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What is Ayurveda?

Updated: May 14, 2021

Ingredients in a Stone Bowl

What is Ayurveda?

Widely regarded as the oldest medical system in the world, Ayurveda is as useful today as it was in ancient times. Ayurveda is the medical art and science of harmonizing with the rhythms of Nature. It celebrates Life, and dives deeply into her secrets to unlock the body's innate healing power. Anyone can learn the basic Ayurvedic principles. These principles teach us how to make healthy choices and gently move from stress and pain into joyful living and optimal health.

Perhaps five thousand years ago, or more, the roots of Ayurveda emerged from the heart of spiritual India. Its tenets were revealed to enlightened rishis, or sages, who discerned the "song" of the universe while steeped in deep meditation. From the realizations gained in this elevated state, Nature's laws were unveiled. The rishis then organized a system applying these laws for achieving optimal health and longevity and gifted it to us to aid us on our path to freedom from suffering.

Pronounced "ah-yoor-vay-duh", Ayurveda is the combination of two Sanskrit words: ayus and veda.Ayus translates as "life". Life in this sense spans the continuum of body, emotions, mind and spirit. Veda means knowledge, wisdom or science. Veda implies a deep consciously aware knowing. Thus, Ayurveda means the "science of conscious living" or "the wisdom of life".

The Origins of Ayurveda

Ayurveda, along with its sister science, Yoga, is the offspring of the ancient texts known as the Vedas. The Vedas are succinct codifications in Sanskrit of the hymns of the "song" of the universe heard by the enlightened rishis. They are acclaimed to be the oldest writings in the world, and date from the Vedic period (pre-1500 B.C.E.). They are written in the musically beautiful Sanskrit language, a language of mantra. Mantra is sound whose vibrations facilitate spiritual transformation. Unfortunately, some concepts in Sanskrit remain obscure to the western mind because our languages have no words to connect to the subtle meanings of inner awareness.

Originally students memorized the texts, whose teachings were enlivened by their gurus (teachers). Passed orally through generations, the application of this system of healing was honed over time resulting in a practical, holistic form of caring for all aspects of being.

In the 20th century, Ayurvedic practices flowed out of India into the West where interest exploded alongside fascination with Eastern thought and the popularity of Yoga. The West was intrigued by its emphasis on prevention of disease, anti-aging, optimal health and inclusiveness of other medical modalities. At this writing, Ayurveda is fast catching up to the status of Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM).

Several aspects of Ayurveda differ from our common western view of health and medicine. Some fundamental Ayurvedic tenets are:

  • The intention of Ayurvedic medicine is to facilitate our reconnection to that innate healing power, and allow the body and mind to heal.

  • A powerful, intelligent healing force exists in our body and in Nature. It exists at the minutest quantum level and is unbounded.

  • Health is optimal wellbeing rather than simply the absence of symptoms.

  • The body and mind are closely inter-connected; a change in one affects the other.

  • Ayurveda does not treat disease, but rather, balances the whole person.

  • The vaidya may use herbs, food, lifestyle changes, yoga, meditation, aromatherapy, sound therapy, massage, and contact with Nature to bring the body and mind into balance. Disease is eliminated as a natural effect of this balance.

  • Ayurveda views the individual as unique. Two patients with the same symptoms may be given very different therapies based upon their constitution and presenting imbalances.

  • The ultimate purpose of Ayurveda is to aid us on our path to enlightenment: remembering our true nature as spirit.

To read about fundamental Ayurvedic principles go to the e-booklet printed in Resources

VATA (Air in Ether)

Vata is the primary Dosha. It is the force responsible for all movement due to its Air component, and thus governs the other two doshas. Vata is cold, dry, erratic, dispersing, light and rough. Vata colors things brown or black. Vata increases presence in late autumn and early winter when leaves turn brown, wither, die and disintegrate. In the body, Vata accumulates primarily in the large intestine, and secondarily in the pelvis, thighs, bones, nerves and ears. In the elder years (the Vata dominant time of life), Vata can overflow easily. For example, excess Vata can fill bones with increasing space (Ether) resulting in osteoporosis. It also can create tremors in the motor nerves. The sage Charaka described Parkinson's disease with its characteristic tremors and called it kampa Vata. The chief symptom of Vata, however, is pain.

PITTA(Fire in Water)

Pitta Dosha governs metabolism and digestion. Vata moves, but Pitta transforms. Pitta is mostly Fire element with a little water. Its principal qualities are hot, light moist, and mobile in a flowing way. Pitta's main residence is in the lower stomach and small intestine. The liver, spleen, red blood cells and eyes are also filled with Pitta.

Pitta paints the world a rainbow of colors. The greens and ambers of summer, the reds, yellows and oranges of early fall, these are the effects of Pitta Dosha. Pitta out of balance results in inflammation and infection. The chief symptom of Pitta is fever.

KAPHA (Water in Earth)

Kapha nourishes, protects and provides energetic support. The Water of Kapha can be oily, lubricating and smooth. The Earth aspect provides a container for the other doshas. Kapha is moist, heavy, cool, stable and soft. Plants grow out of water and earth. During the Kapha time of life, from conception to puberty, growth peaks. Kapha's home in the body is the chest and upper stomach. The head, the clear liquids of the body (plasma, lymph, breast milk, synovial fluid) also have a predominance of Kapha Dosha. The chief symptom of excess Kapha is swelling. Excess Kapha in the body shows up as tumors, obstructions, excess mucous and plaque.

We experience the doshas by their effects. This is an easy way to remember them:

VATA moves and dissipates

PITTA digests and metabolizes

KAPHA nourishes and protects

At the physical level, Vata moves food in and moves waste out. It governs the inhalation and exhalation, thought functions, the sensory feedback mechanisms and homeostasis. Pitta directs and controls the cellular metabolism, digestion, perception and luster. Kapha provides physical structure itself, its membranes and organelles, lubrication and cohesions for them, as well as the nutrient soup of the intracellular fluid. It's important to remember that the three doshas function at all levels of our body/mind continuum. All three must present in some amount for any living being to exist.

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