New to Ayurveda?
A Background on Ayurveda taken/based from Dr. Helen Thomas’ eBook “Effortless Ayurvedic Living”.
Ayurveda, the oldest known disease-prevention and health care system, is the original holistic medicine. It is based on a view of the world and of life that draws directly on nature. According to this view, the elements, forces, and principles that comprise all of nature – and that hold it together and make it function – are also seen in human beings. In Ayurveda the mind (or consciousness) and the body (or physical matter) not only inﬂuence each other – they are each other. Together they form the mind-body. The universal consciousness is an intelligent, aware ocean of energy that gives rise to the physical world I perceive through our ﬁve senses. Ayurvedic philosophy and practices connect us to every aspect of ourselves and remind us that we are connected to every aspect of nature, each other, and the entire universe.
There can be no mental health without physical health, and vice versa. It should come as no surprise, then, that in Ayurveda, symptoms and diseases that could be categorized as mental thoughts or feelings are just as important as symptoms and diseases of the physical body. Both are due to imbalances within a person, and both are treated by restoring the natural balance, mentally and physically, that is our birthright. In Ayurveda your whole life and lifestyle must be in harmony before you can enjoy true wellbeing.
Ayurveda is a Sanskrit word that literally translated means “science of life” or “practices of longevity.” It emphasizes prevention of disease, rejuvenation of our body systems, and extension of life span. The profound premise and promise of Ayurveda is that through certain practices not only can we prevent heart disease and make our headaches go away, but we can also better understand ourselves and the world around us, live a long healthy life in balance and harmony, achieve our fullest potential, and express our true inner nature on a daily basis.
Of course if you are taking medication or are under medical care for a diagnosed condition, you should consult your physician before taking any Ayurvedic remedies. Serious illnesses caused by severe imbalances are best treated by a professional. However, the foundation of Ayurveda is self-knowledge and self-healing. Thus it is supremely suited for self-care of minor imbalances and ailments and as an adjunct to professional medical care. It is compatible with conventional medicine and with other forms of natural medicine, such as homeopathy, and includes health-building practices such as exercise, massage, meditation, and nutrition as well as gentle herbal remedies. Imagine greeting every day with a soothing massage, eating fresh, seasonal, deliciously spiced foods, and regularly taking time out to close your eyes, relax, and get in touch with your deepest self. As you will see, Ayurveda is a system of pleasures, not deprivations.
Like Western science and the health philosophies of many other cultures, Ayurveda is part of a larger attempt to understand and explain the world and how all the parts in it function. Why does the sun rise? How do plants and animals grow? Why do some people live to a ripe old age while others die young? Why do some people get cancer and others heart disease? Why does your uncle Joe devour green peppers when this food doesn’t at all agree with you? Why are some people rich and others poor? Why do some forms of music excite or agitate you and others instill a calm peacefulness?
Ayurveda, like all philosophies, is a worldview or model that tries to make order and sense out of life. It may seem a bit confusing initially. The Sanskrit terms may sound unfamiliar, but they are necessary because Ayurveda represents a new way of looking at life. Modern Western thinking is basically linear: A causes B to happen, which in turn causes C and so on, in a step like straight line. Ayurvedic thinking is circular in that everything affects everything else and concepts ﬂow back and forth without end. The in depth study and practice of Ayurveda is a lifelong endeavor. However, the basic principles of Ayurveda are easy to grasp because they are simple and you can observe them directly in your daily life.
As you learn about this system, more and more of the principles will fall into place. With the clarity and deepening understanding that comes with everyday practice, you become a seer, a seeker of truth, a scientist, using yourself and the world as your laboratory in which to test the veracity of its principles. Learn about Ayurveda, integrate the practices into your life and observe. Does Ayurveda help you get to know yourself better? Does it help you make better sense of the world, your feelings, your health, and your behavior?
Do you feel better mentally and physically? This is the true test of whether any particular approach to health and healing works or not. Your journey begins with an understanding of the three doshas, the fundamental forces that form the basis for all prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of illness in Ayurveda.
Ayurveda recognizes ﬁve basic elements, or constituents, to be the smallest components to which anything can be reduced. They are air, space, ﬁre, water, and earth. Everything in nature is composed of these ﬁve glorious, mysterious, essential components – including humans.
is the Ayurvedic term for the gaseous form of matter.
(sometimes called ETHER) is the expanse or area in which air is contained and through which it moves.
is the radiant form of matter and is needed for any process of transformation, or “digestion.”
is used to describe the liquid form of matter.
is the solid form of matter and is responsible for groundedness and solidity.
The ﬁve elements, in inﬁnite combinations and proportions, are the basis of all life forms and things, with three forces to keep the elements in the right relationship with one another. The three forces, the doshas, govern all the functions of the body, mind, and universal consciousness.
The three doshas, or governing principles, are called Vata, Pitta, and Kapha. Each dosha has its own set of characteristics, which arise out of the elements from which they are made. This includes the physical and emotional characteristics and personality traits of people, as well as of everything else. For example there are Vata, Pitta, and Kapha kinds of ﬂowers, people, houses, music, foods, trees, birds, and bees, as well as times of day and seasons.
Every person (and thing) contains all three doshas. However, the proportion varies according to the individual, and usually one or two doshas predominate.
Within each person the doshas are continually interacting with one another and with the doshas in all of nature. This interplay among the fundamental forces and components explains why people can have much in common but also have an endless variety of individual differences in the way they behave and respond to their environment. Ayurveda recognizes that different foods, tastes, colors, and sounds affect the doshas in different ways. For example very hot and pungent spices aggravate pitta; but cold, light foods such as salads calm it down. This ability to affect the doshas is the underlying basis for Ayurvedic practices and therapies.
The doshas are abstract ideas, invisible themselves but evident everywhere you look once you are aware of them. Physicists can’t fully explain the phenomena known as gravity and magnetism, yet I can see and feel their power to pull and push things around. So it is with Vata, Pitta, and Kapha. As you become more familiar with the qualities of each dosha, you’ll be able to see them at work in yourself, your family and friends, animals, the weather, and even food and technology. You will learn more about the doshas throughout this book. Here are brief introductory descriptions:
Vata is composed of the elements air and space; air, the dominant element, is contained within the spaces and channels of the body. Vata governs your physical and psychological movement, ﬂow, circulation, and activities of the nervous system. People who are predominantly vata resemble air and space (or wind as it is sometimes referred to). They tend to be thin, quick, light, changeable, unpredictable, enthusiastic, and talkative. When they are out of balance, they experience diseases of the nervous system; scattered energy; intestinal gas and constipation; insomnia; dry, ﬂakey skin; and anxiety. Vata governs the life force within us and thus leads the other two doshas.
Pitta is composed of ﬁre and water; ﬁre, the main element, is contained within the protective waters of the body (such as digestive enzymes). It governs your metabolism-body processes involving heat, digestion, and hormones, and biochemical reactions such as those required to produce energy. When pitta predominates, a person tends to be ﬁrery: intense, with a sharp and creative mind, a penetrating look in their eyes, a reddish or easily ﬂushed complexion, a competitive streak, and a hot temper. Their illnesses are related to inﬂammation, such as heartburn, ulcers, skin rashes, anger, and irritation.
Kapha is composed of earth and water; water, the main element, is contained within the body’s mass, or earth. It governs your body’s structure and tissues and maintains stability, cohesion, ﬂuid balance, and biological strength. Kapha types are solid and steady, even- tempered and calm, with impressive endurance and a large body size that tends to gain weight. Imbalances in kapha predispose you to diseases of the respiratory system, sinus problems, obesity, tumors, mental and physical lethargy, and a tendency to procrastinate.
The idea that there are certain body types has also appeared in Western thinking. For example in the area of weight control and body shape, people have been categorized as endomorphs (soft and rounded), mesomorphs (muscular and bony), and ectomorphs (lean and sinewy). And the notion that individuals have differing innate vulnerabilities to certain diseases has also gained a foothold in modern medicine. Some may be determined by inherited genetic makeup, which may also be linked with more discernible characteristics or markers. The notion of the hard-driving, perfectionist type-A personality who gets ulcers and heart attacks is one example. Scientists have also noticed that people who accumulate weight around the waist are more prone to heart attack than those who gain weight around the hips. However, the concept of the doshas and their relation to health is much more holistic, integrated, subtle, and complex than any of these ideas.
Your individual constitution-the unique proportion of the three doshas that you were born with is called your prakruti. Your prakruti is your true, essential nature. No dosha is inherently better than any other, and no proportion of doshas is more desirable than any other. We need them all and we need them to be in balance, as determined by your prakruti, in order to function and sustain health.
But life is not static. As the saying goes, “Stuff happens.” Your doshas are always ﬂuctuating by interacting with other doshas in the world-stress, food, pollution, the noise or view outside your window, changes in the season, and other factors. As a result health is a dynamic process of continually making small adjustments to compensate.
You can experience this dynamism when you do balancing yoga poses, in which you can feel your physical body undergo subtle changes to maintain equilibrium; and during meditation, in which your mind continually returns its attention to your mantra as thoughts and feelings draw it away. Your current condition is called your vikruti. Although it reﬂects your ability to adjust to life’s inﬂuences and is always changing, it should match your prakruti, or in–born constitution, as closely as possible. If the current proportion of your doshas differs signiﬁcantly from your constitutional proportion, it indicates imbalances, which in turn can lead to illness. Think of your prakruti as the immutable road you were placed on at birth. Then think of your vikruti as the dynamic life journey you are taking on that road. I ﬁnd that often the ﬁrst step toward vibrant health is to understand your essence, to accept yourself for who you are, and then to follow the path that best supports your true nature. Although your road is not so narrow as to be rigid, it represents the best path that you, as a unique individual, need to follow. It is nature providing you with your own guideline to well being. Stray too far off the road and that way lies ill health, you may be more vulnerable to digestive problems, respiratory infections, cancer, heart disease, or depression. But if you stay on the road, you’ll encounter smoother traveling and better health. Ayurvedic practices and lifestyle patterns are designed to gently lead your mind-body back to the road that’s best for you. Although in making these life changes you will notice some improvement right away, others will take longer. Ayurveda acknowledges that illness doesn’t happen overnight. It takes years of accumulated imbalances and mini-breakdowns brought on by poor digestion, stress, and other lifestyle habits.
According to Ayurveda, digestion is the cornerstone of health because good digestion nourishes the body. Eating the proper foods will make a big difference in your well-being. However, in Ayurveda I am concerned not only with the material food you ingest, digest, and assimilate, nor only with the organs of your digestive system. The impact of what you see, hear, taste, smell, feel, and think is also important. In a sense all you experience and take into your mind-body needs to be “well digested” and distributed to all the cells of the body. Remember, everything in your environment is composed of doshas that interact with your own doshas.
Agni: Your Digestive Fire
One of the most fundamental concepts in Ayurveda is that of Agni. Agni is the digestive and metabolic “ﬁre” produced by the doshas that grabs the essence of nourishment from food, feelings, and thoughts and transforms it into a form your body can use. Through the heat of Agni, various tissues of the body produce secretions, metabolic reactions, and other processes needed to create energy and maintain and repair the body. Agni is also part of the immune system since its heat destroys harmful organisms and toxins. The activity of Agni varies throughout the day maintaining the strength and natural ebb and ﬂow of your digestive ﬁres is needed for good digestion, good immune function, and resistance to disease. Agni is needed to form Ojas.
Ojas: The Substance That Maintains Life
Ojas is the by-product of a healthy, efﬁcient, contented physiology. It is the “juice” that remains after food has been properly digested and assimilated. When you are producing Ojas, it means all your organs have integrated vitality and you are receiving the nourishment your mind and body need. Your whole being hums with good vibrations because you are producing and feeling Bliss, not pain. However, when your Agni isn’t working properly, you don’t produce Ojas. Instead food, thoughts, and feelings turn into Ama. Ama arises from improperly digested toxic particles that clog the channels in your body. Some of these channels are physical and include the intestines, lymphatic system, arteries and veins, capillaries, and genitourinary tract. Others are nonphysical channels called Nadis (meridians in Chinese Medicine) through which your energy ﬂows. Ama toxicity accumulates wherever there is a weakness in the body, and this will allow a genetic predisposition to overtake you and create disease or keep it going. While Ayurveda offers ways you can cleanse the body of Ama, it’s best to prevent it from forming in the ﬁrst place. You know you’ve got an Ama problem if your tongue is coated or if you are feeling tired all the time.
Malas: Waste Products
Malas are the waste products of your body and include urine, feces, mucus, and sweat. Eliminating waste is crucial to good health, but dosha imbalances stiﬂe the ﬂow of the Malas, creating a toxic internal environment. If you are not eliminating Malas, it means you are accumulating Ama somewhere in your system.
Prana: The Life Force (AKA: Chi)
Another key concept in Ayurveda is the life force that enters the body at birth and travels through all the parts of the body until it leaves at the moment of death.
The goal of Ayurveda is to get in touch with the interactions of your doshas, with other people, and with the rhythms of the universe. When you bring your mind and awareness to that, and feel the universe ﬂowing through you twenty-four hours a day, you are experiencing wholeness. This is why, as Deepak Chopra points out, there is no wear and tear in the universe-only rest, activity, and endless cycles of renewal and transformation. As you read this, your mind-body is busily renewing itself. You know from experience that you constantly need to cut your hair and clip your nails. What this indicates is that if you feed yourself with the right “foods,” you can inﬂuence the regeneration process. In the computer world there is a saying, “Garbage in, garbage out.” It’s the same with your mind-body. Instead of a limp, tired undernourished turnover of cells, you can enjoy a strong, vital one. Ayurvedic practices guide you toward supplying your mind-body with diverse, pure, high-octane fuel and burning it cleanly, which leads to an improved healing process and a return to health.
Our relationship to the elements, the doshas, and the senses connects us to endless cycles of transformation within. This is the wisdom, the paradigm, of Ayurveda. It can become a part of your daily life.