The sister science to yoga, ayurveda is a holistic approach to health and well-being. Ayurveda aims to balance and harmonise the body, mind, senses and spirit in order to promote a long, healthy life in connection to nature and the Divine.
This scientific art takes into account one’s entire being, collecting data to make sense of why we do the things we do and feel the way we feel.
The Meaning of “Ayurveda”
“Ayus” – life
“Veda” – truth/knowledge/wisdom/science
‘Ayurveda’ is often translated as the science of life, or the science of longevity. It is fundamentally a preventative medicinal practice. Understanding the elements that make up our body and the way they interact with the outside world allows us to maintain a healthy lifestyle and to avoid the root causes of disease.
The second prong of ayurveda is curative medicine, or restoring diseased patients to a state of health. Ayurveda recognizes that each body has a unique energetic constitution, and therefore treatment must be tailored to each person’s individual needs.
By becoming aware of our individual constitution and learning to recognize the signs and symptoms of particular imbalances in our body or mind, we are able to nip illness in the bud.
The Origins of Ayurveda
Ayurveda is one of the earliest medicinal lineages, stemming back to the Vedic period in India. We cannot be a hundred percent certain how far back ayurveda originates, as it was passed down as an oral tradition for many centuries. However, some of the oldest written texts date back over 5,000 years.
Ayurveda is an upaveda, an accessory to the Atharva Veda, which is the first Hindu text on medicine and the fourth book of the Vedas. Supplementary to the Atharva Veda, three main sages are attributed with propounding the wisdom of ayurveda: Caraka, Susruta, and Vabhata. Their ancient texts give us an insight not only into general ayurvedic medicine, but also a broad spectrum of surgery, ENT and eye diseases, toxicology, psychiatry, pediatrics, gynecology, sexology and virility.
Ayurveda made its way to the west with the popular rise of yoga during the New Age movement of the 20th Century.
The Ayurvedic Definition of Health
samadosa samagnisca samadhatumalakriyah |
prasannatmendriyamanah svastha ityabhidiyate ||
“One who is established in the Self, who has balanced doshas (primary life force), balanced agni (digestive fire), properly formed dhatus (body tissues), proper elimination of malas (waste products), well-functioning bodily processes, and whose mind, soul, and senses are full of bliss, is known as a healthy person.”
This definition of health, taken from Susruta Samhita (15.41), shows that health according to ayurveda is much more than simply the “absence of disease.”
Ayurveda does not simply look at the state of the body and the physical attributes of our being, but also at the emotions, processes of the mind, and ultimately our connection to the higher Self.
According to this definition, I most certainly am not healthy! Nor are many of the people I know. However, this should not make us feel downhearted. Rather, complete health is something to work towards. As mentioned earlier, ayurveda is the sister science to yoga. In ancient Indian medicine, the fundamental goal of attaining good health was to enable the yogi to ultimately transcend the body and attain spiritual enlightenment.
The Four Components of Life
As expressed in the ayurvedic definition of health, life is made up of four separate components, and they all need to be addressed in order to ensure the health of the entire living system.
- The body: sarira
- The senses: indriyas
- The mind: manas
- The soul: atma
Ayurveda and the Five Elements
Everything within this material universe is composed of the five elements, known in Sanskrit as the pancha mahabhutas. Everything in existence contains each of the elements, however the quantities will vary according to the nature of the being/object.
Each element has its own qualities or characteristics that are recognizable within that which they compose.
Ether (akasa): dry, light, cold, subtle
Air (vayu): dry, light, cold, subtle, mobile, rough
Fire (agni/tejas): dry, light, hot, spreading, sharp
Water (apas): cool, liquid, dull, soft
Earth (prithvi): heavy, dense, stable, solid
The Three Doshas
Ayurveda organizes the five elements into three doshas, or biological humours, that reside within the body.
Air + Ether
Fire + Water
Earth + Water
Dry, light, cold, hard/rough, subtle, mobile, clear
Oily, light, hot, sharp, spreading, malodorous
Heavy, dull/slow, dense/thick, sticky, cool, stable, smooth, oily
Although all bodies contain all three doshas, most of us will have one, or perhaps two predominant doshas that will determine our features, personality, strengths, and weaknesses.
Once we gain an understanding of our individual constitution and learn how the doshas interact with one another, we can map out the best-suited diet and lifestyle regime for living a functional and harmonious life.
Ayurveda in Practice
Ayurveda is sometimes known as a ‘grass-roots’ science, as it was accessible to all levels of society and from all walks of life. While some more serious cases may require the intervention of a doctor, most Indian families traditionally prepared their own home remedies, and recipes, tips and tricks were passed down from generation to generation.
Traditionally, ayurveda is woven into every aspect of daily life to ensure the smooth, organic functioning of the body and mind. Ayurveda is called “the middle path.” We are not encouraged to make huge and dramatic changes or become rigid and obsessive about our lifestyle regimes. Rather we should see ayurveda as a gentle guide to help us overcome ailments, respect the body, and help us become optimally situated to pursue our spiritual goals. The suggestions presented by ayurveda are easily incorporated into daily life at no great expense or upheaval.
According to ayurveda, almost all of the imbalances we experience can be addressed through the diet. The digestive system is responsible for the major transformation in the body and is therefore the first place to start when making healthy adjustments to the basic components of our day. Other insights gained from understanding your constitution will help you to establish the optimal routine for your day, such as when to eat, when to exercise, and when to sleep.
The Relationship between Ayurveda and Western Medicine
Ayurveda and Western Medicine are not mutually exclusive. The once sceptical attitude of Western Medical doctors towards Eastern medicine is rapidly changing as we witness the acceleration of diseases related to diet and lifestyle in the Western world. Western medicine has been focused on curative medicine, often neglecting preventative practices of healthcare.
Many people are turning more to alternative and natural medicines as a result of some of the harmful side effects of modern pharmaceuticals, and the invasive nature of some allopathic procedures. However, others are attracted to Western medicine due to its accessibility and efficacy, which can be reassuring when we are feeling vulnerable and unwell.
The good news is that you don’t need to make a black and white decision about which medical path to go down. Ayurvedic treatment is an excellent accompaniment to Western medicine—supporting the body and alleviating some of the harsh side effects of a more aggressive medical approach. For example, many cancer patients undergoing allopathic protocol of chemotherapy will support themselves throughout treatment by consulting with an ayurvedic practitioner who may prescribe a specific diet, rejuvenating herbs, or other appropriate treatments.
Ayurveda gives us the means to understand ourselves better and to become aware of the shifts and changes that take place within our bodies. It teaches us to note imbalance when it arises and to know how best to restore balance before disease can set in. Ayurveda can help us to create an optimal diet and lifestyle, catering to our individual needs, to ensure long lasting health and wellness.