More than just medicine, Ayurveda is an approach to life, integrating mental, physical and spiritual well-being.
by Erin Geesaman Rabke
The flutter of butterfly wings in South America affects the weather where you live. Blow up a test bomb in "the middle of nowhere," and it affects the health of people for miles in every direction for years and years. Drive a car that gets low gas mileage and it affects the polar ice caps. Life is interdependent. Many ancient peoples understood this better than we do.
Some more personal examples also illustrate this broad principle. What you ate for lunch yesterday affects your mood and whether you're more spacey, agitated or content after chewing your last bite. The movie you watched before bed affects the quality of your sleep, and your effectiveness at work and your connection with loved ones. Your choice of morning beverage may have a great deal to do with that nagging pain in your knee. Your choice of produce imported from Chile or grown by your local farmer, your feelings of tense distraction or calm presence while you eat- all influence your health, and the health of your community.
"Life is relationship" is a basic understanding to which modern thinkers are only beginning to return. All these insights are obvious when looking at life through the lens of interdependence. This is the view of Ayurveda, the traditional medical practice of India.
From the ancients' close observation of the interdependent details of life in all its manifestations arose the science of life known as Ayurveda, the oldest continuously practiced medical system on the planet. Ayurveda, literally translated, means "knowledge of life," "science of longevity" or "art of living." It is an incredibly detailed and sophisticated scientific study of life on earth, with a particular emphasis on cultivating well-being at physical, mental and spiritual levels. Ayurveda is considered the sister science to yoga. Although yoga has gained great popularity and become a household word in our culture, Ayurveda is still in the beginning stages of blossoming here.
Interestingly, in the Vedic tradition from which yoga and Ayurveda arose in India, yoga is known as the disciplines for working with the mind, while Ayurveda is known as the science for the body. Their overlapping territory is life itself – and both share roots in the understanding that body and mind, although distinguishable, are deeply intertwined. Ayurveda is primarily renowned as a medical system, but medicine is only a small slice of the wheel of Ayurvedic knowledge.
In Ayurveda, everything in the universe is composed of five elements – space, air, fire, water and earth-which, when combined, create the three doshas of vata (space and air), pitta (fire) and kapha (water and earth). The principles governing Ayurvedic understanding are as true for puppies, pine trees and weather patterns – all of life – as they are for human health. As Dr. Robert Svoboda (the first Westerner to graduate from an Indian Ayurvedic medical school) writes, "Every substance that we encounter, every action that we perform or that is performed on us influences our inner balance for good or ill. When we adapt ourselves effectively to changing circumstances, we remain healthy; exceed our limits in any direction and we are likely to swerve off course into the uncharted waters of illness. A full, rich, satisfying life of moderation and poise is likely to be a life that is fundamentally healthy."
Each person has a particular personal constitution, called "prakruti." This is your unique elemental combination of vata, pitta and kapha. Skilled practitioners can read your constitution from your pulse. Each of us is made up of each of the five elements, but in each person some elements predominate. Your prakruti may be uni-doshic (one dosha predominates clearly), bi-doshic (a combination of two doshas that share predominance) and rarely, people may be tri-doshic, where all three are equally present. Here are some general descriptions of the temperamental qualities of each of the doshas.
The vata (air and space) predominant individual:
• learns easily, but forgets easily as well
• tends toward nervousness and anxiety, sometimes restlessness
• has dynamic, fluctuating moods; energy can be sporadic
• has a lot of creative energy and an active imagination
• leads an erratic lifestyle. Routine is not common
• can be spacey and tend not to follow through on ideas
• acts quickly and changes quickly
In general think of the quick, erratic movement of wind and the vastness of space. When unbalanced or "vata deranged," the personality can be erratic, changable, nervous and spacey. When balanced, vata manifests as inspiration, expressiveness and creativity.
The pitta (fire) predominant individual:
• has a good memory and a quick mind
• tends to anger easily and is easily irritated
• finds goals and tasks more important than mood
• is efficient, well-organized, precise and tends toward perfectionism
• leads a busy life
• is thoughtful, logical, and a planner
• can be forceful and imposing
• lives with intensity and competitiveness
In general think of fire: Unbalanced, this dosha is easy to overheat-in anger, competitiveness, perfectionist tendencies, or bossiness. When balanced, pitta expresses as clarity, determination and organization.
The kapha (earth and water) predominant individual:
• learns slowly, but like an elephant, never forgets
• tends to be calm and steady
• is caring, compassionate and can be possessive
• is thorough and follows through, completing tasks once begun
• has a relaxed lifestyle
• has good stamina, but moves at a slower pace
• can tend toward complacency
Think water and earth: when balanced this dosha can be calm, compassionate, settled and steady. When "deranged," it can manifest as lethargy, couch-potato tendencies, depression or posessiveness.
Ayurveda has much to offer us in our modern world disconnected from the rhythms of nature. Interestingly, Ayurvedic practitioners do not see Western medicine as antithetical to Ayurveda – they consider it to be a small component of the science of life, included under the large umbrella of Ayurveda. Western medicine often creates problematic side effects because of its incomplete and compartmentalized view of life and healing.
Much of Ayurveda that been popularized in our culture is the Ayurvedic understanding of health from a physical perspective – for example, how changing your diet to be appropriate to your dosha and to the season can reduce or eliminate the causes of ill health. But Ayurveda also has much to offer in the realm of the mind and emotions. Lifestyle choices, including diet and sleep schedule, can create fertile ground for worry, anxiety, anger and depression (or on the other hand, creativity, clarity and calm) to flourish. It is profoundly empowering to discover the ways we can support our own best intentions with simple daily choices.
The Sanskrit word for health, svastha, means "to be established in oneself." Ayurveda encourages us to begin our search for health by looking within ourselves. As Svoboda writes, "The ultimate in healing is to attune a body-mind-spirit complex so finely to the universal consciousness that that consciousness begins to direct the organism's functions. The individual can then grow into a state of harmony with each and every flow in the universe… the better you can awaken your awareness, the better you will flow through life and the more health will accrue to you."
"Ayurveda and the Mind," by David Frawley
"Complete Book of Ayurvedic Home Remedies," by Dr. Vasant Lad
"The Ayurvedic Cookbook," by Amadea Morningstar
"A Woman's Book of Health," by Nancy Lonsdorf
"Prakruti: Your Ayurvedic Constitution," by Dr. Robert Svoboda
To learn more about Ayurveda from a true expert, consider attending the workshop, "Ayurveda and Emotions," taught by Jaisri Lambert, of Vancouver, B.C., May 6-7 at Sagebrush Yoga Studio in Salt Lake City.