What is Ayurveda?
Ayurveda is a Sanskrit word that translates to “the science of life”, the term is used today as a generic term for traditional Indian medicine. Ayurveda is a complete medical system, addressing health in all aspects: physical health, mental balance, spiritual well-being, social welfare, environmental considerations, dietary and lifestyle habits, daily living and seasonal variations in lifestyle, as well as treating and managing specific diseases. Ayurveda teaches respect for nature, appreciation of life and the means to empower the individual. It is holistic medicine at its best.
To understand the therapeutic approach of Ayurveda, we must understand something of the effects of plants and foods on the body, as this forms the basis for all treatment. The capacity to digest a substance involves a wide array of systems in the body. The digestive process includes the nervous system, the hormone system, blood circulation, proper respiration for the oxidation of blood and tissues, lubrication provided by the water metabolism, and so on. Every system of the body is involved to some degree in the digestive process. This is one reason why Ayurveda stresses the health of the digestive process so heavily. The other reason is that the digestive system is the home of each of the three humors, those forces that cause disease in the body. It is pure ignorance, no matter which medical system you use, to think that digestion is isolated to the digestive tract and organs alone. Ayurveda is the only medical system that places the correct importance on digestion. Ayurveda also understands the interrelationship of all the different systems of the body and the process that food has on developing the mind, the emotions, and the physical aspects of the body.
A History of Ayurveda
Modern Ayurveda is the result of scientific research into and experience of nature. The defining context is that Ayurveda is a medical tradition steeped in religious tradition as well as natural medicine, and it is based on both tradition and experience.
Any history of Ayurveda discusses two different perspectives: a linear religious historical approach and a circular organic expansion. The first perceives Ayurveda as a timeless system of medicine where its knowledge is perfect and divinely inspired; the second view is that ayurvedic medical knowledge has developed out of ritualistic healing into an empirical medicine system that is grounded in clinical experience.
The first perspective starts with a mythological account of the gods passing ayurvedic knowledge down to humans. The insights of Ayurveda are incredible and they do appear to be divinely inspired. How else have we learnt about the properties of so many herbs and minerals? How was it discovered, for example, that brahmi (Bacopa monniera) is so effective at improving the intellect and guggulu (Commiphora mukul) so useful at reducing tumors? How did the pioneers of Ayurveda learn to diagnose illness with only the five senses at their disposal? The receptacles of traditional wisdom are The Vedas, including the Rg, Yajur, Sama and Atharva Vedas, whose oral tradition goes back at least 4000 years. It is very difficult to place the exact origins of Ayurveda. Our first meeting with Ayurveda proper in a fully coherent and documented format is in the texts of Caraka, Susruta and Bhela (150BCE – 500CE). These texts are clearly codified long after Ayurveda was fully established and was thriving as an oral tradition.
Ayurveda has the classical philosophies of Indian culture at the root of its principles. These philosophies infuse Ayurveda with a solid theoretical structure that shape its practical framework; the ideas behind the development of matter (rakrti), the formation of the five elements (pancamahabhuta), how consciousness (purusa) pervades reality and the various methods of gaining knowledge (pramana), so essential to diagnosis, are all found in the Indian philosophical tradition. In fact, Ayurveda is an embodiment of these philosophies; I makes the theory real.
The second perspective with human knowledge growing through experience, logic and insight has great value. The Ayurvedic literary base extends over 2000 years, hundreds of thousands of expert physicians, millions of healed patients and numerous positive clinical trials attest, ayurvedic treatment works and practitioners and professional registers should promote this, however, this is difficult when Ayurveda is presently only recognized as an adjunctive medical system. The scientific dependence on empirical evidence, can also be taken too far to the extreme. This has occurred within the modern medical paradigm of ‘evidence-based medicine’ requiring ethically dubious double-blind clinical trials and animal experiments with a heavy dependence on single active ingredients, synthesized medicines, separate chemical pathways and a reductionist methodology that has lost the holistic view.
Holding onto the primacy of either of these two paradigms means that the complete picture is missed. Ayurveda can offer a balance to these extremes as it contains both paradigms within it. Ayurveda can be two things at the same time, both divinely inspired and open to human adaptation.
Ayurveda has grown out of a dynamic tradition that has survived and thrived in the face of much intervention, influence and change. As a medical tradition existing in Indian culture it has faced a complex task: that of fitting into the orthodox fold while also remaining true to its holistic aspirations and prioritizing its ultimate goal of the health of the patient. Ayurveda is now experiencing a worldwide revival.
Fundamental Principles of Ayurveda
- The Samkhya philosophy and the five elements (pancamahabhuta)
- The three qualities (guna) of nature: sattva, rajas, tamas
- The three humours (dosa)
- The seven tissues (dhatu)
- The sixteen channels (srotamsi and srotas)
- Anatomy (sariraracana)
- The digestive fire (agni)
- Toxins (ama)
- The ayurvedic mind (manas prakrti)
- Seasonal routines
- Disease aetiology (roga karana)
- Pathology (samprapti)
The Samkhya philosophy and the five elements (pancamahabhuta)
Ayurvedic cosmology is based on the theory of natural evolution that is presented in the Samkhya Karika. This philosophical text describes evolution as expanding out of a state of primordial stillness when all-pervading consciousness (purusa) and manifest nature (prakrti) are in a state of equilibrium. The cosmic balance is disturbed by desire, causing the differentiation of this unity. From this subtle state of stillness comes the dynamic state of movement. It is out of movement that the natural world evolves.
Ayurveda is based on the five elements making up the universe: space, air, fire, water and earth.
SPACE/ETHER – the principle of all pervasiveness. Relates to the sense of sound and the ear. It is the arena within which ‘life’ takes place. Sound travels through space.
AIR – the principle of motion. Relates to the sense of touch, the nerves and the skin. Sensation travels through the skin and nerves just as you can feel the wind on your skin.
FIRE – the principle of illumination. Relates to the sense of sight and the eyes. Light and perception travel through the eyes due to the metabolic activity of light-sensitive photons in the eyes.
WATER – the principle of stability. Relates to the sense of taste and the tongue. Flavors and tastes are only perceptible when the tongue is wet.
EARTH – the principle of stability. Relates to the sense of smell and the nose. Earthy and dense objects give off smells.
The three qualities (guna) of nature: sattva, rajas, tamas
Guna – the three universal constituents. These three aspects combine in variable proportions to create phenomena. They are the causal form of nature. There is Sattva – refers to qualities of balance, equality and stability. It is light and luminous and holds the capacity for happiness. There is Rajas – generates activity, change and disturbance. It is mobile and excitable. There is Tamas – the immobile, still and stuck quality. It is heavy and causes obstruction or lack of perception. There is not one constituent who has priority over another, they are one force, with different aspects unfolding to help each other and keep each other in check. The qualities of nature have a direct effect on the physical behavior, mental outlook and emotional balance of every individual. As a broad example the yogic vegetarian is sattvic, the driven executive is rajasic, and the slothful couch potato is tamasic. A healthy balance of all three guna is required for a healthy existence.
The three humours (dosa)
There are three doshas – vata, pitta, kapha. Doshas is the ayurvedic term that generically describes our inherited traits, individual characteristics and tendencies. Many of these attributes are genetic while other are acquired from our diet, climate or living conditions. The constitution is fixed at birth but the traits have a tendency to accumulate. If this accumulation does not leave the body through the normal routes (stool, urine, sweat), it increases. This, according to Ayurveda, is the cause of most disease. “Vata, pitta and kapha move in the whole body producing good or ill effects upon the entire system according to their normal or provoked states. Their normal state is prakrti and their abnormal state is vikrti.” Caraka Samhita Sutrasthana. So to treat a present day imbalance (illness) the vikrti is addressed and bought back into balance.
The dosas are not physical entities but subtle by products of the cosmic evolution of the five elements (pancamahabhuta). They cannot be seen, only known through inference as they manifest through the products of disease: phlegm, swellings, inflammation, bleeding, nervous imbalance and dry skin. In perfect health they remain out of sight.
‘Dosa’ is described and translated in many different ways: ‘constitution’, ‘functional principle’, ‘humour’. There is no single word that accurately translates the breadth of meaning implied to ‘dosa’ when it is used in different situations. ‘Constitution’ implies one’s fixed and life-long inherited health, ‘functional principle’ implies an invisible catalytic active, and ‘humour’ refers to the constitutional make-up as well as something that can increase or decrease in volume as well as quality. The dosas can have all of these tendencies, depending on the context.
When in a healthy qualitative and quantitative condition, the dosas help manage the physiology of the psyche and body. They help to support the system and facilitate the five elements’ assimilation into the body. When out of balance they become pathological and act as impurities in the body that damage the digestive fire, the tissues and channels.
When the dosas manifest they are the result of the imperfect digestion of the higher cosmic forces or prana, tejas and ojas. These cosmic substances are the essences of nature. Prana is the breath behind all the vital essence of the universe, tejas is the spark behind all conscious perception and ojas is the seed behind all nourishment and creativity.
Each dosa has general characteristics and then five subtypes that are a more detailed expression of each function.
VATA – Comprised of ether and wind. Each dosa contains aspects of all five elements, but space and wind are predominant in the vata. Vata is cold, light, rough, mobile, subtle, clear, dry and astringent. When vata manifests, these qualities are apparent. The primary site of vata is the colon. It also resides in the bladder, thighs, ears, bones and the sense of touch. It is responsible for all movement in the body; the flow of breath and blood, elimination of waste, expression of speech, it moves the diaphragm, muscles and limbs, regulates the nervous system and it also stimulates the function of the intellect. It is like a current of electricity and is responsible for regulating all electrical impulses in the body-mind. It is the messenger. Without vata the other dosas are inert.
PITTA – Comprised of fire and water. Pitta exists as water or oil in the body, thus preserving the tissues from the destructive aspect of fire. It is pungent, hot, penetrating, greasy, oily, sharp, liquid, spreading and sour. Its primary function is transformation. It is the force of metabolic activity in the body associated with the endocrine function, hormone levels, digestion, body temperature, visual perception, hunger, thirst and skin quality. Mentally it plays a role in understanding and in digesting sensory impressions. It resides in the eyes, blood, sweat glands, the small intestine, stomach and lymph. Its primary site is in the small intestine.
KAPHA – Comprised of earth and water. As the water element is contained within the earth structures of the tissues and skin, the dry earth is moistened by the reviving water element. It is slow, heavy, cool, dense, soft, greasy, unctuous, sticky, cloudy, liquid and sweet. Kapha literally holds the body together. It is cohesive, gives shape and form, aids growth and development, lubricates and protects, helps smelling and tasting. It relates to phlegm in the body. It resides in the chest, throat, head, pancreas, stomach, lymph, fat, nose and tongue. Its primary site is the stomach.
The seven tissues (dhatu)
The human body consists of seven basic and vital tissues called dhatu. These seven are responsible for the entire structure of the body. The dhatu maintain the functions of the different organs, systems and vital parts of the body. They play a very important role in the development and nourishment of the body. With the help of agni (metabolic fire), they are responsible for the immune mechanism. When one dhatu is defective, it affects the successive dhatu, as each dhatu receives its nourishment from the previous dhatu. The following are the seven most important dhatu in serial order:
1) Rasa (plasma) contains nutrients from digested food and nourishes all the tissues, organs and systems.
2) Rakta (blood) governs oxygenation in all tissues and vital organs and maintains life.
3) Mamsa (muscle) covers the delicate vital organs, performs the movements of the joints and maintains the physical strength of the body.
4) Meda (fat) maintains the lubrication and oiliness of all the tissues.
5) Asthi (bone) gives support to the body structure
6) Majja (marrow and nerves) fills up the bony spaces and carries motor and sensory impulses.
7) Sukra (reproductive tissues) contain the ingredients of all tissues and are responsible for reproduction.
The post-digestion of food, called ‘nutrient plasma’, contains the nutrition for all the dhatu.
When there is a disorder in the balance of vata-pitta-kapha, the dhatu are directly affected. The disturbed dosha (vata, pitta or kapha) and defective dhatu are always directly involved in the disease process.
The sixteen channels (srotamsi and srotas)
Another crucial part of the ayurvedic understanding of the body is the channels through which life, dosas, tissues, wastes and toxins flow. They link the whole body and mind through an intricate network of channels. Channels can become constricted, inflamed or obstructed. Treatment focuses on restoring normal flow.
The digestive fire (agni)
The Indian Vedic culture revered agni (fire). Agni is seen as the metaphor for all metabolic functions in the body. It includes the digestive function, sense perception, cellular metabolism and mental assimilation. Agni is involved in many functions: absorption, assimilation, metabolism, digestion, perception, taste, touch, hearing, vitality, clarity, alertness, regular appetite, chemical combustion. It gives ojas (immunity), a sparkle in the eyes and luster to the whole body.
Ama is the unmetabolised waste that is not utilized by the body. It can be formed from foods that are undigested who then create fermentation and imbalance all three dosa.
The ayurvedic mind (manas prakrti)
The ayurvedic concept of mind is both broad and illuminating. It includes mental activity and also a consciousness that is housed in the heart; ‘the heart is indispensable for normal mental and physical activities as the entire waking consciousness rests there’ (Caraka Sahita Sutrasthana). Mind is built from different aspects including the intellect, which reflects universal consciousness, conceptualization, memory and recall, and personalizing every experience. Also there is consciousness and awareness and a connection between all these aspects.
A peculiarity is that in contrast to the nature of the physical constitution, the mental nature can be altered through action. The qualities of sattva, rajas and tamas are predominant in the mind and can be altered according to lifestyle, diet and mental attitudes.
Health is affected by the qualities of the climate; the inner world is influenced by the outer environment. To understand these seasonal patterns you have to watch nature and this is at the heart of learning how to live ayurvedically. We should keep one step ahead of the seasons and eat accordingly.
Ayurveda recommends adherence to daily routines that facilitate clearing accumulated dosas from the body and optimizing health. They are healthy lifestyle habits and include:
Rising at the right time, dependent on the season and constitution.
Elimination, evacuate the bowels and bladder.
Oral hygiene, includes cleaning teeth, tongue scraping & gargling.
Physical hygiene, wash the eyes using rose water eye drops, nose with nasal oil drops and lungs using breathing techniques.
Oil massage cleans the body, regulates & moves the dosa and nourishes the skin.
Exercise, practice stimulating exercise up to the point of a mild sweat.
Washing, use warm water to wash the body after massage and exercise. Pitta types can have a cold bath or shower.
Meditation, using meditative techniques can help to raise awareness, instill intention in spiritual practice, remove attachments to the things we like and aversions from the things we dislike and give clarity of mind.
Digestive stimulation, stimulate digestive fire by taking digestive spices such as ginger.
Eating, dietary habits should result in satisfaction, nourishment and contentment.
The 8 causes of disease in Ayurveda
The cause of disease involves many different aspects from the imbalance of the dosa, to an imbalanced digestive fire (agni), to the accumulation of ama, to the obstruction of the channels (srotas) and the deficiency of the dhatu. Internally, the movement of disease is from the mind to the body where the attitudes of greed, fear, anger, grief, arrogance, jealousy and hatred become somatised in the tissues. Ayurveda clearly states that ‘desire’ (raga) is a feeling that generates pathological ‘heat’ in the mind which generates these other emotions. Desire creates an obsessive attachment to various objects and this locks us into a cycle of grasping and unfulfilmnt. When stimulated, strong emotions create an agitating ‘friction’ that irritates digestion, the nervous system and then the tissues, which can then cause a range of diseases.
1) Crime against wisdom (prajnaparadha) means making unwise decisions. Denying this wisdom results in acting inappropriately for who you are. For example, a pitta prakrti person lots of chillies while knowing that this will lead to inflammation and irritation.
2) Unwholesome attachment of the senses to their objects including under, over or inappropriate use of the senses such as desiring something too much, too little or when inappropriate for the constitution. It boils down to unwholesome activities of the body and mind. For example, it is well known that excessive sweet consumption can cause pancreatic enzyme imbalances, blood sugar problems and eventually diabetes. This is a kapha problem resulting from an excess of kapha foods and emotions (greed or attachment).
3) Seasonal influences (parinama) such as climate change, geographic peculiarities or merely the annual cycle of seasonal variation can disturb the dosa and cause disease.
4) Inherited: these are the tendencies that we are born with. It is as though we have a constitution threshold which, depending on various factors, may or may not manifest; eg. Psoriasis, diabetes or heart disease.
5) Trauma: accidents affecting the body and mind.
6) Divine: intervention on a subtle level from the divine realm; eg. Magical spells.
7) Environmental: availability of food, water and shelter have an obvious impact on health.
8) Karmic: disease has resulted from actions in another life.