The summer of 2021 might very well go down in history as one of the most anticipated travel seasons ever. After months of isolation, many people are eager to get away from their combined homes/offices/schools and see someplace new besides their couch, fridge, and TV. This impulse is completely understandable, and even healthy from a holistic standpoint in terms of bringing balance to the system. We’ve been stuck, stagnant, and afraid—so our bodies want to move!
It’s All About the Vata
Even the most well-intentioned and experienced travelers know, however, that uprooting yourself in any significant way can cause some unintended side effects in the body. Whether it’s the stress of transportation logistics, unforeseen complications, or anything in between, travel will always bring the Vata dosha out of balance, according to Ayurveda. Vata is biological humor responsible for movement, and when balanced can help us feel enthusiasm, spontaneous, social, and creative. Out of balance, though, and data can unleash a host of physical and emotional qualities that leave us feeling scattered, fearful, tired, and dry.
Many common travel ailments can be seen as related to Vata aggravation. While all travel will inherently disturb Vata, there are many ways to prevent it from taking over your trip through Ayurvedic diet and self-care routines that focus on the qualities of stability, softness, and safety. Packing a Vata-balancing toolkit—literally and figuratively—with you as you embark upon your next journey can help ensure you remain well and present in body, mind, and spirit as you embrace the joys of stepping out of your familiar world.
Here are Five Ways to Mitigate Vata While You Travel:
Among many other motions of the body, Vata is responsible for the cycles that govern sleep, digestion, and overall energy—which we know as the circadian rhythm. When we change how much light our bodies are exposed to during the day by traveling, our internal rhythms get thrown for a loop, causing a disconnect between the normal feelings of fatigue and wakefulness that are usually aligned with night and daylight.
The general rule for jet-lag transitioning is to allow for one day of adjustment per time zone you change if you’re going east, and ⅔ of a day, if you are traveling to the west. That means, if you go from EST to PST, which is a three-zone time difference, it will take two days to adjust to the new time zone; on the return trip, it will take three days. Depending on how long your trip is, or how far away you are going from your home base, this ideal adjustment period might not be possible; maybe you’re on vacation and ready to jump into fun, or on a business trip and need to be bright-eyed and on-point for your presentation after a red-eye flight. If that’s the case, prioritize your priority events, and then slow down for the rest of the day.
Observe the cycles of light around you so your circadian rhythm begins to sync up with your new environment. If you can expose your eyes to the blue-yellow light at sunrise for a few minutes (not through a window or sunglasses), your body will more naturally adjust its levels of stress hormones, so your sleep cycle arrives on time at night.
Similar to how your sleep schedule is thrown off by Vata, your digestion will also need some adjusting if you arrive in a place with meal times and/or food choices that are out of your normal routine. The first step to adjusting is to listen to your hunger cues and eat as close to your original meal times as possible, until your circadian rhythm syncs to the new time zone. Choose foods that are warm, cooked, and seasonal to your surroundings. Do not go too extreme—you can’t go wrong with foods like basic rice or grains, bread, and cooked veggies with mild spices.
While it’s often tempting to fill your traveling days with new and interesting foods, and snacks to keep you energized on the go, try to focus on three solid meals over ice cream cones and soft pretzels every few hours. Any irregularity in your eating will only increase Vata, making it harder on your digestive fire, called agni in Ayurveda, to break down and absorb food. This affects how much nutrition and energy you actually get when you eat. That said, don’t be too rigid about sticking to a strict diet.
If you’re dying to experiment with a new kind of food or want to enjoy that afternoon ice cream, just don’t combine it with other things so your body isn’t struggling to make sense of what you’re putting into it; let it hear one language, rather than translating and re-translating a chorus of foreign tongues.
If you find yourself eating meals at strange times vis-a-vis sleep, follow the Ayurvedic principles that we use for shift workers: if you’re going to sleep in the early morning in your new time zone, don’t eat before you go to bed, sleep half the amount of time you normally would, do some movement when you wake up, take a shower, then eat. All these things will prevent a back-up of undigested food in the system, which can lead to GI discomfort and/or other imbalances like skin issues, energy shifts, and other uncomfortable symptoms you don’t want to ruin your trip.
It can’t hurt to give agni a little extra love while you’re traveling, as prevention and to keep things moving in the before, during, and after of your trip. Stress is often a compounding factor when it comes to typical travel-related digestive disorders—constipation and diarrhea—so in addition to stress-reducing techniques you can create calm conditions in your gut with the following simple herbal remedies:
- Choose herbal teas like ginger, chamomile, fennel, mint, and tulsi when you’re traveling, especially on planes, and instead of coffee. These herbs support digestion and can calm the mind if it’s running through your travel checklist for the hundredth time by bringing you back to the sensory experience of the smell, the feeling of the warm tea in your hands, and the soothing sensation of sipping the tea mindfully.
- Carry a small container (like a pill bottle) with a mix of coriander, cumin, and fennel (CCF) seeds. Fennel seeds are especially useful for relieving bloating, gas, and nausea that can come with travel. Take a pinch of seeds in your mouth, chew, and swallow for instant relief! Or, make a tea with the seeds using about 1 teaspoon in a mug of warm water. Let steep for 5 minutes; you can leave the seeds in the mug and ingest them for extra support.
Depending on your personality (or the personalities of the people you’re traveling with), your trip might have a sun-up-to-sun-down itinerary, or you might land in a new country and say “now what?” Wherever you fall on the planning spectrum, keep in mind the concept of the middle path when it comes to how active you are. Choose a balance of engaging and restful activities—like a museum day followed by a beach day, or a hiking excursion followed by a massage.
Set an intention for your trip that helps guide your choices. At the same time, don’t try to cram a whole continent’s worth of exploration into a weekend. Savor and appreciate what you do get to see and experience, the way you would a delicious meal. Coming out of a year-plus of limited social contact might also make excursions of any type draining or triggering in new ways, so give yourself a grace period to adjust to that as well.
In the same way that we want to try to stick to a routine when it comes to sleep and eating, having a general structure for your trip—including things like travel and lodging arrangements, and contact information for local businesses and resources—will overall reduce the potential for stress on your trip. That being said, if you’re traveling to intentionally let go of schedules, clear your energetic space, and explore new places—then go for it!
Be prepared for the instability that might come up in your body and emotions; have some of your digestive spices, a way to feel supported by nature or the people you trust, and self-care tools like abhyanga, meditation, or gentle yoga to ground and center you. When we have containers for self-exploration, we can go even deeper in letting go of whatever might be holding us back—whether it’s a deep-seated belief system or a train schedule.
Hydrate & lubricate
Vata dosha is drying, which is uncomfortable physically but can also make us feel disconnected and separated—not exactly what you want to be on a trip, even if you’re traveling solo. Ensuring you hydrate and lubricate yourself internally and externally will allow you to feel more cohesive and “put together,” a quality called snigdha in Ayurveda, so you can be present and energized for your trip.
Start with the obvious: drink more water, especially if you are flying. Choose warm water over cold, and avoid sparkling or carbonated drinks, which can increase gas and bloating. Herbal teas (like the ones above) will elevate your hydration with plant medicine, too, making them a great choice for travel. When you’re dehydrated, it’s typical to feel tired, go through energy dips that make you crave sugar or caffeine (which will dehydrate you more!), and experience constipation, none of which are great travel buddies.
In addition to hydration, you want to lubricate—which means using oil. Typically, we think of oil and water as antagonists, but consider this: Oil creates the container in which water can be held, rather than simply flowing through you. Both water and oil are considered snigdha, but oil is more so, making it a more powerful medicine for balancing vata.
In Ayurveda, using oil on the skin is a way to work with dryness and tackles that emotional component of feeling lonely, anxious, worn-out, or frazzled. Incorporate some abhyanga, on your whole body or at least your feet, during your trip to mitigate those feelings; it also gives a bit of that spa quality to a trip, and can be an especially nice treat to get an oil massage by someone else! Nasya, or nasal oiling, can support dryness on airplanes, too, especially if you’re wearing a face-covering for long(er) periods of time.
Nasya helps to lubricate the respiratory tract and the headspace more generally, so you’ll be more focused as well. If you don’t have herbal nasya oil, simply use coconut oil or untoasted sesame oil (from your kitchen), place some on your pinky finger, and swirl in each nostril. Eating high-quality, nutrient-dense, plant-based fats like plant oils (olive, coconut, avocado), avocados, and ghee will further keep your elimination regular and easeful.
Value The Journey AND The Destination
Whether your destination is near or far, traveling is a wonderful opportunity to experience new places, people, cultures, and environments, and remember how beautiful the diversity of our world is. When we travel with intention and presence, though, we can more fully appreciate the things that make us different as well as the places we call home—our cities, our houses, and ourselves. Keep this in mind as you maintain routines and other elements of your self-care practices while venturing into new places. You might ask yourself: Am I traveling to escape my life, or to feel more connected to who I am no matter where I am in the world?