In hopes of giving you a better understanding of the philosophical foundation at Balanced Achievement, we have created a ‘Balanced Achievement 101’ series that reviews the various components that merge together to form our teaching ideology. In each article (links can be found at the bottom of this page) we outline the given topic, discuss important historical information, and examine key educational concepts that are relevant to the teachings at Balanced Achievement. In this article, we explore India’s natural system of medicine in Ayurveda 101.
For hundreds of centuries, the practice of Ayurveda has been used as a natural system of medicine across the mystical lands of India. The word Ayurveda, which derives from Sanskrit roots, translates to mean ‘science of life.’ It is said that through internal exploration and prayer, the great seers of Vedic times gained insight into the workings of the human body and the universal process of creation and destruction. With this knowledge in hand, the sages developed a natural healthcare system that focuses on creating internal homeostasis by utilizing the bountiful gifts supplied by nature. Celebrated Ayurveda doctor and author Robert Svoboda tells us:
Nature is the Supreme Mother; endlessly forgiving, endlessly resourceful, and for those who acknowledge and work with Her, endlessly accessible. We can work with Nature to regain and maintain health. Then should we desire, we can work even more closely with Her to rejuvenate ourselves.”
Today, Ayurveda is not only widely used and celebrated across the Subcontinent, but has become popular in the west as a nourishing alternative or supplement to modern medicine. Where as western medicine is largely focused on intervention, Ayurvedic medicine is primarily concerned with prevention. The goal of many western doctors is to treat their patients for illnesses with manufactured drugs, which greatly differs from the aim of Ayurvedic practitioners who seek to create bodily harmony with natural remedies to prevent imbalances and illnesses from arising. Furthermore, instead of looking at numerous patients being similarly affected by a particular disease or illness, Ayurvedic doctors prefer to look at each patient as a unique constitution that requires individualized attention.
The History of Ayurveda:
Unlike most ancient medical systems, the practice of Ayurveda has withstood the test of time and is still widely used today. Although verifiably unknown, scholars believe that Ayurveda’s roots predate recorded history and can be traced back alongside Hinduism and meditation to the Indus Valley Civilization, potentially 7,000 years ago. The first writings on the subject of Ayurveda can similarly be traced back alongside the practice of meditation and are found within the Hindus’ holiest scriptures, the Vedas. It is estimated that these writings, which are considered to be the world’s oldest pieces of literature, were written between 3000-1000 B.C.E..
While the earliest evidence of Ayurveda practice is found within the Vedas, modern Ayurvedic knowledge is primarily based upon three important texts that were composed at a later, but still ancient, date. The Charak Samhita (800 BCE), Sushurta Samhita (700 BCE), and Ashtanga Hridaya Samhita (400 CE) make up what is referred to as ‘The Great Triad,’ or Brhat Trayi, and are still considered to be the authoritative texts of Ayurvedic Medicine.
Today, Ayurveda remains the primary healthcare system throughout India, and it is believed that over 90% of the Indian population uses some form of Ayurvedic practice in their daily lives. While the western medical community initially gaffed at the legitimacy of Ayurveda being a suitable system of medicine, new research has begun to show how many of the treatments and therapies administered in Ayurveda do in fact work. Additionally, within the past 20 years a number of Ayurvedic practices and cleansing treatments have become popular in industrialized nations like the United States.
Ayurveda’s Main Principles:
We have already discussed how Ayurvedic Medicine is a completely holistic healthcare system that focuses on prevention. We also briefly talked about how Ayurveda aims to create balanced internal harmony by treating each person as a unique individual. In addition to these two vastly important concepts, there are a number of other central principals that should be pointed out:
- Ayurveda is thought of as more than a medical system and should be viewed as a way of life.
- Instead of solely focusing on the physical, sensory, and mental realms of an individual, Ayurveda considers spirituality to be an important part of balanced health.
- Ayurveda tells us that each individual is made up of five universal elements (ether [space], air, fire, water and earth) that make up an individual’s unique personal constitution.
- There is great emphasis put on the importance of daily and seasonal routines.
- Ayurveda is based upon the idea that food is medicine and medicine is food. As the Ayurvedic proverb tells us: “When diet is wrong, medicine is of no use; When diet is correct, medicine is of no need.”
- Puts great emphasis on the importance of the mind-body connection.
Balancing the Three Doshas:
While the above principles outline the framework of Ayurvedic medicine, the single most important concept of the holistic medical system revolves around creating and maintaining balance between an individual’s doshas. To understand what doshas are, it may be easiest to compare human beings to snowflakes. Science will tell us that while every snowflake is made up of the same universal elements, each individual flake has its own unique constitution that is based upon its shape and the varying levels of chemical compounds found within it.
In much the same way, Ayurveda tells us that every person is similarly made up of five universal elements (ether [space], air, fire, water and earth), but that each individual has their own unique constitution based upon shape, size, and the varying degrees of these elements.
The doshas represent the framework for each individualized human blueprint and Ayurveda tells us that each person can enjoy good health by focusing their attention on creating and maintaining balance between them. In Ayurveda, it is said that there are three doshas found within each of us, but that each individual will have their own unique dosha constitution that typically favors one or two primary doshas. As you will see, the three dosha types can be described by a wide range of characteristics, including primary elements, bodily responsibilities, body type, personality traits, and typical imbalance symptoms:
Vata: The Vata dosha is considered to be the ‘King of the doshas’ because it is tasked with governing the greater life force of an individual. The Vata dosha, which represents the elements of space and air, controls bodily motion and has the characteristics of being dry, light, and cold. Individuals who are predominate Vata types typically are tall and slender. When in balance, Vatas are joyful, enthusiastic, and fun to be around. When the Vata dosha is out of balance, however, individuals may suffer from anxiety and depression.
Pitta: In stark contrast to the light and airy Vata dosha, the Pitta dosha, which represents the elements of fire and water, is considered to be hot and intense. For this reason, the Pitta dosha represents an individual’s internal fire and takes on the bodily responsibility of regulating the metabolic systems (digestion, body temperature, etc.). Individuals who are predominate Pitta types tend to have a well-built medium sized physique and are assertive, confident, and competitive. When in balance, Pittas are typically good leaders who possess strong intellectual skills and a drive to succeed. When the Pitta dosha is out of balance, however, individuals tend to ‘overheat’ and can become aggressive, angry, or demanding.
Kapha: The Kapha dosha represents the universal elements of earth and water and is considered to be the most deliberate dosha. The Kapha dosha is tasked with regulating growth in the body, moisturizing the skin, and maintaining a healthy immune system. The characteristics of the Kapha dosha are heavy, cold, and dull. Individuals who are predominate Kapha types tend to be overweight and are known for having a caring disposition and being self-sufficient individuals. When the Kapha dosha is out of balance, individuals may become depressed or suffer from physical ailments such as congestion, sinus headaches, or asthma.
It is important to remember that each of these three doshas is found within every person, but that each individual’s constitution typically favors one dosha over the others. Ayurvedic practitioners aim to promote balanced health by working with each patient to create and maintain an individualized harmony that is based upon the person’s dosha constitution. If you would like to take a test to determine your dosha type, you can do so here.
Diet & Exercise:
To promote a healthy internal balance, Ayurveda doctors tells us that we need to focus our attention on creating and maintain a lifestyle that induces dosha equilibrium. There are a wide variety of behaviors that one can either begin to practice or stop practicing to help promote harmony amongst the doshas, and two of the most important activities that help create dosha balance are diet and exercise. Depending upon the dosha constitution of an individual, a number of different dietary and exercise routines may be prescribed.
There are a number of universal Ayurveda dietary principles, as well as dosha specific dietary recommendations that can be used to promote healthy digestion and balance. Agni, which is probably the single most important Ayurveda dietary concept, describes an individual’s digestive fire. By eating the right type of foods, an individual can enjoy a strong agni, which means that they enjoy strong and healthy digestion. When agni is weak, however, an individual will suffer from unhealthy digestion which results in the production of toxins in the body. Ayurvedic practitioners tell us that regardless of an individual’s dosha, there are a number of important guidelines that we can follow to strengthen our agni:
- Eat the six recognized Ayurveda tastes at every meal (sweet, salty, sour, pungent, bitter, and astringent).
- Eat a colorful and flavorful diet that consists of fresh cooked foods.
- Eat your largest meal at lunch.
- Eat only until you are 3/4th full.
In addition to these guidelines, there are specific dietary recommendations for each of the three dosha types. Vatas benefit from warm, heavy, and oily foods such as soups, stews, and root vegetables. To keep the fiery pitta dosha in balance, an individual would want to eat cold, heavy, and dry foods such as salads, cold cereal, and lentils. People who are predominate Kapha types are best off eating light and airy foods such as warm buckwheat, leafy greens, and sprouts. There are also a number of foods that are recommended to be eaten regardless of your dohsa type. For example, eating kichari, apples, and ghee is considered beneficial for everyone.
Similar to dietary recommendations, there are a variety of physical fitness activities that can be beneficial for all three dosha types but also specific suggestions for vatas, pittas, and kaphas. Ayurvedic principles tell us that it is important to find physical fitness activities that stir excitement in us and leave us feeling invigorated when we are finished. The western fitness mentality of pushing yourself to the limit goes starkly against the Ayurveda mentality of finding activities that you thoroughly enjoy. Brisk walking, hiking, and yoga seem to be suitable exercises for all three dosha types, but there are also dosha specific activities that you may want to try. Vatas are known for having short burst of energy and typically respond well to activities such as biking, leisurely walking, and dancing. Pittas are known for having a strong desire to succeed and typically favor more challenging sports such as tennis or mountain biking. Lastly, it is important for kaphas, who tend to be lethargic, to find fitness activities that result in a sweat, and most types of aerobic activities help keep the Kapha dosha in balance.
Naturally Healing Practices:
Beyond incorporating a dosha specific diet and exercise routine into one’s life, there are a number of naturally healing Ayurveda practices that are recommended for everyone to follow. Within the past 20 years, many of these exercises have grown in popularity, in the western world, thanks in large part to high profiled medical professionals and scientific research pointing to the health promoting benefits one can receive:
- Meditation: Meditation is an important Ayurveda practice that is used to cleanse the mind. Since Ayurveda is largely based upon the concept of the mind-body connection, creating and maintaining good mental health is believed to be as important as promoting physical well-being.
- Neti Pot: The Neti Pot is a Ayurvedic tool that is used to cleanse an individual’s sinuses and nasal passages. Individuals can breathe easier and combat allergies by using the Neti Pot to filter saline enhanced water through one nostril and out of the other. Within the past 10 years, the Neti Pot has grown in popularity in the west after a number of high profiled medical professionals, such as Dr. Oz, began promoting the benefits that one receives from using it.
- Tongue Scraper & Oil Pulling: In Ayurveda, it is believed that the health of an individual’s mouth tells a lot about their overall well-being. Ayurvedic practitioners tell us that by taking the time to cleanse the mouth that individuals can actually work to cleanse their entire body. The tongue scraper is an Ayurvedic tool that helps to remove toxins from the tongue and oil pulling is a practice that helps to kill harmful bacteria found within the mouth.
- Aromatherapy: Essential oils are widely used in various Ayurvedic practices to promote health and create internal balance. One way that essential oils are used is through the practice of aromatherapy. In the west, aromatherapy diffusers are now popular and can be used to induce particular mental states and help promote good internal and external health.
- Massages: There are a variety of daily and seasonal massages that are considered to be a vital part of any Ayurveda treatment program. By using essential oils to massage various parts of the body, individuals can promote physical well-being, nourish bodily tissues, and overcome fatigue. It is recommended to regularly see an Ayurvedic professional for some massages, but there are also a number of massages therapies that can be practiced alone.
Balanced Achievement 101 Series: