Introduction to Ayurveda – Holistic Health for Balance

I’ve mentioned Ayurveda several times on the blog but we haven’t really delved into what that means.  So I am adding a brief portion of the seminar I created to help dip our toe into this ancient holistic practice.

Just a quick note – this is a 30,000 foot view of this practice.  There are tons of books that dig really deeply into Ayurveda – like you can become a doctor of it even.  I am in no way trying to impart that kind of knowledge here.  Treat this as me sharing something I find interesting.  It’s not meant to diagnose or treat anything.  I just like this stuff.

So here we go….

Ayurveda is Sanskrit for “Science of Life” and is a holistic system of breath, movement, meditation and nutrition.  Based on a 5000 year old tradition of healing, Ayurveda seeks to help each individual live in balance with their own unique constitution.  When a person becomes unbalanced from their natural set-point, symptoms and disease present themselves as an indication to re-align their lifestyle to be in harmony with their true nature.

Ayurveda is derived from sacred ancient books of India called the Vedas or Books of Knowledge (Wisdom).  These books are at least 5000 years old and are often considered the oldest literature of humanity. (http://www.eattasteheal.com/Ayurveda101/ETH_ayurveda101.htm)

It must be said – Ayurveda is not a religion.  It is a holistic approach to achieve wellbeing that encompasses mind, body and spirit. Similar to the way spirituality can be applied to enhance the practice of Yoga – or not – Ayurveda’s spiritual components can be studied and used in treatment but it is not necessary to alter theological beliefs to apply Ayurveda in our lives.

That said, the Vedas do include religious ideology, hymns and rituals and are the primary texts in Hinduism and influenced Buddhism, Jainism, Sikhism.  But aside from their spiritual insights, they also provide valuable information on daily life from over 4000 years ago.  Prior to x-rays and blood workups and ultrasounds, the Vedas illustrate how medical diagnoses were made and what treatments were indicated for various imbalances. (http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/)  Some of the diagnostic techniques from the Rig Veda that are still in use today by Ayurvedic doctors to diagnose and treat clients include taking the pulse and observing the tongue, eyes, skin, hair and physical form. (Vasant Lad).

Ayurveda is a holistic approach to health and well-being that believes that our bodies are designed to function vibrantly when in balance.

When out of balance (Vakruti), we will experience symptoms and dis-ease.  These symptoms indicate which dosha is out of balance.  Ayurveda can provide symptomatic relief, however, the main goal of Ayurveda is to achieve and maintain our unique set-point to enable our body to work most efficiently and effectively.  Getting rid of the sniffles is a bonus to healing your Kapha and Vata imbalances.

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Key ideas are Prana, Agni and Ama

Prana is defined as “life force”.  It is also known as Chi or Qi in other modalities.  Everything living thing has Prana and our own well-being is dependent on acquiring, transforming, absorbing and releasing Prana.

Agni is the digestive fire which helps process nutrients and keep Prana flowing optimally. In Western terms it would be related to metabolism.  To achieve and maintain good health, Agni must be strong.  Certain doshas have naturally strong Agni and others do not.  So a Vata person would have to work more at increasing digestive fire to be able to extract enough nutrients from their food to maintain well-being.  A note of caution – it is possible to have Agni that is too strong which can cause things like heartburn.  Maintaining healthy Agni is an important consideration in good health.

Ama is a thick whitish pasty substance that accumulates in our bodies.  It slows Agni and makes the body work harder than it should to maintain wellness.  Ama is related to toxins and can be environmental, mental and nutritional.  Foods that go undigested in our systems create Ama.  A fight with your spouse creates Ama.  A traffic jam on I-4 adds to Ama in our systems.  Toxins in our environment create Ama.  Therefore reducing and eliminating Ama is critical to achieving and maintaining well-being.

element-of-ayurveda-quote

The main tenet of Ayurveda is that the human body is composed of the exact same elements as the Universe and each unique individual has varying amounts of these elements within.

This unique combination of elements makes up our constitution (or dosha).

fiveelements

There are five elements:  Fire, Water, Earth, Air and Space.  They differ only in their density and vibration.

Space or Ether is probable one many of us are unfamiliar with. Space is the most subtle element and is the openness within which matter can exist or the emptiness in which the other elements can exist.  Every cell in our bodies is separated by space.  There is space in the cavities of our nose, ears and mouth. It can be thought of as vibration and is represented by sound.

As ether compresses, it becomes Air.  Air is the prime mover of everything.  It is the power that propels food, blood, waste, reproductive fluids and energy and thought through our bodies.  All movements and actions are governed by Air. For an Ayurvedic practitioner, air is not simply a mixture of oxygen, nitrogen, helium and so forth.  It is Prana – or energy of life.

As air creates friction heat is created and thus the element of Fire.  Fire is the element of transformation.  Digestion is the best example of the power of fire in our systems.  The term “fire in the belly” to describe ambition and the heat of anger are other examples.

Fire produces moisture which becomes Water.  Water lubricates everything and a large portion of our bodies is Water.  Saliva, blood, tears, reproductive fluids, mucus, gastric juices, synovial fluid in our joints are all comprised of the Water element.

As Water condenses in density and vibration it becomes the Earth element.  Earth provides structure, form, permanence and rigidity.  In our bodies, Earth is represented in our bones, teeth even the cell structure itself.

This chart is an example of how the elements correspond with our senses and sense organs, what the elements are responsible for in our body and the impact of the elements on how our body functions.  The correlation between the elements and our bodies can be traced from the overall composition of our bodies down to the cellular level.

Space Air Fire Water Earth
SENSE Sound Touch Sight Taste Smell
PHYSICAL CHARACTER Absence of Resistance Movement Heat Liquidity Strength Structure
SENSE ORGAN Ears Skin Eyes Tongue Nose
FUNCTION Distinction Pulsation Digestion Fluidity Stamina
REPRESENTATION Outermost manifestation of the mind Movement and expansion Transformation Cohesion Material form of creation

According to Ayurveda, we are all born with all five of these elements in different strengths and combinations. This natural and unique set point is called our constitution or dosha.

ayurveda_humors

“Dosha means ‘fault’ and in a sense this is an apt translation, as our dosha indicates an excess of one or two of the elements in our body. If left unchecked, this element will be the first to increase to an imbalance, with a prolonged imbalance leading to illness. Health is, therefore, achieved by keeping our doshas in balance” (page 13, Anjum’s Eat Right for Your Body Type).

Thus, knowing your dosha is a key step to understanding yourself and how to maintain your health – or reachieve your health.

When we are predominated by Fire and Water, we are said to be the dosha of Pitta. Air and Space is called Vata and Earth and Water predominated people are Kapha.

Since we all have each of the five elements, most of us are combination of the three main doshas: Pitta/Kapha, Vata/Pitta, Kapha/Vata.

True wellbeing, with the absence of disease, is achieved when we maintain balance of the elements according to our unique doshas. Symptoms of unbalance manifest themselves in different ways based on the dosha that is out of balance.

In a more simplistic manner – have you noticed that when certain people get upset they have intestinal distress when others break out in hives or others start sweating profusely? We all have different ways that we manifest unbalance. Some people scream and yell. Others get very quiet. Some cry, some laugh. Many times we attribute such things to “human nature” and that is certainly correct. It is even more accurate to say that we behave in such specific ways based on our dosha.

Throughout this blog, we will talk about doshas and how to determine our own (great link below for an online dosha test) and what we can do to identify what throws us out of balance and what can help us remain in balance.

It is not a “one size fits all” approach. It is about getting to know ourselves and using the techniques that will balance us – not everyone, just us. Not the fad of the day, or the low-fat/carb/taste diet of the moment.It is about getting to know how our bodies are made and allowing them to live in balance according to our unique needs.

We will talk about the effects of taste and movement and mediation and smell and sleep and sound on our health.

It is a holistic approach because health is not achieved in a vacuum.

Health, according to Ayurveda, is the balanced flow of energy where there is minimal stress so that the body’s natural defense systems are strong and can more easily defend against disease.

I look forward to sharing more of Ayurveda’s wisdom on creating a more balanced and healthy life.

 

To get to know your own dosha, please check out:

Holistic Online

 

 

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