Ayurveda is the traditional healing modality of the Vedic culture of India. Its principles are based upon the timeless wisdom of the laws of nature and have been proven effective over centuries of use. It offers us a comprehensive understanding of the body, mind and soul and teaches us how to live in harmony with ourselves, our environment and with each other.
From the Sanskrit roots ayus meaning life or longevity and veda meaning knowledge or science, the word ayurveda is commonly translated as the science or wisdom of life. In accordance with its definition, Ayurvedic medicine views health as much more than the absence of disease.
Ayurveda is known to have existed 5,000 years ago and is generally considered by many scholars and historians to be the oldest living system of medicine and health care in the world. Other holistic modalities now common in the west such as polarity therapy, homeopathy, aromatherapy and naturopathy have their roots in ayurveda. It is said to be of divine origin but is not a religion. According to Hindu mythology, it was a gift of knowledge from Brahma (God or creator) for the purpose of helping people to lead healthy and peaceful lives. The basic principles of ayurveda were cognized by the rishis and sages of the time, intuitively understanding the physiology and workings of the mind-body-spirit long before the advents of modern medicine, and were passed down orally in the form of “sutras” or small phrases. Teacher and student would live, work and learn side by side.
The oldest written codification of Ayurvedic principles is found in the Rig Veda. The fundamentals are then laid out in several major treatises, including the texts from Charaka, Sushruta, and Vaghbhat. These three texts are still the basis of current ayurvedic study and are used in authentic ayurvedic curriculums. There are also numerous other smaller works, written over time to explain the various branches of Ayurveda, which include disciplines such as general medicine, pediatrics, surgery, toxicology, fertility, and rejuvenation. The beauty of this knowledge and how it has been laid out in these traditional works is that they rely on basic principles which can be applied practically in any day and age.
Ayurveda has thus been passed down through the centuries as a complete healing system, evolving to meet the needs of the time, and yet remaining committed to its core principles. Various cultures have drawn upon the ideas of Ayurvedic medicine, and it continues to thrive in both the East and the West. In India, an Ayurvedic physician must undergo at least a 5 year post-graduate degree program (Bachelor of Ayurvedic Medicine and Surgery) to become qualified. In the West, Ayurveda is recognized as a Complementary and Alternative Health System by the National Institutes of Health, and is blossoming in various educational institutions. The National Ayurvedic Medical Association, which represents and supports the ayurvedic profession in the United States now offers certifications for its professional members.
Basic Principles of Ayurveda
The focus of ayurveda is to create a balanced, vibrant and healthy state of being. The basic principles of ayurvedic medicine are:
The world and all natural processes may be described by three universal energies or constitutional principles: Vata, Pitta and Kapha.
Rather than focusing on symptoms or a particular disease, ayurveda recognizes that each person has a unique constitution or prakruti and works within that paradigm when offering solutions.
In light of these principles and one’s own unique constitution, ayurveda’s goal is to attain and maintain that unique state of balance within mind, body and spirit.
Though palliative measures may be taken to deal with an imbalance, the source of the problem must be addressed and eliminated for true healing to occur.
Proper digestion and assimilation are at the root of good health thus caring for your “digestive fire” is of utmost importance.
The main qualities of Vata are dry, light, cool, rough, subtle, and mobile. So, having a Vata-predominant Prakriti means that these qualities express themselves generously throughout your mental, emotional, and physical make up. If you look back over the Prakriti test, you can get a feel for how these qualities manifest themselves. A Vata predominant individual’s strengths and weaknesses both reflect these qualities.
In excess, the dry and rough qualities may manifest themselves as dry or brittle skin, lips, hair, nails or bones (e.g. osteoporosis), as constipation, or as feeling “dry” emotionally.
The “light” quality may manifest itself as giving you a lanky physique but excess lightness may manifest as being underweight, having muscle wasting, light bones, insomnia or feeling “spacey” or insecure.
The cold quality of Vata may lead you to feel cold more easily than others around you, have cold hands and feet and crave warmth.
The subtle quality may express itself as being introverted, creative and having an active fantasy life.
The mobile quality may lead to a healthy ability to “multi-task” or, in excess, to scattered attention, a fidgety tendency, tremors, and nervousness. It may manifest as extremes; as in being very tall or very short or being drastically different weights at different times in your life.
The main qualities of Pitta are oily, sharp, hot, light, fleshy smelling, spreading, and liquid. So, having a Pitta-predominant Prakriti means that these qualities express themselves generously throughout your mental, emotional, and physical make up. You may find them reflected in your strengths and weaknesses.
The oily quality allows for softness of skin but, in excess, can manifest as oily skin, acne or perhaps the quality of being a “snake oil salesman”; manipulating situations to your advantage.
The sharp quality may manifest as a sharp, bright intellect or, in excess, as a sharp tongue.
“Hotness” can manifest as a warm, rosy complexion, warm body temperature, strong metabolism and appetite or, in excess, as ulcers, heartburn or a hot temper.
The light quality may lead you to have a slender body or to get light-headed if you miss a meal.
The “fleshy-smelling” quality may manifest as a strong body odor.
The spreading quality may manifest as a tendency to spread your name or influence or opinion around the local or global neighborhood. This quality can also manifest as a spreading rash.
The liquid quality may manifest as excess sweating; when it’s combined with the hot quality it can present as excess stomach acid.
The main qualities of Kapha are unctuous, cool, heavy, slow, smooth, soft, and stable. It is also dense, cloudy and viscous. So, having a Kapha-predominant Prakriti means that these qualities express themselves generously throughout your mental, emotional and physical make up. You may find them reflected in your strengths and weaknesses.
The unctuous quality can allow for smooth joint function but, if pronounced, can lead to excess mucous.
The cool quality may manifest as cool skin and a laid-back, cool temperament.
Heaviness may manifest as a large, sturdy, grounded physical and emotional constitution and, in excess, as being overweight or experiencing a subjective feeling of heaviness in the mind.
Slowness may manifest as a slow gait or a slow, steady pace that you can maintain. In excess, you may get stuck in a pattern that may not be the best for you.
Softness can manifest as a soft heart that is easily empathic. Another manifestation of this quality is having soft skin.
Stability can be an asset that friends, family and colleagues probably recognize and perhaps lean on, but in excess could become stubbornness or sluggishness. You could become so stable that you are disinclined toward any physical activity.
Density can manifest as good stamina and strong, well-formed muscles and bones. This enables the Kapha constitution to withstand vigorous exercise. This quality is also responsible for dense, luxurious hair.
Your Unique Constitution
The key to Ayurvedic wellness and healing is the knowledge that health is not a “one size fits all” proposition. One must understand the unique nature of each person and situation, taking into account the individual, the season, the geography, and so on.
Each person has an Ayurvedic constitution that is specific to him or her. This is called your prakruti and is comprised of your unique ratio of vata, pitta and kapha. It is your genetic code, written at the time of your conception, and is your own personal state of perfect balance. This is the foundation of self-knowledge and some would say that without knowing your prakruti or who you are, everything else is meaningless. As we live our lives and are exposed to all the things that are a part of it-stress, environment, toxins, change and so on, imbalance starts to develop and we move away from that balanced state. If such imbalances are not addressed, illness will develop. Ayurveda empowers us with knowledge and tools to maintain a state of balance and good health.
Determining your prakruti requires an assessment of your most natural state before the effects of imbalance started to manifest. This is usually done through a combination of observation, questioning and pulse diagnosis either by yourself and/or in conjunction with a trained ayurvedic practitioner.
Imbalance (vikruti, or current condition) can manifest in various stages, from a general feeling of “something is not right” all the way to diagnosed illnesses with serious complications. Ayurvedic methods of assessment give the practitioner the opportunity to detect an imbalance even before a diagnose-able disease process in underway.
Ayurveda draws from many resources and offers a number of ways to find balance and optimal health while addressing mind, body and spirit as a whole. With much to choose from, a person can find appropriate measures that are easily accessible and can continue to evolve and adapt over a lifetime.
Proper digestion and assimilation are at the root of good health.
A basic daily routine with attention to activities appropriate for your unique consitiution can make a world of difference in how you feel.
Customized herbal formulas and other ayurvedic remedies are an important and effective method in ayurvedic medicine.
Yoga, Pranayama & Meditation
Yoga, breath practices and meditation are all mindfulness and awareness practices that help to unify the body with mind and spirit and attain higher levels of functioning.
Massage, marma therapy, shirodhara and many other treatments offer detoxification, pain reduction, stress control and many other healing benefits.
The super cleanse, addressing all systems and preparing the body for the deepest possible healing and rejuvenation is a cornerstone of ayurvedic medicine.