Three Pillars of Life- Food, Sleep and Sex
Traya Upasthambhāh- The Three Pillars that Support Life
Food (āhāra), Sleep (śayana) and Sex (abrahmacharya)
It is said in the Charak Samhita (one of the three major texts of Ayurveda) that the three pillars or supports of life when regulated with balance support life endowing the body with strength, complexion, growth and long life. On the flip side of this overindulgence can be detrimental and crumble the human body like a building with weak structure. (C.S. S XI)
These pillars of food, sleep and sex compose the support and structural system that help create a life of health and longevity. When any one of these pillars is over or under indulged in it can create a weakness or tipping within our body as a whole, destabilizing the grand structure. While independently important, the three pillar also function to collectively to support us and our generations to come.
3 Pillars of Life
1. Food (Āhāra)
We have discussed food in detail through other articles like Healthy Eating Guidelines, Food Combining and Seasonal Approaches to Eating. The main point in the consideration of food being a strong hold of our being is to make sure the digestive system is strong enough to process and assimilate the food you are consuming; building healthy bodily tissues and enhancing our connection to the greater structures of our life. Overindulgence, lack of high quality foods, poor digestion or assimilation, and eating in an unbalanced way can create poor internal infrastructure. However when food is taken thoughtfully, seasonally considered, and with mindfulness surrounding the experience and process of eating, our meals can become pure energy, longevity and strength for all of our tissues and bodily functions.
If you are looking for simple and creative ways to maximize healthy eating check out our favorite recipes!
2. Sleep (Śayana or Nidra)
We all know how profound the difference is between feeling fully rested or not getting enough sleep. This can immediately have an impact on your mind, emotions, productivity, digestion, elimination and eventually will take its toll on the entire body if sleep deprivation continues. In our modern lifestyle it has unfortunately become quite common to run oneself into exhaustion with sleep as a practice often being overlooked or a challenge to attend to. If you work with an Ayurvedic Practitioner or most healthcare professionals, discussing sleep patterns, quality, preparation and how you feel upon rising are generally considered early on in most treatment plans or even in brief consultations. The importance of sleep is signficiant in so many residual ways throughout our bodily system and lifestyle and is precisely why it is considered one of the three pillars of life. In the Ashtanga Hridayam Vagbhat states that;
Happiness and unhappiness, nourishment and emaciation, strength and debility, sexual prowess and impotence, knowledge and ignorance, life and its absence are all dependent on sleep. (AH S VII)
This explains the weight and connection between the three pillars and gives insight to how we may benefit from shifting focus to this very important part of our life. With consideration of the 20 Attributes or 10 Pairs of Opposite Qualities in Nature we can reflect upon the qualities sleep creates within our body. At appropriate times it can increase stability, clarity, lightness, and function, while at inappropriate times or through over-indulging, sleep can promote excess heaviness, density, stagnation, cloudiness and a general lack of functionality which can lower overall health. On the flip side lack of sleep or being up too late at night can create the opposing effect of too much lightness, dryness, instability and variability in the body and mind which can also lead to decreased health.
Working with clients we see a strong connection between sleep patterns and the quality of digestion and elimination. For those suffering from chronic constipation or dry stools one of the first areas we address are healthy sleep patterns. Clients with these symptoms often exhibit variable sleep patterns, sometimes staying up too late on electronics, mentally over-stimulated or may frequently have insomnia. Conversely those with sluggish elimination may oversleep, have a tendency to sleep in, nap or have a lazier lifestyle with lack of exercise. If we understand that digestion is one of the keys to health we can see the importance of the pillar of sleep in holding up our body structure and life as a whole.
If you are suffering from lack of proper rest, while we recommend you reach out to your Ayurvedic Practitioner. There are a few things you can begin to implement immediately at home to nourish the body, calm the mind and promote the opposing qualities you may find balancing. Warm oil massage, a warm bath, soft clean materials to wear or sleep in, anointing the head with nourishing oil to the crown and ears, foot massage, and the use of healthy fats like warm milk or bone broth soup (if appropriate for your dietary choices) would all be beneficial.
3. Sex (Abrahmacharya)
The practice of loving touch and sexual connection is considered a pillar of life for some obvious and maybe not so obvious reasons. For humanity to continue offspring are seen as necessary and useful in the ancient practices. Looking deeper into Ayurvedic theory however we understand that the definition of perfect health includes balanced agni (digestive fire), balanced dosha (no excess or vitiated qualities), balanced mala (excretory channels of sweat, urine and feces functioning and eliminating properly), healthy dhatu (seven bodily tissues), healthy mind and peaceful soul. What this implies is that the seven body tissues which are created in a pecking order from plasma to reproductive tissue are supporting overall health. The bi-product of the health of these tissues is ojas. Ojas is the unctuous, cool, moist, building quality of the body often referred to as immunity. The qualities of ojas however are similar to reproductive fluids and creation of life itself. This is why healthy sexual activity, when practiced with love is a sign of overall longevity for both the individual and our human community as a whole. When we honor this it signifies an understanding and responsibility to future generations in preventative healthcare being at the forefront of community care. Healthy mothers and fathers create healthy children, our sexual stamina and reproductive health are dependent on this. The health of ojas is something that is carried on from the moment of conception from parent to child which is why the connection between food, sleep and sex are interdependent between one another.
There are specific recommendations surrounding seasons and constitutions that support greater sexual activity. During winter, cooler days and for Kaphic individuals sexual activity can increase lightness, enthusiasm and get the body moving. While during Vata and Pitta seasons of summer and autumn or for those constitutions or individuals with circumstantial predominance it can be too warming, drying and stimulating in greater frequency. In excess, sexual activity can create exhaustion, giddiness, weak feelings in the inner thighs and pelvis, loss of strength, depletion of tissues, loss of acuity of the senses and premature death. While balanced practice can create good memory, intelligence, long life, acuity of sense organs, strength and slow aging from the discipline and control of this vital energy. (AH S VII)
A general rule of thumb is if you have more kaphic qualities you can engage most frequently (daily or every other day), pitta (1-2xs a week) and for vata (1x per week to a couple times a month). If you are looking to improve your sexual capacity through building healthy reproductive tissues it is recommended to consider Pancha Karma and complete a thorough rejuvenation after your cleansing program to maximize tissue strength and sexual stamina.
What if you don’t have a sexual partner? Consider that you are holding your energy! You can maximize tissue strength and long term stamina by holding in sexual energy and finding other ways to feel sensual rather than sexual. This could include gentle self-oil massage, movement practices, dancing or finding creative ways to experience love, joy and excitement in your life. Even with a partner it is nice and equally necessary to evoke this energy without the action of sexual connection. Overall it creates greater strength and balance within ourselves that we can share with the world.
The consideration to consciously experience these three pillars can be life changing. As you restructure what health might mean to you, fine-tuning your food intake to support fresh local foods, the season and your constitution; addressing your relationship to sleep like a sacred practice; creating comfort, ease and joy around evening and morning routine; and finding creative ways to support yourself through loving creative practices with yourself or a loved one notice the effects you feel and see within your daily life.
If this seems challenging feel free to reach out for support. Join us for an Ayurvedic Consultation to uncover what may best support you and your constitution. If you are looking for further studies on the practices and knowledge of Ayurveda, registration is open for our 500 Hour Professional Ayurveda Program with Dr Amruta Athale. We look forward to hearing from you!