AN INTRODUCTION TO AYURVEDA
Ayurveda is the traditional medical life-style system from India. It is simply translated as ‘science of life’ and more comprehensively as ‘the knowledge that teaches us which substances, life-styles and activities are beneficial or harmful to life’. It is the knowledge of wholesome and righteous living according to our unique and individual constitutional make up. An early description given in the Charaka Samhita (the earliest Ayurvedic literature) written circa 150BCE-100CE says:
“It is called ayurveda because it tells us which substances, qualities and actions are life enhancing, and which are not.”
Ayurveda has developed in India over at least the last 4000 years. It has now spread all over the world. It is a blend of herbal medicine, massage, dietetics, spiritual insight, practical experience, scientific analysis and artistic creativity. It uses medicinal plants, foods, massage, meditation, surgery and judicious living as part of its ‘life-style’ and methodology.
The Ayurvedic principles can be applied to yoga as well. Although they developed in different backgrounds there are many similarities and crossover points between these two traditions. The diets, attitudes and attention to optimum health are all specific to both traditions. I will write more about special yogic practices for the different seasons and individual constitutions in due course.
There are three constitutions in Ayurveda (see below). They are combinations of the essential elements of nature- Space, Air, Fire, Water and Earth. Comparing this idea to our modern world view and the Elemental Table, we could say that light molecules such as Hydrogen relate to the Ayurvedic concept of Space, denser molecules such as Oxygen for Air, reactive molecules such as Phosphorus or Magnesium for Fire, liquid elements such as Mercury represent fluid Water and dense molecules such as Carbon or Gold make up the solid building-blocks of Earth. These all combine to make up our natural world- outer and inner.
The Five Elements
Quality: Expansive, light, infinite and all-encompassing space.
Relates to the sense of sound and the ear. It is the arena within which ‘life’ takes place. Sound travels through space.
VAYU - AIR
Quality: Like the wind, light, mobile, rough, dry & erratic.
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
TEJAS - FIRE
Quality: Hot, sharp, penetrating, luminous, ascending & dispersing.
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.
JALA - WATER
Quality: Fluid, heavy, wet, lubricating, cool, cohesive & subtle.
Relates to the sense of taste and the tongue. Flavours and tastes are only perceivable when the tongue is wet.
PRITHVI - EARTH
Quality: Thick, dense, solid, heavy &stable.
Relates to the sense of smell and the nose. Earthy and dense objects give off smells.
We will look at the elements in more detail over the next few weeks. From understanding the qualities of each you can understand the qualities of foods, herbs and emotions. Understanding these is the key to Ayurvedic living
The three constitutions: the dosha
There are three constitutional types mentioned in Ayurveda These are called the three dosha.
“ 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 balance and their abnormal state is illness.” Charaka Samhita
Vata (V) is connected with the wind and space, it regulates movement and communication and relates to the nervous system.
Pitta (P) is connected with fire and water, it regulates heat and digestion and relates to metabolism.
Kapha (K) is connected with earth and water, it is responsible for stability and moisture and relates to the structure of the body.
These constitutions are both friend and foe. They can ‘support’ us in times of balance or ‘aggravate’ us when we are out of balance. They are both invisible and visible. The invisible relates to the ‘hidden’ processes of our body and mind- our physiology and inner processes, the visible relates to the secretions and excretions that are a by product of these processes; hormones, enzymes, mucus and nervous impulses.
We can be any combination of constitution- individually (V, P, K), in combination (VP, VK, KP) or balanced (VPK). Every combination is unique AND has dominant characterisitics.
We will spend lots of time understanding the doshas as they are the centrepiece that makes Ayurveda so unique and still so tangible.
Ayurveda, health and disease
Ayurveda understands that disease is due to an imbalance in the inner processes of the body and mind. It is a disassociation within the whole system. This is different from our modern functional view of disease that regards organs in isolation and bacteria as causes of disease. Although Ayurveda understands the potential of invading organisms (and refers to them as worms (krimi)) its primary understanding of disease is systemic rather than reductionist (ie due to the whole system being out of balance and not just caused by one disease causing bacteria).
Many of the causes of disease are seen as originating from within us as are many of the preventative measures that can keep us at optimum health. For Ayurveda health is more than the absence of disease, it is the whole reason of living because without health you cannot enjoy or pursue the goals of your life (happiness, fulfilment and contentment). Therefore Ayurveda gives insight into the causes of disease and the means to obtain the best health.
Ayurveda is about wise living. It is about balancing your ‘nature’ with big Nature- your environment with the larger environment. For example, if it is a boiling hot day, you have a pitta constitution by nature and you have been living off hot curries its time to seek the opposite- some cooling refreshing, soothing activities- swimming, drinking cool coconut water or rose water and generally chilling out etc
What is refreshing is that we can adjust our behaviour to the time of day, the season of the year, the stage of our life, the particular circumstances of our day etc according to the dominant nature of that event. Our constitution is important but so is reality!!
1. I may be a Vata/Pitta individual who is living in a cold damp valley, it has been raining for days, I ate a bowl of yoghurt (wet and cold) yesterday and can feel catarrh building up- Kapha is increasing. Although it is against my constitution (Vata/Pittas are dry and hot), in order to deal with the immediate environment I must oppose the increase of Kapha. This means ime for some hot, energising and spicy drinks and foods and activities.
2. I may be a pure Kapha type who usually feels very calm and grounded. Unfortunately I have had 4 meetings today, I was late for the first (and then the rest), I have been talking on my mobile telephone a lot, I have been rushing all day- Vata is aggravated. It is time for a mellow massage and some grounded ‘Kapha’like activity.
Ayurveda sees the qualities of the three constitutions in the environment, times of day and different stages of life.
An open dry plateau or mountain top are places where vata predominates.
A hot and humid tropical rain forest is very pitta aggravating.
A wet and cold marsh land has predominantly kapha like qualities.
Morning is very kapha- we are sleepy and can feel sluggish, it is a damp or dewy time.
Midday is very pitta- its all go, the sun is at its zenith, it’s the warmest time of day.
Afternoon is very vata- things are calming down but a bit burnt out, we can be tired (or frazzled!), it is often windy.
Childhood (0-16) is kapha- children are soft, loving and cuddly- kapha problems such as coughs or glue-ear may develop; have you ever seen a child not dribbling or without a runny nose?!
Mid-life (16-50) is dominated by pitta- time to organise, manage, work hard, build a career, have a family- pitta imbalances such as acne, hyperacidity, heart problems etc can develop during this stage of life.
Later life (50-?) is a vata stage of life- elder people are full of the wisdom of life’s experiences. Like vata they are thinner, drier and lighter- vata diseases such as osteoporosis or alzheimers can develop during this era.