deduced that my oily skin was the result of a hormonal imbalance and put me on meds that have since eliminated any breakouts. For the sake of my experiment though, I reluctantly shelved my pills and topical creams. Instead, I grabbed the prescribed chickpea-flour cleanser from Raichur. When I unscrewed the cap, my nostrils were treated to the familiar smell of my mom’s cooking, which, to be honest, is slightly disconcerting for a face wash. I looked at the ingredients; there wasn’t a single cleansing agent in there. I washed my face with it, scrubbing for a good few minutes. Unfortunately, I felt less fresh and clean and more like a fried pakora. Next, I dabbed on the prescribed oil, the vitamin C serum and sunscreen, all things I was already familiar with. The last bottle was the acne concoction that looked quite similar to my drugstore sulfur pimple solution. I read the ingredients and indeed they both contained zinc oxide and camphor, but the one from Dr. Raichur contained sandalwood as well. With its vivid pink hue, I decided to leave this one for nighttime.

Next up, the coconut oil. Instructed to rub it into my roots to encourage a healthy scalp and therefore fuller hair, I massaged the oil all over studiously. However, I was soon distracted by one thing: the mouth-watering scent. My head officially smelled like a bakery. Unfortunately, it also looked like a grease ball. Even with the little amount I put on, I looked hideous. Luckily, I work at home, so I was able to sit around with it on my head all day as long as I could resist downing boxes of cookies. If I had to run out, I could just throw it up in a bun. For actual social events, I’d just have to forgot it altogether. Now I know why grandma’s hair looked so slick.

Ayurveda

Me, with way too much coconut oil in my hair

When lunchtime hit, I sprinkled sesame seeds on my salad, sipped detox tea (a mix of cumin, fennel, and coriander), and took the prescribed pills with a glass of aloe vera juice.

Evening was far more difficult. I was accustomed to my daily glass of red wine and not having any was going to be like going a day without the sun. I distracted myself with a lime-flavoured seltzer water instead. When it came to washing up before bed, I encountered some serious struggles. The chickpea cleanser was not removing any of the makeup I had applied earlier to run errands. I was tempted to leave it on to stay true to the experiment, but the last thing I wanted was a new pimple or makeup all over my pillows. So, I washed the rest off with a gentle cleanser. I decided to leave the chickpea mix for days where I’m not wearing makeup. I then rubbed the pink sulfur acne solution all over, blending desperately so it wouldn’t look like I was wearing face paint to bed.

I stuck with all of this for a week, but my crankiness levels were rising. Finally, I realized I could no longer continue for fear of doing something I’d regret, like snapping at a cashier or eating an entire cake by myself. I decided I could compromise and wake up at the more reasonable hour of 6:30. As for wine? Our break was over. I can resist a gravy-laden poutine, red velvet cupcakes, or a bowl of Lucky Charms in the name of good health. But there a few pleasures in life which I feel the sheer enjoyment far outweighs any reason to abstain from them. Mainly butter, sleep and wine. Besides, seeing as none of my needs were dire, I reasoned Ayurveda needed to fit into my life, not the other way around.

Ten days later, as I was falling asleep at the early hour of 9 p.m., I sensed a slight soreness on my chin. I knew the familiar feeling. It was the makings of a pimple. A dreaded underground pimple. I screamed in my head as I marched to the bathroom to put a pimple patch on the spot. Luckily it helped minimize the damage, but a week later, I got another one! Disappointed, I started back on my meds, but decided to continue with my haircare and anti-heartburn regimen.

A month later, was my hair fuller than Mufasa’s? No. It looked exactly the same, and I didn’t feel any different from waking up at the crack of dawn. As far as going to bed early, that was impossible for the simple fact that I have a life. But my stomach? It was like she had a new lease on life! My heartburn had simmered down to almost non-existent. Ditto for any bloating or nausea. Now if I could just weave spicy food back in, I’d be set.

I suppose Ayurveda is like most other holistic practices: sometimes effective, sometimes not. I wanted it to be the cure for all my ills so badly, but my skin had other plans. I was feeling down about the lack of results, but then I remembered that India gave the world yoga, meditation and tandoori chicken. So I guess we’re even.

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