Ayurveda. What is it?
Ayurveda is one of the oldest, if not the oldest, and longest standing health and medical practices in existence. It is an ancient and holistic medical practice with adaptive, modern day uses and benefits. Ayurveda originates in India, dating back at least 5,000 years, and remains a primary form of health care practice in India today. Ayurveda is a Sanskrit word and means the science, wisdom, and knowledge of life.
“Ayurveda is a medical science and it’s purpose is to heal and to maintain the quality and longevity of life. It is an art of daily living that has evolved from practical, philosophical and spiritual illumination, rooted in the understanding of Creation.” -Dr. Vasant Lad
Ayurveda considers health on a highy individualised basis, and can be considered a lifestyle and art of living. It focuses on living in balance and harmony with ourself and Mother Nature in order to experience health and wellness. A focus is to prevent and remedy disease, rather than solely identifying diseases already manifested and treating the discomfort. Ayurveda focuses on getting to the root cause and treating the cause so there will be no further symptoms of disease. Ayurveda is inclusive of different modalities when considering pathways of prevention and treatment.
A core tenet of Ayurveda is the attention to and consideration of our spiritual/mental/emotional health equally to and not separate from our physical/biological health. Three key factors influencing our health according to Ayurveda are the food we eat and how eat it; optimal sleep and rest; and our lifestyle and the ways in which we use, interact with, and direct our creative life force energy.
Other core teachings of Ayurveda include dosha, prakruti and vikruti, and agni, which we will discuss further. Dosha can be viewed as a combination of elements, prakruti is our innate individual combination of elements, vikruti is what we call our imbalances, and agni is our digestive capability.
Ayurveda teaches that there are 5 main elements that make up all of life- ether, air, fire, water, earth. These five elements combine into three different combinations to create the three doshas, which are fundamental energies of life. The three dosha are; Vata, Pitta, Kapha. Vata is ether and air. Pitta is fire and water. Kapha is earth and water. All the elements that exist within nature also exist within every human being in varying degrees. Individual life is a microcosm of greater macrocosmic existence. We are all made up of our own unique combination of the three doshas, which is called our constitution, or prakruti in Ayurveda.
Maintaining our unique combination of original elemental makeup, our prakruti, is how we achieve health for us individually. The ways in which we go out of balance is called our vikruti. We treat or balance our vikruti by working with and considering the elements present in all that we interact with.
Understanding our prakruti (innate doshic combination or elemental makeup) can help us live in harmony with the fluctuations of life and experience optimal health and wellbeing. Remember that we are not only one dosha or element, but a combination of dosha and every part of our body and mind can present as a different dosha. Some of us may be comprised of primarily one elemental combo, but we all still have every element within us. This is why our prakruti is unique to us. Keep in mind that people, places, food, seasons, and everything in life all have different qualities and interacting with different qualities or elements can maintain or disturb our elemental balance.
Looking further into the three dosha, Vata is made up of the elements air and ether and is related to space and movement. Vata is more airy and mobile and can present as dryness, creativity, joy, spontaneity, flexibility, thin bones and smaller frame, fear, anxiety, irregularity, and absentmindedness, to name a few characteristics. Vata is related to change and and its corresponding season is Autumn/Fall.
Pitta is fire and can present as intelligence, focus, sharp mindedness, athleticism, high metabolism, defined muscles, warmth and heat, intensity, as well as a critical nature, anger, inflammation and other hot and fiery qualities. Pitta tends to be medium and proportionate. Pitta is made up of fire and water and is connected to agni, our digestive fire and metabolism. Summer is the season corresponding to Pitta.
Kapha is made up of earth and water and is related to immunity, or ojas. Kapha is the grounded earth element. Kapha provides stability, form, hydration, and immunity. Kapha can present as calmness, thick and lustrous hair, supple skin, strong bones, general strength, a nurturing nature, lethargy, heaviness, holding weight, and stubbornness or stuckness, again just to name a few qualities. Kapha has a maintaining and sustaining nature. Spring is associated with Kapha. Late winter relates to Kapha, while early winter relates to Vata.
Notice that each dosha has balanced and imbalanced qualities. When we understand our prakruti and state of dosha, we have greater insight for our wellbeing and can make lifestyle choices accordingly. For even deeper understanding, each dosha can be further explored in relation to the 20 qualities (gunas).
The qualities (gunas) for each dosha are as follows:
•Vata: dry, light, cold, rough, subtle, mobile, clear
•Pitta: light, hot, sharp, liquid, oily, mobile
•Kapha: cold, oily, liquid, slimy/smooth, heavy, dense, soft, hard, slow/dull, gross, static, sticky/cloudy
Like qualities increase like qualities, and when something is out of balance, we often bring in its opposite qualities to restore balance.
Understanding the qualities within us and of the things we intake, we can better work with our digestive capability, or agni. Our digestive capability is key in maintaining proper biological function and experiencing longevity. Kapha may provide stability and immunity, but it is agni that gives it the ability to do so. (Vata is the movement of information and cellular intelligence, pitta is cellular intelligence which informs and transforms, kapha stabilises and forms. Of course all 3 must be working in harmony to maintain wellness).
Agni is cellular intelligence and our ability to digest and assimilate every form of input we take in, be that food and topical products or intangible information and experiences. We can look at agni simply as our digestion in relation to our stomach, but it so much more. Agni is how we digest everything in life and it supports the body’s intelligence to maintain proper biological function across all areas. Vata tends to have digestion or agni that fluctuates, pitta has strong agni or digestion, and kapha can have slower digestion. We want our digestion to be in balance for our constitution and lifestyle so we can take in, absorb, and nourish at the perfect rate for our own body and mind.
Every cell of our body has the ability to digest and transform. The healthier our digestion, the more or better we can handle, assimilate, and eliminate. When our digestion is not working well, then we have undigested food and experiences which create a build up of toxins (called ama) in our systems, which in turn throw our digestion and bodily systems into even greater imbalance. When all systems are working well thanks to balanced agni and absence of toxins, we have homeostasis and happiness. When our agni is at optimal level, we experience health and we don’t get sick because our digestion is able to process and respond to anything that comes at us.
Ayurveda provides intricate teachings and understanding of the human body and psyche; the movement and power of subtle energies; the use of herbs, spices, plants and food; and of the nature of life itself. Ayurvedic treatment and prevention includes but is not limited to; the use of herbs, spices and food, movement and yoga, meditation, practice of daily and seasonal routine, marma therapy, pulse reading, oil and massage therapy, and tongue diagnostics. Ayurveda welcomes the practice of different modalities and practices from different cultures, keeping in mind the overall energetic effect on each individual constitution. The great sages taught that Ayurveda must be adaptable to and for the times and people who are practicing it. So, while Ayurveda may originate in India spanning back thousands of years, the teachings are for all of humanity in all times, and knowing the core energetics and qualities of anything, we can apply it in our lives with an Ayurvedic understanding in a way that promotes wellness and harmony.
“Ayurveda is an offering. It is a gift from Mother Nature to us.” -Katie Silcox
How did Ayurveda come to be? Ayurveda was a loving response to the suffering of humanity. The information was downloaded from the Cosmos by ancient rishis, or seers in India. Lord Dhanvantari is the God of Ayurveda, who gifted the teachings to the rishis, who continued to pass the knowledge on through spoken teaching. Ayurveda is orignally an oral tradition. And of course today we have many written texts on Ayurveda. Some classical texts of Ayurveda are The Charaka Samhitā, The Sushruta Samhitā and The Ashtānga Hridayam. The Texbook of Ayurveda Series by Vasant Lad is one of many modern texts on Ayurveda. Keep in mind Ayurveda is a rich system of knowledge with long history and evolving adaptivity that cannot be covered or honoured in one paragraph or article. This article is just an introduction. I encourage you to work with a practitioner and/or do your own exploration, practice, and study of Ayurveda.
“The entire Vedic tradition is composed of highly spiritual wisdom and pure knowledge revealed through the hearts of enlightened rishis (seers). It is not a creation made by the mind of man but rather a revelation from the hearts of meditative sages.” -Dr. Vasant Lad
Ayurveda truly is a loving gift from the heart of existence. I trust Ayurveda with my whole heart. I trust it with my wellbeing, the wellbeing of my most dear loved ones, and the wellbeing of the entire planet. I encourage you to give Ayurveda a try and explore what it can mean for you and your spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical health.
Om Dhanvantaraye Murtaye Namaha ~ A Prayer to Lord Dhanvantari, the God of Ayurveda