Introduction to Ayurveda
Ayurveda was developed in India about 4,000 years ago and is one of the oldest documented health care systems. It is a “life-science,” emphasizing health by integrating ayurvedic herbal supplements, diet, exercise, massage and life style. In Sanskrit the word Ayurveda literally means science of life (Ayur = Life, Veda= Science). The benefits of Ayurvedic medicine have been proven over centuries of use, and its methodologies are as applicable.
Ayurveda was developed in India about 4,000 years ago and is one of the oldest documented health care systems. It is a “life-science,” emphasizing health by integrating ayurvedic herbal supplements, diet, exercise, massage and life style.
Ayurvedic medicine was originally an oral tradition, taught and passed directly from teacher to student, who would learn and work side by side. The oldest written codification of Ayurvedic principles is found in the Veda. The fundamentals are then laid out in several major treatises, including the texts from Charaka, Sushrutha, and Vaghbhata. There are also numerous other smaller works, written over time to explain the various branches of Ayurveda, which include disciplines such as general medicine, pediatrics, ENT, Toxicology, and rejuvination. The beauty in the way these have been explained is that they rely on basic principles which can be applied practically in any day and age.
Ayurvedic philosophy indicates that everything in the universe is made up of 5 elements; fire, air, water, earth and space. Air represents all that is gaseous, earth represents matter that is solid, all liquids are represented by water, fire represents any matter that can transform.
In a human body, as in nature, these 5 elements co-exist in a way that is by and large harmonious and where no one element dominates another perpetually. For this to harmony to exist, there has to be a force that manages a relationship between the elements of nature. In paired relationships, the forces guiding them are called the doshas. The Doshas represent the “subtle energy” that combines and balances the characteristics of the two elements it influences. This force has to often combine and balance seemingly contrary forces such as Fire and Water under pitta. vata made up of air and space while kapha brings water and earth together. In addition to our bodies, everything around us has these Doshas.
Vata is the force behind movement; hence anything that moves or helps create movement is the responsibility of Vata. Pitta is responsible for digestion and metabolism of the body; taking the food we eat and transforming it into their most basic form for absorption by the entire body as nutrients. Kapha is responsible for the fluids that act as the lubrication for movement and as the glue that helps hold things together.
Every individual needs all three Doshas to exist since they each play a role in our body and mind. We normally exhibit greater characteristics of 1 or 2 of the Doshas. This unique combination of Doshas defines the person’s unique body type (or Dosha). The combinations could be Vata/Pitta, Vata/Kapha, Pitta/Kapha; for a total of 6 different combinations of these Doshas.
Most people are a combination of two. Although it is possible but unusual to have all three in equal proportions; or to be completely one Dosha. This combination of our Dosha known as Prakruti, is determined at birth and remains constant, by and large throughout the lifetime. When at their natural state of balance, our Doshas provide the strength our bodies need to prevent the conditions that may allow disease. When out of balance, the body’s loss of homeostasis permits health conditions and diseases to develop. You can learn more about each Dosha by visiting the pages for vata , pitta and kapha.
Doshas, Our Body and Disease
When the natural proportion, or balance of our Doshas is disrupted, illness can occur. Our Doshas can go out of balance due to toxin accumulation, stress, improper diet, poor habits and even the weather. Ayurvedic medicine’s philosophy emphasizes moderation rather than denial. We can be healthy by practising moderation within the realms of our body type. Denial can be just as unhealthy as indulgence.
Our dominant Doshas will determine the imbalances we are prone to. Vata predominance when imbalanced, will experience conditions relating movement or of parts that help move us around. Pitta imbalances will lead to disruptions of metabolic and digestive systems and also lead to inflammatory diseases. Kapha imbalances lead to obesity and related conditions; fluid retentions, pneumonia, etc.
Basic Principles of Ayurveda
Ayurvedic principles can be used to explain the complexity of not only health, but also the world around us, there are several simple basics that become the building blocks for everything else:
- Ayurveda’s fundamental approach to well-being is that you must reach your unique state of balance in your whole being—body, mind, and spirit.
- Ayurveda views the world in light of 3 constitutional principles vata , pitta and kapha.
- The first line of defense in combating imbalances is to remove the cause of the problem. If the trouble-maker is out of the picture, the body starts being able to heal itself. For example, if pollutants are bothering your nasal passages and sinuses, rinse them out with a traditional Ayurvedic remedy, the nasya.
- If there are any lingering imbalances after removing the inciting cause, then bring balance by using opposites.
- Always support the DIGESTION POWER so that nutrition can be absorbed and waste materials can be eliminated.
Vata is Composed of air and space, vata is dry, light, cold, rough, subtle/pervasive, mobile, and clear. As such, vata regulates the principle of movement. Any bodily motion—chewing, swallowing, nerve impulses, breathing, muscle movements, thinking, peristalsis, bowel movements, urination, menstruation—requires balanced vata. When vata is out of balance, any number of these movements may be deleteriously affected.
Pitta brings forth the qualities of fire and water. It is sharp, penetrating, hot, light, liquid, mobile, and oily. Pitta’s domain is the principal of transformation. Just as fire transforms anything it touches, Pitta is in play any time the body converts or processes something. So Pitta oversees digestion, metabolism, temperature maintenance, sensory perception, and comprehension. Imbalanced Pitta can lead to sharpness and inflammation in these areas in particular.
Kapha, composed of earth and water, is heavy, cold, dull, oily, smooth, dense, soft, static, liquid, cloudy, hard, and gross (in the sense of dense or thick). As kapha governs stability and structure, it forms the substance of the human body, from the skeleton to various organs to the fatty molecules (lipids) that support the body. An excess of kapha leads to an overabundance of density, heaviness, and excess in the body.
Your body Constitution
Ayurveda places great emphasis on prevention and encourages the maintenance of health through close attention to balance in one’s life, proper thinking, diet, lifestyle and the use of proper food. Knowledge of Ayurveda enables one to understand how to create this balance of body, mind and consciousness according to one’s own individual constitution and how to make lifestyle changes to bring about and maintain this balance.
Just as everyone has a unique fingerprint, each person has a particular type of energy—an individual combination of physical, mental and emotional characteristics—which comprises their own constitution. This constitution is determined at conception by a number of factors and remains the same throughout one’s life.
Many factors, act upon us to disturb this balance and are reflected as a change in one’s constitution from the balanced state. Examples of these emotional and physical stresses include one’s emotional state, diet and food choices, seasons and weather, physical trauma, work and family relationships. Once these factors are understood, one can take appropriate actions to nullify or minimize their effects or eliminate the causes of imbalance and re-establish one’s original constitution. Balance is the natural order; imbalance is disorder. Health is order; disease is disorder. Within the body there is a constant interaction between order and disorder. When one understands the nature and structure of disorder, one can re-establish order.
The key to Ayurvedic wellness and healing is the knowledge that health is not a “one size fits all” proposition. One must understand the unique nature of each person and situation, taking into account the individual, the season, the geography, and so on.
Each person has an Ayurvedic constitution that is specific to him or her, and movement away from that constitution creates health imbalances; if such imbalances are not addressed, Ayurveda says that illness may develop. So, the early signs of imbalance serve as a wakeup call to make gentle and natural shifts in behavior to return to balance—such as adjusting diet, modifying daily activities and taking herbal remedies for a time.
Determining your Prakriti—your fundamental balanced constitution—requires an assessment of your most natural state. Consider your physical structure as well as mental and emotional tendencies. Remember to think of what is most natural to you, rather than what you’re like when you are stressed or ill. Ayurveda says you can understand your basic nature and tendencies by understanding your balanced state.
Dosha imbalances (your Vikruti, or current condition) can manifest in various stages, from a general feeling of “something is not right” all the way to diagnosed illnesses with serious complications. To address this, Ayurveda presents a vast type of treatment modalities to choose from; but whatever the treatment, the goal is to reestablish your natural balance of doshas that is vata, pitta and kapha.
Ayurveda as a Complementary System of Healing
The basic difference between Ayurveda and Western allopathic medicine is important to understand. Western allopathic medicine currently tends to focus on symptomatology and disease, and primarily uses drugs and surgery to rid the body of pathogens or diseased tissue. Many lives have been saved by this approach. In fact, surgery is encompassed by Ayurveda. However, drugs, because of their toxicity, often weaken the body. Ayurveda does not focus on disease. Rather, Ayurveda maintains that all life must be supported by energy in balance. When there is minimal stress and the flow of energy within a person is balanced, the body’s natural defense systems will be strong and can more easily defend against disease.
It must be emphasized that Ayurveda is not a substitute for Western allopathic medicine. There are many instances when the disease process and acute conditions can best be treated with drugs or surgery. Ayurveda can be used in conjunction with Western medicine to make a person stronger and less likely to be afflicted with disease and/or to rebuild the body after being treated with drugs or surgery.
We all have times when we don’t feel well and recognize that we’re out of balance. Sometimes we go to the doctor only to be told there is nothing wrong. What is actually occurring is that this imbalance has not yet become recognizable as a disease. Yet it is serious enough to make us notice our discomfort. We may start to wonder whether it is just our imagination. We may also begin to consider alternative measures and actively seek to create balance in our body, mind and consciousness.
Ayurveda and Ayurvedic Remedies
Ayurveda offers a number of ways to balance doshas and find your well-being. The key is to find balance with a holistic approach—addressing mind, body, and spirit. Ayurvedic remedies draw on a number of modalities:
- Diet modifications
- Lifestyle and Activity adjustments
- yoga , pranayama and asanas
- Internal medicines
- panchakarama treatments
Ayurveda encompasses various techniques for assessing health. The practitioner carefully evaluates key signs and symptoms of illness, especially in relation to the origin and cause of an imbalance. They also consider the patient’s suitability for various treatments. The practitioner arrives at diagnosis through direct questioning, observation and a physical exam, as well as inference. Basic techniques such taking the pulse, observing the tongue, eyes and physical form; and listening to the tone of the voice are employed during an assessment.
Palliative and cleansing measures, when appropriate, can be used to help eliminate an imbalance along with suggestions for eliminating or managing the causes of the imbalance. Recommendations may include the implementation of lifestyle changes; starting and maintaining a suggested diet; and the use of herbs. In some cases, participating in a Panchakarma treatment is suggested to help the body rid itself of accumulated toxins to gain more benefit from the various suggested measures of treatment.
In totally, Ayurveda addresses all aspects of life—the body, mind and spirit. It recognizes that each of us is special, each responds differently to the many aspects of life, each possesses different strengths and weaknesses. Through insight, understanding and experience Ayurveda presents a vast wealth of information on the relationships between causes and their effects, both immediate and subtle, for each unique individual.