As the summer comes to an end, we turn our attention to the changing seasons and of course, the full swing of the back to school season. In Ayurveda, as autumn sets in, it is characterized by the ascension of the Vata energy as the dominant movement expressed by nature. Vata energy is considered a combination of two of the 5 elements of nature: air and ether, which can be conceptualized as “the space between.” As a result of these 2 primordial forces rising, which we call Vata energy, increases in dryness, coldness, and winds naturally occur. We watch as the leaves slowly dry up, wither, and fall to the ground, having completed their duties during the growing season. Similarly, we often experience dryness, itchiness, sensitivity to the cold and the wind, as this time comes into its fullness. Meanwhile, it also signifies a significant shift from the flexible summer schedule to the structured routine of school. In Ayurveda, this would be considered a change in movement, from one set of activities to another, and routine is one of the therapeutic strategies we employ to ensure healthy Vata energy within ourselves, and when coexisting with the Vata energy rising in nature during this time. For children and adolescents, they are further challenged by this season because of the period of their life that they are in. In Ayurveda, children are considered in the “Kapha” stage of life from birth to puberty. This is characterized by structural growth which Kapha, a product of Earth and Water, dominates. At puberty, they begin to transition into the Pitta stage of life, where the Fire within them begins to grow, and they begin to differentiate themselves and find their purpose. Meanwhile, the Vata stage of life begins around 60 years of age. So it is no wonder children can often face a multitude of unique challenges during this time of year. This is because Vata, you could say, is a primary energy that they are least associated with, and yet by nature of academic calendars and natures, this Vata energy can be quite forceful to them, and throw them off balance.
So what can we do? The answer is simple: actively work to balance the Vata of the child to help harmonize the transition into the new season. Fortunately, Ayurveda is extremely practical and also offers multiple different approaches to help find adaptive and easily applied strategies to help balance Vata.
Routine is Essential
- As mentioned, Vata energy is all about movement and is sensitive to change. Therefore, routine and structure can be exceptionally important for keeping Vata in balance. Create a consistent daily routine for your child that includes regular mealtimes, sleep schedules, study, and play time. Ensuring that your child gets sufficient sleep during the back-to-school season will play a large roll in ensuring a harmonious school season (and hopefully avoid the classic morning delays getting ready for school). While the research generally favors later start times for children at school to promote additional sleep (Wheaton 2016), this is not always offered by schools, so it is up to parents to set the routine. A regular sleep schedule and a calming bedtime routine can powerfully balance Vata energy. Encourage your child to wind down before bed with activities like reading, gentle stretching, or taking a warm bath.
Talk about Fears
- With each new adventure, from entering a new grade or new school to changing in friend dynamics as children grow and evolve, these changes can provoke the Vata within our children, and that can manifest as fear, which is considered primarily a Vata imbalance. Engaging in a discussion about stress management with children may evoke discomfort in us as parents as well, as it can alert us to the very problems our children face, which can make us feel protective. However, such conversations are crucial, considering the transition from a relaxed summer schedule to the structured routines of the school setting, this can induce significant stress. Additionally, this elevation of Vata dosha manifests not only as mental stress but also as physical stress, leading to bodily discomfort, weakened immune responses, and achey joints. Be it physical or mental signs of vata imbalance, a creative way that has been studied as a useful tool is to explore discomforts through drawing. One study found that human figure drawings (including stick figure drawings) were useful in identifying key fears in school age children (Carroll 1999). This is particularly interesting since oftentimes creativity and art is considered a Vata exercise.
- Without question, dietary considerations are important for keeping all of us happy and healthy and our children are no exception to this rule. In particular, when balancing the Vata dosha which governs the movements of the body, including bowel movements, there is an emphasis on fiber rich whole foods that are easily digested such as cooked vegetables, soups, and stews. It is also advisable to avoid cold and raw foods during this season as they challenge digestion. If raw vegetables are employed, such as raw carrots for instance, try to balance them with warm tea given as a beverage around the same time as the meal. Additionally, avoiding stimulants such as caffeinated sodas and energy drinks are important since this will predictably agitate Vata and promote anxiety and sleeplessness. Lastly, given that Vata energy is dry by nature, extra hydration in the form of pure water or herbal teas will be exceptional to support children during this time of year as the extra water balances the dryness of the season.
Focus on the Breath
- Teach your child simple breathing exercises to help calm and balance their energy. Deep breathing exercises, such as diaphragmatic breathing or alternate nostril breathing, can help alleviate stress and promote relaxation. A study of seated mindfulness, breathing, loosening exercises, asana, and relaxation techniques showed improvements in managing exam anxiety, perceived improved mindfulness and attention as well as improvements in memory (Jain 2021). This complements Ayurvedic theory about pacifying the Vata energy. As mentioned, Vata is associated with fear when imbalanced, and it also governs movement, including movements of thoughts across the mind. Yoga and breathing exercises regulate the breath, which in essence, provides structure and routine for a brief time, which can have wonderful results in children and adults alike. By having a family time to do yoga together, this helps model not only the poses and breathing practices, it also invites the family to share their experiences together which further pacifies Vata. For an easy demonstration of breathing exercises, check out our video here.
Herbs and Supplements
- Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera)
It’s no surprise that screens are here to stay and online learning, in some capacity, is a fixture in student life. That said, it’s not uncommon for your child to struggle with staying on task with projects. Oftentimes, the struggle itself leads to all sorts of stressful family dynamics as well. However, there is hope for children and parents alike for anyone struggling with attention and focus. Ashwagandha has been used for thousands of years to promote energy while maintaining focus, and its scientific name, Withania somnifera, is a nod to its ability to also promote healthy sleep, so it helps on both sides!
- Bacopa (Bacopa monnieri)
- Bacopa has been used in Ayurveda to support cognitive function in children and the elderly in particular. Few trials have studied Bacopa in children beyond specific illnesses, but its long history of use as a memory support herb make it something to consider for supporting healthy cognitive function and focus.
Probiotics are one of the best ways to support respiratory health, immune function, and overall digestion. As we enter the cooler months, pediatric probiotics will prove extremely useful in minimizing days lost to digestive discomfort, fatigue, and also, they support healthy brain development. A recent systematic review and mathematical analysis supported the idea that probiotics support healthy outcomes to the overall impacts of seasonal immune challenges in healthy children (Lenoir-Wijnkoop 2019).
- Vitamin D
- Vitamin D is primarily associated with healthy calciumand bone metabolism, but it also plays a role in immune health. One cross-sectional study of healthy young children living in an urban city at 45.5° N latitude found that those with vitamin D status above 75 nmol/L appeared to have significantly higher circulating concentrations of immune proteins (Brett et al 2018).
As the back-to-school season approaches, incorporating Ayurvedic strategies can help support children's well-being during this transitional period. Additionally, the whole family can also find harmony and peace during this time. By establishing a consistent routine, addressing fears and stress through communication, emphasizing a balanced diet, practicing breathing exercises, and considering herbs and supplements can contribute to a smoother and healthier season. By prioritizing these approaches, parents can promote balance and support their children's overall well-being as they navigate the challenges of the new school season.
- Brett, N. R., Lavery, P., Agellon, S., Vanstone, C. A., Goruk, S., Field, C. J., & Weiler, H. A. (2018). Vitamin D Status and Immune Health Outcomes in a Cross-Sectional Study and a Randomized Trial of Healthy Young Children. Nutrients, 10(6), 680.
- Carroll, M. K., & Ryan-Wenger, N. A. (1999). School-age children's fears, anxiety, and human figure drawings. Journal of pediatric health care : official publication of National Association of Pediatric Nurse Associates & Practitioners, 13(1), 24–31.
- Garaiova, I., Muchová, J., Nagyová, Z., Wang, D., Li, J. V., Országhová, Z., Michael, D. R., Plummer, S. F., & Ďuračková, Z. (2015). Probiotics and vitamin C for the prevention of respiratory tract infections in children attending preschool: a randomized controlled pilot study. European journal of clinical nutrition, 69(3), 373–379.
- Jain, D. (2021). Impact of Yoga Intervention on Exam Anxiety, Mindfulness, Attention & Memory in School Going Children. Delhi Business Review, 22 (2 ), 85-90.
- Lenoir-Wijnkoop, I., Merenstein, D., Korchagina, D., Broholm, C., Sanders, M. E., & Tancredi, D. (2019). Probiotics Reduce Health Care Cost and Societal Impact of Flu-Like Respiratory Tract Infections in the USA: An Economic Modeling Study. Frontiers in pharmacology, 10, 980.
- Wheaton, A. G., Chapman, D. P., & Croft, J. B. (2016). School Start Times, Sleep, Behavioral, Health, and Academic Outcomes: A Review of the Literature. The Journal of school health, 86(5), 363–381.