What Is Ayurveda
Ayurveda is known as the mother of medicine, dating back 6000 years. The Chinese and Tibetan systems also have their roots in Ayurveda, sharing its basic principles and knowledge of the Materia Medica. It is said that open trade encouraged the spread of Ayurveda from the east to the west, influencing the Ancient Greeks and Romans.
Around 800BCE the first Ayurvedic medical school was founded by Punarvasu Atteya whose work greatly influenced Charaka, a scholar who lived and taught around 700BCE. His writings, the CHARAKA Samhita, are a major text considered today to be the main authority on Ayurveda.
Ayurveda is timeless, with the daily routine and practices being the same today as they were for centuries, despite its suppression when new cultures took over the land and referred to as superstitious nonsense, forcing the science to be practised in temples and small villages.
Today however, Ayurveda is practised around the world, including at major hospitals in India. It is recognised as a valuable healing system addressing all facets of life, mind, body and spirit.
Ayurveda does not separate the inner world, from our outer world. It teaches us that everything that exists in the macrocosm of the universe exists in the microcosm of the human being. Ayurveda is derived from a Sanskrit word meaning (Ayu) life (Veda) knowledge. It is a philosophy of life passed on to us by great seers of ancient India through sacred text known as the Vedas.
These teachings show us how to live with the laws of nature to achieve and maintain perfect health. The laws of nature are eternally true, therefore the teachings of Ayurveda remain the same; it is a complete way of life to enhance long term wellness and not a temporary fix to a long term problem. Ayurveda embraces the whole person - mind, body and soul.
Ayurveda defines life as the intelligent co-ordination of the soul (Atma), the mind (Mamas), the senses (Indriyas) and the body (Sharira) which contributes to the wholeness of life and the quality of life’s experiences.
ATMA the soul – the director of life which guides the mind to work towards connecting with the source and live life according to his or her Dharma and act appropriately for the benefit of the whole.
MAMAS the mind – is the controller of the senses. The mind decides on how to use the senses. The mind is a store house of impressions gathered by our senses. The soul will guide towards taking the right action and making the right choices and the mind dominates over the consciousness and leads to making the wrong choices not conducive to good health and wellbeing. These choices are based on our past experiences and learned behaviours.
INDRIYAS the five senses – each sense carries its own inherent intelligence. It is the link between us and the outside world. The senses gather information from the world around us and communicate with our mind to our physical body and non-physical body. If the information gathered by our senses is of good quality and quantity, it will have a positive and supportive influence on the mind which is relayed to the body and soul. If there is excessive use of the senses, insufficient use of the senses, or misuse of the senses, we experience a negative impact on the mind which causes imbalance in the system leading to ill health.
Balance of mind, body and soul is determined by the three Gunas. These are known as Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas, and are subtle energies arising from cosmic prana, creating an equilibrium that influences our mind, body and soul.
SATTVA – Consciousness itself is called Sattva. It is the pure essence of light and simply being. It is vast and clear, creating space and calmness for clarity and devotion. It is about taking the right action when living with a spiritual purpose.
RAJAS – Vital energy and the momentum for creation. Rajas is the principle of action, doing, movement, excitability and using kinetic energy.
TAMAS – Sleep and inaction. It is inertia, immobility and stagnation. It represents completion, the end of a cycle and a time to rest and rejuvenate.
The three gunas all have their unique role in equilibrium and cosmic harmony and we should not attach ourselves to any of the three gunas:
- If we attach ourselves to Sattva and spend too much time meditating and contemplating, we can lose touch with our reality.
- If we attach ourselves to Rajas through the pursuit of external happiness and sensory enjoyment we lose our connection to our true self. We dissipate our energies and cause disharmony in our body which leads to disease and experience pain, inflammation, agitation and over exertion which leads to exhaustion.
- If we attach ourselves to Tamas we become dull and limited bringing about disease stagnation, fatigue, confusion, depression, decay and death.
Sattva is the balance of Rajas and Tamas and is responsible for true health and healing. Health is maintained by living in harmony with nature and our true self, cultivating purity, clarity and peace. The role of the right food, the right action and the right mind set as taught with Ayurveda is important to achieve this balance.
Sattva creates the intention. Rajas embraces the mind and the five senses (Indiyas) to create action. The five sense faculties, HEARING, TOUCH, SIGHT, TASTE and SMELL as well as the five faculties of action speech, grasping, walking, procreation and elimination arise from the Indriyas. Rajas and our five sensory perceptions of SOUND, TOUCH, FORM, TASTE and ODOUR moves towards Tamas to create inorganic elements ETHER, AIR, FIRE, WATER and EARTH.
Each element containing different amount of the three gunas:
- ETHER is pure sattva.
- AIR is movement of rajas with ether.
- WATER is sattva flowing or stagnant, tamas.
- FIRE is rajas, aggressive and relaxing sattva.
- EARTH is tamas, solid and stable.
- ETHER with sound, sense organ ear
- AIR with and touch, sense organ skin
- FIRE with form, sense organ eyes
- WATER with taste, sense organ tongue
- EARTH with odour, sense organ nose
- VATA – arises from air and either
- PITTA – arises from the fire and water
- KAPHA – arises from water and earth
The qualities of the FIVE ELEMENTS also relate to our five sensory perceptions and sense organs:
The three DOSHAS – Vata, Pitta, Kapha arise from the five elements:
At birth we are born with a combination of the three doshas, Vata, Pitta and Kapha in various degrees. This is known as our Prakriti, which is our inherent constitution. When a Dosha, or Doshas, are aggravated by life’s situation, this aggravation is called Vipaka. The way we live our life, the foods we eat, our environment and our emotional responses all play a role in our equilibrium to maintain balance and keep us healthy or aggravate one or more of these Doshas causing disease.
Vata is the air, wind and space elements that play a crucial role in the body. It is the messenger responsible for communication, including nerve impulses and the immune system. It is also responsible for the peristalsis movement of digestion and all movement from the waist down. This includes bowel movements, menstruation and child birth. The qualities of the elements of air, wind and space are dry, cold, light, subtle, rough and irregular. A person who is predominantly Vata will have these qualities too and may suffer conditions predominant with these qualities that manifest from the waist down. When in balance, Vata type people are very creative, with good energy, enthusiastic with a calm mind. When aggravated they can be anxious, erratic and spacey. Vata individuals do not cope well with change, especially the change of season, in particular dry, cold and the windy conditions of autumn. As we age we also exhibit more air, wind and space elements in the mind and body, causing disease relating to dryness, lack of flexibility, slowed digestion and nervousness.
Pitta is a combination of fire and water. It is responsible for motivation and metabolic functions which is responsible for transformation and cellular regeneration. It controls digestion and generates energy.
The fire and water elements work harmoniously to prevent destruction of the fire element. They combine the hot, pungent, sour, penetrating and sharp qualities of fire with the more subtle oily, liquid and flowing qualities of water. This creates a regulatory system capable of controlling heart function, regulating hormones and body temperature, hunger, thirst, visual acuity and healthy skin. It is especially responsible for our liver function, the secretion of bile and digestive enzymes in the stomach and small intestine. Conditions relating to Pitta are usually predominant in the small intestine, stomach, eyes, blood, sweat glands, lymph and emotional heart
When in balance Pitta types experience a stable metabolism with good appetite and thirst. They have good eyesight, balanced hormones and clear skin. They are motivated, intelligent, courageous and flexible. They are charismatic, dynamic and live life with passion and are full of vitality. Pitta types are also very competitive and critical which makes them easily frustrated, irritated and angry.
When out of balance, Pitta types may suffer with liver conditions, making them intolerant to heat, experience loose stools, hormonal disturbances and suffer from inflammatory conditions including skin rashes and acne, high blood pressure, heart burn and gout. If there is too little Pitta (fire through the body) a person can suffer from poor digestion, lack of motivation and poor circulation.
Kapha is the combination of earth and water. The earth element is responsible for the structure and stability of the body and the water for lubrication. Together these elements nurture the body, giving the body form and allow for development and growth. Kapha is the principle of love and nurturing. It moves slowly, is heavy, cool, dense, soft, oily, sticky, cloudy, liquid and sweet. Kapha forms the white matter of the brain and regulates our experience of taste and smell. The fluid quality forms the synovial fluid and the cerebrospinal fluid and all fluid protecting the mucus membranes including stomach lining, the lung and heart.
The main site of Kapha is the chest, heart, throat, head, pancreas, stomach, lymph, adipose tissue, nose and tongue. Conditions often relate to mucus congestion, stagnation of energy and poor immune system.
To have a kapha as a friend is to have a loyal friend, loving and dependable.
If Kapha is out of balance one can put on weight easily, suffer with heart problems, diabetes, and chest congestion. Too little Kapha may cause creaking joints, dryness, weight loss and light headedness.
The healing power of taste
An important part of Ayurvedic healing is working with taste wisely. Sour, salty, sweet, bitter, pungent and astringent are the six tastes containing the five elements of earth, ether, fire, air and water. These are needed to balance the Doshas and promote good health.
The cells of your body are reliant on the foods that you eat for survival. Each flavour has a different affect on the tissues of the body. Spicy foods have a heating affect on the body, sweet foods have a nurturing and comforting affect, bitter and sour foods aids digestion, astringent food has a drying affect and salty food is essential for hydration and flavour enhancing.
Each flavour has a certain affinity to particular parts of the body and contains different qualities which are used in the form of foods or herbal remedies to modulate the doshas.
Sweet foods include milk, rice and wheat, which we consume for building and nourishing body tissues.
Sour foods create moisture and heat and are a combination of fire with water and earth. Lemon, lime and vinegar are examples of sour foods that promote digestion. Too much of this flavour creates heat and mucus build up.
Salty foods are essential for health. It is heating and heavy, yet moist and wet. It is found in seaweed and celery, as well as natural forming salts. It helps prevent dehydration in moderation but can aggravate stomach acids, cause ulcers, hypertension and oedema if used in excess, as this aggravates pitta and kapha.
Pungent foods are spicy and peppery. Foods such as ginger, garlic, clove and capsicum are heating and penetrating. They help with digestion and stimulate metabolism and are ideal for sluggish Kapha conditions. The heating elements are also ideal for the cold Vata types but used excessively may cause dryness. Pungent tastes are ideal for lung conditions including mucus congestions and improving circulation in general.
Bitter foods are related to air and ether and are ideal for detoxification, as they improve the function of the elimination systems in the body and have an affinity with the liver. Plants with bitter properties are endives, asparagus, salad leaves, dandelion and silver-beet. Bitter plants often contain anti-inflammatory, antibacterial properties to protect the plant from parasites.
Astringent foods are dry in flavour, ideal for drying damp conditions of Kapha, and help to reduce excessive discharge and sweating in hot Pitta. It is too drying, heavy and cold for Vata and can impair their digestion. These flavours are found in tannins, green and black teas, and the outer rind of fruits. Tannins are also concentrated in the bark and leaves of trees. Astringent flavours are used commonly in herbal medicine to stop leakage of body fluids and prevent loss of flaccid tissue and prolapse. It cools the heat of inflammation and reduces swelling.
There is a lot to learn about the ancient wisdom of Ayurveda and how to work with our environment to enhance our healing power within.
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The aim of Ayurveda is to guide the individual to enhance the healing power within and to attain the ultimate goal of life. This is achievable by using the Indriyas, the five senses wisely and supporting the body with foods that balance the doshas. Heal the heart with the right actions, calm the mind and nourish the soul by living in equilibrium with the three gunas.
This is done by:
MOKSHA – Connection to the source, attainment of salvation through pure consciousness
DHARMA – Doing the right thing, right action for the well-being of self and others
ARTHA – Taking responsibility for self, work to earn in order to fulfil Dharma
KAMA – Moderation, Satisfaction of appropriate desires and passion