Why is it that so many of us only ever think about our health when something has happened and we experience dis-ease and pain? And why, faced with the need to do something about our health, do we often assume that taking action amounts to swallowing a few pills, starting a new diet, or implementing a new exercise regime?
By now, all of us know that looking after our health requires a lot more effort and care than merely amping up a selected few of our habits once things start going South; still, most of us linger way too often in the brink of laziness when it comes to rethinking our habits and implementing change before the red flag of disease shows itself on the horizon... We thought that an entry on the yogic science of Ayurveda might be a refreshing read for anyone interested in gaining a bit of perspective on what health is and how we can better help ourselves help our health. So here’s our first ACEBE entry on the yogic science of health which, we can tell you already, won’t be the last!
What is Ayurveda?
"Ayurveda is a powerful system of mind-body medicine covering all aspects
of physical, psychological and spiritual healing."
–David Frawley, Ayurveda, Nature's Medicine.
Simply put, Ayurveda is the yogic technology of self-healing aimed primarily at maintaining health. With a focus on methods for the detoxification, rejuvenation, and tonification of the human body and its tissues, Ayurveda can be called 'the medicine of the yogis' –and mind you, it's been around for more than 5000 years.
Unlike different modern-day forms of medicine geared at stopping disease once it has already manifested –something we must say modern medicine is incredibly good at–, Ayurveda’s core principle is to work holistically as a comprehensive health-supporting and disease-prevention method. What does this mean? That its focus is the preservation of health (Arogya) or, put differently, maintaining disease at bay. So, stopping disease before dis-ease is even a thing is the name of the game. We're really speaking of a health-first approach, since health itself is the foundation for one to thrive in all other spheres of life.
In order to do this, the yogic ‘science of life' –for that is the meaning of Ayurveda– serves itself of a variety of tools and methods conforming the backbone of other Vedic disciplines like Vedanta or Yoga, for example, and that follow the principles of dharma and karma; which basically means that it goes about health preservation in an ethical, sustainable, and life-supporting way. Because, in Ayurveda, all life (not just human life) must be supported along the way.
More than a quick doshic-type test
One of Ayurveda’s most frequently featured aspects relates to the so-called doshas. You may have heard of them or used them in one of those hip and easy ‘determine your doshic type’ healthy magazine sort of questionnaires. They're pretty easy to come by if you google them and normally give you quite a few dietary recommendations by the end. Put in simple terms, Ayurveda recognizes that the universe is essentially made up of the combination of five different elements to varying degrees of stratification. These are: earth, water, fire, air, and ether and, together, they create everything that is. Granted, these elements here listed have literal and metaphorical properties to them.
Depending on what elements come together in what ways to make up a particular aspect or object, we speak of three main different types of doshas –Vata, Pitta, or Kapha– which is essentially a code way of speaking of the different levels of density that these different elements with their characteristics can acquire to conform a given object, including you and me. And so, depending on whether you have more or less of the water or earth elements in you, or more or less fire, or more or less air, for example, we’d be speaking of a Vata-, or a Kapha-, or a Pitta-type-of-person which comes with certain health proclivities, psychological tendencies, and also personality traits. In fact, it is more frequent for someone to display a combinations of two or three of the doshas than having just one of them.
Until here we hope everything is clear. But clear and simple rarely cuts it, right? Indeed, ascertaining a person’s doshic type is but one of the techniques that Ayurveda uses to determine the best approach to enhance and balance a person’s health in general. Because, at the end of the day, Ayurveda’s main goal is to find the unique type of balance (what it calls Sattwa guna) to best support a person’s specific constitution (Prakriti). But when properly practiced, Ayurveda allows for a great deal of detail and can get extremely precise and interesting. It can resort to techniques of pulse observation, different pancha karma or profound purification methods, herbal and spice concoctions, balsams, powders, wines, dietary recommendations specific to our Ayurvedic constitution depending on the life-stage and time of the year we're in, and even a thorough analysis of our personality and individual inclinations according to both our dosha-guna and Vashtu orientations. But, because we want to keep things straight-forward and easy to follow on this very first entry on the topic, we’ll center mainly on explaining Ayurveda’s key philosophical ideas.
An ancient philosophy
In an ideal world, every student of Yoga –indeed, every person there is– would be a student of Ayurveda. Knowing about the one without properly understanding the other does not much help balance and balance is, as mentioned earlier, Ayurveda’s main thing. Because, generally speaking, there are a few systemic roadblocks or barriers on the way to self-healing and self-understanding (which are both aspects of the path to illumination) that often have to do with our inability to undertake the type of self-study and self-care necessary to establish ourselves in this favored balanced state.
According to the philosophy of Ayurveda, then, disease and unhappiness arise primarily from doshic imbalances, from a lack of Sattwa Guna or inherent balance, and from the existence of negative or unprocessed karmas. And so, if we boil it all down, every person looking to establish himself in a healthy and sattwic state should learn to inquire about, understand, and adequately balance the particular interplay of elements, energies, tendencies, and forces inherently characteristic for them, and then proceed with the neutralization of inherited and self-created karma. Easy enough, right?
Indeed, the main cause of disease according to Ayurveda is wrong judgement (Prajnaparadha), which is, essentially, an inability on our part to adequately judge the consequences of our actions. This is not too far off from Yoga's designated main cause of unhappiness: avidya or ignorance. This can manifest as something as simple as an inability to determine what we must eat not to put our health at risk, for example, or as engaging in activities that deplete us or depress us, sleeping at strange hours, or investing in relationships that hurt us. All of these are signs of a lack in judgement because, at some level, we just know better.
But Ayurveda also tells us that there are other secondary or related causes of dis-ease that we must also watch out for. These are the overuse of the sensory and motor organs –aka, watching too much television or engaging in extremely intense activities too often, for example. Lacking proper balance with regards to what we put into our bodies (both literally and metaphorically), as well as lacking balance in what we release from our bodies (think of thoughts or words). And also, wrong adjustment to time (as in the time of the day, of the year, or our life stage in general.
Together, what all of these red flags tell us is that it is often our lifestyle and behavior, and not just one single specific aspect or habit, that triggers dis-ease. Because, at the end of the day, though we are used to acting out on disease once it first manifests at the physical level, dis-ease often shows its head much earlier in milder ways at different levels: through emotional disruption, psychological imbalance, as an inability to stand still or even to sleep...
Are there general recommendations?
In a way, the recommendations of Ayurveda are pretty common sense, though they can get more elaborate than you would think as well.Though there are some general recommendations that pretty much everyone can implement –as avoiding some foods in certain seasons, for example, and increasing the amount of others–, tailored recommendations always work best.
In fact, Ayurveda works best still if in combination with other Vedic disciplines –be it Yoga, Jyotish, Vedanta, or any self-inquiry method. The one often supports the other; and so, after working on achieving the right orientation of our health and well-being through Ayurveda, for example, we’d be better able to move on to achieve the same at the physical and mental level through Yoga or spiritually through engaging with self-analysis and a thorough study of the Vedas.
Still, to keep things simple, we can say that Ayurveda’s number one tip is determining our unique constitution –our doshic-guna constitution– and then work to ascertain the exact expression that the word 'balance' must take for us to thrive in our own skin. This is where specific dietary recommendations, the prescription of specific herbal tonics, exercise routines, particular types of Yoga and meditation, or even introspection exercises to better know ourselves might come. But ideally, all of this would be paired up with a necessary analysis of our everyday habits and our dharma. Indeed, what is our lifestyle like? What types of positive and negative behaviors do we routinely engage in? What types of activities (de)motivate us? What hobbies, pastimes, career? What relationships are we investing into and what is the natural predisposition of our mind?
In a nutshell, exploring what is generally needed for us to achieve the best version of ourselves in this lifetime in an ethical and sustainable way is often also key; and though this partly exceeds the nature of any initial Ayurvedic consultation, the key philosophical principles of Ayurveda are in general alignment with those of Vedic Counseling or Yoga which is why all of these sciences of yogic wellbeing and progressive enlightenment cross-reference each other quite a bit.