What is Ayurveda?
Updated: Nov 20, 2019
Ayurveda is a healing system with its roots in the ancient Indian civilisation of the Indus Valley. Ayurveda can be translated as “the science of life” or “the knowledge of life”, ‘Ayur’ meaning life and ‘Veda’ knowledge or science. In Ayurveda, life is defined as the union of body, mind, and spirit existing in cosmic consciousness and encompassed in all of creation.
The knowledge of Ayurveda concerns the nature, scope and purpose of life; it includes metaphysical and physical aspects of disease, happiness, sorrow, pain and pleasure. It is a holistic medical system that focuses on promoting and preserving optimal health and preventing diseases. Its purpose is to maintain the quality and longevity of life.
This knowledge of life is known to have always existed, with earliest references dating to the Harappan civilization around 7500 B.C. It was mostly passed on orally from generation to generation, until accomplished physicians Charaka and Sushruta structured and documented the information around 500 B.C.
Many modern scholars acknowledge Ayurveda as the oldest healing system on this planet. It is one of the first complete and most advanced medical systems, which spread across the globe and was modified by many different cultures to suit their needs.
The earliest recorded texts originate from the ancient Vedic period and have been further developed and advanced through sound scientific research which still goes on today at Universities around the world.
Ayurveda focuses on removing the cause of disease and rarely deals with treating the symptoms. According to Ayurveda the main causes of disease are:
Prajanaparadha, which literarily means incorrect use of intellect i.e. doing something you know is bad for your health or not doing something that you known is good for your health.
Asatmendriyartha samyoga is the improper use of the five senses such as inadequate nutrition, and an inappropriate daily routine, habits and lifestyle for a certain age.
Kala or parinama i.e. influence of the seasons
These factors contribute to an imbalance in digestion and absorption (agni), and subsequently the body’s functional systems (dosha’s), bodily tissues and waste elimination become impaired resulting in illness or disease.
BASIC PRINCIPLES OF AYURVEDA
According to Ayurveda, everything that exists forms one part of a vast and universal interplay of cosmic energy; nothing exists independently and every single thing can be linked to other things.
According to the Samkhya philosophy, which is one of the oldest philosophical systems and the philosophy behind Ayurveda, the cosmic energy, which holds everything together, enables the creation of the universe into three states of energy, or pure consciousness.
These three states are known as gunas. Angela Murray in her book, Ayurveda for Dummies describes the gunas as ‘ropes that bind us to the physical world’. A person’s mind is predominated by one of these three states and it determines a person’s psychological constitution. The three gunas are as follows:
1. Sattva guna is a state of purity, balance and equilibrium. It portrays a person that maintains a feeling of contentment regardless of the circumstances in life. A sattvic person is calm, quiet, intelligent, creative, truthful, happy, spiritual and health conscious.
2. Rajas guna is a state where the qualities of ambition, drive and perfectionism dominate. It is the energy that moves everything into action. A rajasic person is restless, always setting goals to be achieved with considerable effort, and can become aggressive in reaching those goals.
3. Tamas guna represents inertia and a state of rest. This energy is dull, heavy and depressed. A tamasic person is mostly materialistic, selfish, lazy, attached, possessive and bad humoured.
The three gunas interact with each other constantly as energies that continuously influence one another harmoniously as forces of creation, maintenance and destruction. All three gunas are present in all persons but the extent to which each guna dominates may vary and change throughout one’s life or even during one day.
The energy of the three gunas forms the five elements (Ether, Air, Fire, Water and Earth), which are the building blocks for everything with which the material world is constructed. Each of the five elements represents; solid (earth), liquid (water), radiance (fire), gas (air) and etheric (ether) forms of matter which make up the outer world of experience, including the physical body.
The five elements form what is known as the three Dosha’s (Vata, Pitta, Kapha) or three humours. Every individual is made up of a unique proportion of all the three dosha’s i.e. the five elements which are the building blocks of each individual are present in each one of us with in a unique ratio.
A person’s dosha can be described as the person’s natural tendency to exhibit certain qualities that correspond to the properties of the five elements. It is also commonly referred to as a person’s unique constitution or Prakriti.
Vata dosha is a predominance of ether and air elements; Pitta dosha is primarily fire and a little water; Kapha dosha represents the earth and water elements. Therefore a person with a Vata dominant constitution will exhibit mostly the qualities of air and ether and so on.
Recent scientific research has shown a direct correlation between a person’s unique constitution (Prakriti) and modern scientific biochemical and genetic markers i.e. a person’s Prakriti is a distinct phenotype representing a certain genotype (Dey & Pahwa, 2014). This means that each person’s dosha type can be traced back to certain genes.
One of the factors that determine health in Ayurveda is balance in the function of all three dosha’s ( the body's functional systems). Vata maintains the nervous system and is responsible for cell growth, differentiation, cell death, and the movement of cells, molecules, nutrients and waste; Pitta maintains the venous system of chemical reactions in the body including digestion, metabolic process, immunity and temperature control; and Kapha maintains the stream of nutrition to the arterial system and is responsible for structure, growth, and protection (Bhandaria, Ravipatib, Reddy & Koyyalamudic, 2015).
CAUSES OF DOSHA IMBALANCE
In treating any imbalance or disease, Ayurveda seeks to remove and avoid the cause instead of treat the symptoms: this is called Nidana Parivarjana. Therefore it is important to understand the factors that can cause dosha imbalance or vitiation.
Causes of Vata Vitiation
Excessive consumption of dry, cold, light food
Improper sleep during the night
Over exertion and travelling
Ignoring natures calls
Erratic dietary habits
Fear and anxiety
Causes of Pitta Vitiation
Excessive consumption of oily, spicy, salty, sour food
Too much exercise
Over exposure to heat
Causes of Kapha vitiation
Excessive use of cold, heavy, salt, sweet, oily food
Consumption of dairy products
Lack of physical exercise
ROLE OF DIGESTION
The state of a person’s Agni is one of the key factors, which determines health in Ayurveda. Agni literarily means fire and is also known as digestive fire, digestive capacity or metabolism. It governs all transformative processes in the body.
Any imbalance in Agni causes improper functioning of three dosha’s, inadequate production of tissues (Dhatus) and insufficient elimination of waste. Improper digestion and elimination of waste leads to an accumulation of toxins (Ama) in the body, which eventually causes disease. Therefore Ayurvedic medicine focuses on the quality and status of Agni (see my previous blog post on how to balance Agni).
“In Ayurveda, we say a man is as old as his Agni. If Agni is in optimal condition, a person's immune system is healthy. When the metabolic fire is robust, a person can live a long, healthy life. When Agni becomes slow, the person's health deteriorates”. Excerpt: Dr. Vasant Lad, “Textbook of Ayurveda, Fundamental Principles”, 2002.
OJAS AND IMMUNITY
In Ayurveda, the term Ojas describes a person’s vitality and immunity and it corresponds to the western medical definition of immunity. Ojas is the bodily substance that prevents aging, decay and disease; a person with strong Ojas rarely becomes sick.
According to Dr. Vasant Lad, “it is a protoplasmic, biological substance that includes albumin, globulin, and many hormones. It is formed during the biosynthesis of bodily tissue, i.e. during the creation of the nourished Dhatus”.
As the Ojas of the tissues supports digestion and absorption of nutrients in the tissues, when Ojas of a tissue is depleted, the metabolic capacity of this tissue will be impaired leading to inadequate nourishment of the tissues.
Strong immunity depends upon the quality of digestion (Agni), the quality of liver function (Bhuta Agni’s in the liver), and the integrated function of all hormones in the endocrine system.
Find out more on how you can improve your digestive capacity and boost your immunity during an Ayurvedic consultation.
Book consultation at www.deola.org
Dey, S., & Pahwa, P. (2014). Prakriti and its associations with metabolism, chronic diseases, and genotypes: Possibilities of newborn screening and a lifetime of personalized prevention. Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine, 5(1), 15–24. http://doi.org/10.4103/0975-9476.128848
Govindarajan, R., Vijayakumar, M. and Pushpangadan, P. (2005). Antioxidant approach to disease management and the role of ‘Rasayana’ herbs of Ayurveda. Journal of Ethnopharmacology, 99(2), pp.165-178.
Johari, H., (1998) A complete guide to the Ayurvedic Life,
Lad, V., (2002). Textbook of Ayurveda. Albuquerque, N.M.: Ayurvedic Press.
Tiwari, M. (1998). Ayurveda secrets of healing. Twin Lakes, Wis.: Lotus Press.
Tiwari, M., (1995) Ayurveda: A life of balance. Twin Lakes, Wis.: Lotus Press.