What is Ayurveda?
Ayurveda, the Indian “science of life”, is an ancient system of healing that sees health as our birthright. The benefits of Ayurvedic medicine have been proven over centuries of use, and its methodologies are as applicable today in the West as they were thousands of years ago in India.
Ayurveda dates back an estimated 5,000-10,000 years and is widely considered to be the oldest form of health care in the world. It is understood by many scholars that knowledge of Ayurveda spread out from India and influenced the ancient Chinese system of medicine. Ayurveda is often referred to as the "Mother of all healing."
The knowledge of Ayurveda is believed to be of Divine origin and was communicated to the saints and sages of India who received its wisdom through deep meditation. Ayurvedic knowledge was passed down orally through the generations and then written down in the Vedas, the sacred texts of India believed to be the oldest writings in the world.
Written in Sanskrit, the Vedas cover a vast number of subjects from grammar to health care. The Vedas were written approximately 2500 BC or earlier. Current knowledge about Ayurveda is mostly drawn from relatively later writings, primarily the Caraka Samhita (approximately 1500 BC), the Ashtang Hrdyam (approximately 500 AD), and the Sushrut Samhita (300 - 400 AD). These three classics describe the basic principles and theories from which Ayurveda has evolved. They also contain vast clinical information on the management of a multitude of diseases expanded upon by later writings and research.
Basic Principles of Ayurveda
While 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. These are explained in more detail below.
- 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 neti pot
- If there are any lingering imbalances after removing the inciting cause, then bring balance by using opposites. For example, the Ayurvedic remedy to excess heat is to use something cooling. So for excess heat or acidity in the digestive system, you could use cooling and soothing herbs like Shatavari
- Always support the digestive fire, so that nutrition can be absorbed and waste materials can be eliminated.
Vata, Pitta, and Kapha: Your Viewing Lenses
Once you put on the lens of Ayurveda and see things in terms of vata, pitta, kapha, and combinations thereof, the whole world comes alive in a new way. Look at the world around you! The doshas take form in endlessly interesting ways.
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 Unique Constitution
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 toolbox of treatment modalities to choose from; but whatever the treatment, the goal is to reestablish your natural balance of vata, pitta, and kapha.
Ayurveda and 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
- Herbal Supplements
- Yoga, Pranayama (Breath Techniques), and Meditation
- Marma (Energetic Pressure Points)
- Cleansing Processes, such as Panchakarma