Ayurveda is considered by many scholars to be the oldest healing science. Ayurveda is a Sanskrit word which means “The Science of Life.” Ayurvedic knowledge originated in India more than 5,000 years ago and is often called the “Mother of All Healing”. It stems from the ancient Vedic culture and was taught for many thousands of years in an oral tradition from accomplished masters to their disciples. Some of this knowledge was set to print a few thousand years ago, but much of it is inaccessible. The principles of many, if not all, natural healing systems now familiar in the West, such as Homeopathy and Polarity Therapy, have their roots in Ayurveda.
Ayurveda places great emphasis on prevention and encourages maintaining health by paying close attention to balance in one’s life through right thinking, diet, lifestyle and herbs. Knowledge of Ayurveda enables one to understand how to create balance of body, mind and consciousness according to one’s own individual constitution and how to make lifestyle changes to bring about and maintain this balance.
Just as everyone has an individual face or thumb print, according to Ayurveda, each person has a particular pattern of energy–an individual combination of physical, mental and emotional characteristics–which is his or her constitution. This constitution is determined at conception by a number of factors and is the same throughout one’s life. Many factors, both internal and external, act upon us to disturb this balance and are reflected as a change in one’s constitution from the balanced state. Examples of some of these emotional and physical stresses are: one’s emotional state, diet and food choices, seasons and weather, physical trauma, work and family relationships. Once these factors that can cause imbalance are understood, one can take appropriate actions to nullify or minimize their effects or eliminate the causes, and re-establish one’s original constitution. Balance is the natural order; imbalance is disorder. Health is order; disease is disorder. Within the body there is a constant interaction between order and disorder. Once one understands the nature and structure of disorder, one can re-establish order.
Ayurveda identifies three basic types of energy or functional principles that are present in everybody and everything. There are no single words in English to describe these principles, so we use the original Sanskrit words vata, pitta and kapha. Energy is required to create movement so that fluids and nutrients get to the cells, enabling the body to function. Energy is also required to metabolize the nutrients in the cells, and is called for to lubricate and maintain cellular structure. Vata is the energy of movement, pitta the energy of digestion or metabolism and kapha the energy of lubrication and structure. All people have vata, pitta and kapha, but one is usually primary, one secondary and the third least prominent. The cause of disease in Ayurveda is viewed as the lack of proper cellular function because of an excess or deficiency of vata, pitta or kapha and/or the presence of toxins. In Ayurveda, body, mind and consciousness work together in maintaining balance. They are simply viewed as different facets of one’s being.
To learn how to balance the body, mind and consciousness then requires an understanding how vata, pitta and kapha work together. According to Ayurvedic philosophy the entire cosmos is an interplay of the energies of the five great elements–Space, Air, Fire, Water and Earth. Vata, pitta and kapha are combinations and permutations of these five elements that manifest as patterns present in all creation.
In the physical body, vata–composed of Space and Air–is the subtle energy associated with movement. It governs breathing, blinking, muscle and tissue movement, pulsation of the heart, and all movements in the cytoplasm and cell membranes. In balance, vata promotes creativity and flexibility. Out of balance, vata produces fear and anxiety.
Pitta, made up of Fire and Water, expresses as the body’s metabolic system. It governs digestion, absorption, assimilation, nutrition, metabolism and body temperature. In balance, pitta promotes understanding and intelligence. Out of balance, pitta arouses anger, hatred and jealousy.
Kapha is formed from Earth and Water and is the energy that forms the body’s structure–bones, muscles, tendons–and provides the “glue” that holds the cells together. Kapha supplies the water for all bodily parts and systems. It lubricates joints, moisturizes the skin, and maintains immunity. In balance, kapha is expressed as love, calmness and forgiveness. Out of balance, it leads to attachment, greed and envy. Life presents us with many challenges and opportunities. Although there is much over which we have little control, we do have the power to decide about some things, like our diet and lifestyle. To maintain balance and health, it is important to pay attention to these decisions. Diet and lifestyle appropriate to one’s individual constitution strengthen the body, mind and consciousness.
The basic difference between Ayurveda and Western allopathic medicine is important to understand. Western allopathic medicine currently tends to focus on symptomatology and disease, and primarily uses drugs and surgery to rid the body of pathogens or diseased tissue. Many lives have been saved by this approach. In fact, surgery is encompassed by Ayurveda. However, drugs, because of their toxicity, often weaken the body. Ayurveda does not focus on disease. Rather, Ayurveda maintains that all life must be supported by energy in balance. When there is minimal stress and the flow of energy within a person is balanced, the body’s natural defense systems will be strong and can more easily defend against disease.
It must be emphasized that Ayurveda is not a substitute for Western allopathic medicine. There are many instances when the disease process and acute conditions can best be treated with drugs or surgery. Ayurveda can be used in conjunction with Western medicine to make a person stronger and less likely to be afflicted with disease and/or to rebuild the body after being treated with drugs or surgery.
We all have times when we don’t feel well and recognize that we’re out of balance. Sometimes we go to the doctor only to be told there is nothing wrong. What is actually occurring is that this imbalance has not yet become recognizable as a disease. Yet it is serious enough to make us notice our discomfort. We may start to wonder if it is just our imagination. We may also begin to consider alternative measures and actively seek to create balance in our body, mind and consciousness.
Ayurveda encompasses various techniques for assessing health. It assesses prodromal symptoms, cardinal signs and symptoms, and one’s suitability for treatment to help determine the etiology and pathogenesis of an imbalance. Various methods are utilized to help acquire information during an assessment with a client. These methods include: questioning, observation, palpation, direct perception and inference. Techniques such as taking the pulse; observing the tongue, eyes and physical form; and listening to the tone of the voice are employed during an assessment. Palliative and cleansing measures, if appropriate, can be used to help eliminate an imbalance along with suggestions for eliminating or managing the causes of the imbalance. Recommendations may include: implementation of lifestyle changes; starting and maintaining a suggested diet; and the use of herbs. In some cases, participating in a cleansing program, called panchakarma, is suggested to help the body rid itself of accumulated toxins so it can gain more benefit from various suggested measures of treatment.
In summary, Ayurveda addresses all aspects of life–the body, mind and spirit. It recognizes that each of us is unique, each responds differently to the many aspects of life, each possesses different strengths and weaknesses. Through insight, understanding and experience Ayurveda presents a vast “database” of the relationships between causes and their affects, both immediate and subtle, for each unique individual
Vata: The Energy of Movement
A person with vata predominant is blessed with a quick mind, flexibility and creativity. Vata provides the essential motion for all bodily processes and is extremely vital for health. One purpose of lifestyle considerations is to “ground” or stabilize this motion. On an annual basis, vata is most prominent in the fall and at the change of seasons, and these are the most important times to be careful of diet and lifestyle. Routine is very useful in assisting the vata individual to effectively ground all this moving energy.
Vata types have variable appetite and digestion. They are often attracted to astringent foods like salad and vegetables, but their constitution is balanced by sweet, sour and salty tastes. Vata people tend to produce little urine and their feces are hard, dry and small in size and quantity. Mentally, vata people usually grasp things quickly but then forget them quickly. They are alert, restless and very active. They walk, talk and think fast, but are easily fatigued. They have less willpower and often feel unstable and ungrounded. They have less tolerance, confidence and boldness. When unbalanced, vata types have a tendency to become fearful and nervous, and may experience high anxiety. In the external world, vata types tend to earn money quickly and spend it quickly. They are not good planners and as a consequence may suffer economic hardship. Vata resides in the colon, as well as the brain, ears, bones, joints, skin and thighs. Vata people are more susceptible to diseases involving the air principle, such as emphysema, pneumonia and arthritis. Other common vata disorders include flatulence, tics, twitches, aching joints, dry skin and hair, nerve disorders, constipation, and mental confusion. Vata tends to increase with age as is indicated by drying and wrinkling of the skin.
Since the attributes of vata are dry, light, cold, rough, subtle, mobile, clear and dispersing, any of these qualities in excess can cause imbalance. Frantic travel, especially by plane, loud noises, continual stimulation, drugs, sugar, and alcohol all derange vata, as does exposure to cold and cold foods. Like the wind, vata types have a hard time becoming and staying grounded. Routine is difficult but essential if vata is to be lowered and controlled. In general, people with excessive vata respond most rapidly to warm, moist, slightly oily, heavy foods. Steam baths, humidifiers, and moisture in general are helpful.