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Ayurveda for a Better Holi

Mar/05/2023 / by Sweta Vikram

Take these steps to ensure you are safe and mindful during the festival of color

Woman dodging color thrown at her on Holi
Woman dodging color thrown at her on Holi. Shutterstock

The festival of Holi is intended to honor the victory of light over darkness, and good over evil. It also marks the onset of spring in India. But do you know where the word Holi comes from?
Legend and Hindu mythology say a tyrannical king named Hiranyakashipu ordered everyone to worship him instead of deities like Vishnu, Shiva, and Durga.

Ironically, his own son, Prahlad became a devoted disciple of Lord Vishnu. Hiranyakashipu couldn’t endure his son’s defiance and decided that he need to die. He called upon his evil sister Holika, an asura (a demon). Because she was immune to fire, she grabbed Prahlad and forced him to sit on a pyre with her. However, Lord Vishnu intervened. So while Prahlad remained unscathed, Holika, who should have got out unscathed, died in it instead.

A Time for Excess

Celebrations start on the night before Holi with the Holika Dahan, commemorating the end of evil, as personified by Holika. My mother used to make Ayurvedic ubtan (face packs) at home and ask us to gather the exfoliated skin in a newspaper. She would throw our dead skin/cells and whisper for all the buri nazar (evil eye) to be burnt in the bonfire. I remember families performing their own rituals, praying for good health, and wishing for the destruction of their inner demons. But that’s not how Holi is interpreted or celebrated in the modern age, is it?

I was that kid who observed what most ignored or remained oblivious to. I remember many people falling sick a few days after Holi. Be it a runny nose, cough, fever, cough, allergies, skin rashes or irritation, stomach upset, nausea, and hyperacidity. I noticed that most people didn’t stop eating on Holi. I remember telling my mom how queasy I felt every year after Holi was over because my eyes hurt after bouts mindless eating. It was the same menu in most homes — malpua, dahi vada, mutton curry, gujiya etc. etc. But at every house you visited, you were expected to eat.

It was not just about food, Holi became an excuse to promote inappropriate behavior and ignite our inner demons. Between movies and in-person celebrations, Holi became the one day when people got license to touch other men and women unsuitably. The sari ka pallu falling off an auntie’s shoulder to brothers-in-law holding down their bhabhi to rub colors on her to people high on bhaang flirting. I loathed the chant “Bura Na Mano, Holi Hai.” These words fueled the animal instincts inside so many in our sexually repressed desi culture.

Risk and Danger

The synthetic colors and the chemicals in them would hurt people’s skin and the eyes. Almost every year, I saw a few kids get injured because some colors were prepared from harmful substances, such as acid, glass, and strong chemicals. These can wreak havoc. Being wet and playing with water almost all day and then getting an unplanned sunburn was a recipe for disaster. Ayurveda will tell you this is one of the biggest reasons people fall sick. Not to forget, the nonsensical, non-stop eating and the core body temperature dropping and rising erratically depletes agni. This leads to reduced immunity (ojas).

May this Holi festival bring you good health, happiness, and mental peace.

Eat Sensibly

Let’s start with a simple fact: Up to 90% of our serotonin is produced in our gut. What you eat will impact how you think and feel. If you hit your digestive system with processed sweets, fried goods, frequent snacking … you will pay a price for it. Don’t eat just because someone offers you food. It’s not offensive to say a NO and take charge of your health. I don’t have to tell you that Indians are extremely prone to diabetes, stroke, and digestive issues.

I am not saying that you shouldn’t eat a gujiya or malpua. But don’t gorge on them with a scarcity mindset. Gluttony and debauchery will compromise your health. Holi falls during the kapha season. All the goodies served on this festival are often kapha-provoking. For some, this might look like weight gain while for others, it could be chest congestion or allergies.

Stay Hydrated

Sip on warm water throughout the day. It helps get rid of toxins. Warm water also nourishes the nervous system. Holi is a gregarious festival with an assault on the nervous system. Drinking cold beverages can extinguish your agni. Once our digestive fire is at subpar, we create room for ama (toxins). Ama is the root cause of all ailments.

Practice Abhyanga

My mom would get my brother and me to do a deep oil massage before we went out to play with colors. Massage sesame or coconut or almond oil on all exposed body parts. Oil your hair as well. Abhyanga protects your hair and skin and prevents the colors from penetrating deep inside. Artificial colors in Holi colors dry the skin. But you can avoid the dehydration with abhyanga.

Embrace Herbal Colors

Did you know that “Holi ka rang,” as in colorful powders, were traditionally prepared from Ayurvedic herbs? This includes neem, kumkum, sandalwood, turmeric, marigold, bilva, henna, Jacaranda flowers, chrysanthemums, and many others. These herbs and flowers were also considered dosha-balancing and great detoxifying for the skin. While a pitta dosha might be balanced and calmed down with blue colors, a person of Kapha imbalance could use the fire of red color. Why not replace chemical-laden, toxin-overdosed colors with something fun and healthy?

Say NO

A few years ago when I was in a crowded subway, a woman announced, “I will not be touched.”

Unlike the rest of us trying to hold our bags across our chest, this lady stood straight and held on steadily to a subway pole. Her body language and words were powerful enough that most men moved a few inches. If you don’t like to play with colors, you don’t have to attend large gatherings. Perhaps the idea of people touching you under the pretense of a festival of colors makes you feel violated. If so, don’t participate. If you are in a bind and for family reasons need to attend a gathering, speak up when you are uncomfortable. Honor your needs because our emotional and mental well-being is tied into our physical health. Ayurveda teaches us to cherish our innate nature – “to love and honor who we are” – not as what people think or tell us, “who we should be.”

This year, reinvent Holi celebrations. You can eat colors (hello, fruits and veggies) instead of playing with them. You can rely on ancient Ayurvedic knowledge and enjoy the festival with kindness, joy, and mindfulness.

Mindfulness is a way of befriending ourselves and our experience.” ~ Jon Kabat-Zinn