Ayurveda and yoga are as important to one another as sleep is to wakefulness. Each topic is important to grasp, as they are both replete with tools and techniques which can fundamentally alter our health and well-being. Ayurveda, like yoga though, is a vast science which developed millennia ago. It could take several lifetimes to unearth all its jewels of wisdom – the same as it is for yoga. For those just beginning their study of this ancient science, it helps to know a few key points about how Ayurveda evolved, and what it can offer to yogis and ‘average Joes’ (or Janes) alike, to improve not only a yogic practice, but their everyday lives.
A Brief History of a Vast Medicine
Ayur’ in Sanskrit translates to mean Life or Longevity, and ‘Veda’ to mean Science, Knowledge, or Understanding. The origins of Ayurveda can be traced to the Atharva Veda, a Vedic-era collection of spells, prayers, charms, and hymns where mention is made of several specific diseases and their treatments. Later, from the 6th Century BC to 7th Century AD there was systematic development of the science in what is now referred to as the Samhita period. During this time several classical works were produced by several authors who describe a system of organized medical care.
This system is very unlike the modern, Western conceptualization of medicine. It is so different, in fact, that the two systems would seem to have nothing to do with one another in many instances. The seers and rishis developed an elaborate system of caring for the body, mind, and spirit through their understanding of Creation. Unlike modern medicine which sees the body as a mechanistic ‘bag of bones,’ Ayurveda sees the human body as part of the Cosmos at large. The same laws that govern the Infinite govern us.
Through deep meditation and reflection the ancients understood that the body was more than corporeal, and therefore, it needed to be treated on multiple levels. This wisdom was then passed down, almost always orally, for thousands of years from teacher to student. It was much later I the evolution of Ayurveda that these teachings were actually written down.
Traditional Chinese Medicine is Greatly Influenced by Ayurvedic Science
Ayurveda greatly influenced health care practices in the east and the west. By 400 AD Ayurvedic works were translated into Chinese; by 700 AD Chinese scholars were studying medicine in India at Nalanda University. Chinese medicine, herbology and Buddhist philosophy were also significantly motivated through exposure to Ayurvedic knowledge.
The Underlying Premise of Ayurveda is Balance and Order
Just as the seasons are influenced by the position of planet, and the gravitational pull of other heavenly objects (like the moon) the bodily systems are considered to be interconnected. Disease can result any time the harmony and balance between these systems is disrupted.
This means that imbalance can arise from the personality, the emotions, or a spiritual upset. To be healthy we must maintain balance on a physical level, just as much as on an emotional and spiritual one.
Key Philosophies of Ayurveda
- Health from an Ayurvedic perspective means the experience of bliss and a sense of balance in the three governing principles of the body, the seven tissues, the three wastes. The digestion and immune system are key components as they allow the body to take in nutrients and discard wastes.
- Our body and mind is formed from previous causesthat we may not currently understand. You can call this karma. In the western sense, this means that we will have certain proclivities for disease which were passed down from our parents (called genetics). This; however, does not determine the fate of our health. As soon as we can accept the disturbances of balance within us, we can simply get to work on correcting them. Because we are made differently based upon our past actions and thoughts, one person’s medicine can be another person’s poison. No Ayurvedic practitioner worth his salt would ever prescribe the same antidote to a vast number of people in the way that the pharmaceutical industry attempts to do.
- Ayurvedic science explains that all matter contains the five great elementsknown as Ether (Space), Wind (Air), Fire, Water, and Earth. This includes our body and mind, and reminds us that we are an integral and inseparable part of Nature.
- An Ayurvedic practitioner listens to the pulses of the body in order to find out which of these aspects is out of balance. As Dr. John Douillard says, “Pulse Reading is known in the west primarily as a diagnostic technique. The little known fact is that reading a pulse extends far beyond detecting imbalances and maladies, and is a profound route to enhancing self-awareness, both for the patient and the doctor. In fact, in India it is said to be better for the doctor than for the patient. My teacher, Dr. Raju described pulse reading this way: “When we take the pulse, it is the soul of the doctor talking to the soul of the patient.”
- The energy of all matter is described in our ‘slant’ toward a certain way of being. These are called doshas:
Vata Dosha is governed by the ether/wind. Vata energy manages all that must move in our bodies.
Pitta Dosha is governed by fire/water elements. It is in charge of the digestion and transformation of food and thoughts.
Kapaha Dosha is the water/earth element. This dosha is primarily responsible for providing strength, stability, protection (on a physical level, also lubrication.)
These three energies tend to interact in either healthy or unhealthy (unbalanced ways) and Ayurveda looks to put them back into balance. Each person’s DNA contains a unique ratio of kapha-pitta-vata when they are conceived. This constitution is called prakruti. There are seven of these combinations – each either a vata, pitta or kapah, or come combination of the three.
The prakruti can help us understand why certain people tend to be affected by similar disease-types. Pitta people tend to be prone to inflammation and infections while a kapha person might be more prone to obesity or congestive disorders. Vata’s may experience arthritis, and anxiety with more frequency than their pitta or kapha counterparts. The implication for this is that certain people will have a natural predisposition or sensitivity to certain medicines and this can be predicted.
Though the doshas, along with the pulses are the primary means of diagnosis, an Ayurvedic doctor will also know much about you by looking at your eyes, asking you questions about your life and emotional state, and also just observing you in general. The science of Ayurveda is basically the uncoding of all this information, which everyone contains within them. Once that information is decoded, balance can then be restored.