A Holistic Approach to Hair Care
Healthy Hair With Ayurveda
Long, thick hair has an allure of its own. Men are invariably attracted to it. It makes women feel more feminine and somehow more powerful at the same time. People are always surprised when they see my thick, hip-length hair for the first time.
“How did you grow it so long?”
“I can’t believe it’s so thick!”
“What do you do to make it so shiny?”
These are questions that I hear often.
”You must spend a lot of time and money on your hair,” is another comment I hear frequently. Yet my hair care routine is quite inexpensive and very simple.
I recently celebrated my fifty-seventh birthday, yet my hair is in better shape now than it was twenty years ago. This was a time when combing was a nightmare because the hair would break and fall in bunches and I could use my dandruff as talcum powder.
In my teens and twenties, my hair was luxuriant and healthy. After the age of thirty however, my hair started breaking, falling out, and growing at a much slower rate.
“This is a natural consequence of childbirth and aging,” my doctor insisted.
“You need a cut,“ advised my hairdresser Sonya.
I did not like the layered bob Sonya gave me. I identified myself by my long hair. Besides, I did not believe that childbirth and aging are the real causes of hair loss. Hair loss seems to be a modern problem. If we look at photographs of fifty to hundred years ago, we notice that people, both men and women, had a lot of hair even in their old age. And no one can say that the women did not have any children!
I was doing all the conventional things: shampooing, conditioning, and getting split ends cut off. Still every day seemed to be a bad hair day. I felt that I was doing something wrong. Instinctively, I knew that there had to be a simple trick to growing healthy, strong hair. But to find it, I had to go back to my roots.
My family is first and second generation immigrants, now settled in California and Toronto, Canada. My parents originally came from Hyderabad, a princely state in Southern India. South Indian women were famous for their long, thick locks. In her prime, my own mother’s hair reached her ankles and was as thick as two fat wrists.
How did women manage to grow their hair to such extravagant lengths?
Genetics and the hot, humid weather obviously played a role. The hair of Asian women tends to have longer growth cycles than that of European women. All hair grows faster in hot weather than it does during the cold winter months. But if this is the only reason, why is luxuriant hair such a rarity even in India and Pakistan these days? Besides, as old pictures attest, even European women living in cold climates used to have full heads of long hair.
So how did women did manage their hair in the old days?
I began pestering my mother, my aunts, my grandmother and their friends to give me any traditional hair care recipes they knew. As always people were quite generous with their advice but at the same time almost everyone insisted that the old methods of oiling, washing and drying required a lot of time and energy ---which modern women just did not have!
“Even women in India and Pakistan have started cutting their hair and using commercial shampoos and hair dryers.” Auntie Shemima pointed out. “ What do you expect? You are always reading and studying. Studying is bad for hair. Everyone knows that.” Another lady commented wisely.
Since I do read and study a bit, I began studying books not only on hair care but also on health and nutrition. Quite by chance, I stumbled upon Ayurveda. Ayurveda achieves good health by using oils, herbs, yoga exercises and massage to balance body functions. Ayurvedic doctors also formulated hundreds of hair and skin care recipes. Many of these recipes use products not easily available in North America. Others are time consuming. Still others are just plain messy.
I experimented and I adapted. Soon I devised a hair care routine based on Ayurveda but which practicable even in the busy North American lifestyle.
According to Ayurveda, the principles of hair care are three in number and really very simple.
- The scalp must be clean and well nourished
My sixteen-year-old student Hana came to me in tears. She wanted to drop her AP math course. The reason? She thought that the hard work was making her hair fall out! I quickly found the real cause. Her hair follicles were clogged by dandruff and soap scum! New hair growth cannot push its way out of the follicle if the follicle is clogged in any way.
The best way to clean and nourish clogged hair follicles is through oil massage and vigorous brushing. What oil should one use?
Any Indian grocery shop will offer a number of excellent hair oils. These consist of the essential oils of Ayurvedic herbs, like amla and brahmi, mixed into base oils such as coconut, sesame seed, and almond.
Alternatively, one can mix 40 drops each of rosemary, lavender, thyme and lemon oils into a 100ml bottle of pure almond oil. I personally use this oil, as it is much lighter than the traditional formulas.
The real secret is not in what you use, but how you use it.
Begin by pouring the oil of your choice on your head. And I mean pour! My mother describes how her aunt would fill the palm of her hand with as much oil as it could hold and then pour the oil on the top of the head of the person she was oiling.
A dab of oil acts like a dust trap and probably does more harm than good. The oil has to soak into the scalp. Only then does it reach the follicles!
You must then distribute the oil by using the tips of your fingers to massage your scalp. Use small, circular, clockwise movements from the forehead to the nape and then from ear to ear. Try to move the scalp rather than the hair itself. Finally, pick up small strands of hair and give them gentle tugs!
“But this will pull all my hair out!” insisted my sister-in-law Leila.
I noticed a lot of hair coming out the first few times I massaged my hair this way. But I realized that this hair was simply weak, dying hair that would have fallen out very soon anyway. Within a few weeks, I began noticing that only a few hairs were falling out and that a thick fuzz of new growth was covering my scalp!
It is surprising how much oil the scalp absorbs. Traditionally, in India the remaining oil is combed through the hair, right to the ends. This job could take hours depending on how long and thick the hair was. However, I find that a rubber styling brush does the job much better and more quickly. Pass the brush through the hair from the scalp until the point where it gets stuck. No need to tug! Go back to the scalp and pass the brush again. After a few passes, the brush will go smoothly through the hair from top to the very ends. Brush from the nape of the head to the crown, from one ear to the other, and finally from the hairline back to the nape. Continue brushing until your scalp feels all tingly and your hair is completely smooth.
- The hair on the other hand must have some natural oil.
Traditionally, the oil was left on the scalp and hair overnight. My mother always covered her pillow with an old towel so as not to stain the pillowcase. I find that a half-hour oil treatment has as much effect as leaving it on for the whole night.
The real problem is to find a shampoo that will remove the excess oil and not dry out the hair and scalp. Most commercial shampoos contain sodium laurel sulfate or ammonium laurel sulfate. These ingredients produce lavish suds. But they also strip the hair shaft of the oil it needs to remain soft and flexible. My experience is that sodium laurel sulfate also slows hair growth.
Traditional Ayurveda recommends a variety of products for washing the hair. Most of these are messy and difficult to use. For instance, I wouldn’t advise using a paste of flour and tamarind juice, or a paste of henna, or even mashed, ripe banana mixed with yogurt! The following, however, are as easy to use as commercial shampoos without any of the harmful side effects:
- Basic Ayurvedic shampoo recipe.
Soak a handful each of dried amla, reetha nuts, and shikakai pods overnight in two pints of water. The next morning, boil until the half of the mixture has evaporated. Cool and strain into a jug. This decoction can be stored in the refrigerator for at least a week.
Amla, reetha, and shikakai are inexpensive herbal products. They are available in any Indian grocery store as well as on the Internet.
Reetha and shikakai contain saponin, a natural cleansing agent. They have been used for washing everything from woolen rugs to silken saris to gold and silver jewelry, and of course hair, for centuries. Some scholars even believe that the word "shampoo" is derived from the word shikakai. These herbs have to be softened by soaking and boiling, but they produce copious suds and clean the hair and scalp effectively.
Amla is the Indian gooseberry. It has one of the highest concentrations of Vitamin C in the world—about five times as much as oranges! The amla is essential to soften and condition the hair because the soap nuts leave the hair a little brittle. Amla prevents dandruff, stimulates hair growth, and retards graying.
Are these products safe? They have been used by millions of people for about four thousand years and the only complaint is that reetha tastes bad!
- An equally effective alternative is lentil shampoo.
Soak two tablespoons of urad dhal (black gram) in a pint of water until the grains swell. Boil until cooked and very soft. Blend the mixture at high speed until it turns frothy. Strange as this seems, it works just like shampoo. It leaves the hair squeaky clean and very soft.
- When I first came to Canada and did not know where to obtain soap nuts or amla, I used pure Castile liquid soap diluted with an infusion of rosemary and chamomile.
The trick is to use the shampoo directly on dry (or to be precise oily hair). Do not wet the hair. Oil does not mix with water (very elementary chemistry). The shampoo will not react and the hair will remain dirty. Massage the scalp clockwise, making sure that the scalp and hair are fully covered by the shampoo. Leave on the hair for a few minutes. Rinse well. Repeat but with a very diluted shampoo. This second shampooing usually produces lavish suds. Rinse again. If one wishes, one can rinse with an infusion of rosemary, chamomile, lavendar, or hibiscus flowers. The hair will be clean but supple with a lovely scent.
- Hair must be totally dry before it is combed.
The Ayurvedic method for drying hair is fuss-free and effective. After wringing the hair (a lot of water can be removed this way) I dry the scalp by vigorously rubbing with a small washcloth. The scalp should become pink. I then blot the hair dry with a soft cotton cloth (old T-shirts are ideal). When my hair is no longer dripping, I wrap it up in another T-shirt and let it dry naturally. I never, ever use a hair dryer. My hair does take a couple of hours to dry. But I use this time either to relax or to catch up on my work.
When I described my hair routine to my friend Seema she exclaimed, “But that too much work!” Well, it is a bit of work. But the results are worth it!
One result of the traditional oiling and shampoo is there is generally no need for conditioner or hair serum. The hair is smooth and almost tangle-free with hardly any split ends. Sometimes I rub a few drops of coconut or almond oil into the very ends, but that is all. Brushing takes only a few minutes. Brushing dry hair is the reverse of brushing oily hair: I start at the ends and gradually work any tangles out by starting each pass of the brush a few inches higher up until I reach the scalp.
I have never used a boar bristle brush. I find that a styling brush with rubber bristles works very well.
One drawback to the traditional shampoo is that no one knows how the reetha/shikakai will affect blonde or reddish hair. For this reason, I advise my blonde and redhead friends to use Castile shampoo diluted with chamomile infusion. Otherwise, it seems to work on any hair type and at any age. My Arab friends Lubna and Aisha rave about it as well as my Italian friend Francesca. My seventy-seven-year-old mother was surprised to see new hair sprouting on her hairline and part!
- How often should one oil and massage the scalp?
Daily would be ideal. I did this during a summer vacation and this was the time, my hair really grew back. Now I maintain my hair by repeating the treatment once or twice a week.
I was very excited when I started using the Ayurvedic method and experiencing the results. I started telling a lot of people about it. Surprisingly, most people do not want to give up their favorite shampoo and conditioner! I was even accused of being a salesperson for soap nuts and amla! In the true yogic spirit, I do not answer back.
But I still say that anyone who really wants healthy, natural looking hair should at least give Ayurvedic hair care a try.