The Principles of Ayurveda - Guest Post by Ayurvedic Practitioner Caroline Sjöland
Ayurveda translates to “the science of life” and is a holistic approach to medicine that originates from India. Ayurveda teaches us the art of healthy living, and every healing system we know has its roots in Ayurveda. It is the most comprehensive health care system, that not only sees the human as a physical being, but recognises us as a whole; on mental, emotional and spiritual levels. Ayurveda recognises humans as expressions of universal awareness and consciousness. There is an element of faith in Ayurveda, yet it is not connected to any religion and can be applied by and to anyone, human as well as animals.
Millions of years ago in the time period of satya yoga, people were greatly spiritual and lived long and healthy lives. As time went on and people became less spiritual; rajasic and tamasic influences created illness. The first illness being jwara (fever), then gulma (gaseous tumor in abdomen), prameha (dirty urine/diabetes). In the end of this time period, in kritta yuga, people came together to seek answers. They sat down in meditation and a man named Bhadvadja ascended into higher realms. He connected to Brahma and received all the answers of life. Back in his body he shared this knowledge and thus, people knew of the right path and were able to heal.
At this time, humans still had perfect memory, and so it would take another few million years for the science to be written down. The most comprehensive ayurvedic texts are Charaka Samitha, Sushruta Samitha and Ashtangam hrydayam. They are all written years and time zones apart, but follows the same style and structure,: All written like rhyming poetry. They each have 120 chapters in 8 divisions. The chapters are read through each other, showing how everything is linked together.
Traditionally Ayurveda has been taught through the gurukula system, where students live in ashrams with their guru from a young age, studying and learning with full commitment. Unfortunately, with time this medicine has been contaminated with western medicine and as a result, traditional Ayurveda in our modern society is hard to find. Today we are living in what we call Kala yuga, and we have lost touch with our spirituality and thus are more sick than ever.
Ayurveda teaches us that we are all from Avyakta (the “unmanifested”). From this source the world was created through purusha (feminine energy) and prakruti (masculine energy) coming together to create the cosmic intelligence and the cosmic ego. This ego, the cosmic Aum, expresses itself through three different energies called sattva, rajas and tamas and these are responsible for creating everything in our world. This includes the elements we call panchamahaboutas, these are the five great elements as they have the ability to create Life. The vibration from Aum creates Ether (space), and the movement from ether creates Air, the friction from air creates Fire, the condensing effect creates Water, which solidifies to Earth. These elements exists in all matter, and everything in our inner world and outer world are related to them.
Space/ether is the element necessary to live, grow, move, communicate and it s responsible for the physical space in our bodies. It’s the source of sound and connects with the sense organ of hearing. It gives us freedom, peace, expansion of consciousness, love and compassion. It is also the home of separation, isolation, emptiness, ungroundedness, anxiety and fear.
Air is the element of movement, necessary for breathing, ingestion, movement of muscles, blood, nerve impulses, intestines and eliminations. It is the element for the flow thought, desire, happiness, freshness, joy and excitement, but may also cause fear, anxiety, insecurity, nervousness.
Fire is responsible for sight, intelligence, digestion, absorption and assimilation. It is necessary for all transformation, attention, comprehension, appreciation, recognition, understanding, As well, it is the cause of anger, hatred, envy, criticism, ambition and competitiveness.
Water is chemical energy, existing in the body as liquids, plasma, serum, saliva, urine, sweat, etc. It gives us our ability to taste and is responsible for maintaining life. Water is contentment, love and compassion. Aggravation in this element may result in dehydration, odema or obesity.
Earth is solidified consciousness, it gives strength, structure, stamina and our sense of smell. It promotes forgiveness, support, groundedness and growth, but also attachment, greed, depression and ungroundedness.
These five elements combine into what we, in Ayurveda, know as the three fundamental energies - the doshas; we call them vata, pitta and kapha. These energies are present in different degrees in everything and in everyone. In the body the doshas are the intangible functional intelligence that govern all functions and actions of the mind, body and consciousness. Everyone is born with their own unique balance of the doshas. We all have vata, pitta and kapha in every cell in different amounts. When we become aware of our own unique constitution we can work with the elements to keep the doshas balanced.
Ether and air combines to create vata, which is the element of movement. Fire and water constitute pitta; the energy of transformation. Earth and water make up kapha, and this is the energy of structure and lubrication.
Simply put, there are seven main body types with vata, pitta and kapha in different combinations. If someone has more of a vata constitution they will have a smaller frame, may have a hard time gaining weight, small features, may have less strength and stamina, dry skin and hair and typically more sensitive to cold. Vata dominant people are creative and have imaginative minds and are often physically beautiful people. They want everything, at the same time, and might easily become ungrounded and restless.
As a vata, it is important to keep the air and ether element balanced by having regular routines, eating warm cooked foods and not skipping meals. To choose heavier foods and have some oil in their food and on their bodies. They need to balance their meals with building taste like sweet, salty and sour. It’s important for the vata dominant person to stay in an environment that keeps them grounded and refrain from worrying and getting anxious. Autumn and winter will be aggravating for them and they will feel better in a warm, moist, wind-free environment.
If someone has more of a pitta constitution they will have sharp features, intenseness in eyes, a medium size build and may build muscles easier. The skin will be warm and oily and the hair may be blond or reddish. They have a strong intellect, memory and a investigating mind. They can get competitive, aggressive and have a tendency to be hard on themselves. It’s important for the pitta dominant to stay cool and calm. To stay away from intenseness, too hot environments, spicy foods, pungent and sour taste and heating emotions like anger and frustration. Pittas get aggravated by summer and the rainy season, and will feel better in cooler weather. They do well with foods that are cooler in taste; sweet, bitter and astringent. If the pitta person can stay balanced they have a beautiful opportunity to take all their passion away from the I and the selfish tendencies, and instead soften and turn it into compassion, service of others and the environment.
A kapha person has a stronger body, they may be of bigger size and could gain weight more easily. Kapha dominant people have rounder features, big eyes, lips, strong teeth and thick hair. Because of their heavier qualities they will have a slower metabolism and will be slower in their way of being, talking and moving. They can easier get feelings of heaviness or sleepiness. They are not easily motivated but once they have learned something they will remember it forever. The mind is calm and steady and they are soft, sweet, patient, caring and loving people. If a person has a kapha dominant constitution they should not get too lazy, but stay active. Avoid overeating, especially on sweet, cold and heavy foods. Choose lighter foods and balance with bitter, pungent and astringent taste. They should practice non-greediness and non-attachment. The kapha dosha gets aggravated by early winter and spring.
In our individual constitution, prakriti is our own unique combination of physical, mental and emotional characteristics and will never change. They are constantly affected by changes in the environment, weather, time of the day and by the seasons passing. The stages of life, shifts in our mood, thoughts, feelings, emotions, the quality and quantity of food we are consuming and with what and by who we surround ourselves, as well as the actions we engage in, all affect our doshas.
With awareness and the right understanding we can adjust to our environment and where we are at in life; physically and emotionally. This is to keep equilibrium, as otherwise an imbalance (vikriti) is created. We learn to recognize the doshas through their attributes, vata we identify by its dryness, lightness, roughness, cold, and irregularity. Pitta is hot, sharp, moist, oily, light, regular and intense. Kapha is heavy, slow, cool, oily, smooth, stable. We learn to identify them in us, in our foods, through our thinking and by our mood, as well as in the weather. Too much of same attributes will cause an excess, and so the opposite quality will pacify it.
The doshic imbalance will show up as different signs, symptoms and illnesses depending on which elements are involved. A vata imbalance may manifest as bloating, constipation, headaches, pains, arthritis, osteoporosis, insomnia and feelings of fear, anxiety, worry and insecurity. A pitta imbalance will lead to indigestion, inflammation, hyper acidity, hypertension, jaundice, diarrhea, acne or other skin issues and disease as well as feelings of anger, frustration, highly critical and competitive. A kapha imbalance will lead to conditions like colds, congestion, allergy, sinus or lung issues, diabetes, growths, cancers and feelings of greed, attachment and possessiveness.
To understand why an imbalance would appear its important to learn to recognize the energy of the gunas; sattva, rajas and tamas. Sattva is the energy of creation, while rajas is the energy of action, and tamas is the energy of destruction. The energy of sattva and rajas together creates the 11 sense organs, the organs of cognition, organs of action and also the mind. Rajas and tamas create the Panchamahaboutas and their relating sense - sound, touch, sight, taste and smell. Together they make up everything that is us and everything surrounding us.
Sattva is an energy that’s clear, harmonious, content, loving, peaceful, detached and selfless. It is the creative energy that gives us emotional stability, inspiration, curiosity and a desire for deeper consciousness. Rajas is an energy that is protective, it’s how activity maintains nature. In excess it becomes hyperactive, restless, passionate, selfish, dissatisfied and aggressive. Tamas is a latent energy that provides rest and sleep, it is the destruction which is nessesary for creation. In excess it’s cloudy, dull, weak, messy, lasy, attached, uncaring and unloving.
The gunas are constantly affecting us through our mind and senseorgans and we can be in control over them through conscious choice. We learn to recognize the gunas in us, in our thoughts and behaviour, in other people, in our foods and in our environment. Only rajas and tamas will create illness, sattwa promotes health and longevity. To stay healthy we need a good balance of the gunas, we should aim to be about 70% sattvic and 30% of rajas and tamas, where men naturally are more rajastic with more active energy, while women should be more tamasic.
Agni means fire, and we have this fire burning inside every cell responsible for our metabolism, our reactions and our transformation. Our main agni is living in our gut where the digestion of food and assimilation of nutrients is happening. The condition of our Agni is the key to health in Ayurveda. It is important that we know that this fire is tangible and that we need to maintain our fire by giving it air though breath, and by feeding it regularly - at the right time, with the right foods and right thoughts. Excessive rajas and tamas will weaken agni and this is the first step to the pathogenesis of any disease. Causes for a weakened agni may be an excessive consumption of food, eating before a previous meal has been digested, choosing incompatible foods, eating in a rush or skipping meals, or interfering your digestion with heavy emotions and non-contentment.
Once food has passed through the digestive system, the nutrients that end up in the liver are filtered. Thus, the essence from food and thought (ahaar rasa) then nurtures our tissues in order. First, nurturing our immune system (rasa) and connecting sub-tissues, then the essence is passed through all of our bodily tissues(dhatus) through our channels(srotas) and the end product is what we call Ojas. Ojas is the most refined rasa of all the bodily tissues. We have eight drops in the heart and the rest is circulating in the bodily channels with the job of maintaining the integrity and functions of all the tissues; to keep you strong and resistant to disease.
If there is a problem with prapaka digestion and agni is weakened (usually caused by the mind and problems with the three channels of nourishment) it will not be able to burn what we know as Ama, meaning toxins. If changes are not being made and the strength of agni isn’t restored then ama will keep accumulating. The result of this will aggravate the doshas and an imbalance will appear. The ama will migrate through the tissues with the vipaka digestion (nourishment of the tissues in order), and it will locate in a weaker area resulting in corruption of the channel and finally the tissue will weaken as it can’t be nurtured as it should. The end result will be a poor production of ojas, which in turn will result in low immunity. From here visible symptoms will start to appear and disease can manifest.
Before a symptom presents itself and becomes recognizable in western medicine, the body will already have shown signs of the imbalance. Ayurveda recognizes six stages of disease (Shat Kriya Khal) and will therefore seek to reverse any ill health before it becomes an actual disease. Every sign from the body should be taken seriously. The earlier we can recognize and start reversing a sign or symptom, the better. The energy of the gunas affects us constantly through our five senses and the doshas are constantly affecting us by moving through us throughout the day. Our intelligent bodies are constantly adapting to these changes, but our conscious decisions will have a big impact on how well we adapt. Ayurveda teaches us to take responsibility of our lives and of our own personal health, and this all starts with awareness of each moment unfolding.
The definition of health in Ayurveda is having the doshas balanced, an agni (digestive fire) that is good and regular, when dhatus (tissues) are strong and functioning, the malas (eliminations) are working properly, when kriyas (processes) are functioning, when ojas is high, and when the mind is happy, content and satisfied. Only at this stage can spiritual energy of health exist inside of us.
To treat any sign, symptom or disease, Ayurveda uses 3 pillars (ahaara, vihaara, aushadi) to attend to all the four quadrants; body, mind, emotion and spirit. The emphasis on ahaara and vihaara is health supporting diet and nutrition, lifestyle and environment. By addressing these we are controlling everything we take in through our 5 senses and mind. Through correcting our diets, adjusting our eating habits and our general lifestyle, we can relieve as much as 60% of any symptom or illness. In addition we may use aushadi; herbal medicine and therapies. The herbal formulations used in Ayurvedic medicine is all from brahma, they are perfectly balanced and will never aggravate the doshas when used correctly. Single herbs, often used by modern herbalists, are very potent and can cause a lot of harm if they are not used perfectly.
To be able to heal we need to eliminate the root cause of disease. If it isn’t a karmic cause it is usually what we call pragnyaparadha, meaning the mistake of the intellect. We define the mistake of the intellect as; wrong use, no use or overuse of the mind, sense organs and its objects, action and time, seasonal vaigery and intellectual blastomy.
It is essential for our minds to be happy and healthy. Our minds are the connection between body and soul. Full potential of life depends on the awareness of this connection. The mind is in control of the sense organs and the body, and it will determine whether they are used for enhancement or degravation. The mind needs to be healthy and calm, through happiness, contentment and satisfaction, to harmonize the body and the universal intelligence and to be able to support healthy functions. A busy, stressed mind that is preoccupied with worries and concerns, can not fulfill its duties to maintain the body and its functions. The mind has a direct impact on our agni, which in turn is affected by the gunas.
Ayurveda makes each individual to take responsibility for their own health and healing through diet, their actions, relationships, jobs and their thoughts and beliefs. Everything we choose to do invites in more of either sattva, rajas or tamas. Wrong-doing and negative choices allow rajas and tamas to overshadow the sattva in the mind. Any improper kind of sensory impressions create imbalance between the connection of soul, mind and the body. An example could be wrong use of the elements, like overeating certain foods or overexposure to certain weather. It can also be the suppression of urges and emotions, or to not take action and waste time, or to live selfishly. We all have the capability to stop self sabotage, acknowledge our mistakes, be open to learn, correct our speech, actions, behavior, and reconcile, forgive ourselves and others, let go and move on. One should never underestimate the power of the mind, but befriend the mind and make good decisions.
The stresses of life usually comes from us acting out of integrity, to help support your mind it is important to follow social laws and obligations. The Vega dharana explains how we should act to not negatively affect ourselves, others or our environment. We need to perform noble acts with care, to act out of compassion and to be of service to society. An example of this is to respect the creative power and spiritual masters, respect life, practice meditation, keep the mind and body clean, wish people well and be honest, reach out to help people, be aware of misunderstanding and wrong doing, be friendly with all creatures, act truthfully and don’t lie, and to always find it in us to reconcile and forgive.
Ayurveda divides into three branches; Rasayana, Vajikarana and Chikitsa. Rasayana is everything we take in through our senses - Ahaara which offers longevity, supports agni and ojas, gives strength and cures disease. It teaches us to meet our nutritional needs with diet, nutrition, tonics, herbs and formulations and also which kind of mental and physical behavior will result in good ahaar rasa(joy).
Vajikarna is sexual health, it teaches us how to support the reproductive system and ojas, so that the mind and body stays strong and healthy. How to maintain fertility and sexual potency with diet and aphrodisiacs and also learning how to be in relationships in ways that they may support health, mind and sexuality. Chikitsa includes all the treatment of body and mind, health assessment and diagnosis, all therapies and maintenances that support health. There are beautiful therapies and cleanses that are specifically chosen to pacify the attributes of imbalances, while also inviting sattvic energy.
The teachings of Ayurveda is necessary for us in order to achieve our purpose here on earth. We need to be in good health to be able to carry out our duties and responsibilities in life. This all starts with having the desire to be healthy, a desire to have the means to achieve it and also the desire for spiritual liberation.
Through the practice of meditation we can raise our spirituality and consciousness by connecting to source (avyakta). This works as an anchor and helps to restore faith. A spiritual anchor is essential for health. Meditation has many health benefits and it teaches us to observe and understand rather than to grasp and identify. That way we can separate ourselves from whatever is causing our suffering. We learn a lot by recognizing suffering. But furthermore, that there is an origin of this suffering and therefore there is also a way out of suffering. The teachings on Ayurveda will support us on our way out of suffering, it teaches us to accept the flow of life and nature by adapting to it.
The teachings points us on the way of right action, and this will provide security and confidence that comes from the strength of moral commitment and the determination to do good.
The perfect emotional maturity comes from right effort and awareness. Then we get the courage to look at things for what they truly are and represent. Learning to not take things personally and cultivativate the wisdom to contemplate and reflect upon life. With the right understanding and intention we can aspire. This all comes together as a path of development where our body, emotions and intelligence support each other.
Learning how to cease suffering on a planet where everything goes through the cycles of birth, life and death, will lead to liberation. The soul of the enlightened one will not have to come back to earth again.
Today we are living in the time of Kala yoga. We are overwhelmed with the stresses of daily life; family and relationship problems, worries about job and money, eating the wrong foods and exercising too much or too little. We are so used to feeling pain/ discomfort/ anxiety/ illness that we have started to recognize it as normal. With ayurveda we can restore our health quickly. In our suffering and joy we are connected. The heart is the source of healing and it is from here that Ayurveda can work its divine magic. It is to be practiced with a pure intent, without any personal gain. The aim is to provide proper care and to empowering people though awareness.