Ayurveda is a natural system of medicine that has been practiced in India for more than 5,000 years. It was developed by seers (rishis) through centuries of observation, experimentation, discussion, and meditation. The origins of Ayurvedic medicine are recorded in the Atharva Veda, one of the four Vedic scriptures. For several thousand years, Ayurvedic teachings were passed down orally from teacher to student. The first summary of these teachings was put into writing around 1500 B.C. The main sources of knowledge are the three Vedic classics Charaka Samhita, Susruta Samhita, and Ashtanga Hridaya.
Ayurveda is a Sanskrit word made up of two components, ayush meaning life, and veda meaning knowledge or science. Hence, Ayurveda is the “science of life.” The teachings of this ancient system of medicine are written in Sanskrit, the ancient language of India and Hinduism. It is based on Indian (Vedic) philosophy. Ayurveda was the first holistic system of diagnosis and treatment integrating nutrition, hygiene, rejuvenation, and herbal medicine. Ayurvedic medicine considers the human body to be in balance with nature. The body is believed to be a dynamic and resilient system that can cope with all stresses from its environment while maintaining the ability to heal itself.
The main objectives of Ayurveda are:
- to maintain and promote health by preventing physical, mental, and spiritual ailments
- to cure disease through natural medicine, diet, and a regulated lifestyle
Ayurvedic medicine considers the human body to be in balance with nature. The body is believed to be a dynamic and resilient system that can cope with all stresses from its environment while maintaining the ability to heal itself.
Ayurveda tries to help us live a long and healthy life, achieve our fullest potential, and express our true inner nature on a daily basis. The Ayurvedic classic Charaka Samhita defines Ayurveda as, “the knowledge that indicates the appropriate and inappropriate, happy or sorrowful conditions of living, what is auspicious or inauspicious for longevity, as well as the measure of life itself.”
Basic Concepts of Ayurvedic
It will be helpful to understand a few important concepts and some Ayurvedic terminology before you decide whether you want to include Ayurveda in your treatment plan. The next few sections provide a brief overview of Ayurvedic concepts on which the diagnosis and treatment of all ailments are based.
According to Ayurvedic philosophy, the entire cosmos is made up of the energies of five elements: earth, water, fire, air, and ether (space).
Even the human body and herbs are made up of these elements. Collectively, these elements are called pancha-maha-bhootas or material particles. The material particles and the anti-material particles (the spirit) form the cognitive aspect of a living being.
The predominance of a particular element(s) determines the characteristics of a thing, whether it is an animal, a person, or an herb. The medicinal properties of a drug or an herb are determined by the characteristics it exhibits. Similarly, depending upon the relative amounts of the elements, each of us exhibits a unique set of physical and mental characteristics. A disease state changes these characteristics. This change is the basis for the diagnosis and treatment of disease. In prescribing a remedy, the doctor chooses a treatment with the opposite characteristics of the disease to counteract the symptoms.
According to Ayurvedic theory, there are three humors in the body called doshas. These determine the constitution of a person and also the life processes of growth and decay.
The doshas are genetically determined. The three doshas are vata, pitta, and kapha. Each dosha is made up of the five fundamental elements. Each dosha is responsible for several body functions. When the doshas are healthy and balanced, this is the state of good health. Imbalances cause disease. Ayurveda recognizes that different foods, tastes, colors, and sounds affect the doshas in different ways. For example, very hot and pungent spices aggravate pitta. Cold, light foods such as salads calm it down. This ability to affect the doshas is the underlying basis for Ayurvedic practices and therapies.
Vata is composed of space and air. It is the subtle energy associated with all voluntary and involuntary movement in the human body. It governs breathing, blinking, muscle and tissue movement, and the heartbeat. It is also responsible for all urges. Creativity, flexibility, and the ability to initiate things are seen when vata is in balance. Indecision, restlessness, anxiety, and fear occur when vata is out of balance. Vata is the motivating force behind the other two humors. In modern medicine, the physiological role of vata is in the central and peripheral nervous systems. Vata has a tendency to expand indefinitely and to disturb the nervous activity or the vital forces in the body.
Pitta is composed of fire and water. It is responsible for all digestive and metabolic activities. It governs body temperature, complexion, visual perception, hunger, and thirst. In a balanced state, pitta promotes intelligence, understanding, and courage. Out of balance, pitta produces insomnia, burning sensations, inflammation, infection, anger, and hatred. Pitta has a tendency to become more liquid and to weaken the digestive and biochemical processes in the body.
Kapha is composed of water and earth. It provides the strength and stability for holding body tissues together. Kapha is the watery aspect of the body. It provides lubricants at the various points of friction in the body. In balance, kapha is responsible for wisdom, patience, and memory. Out of balance, kapha causes looseness of the limbs, lethargy, greed, and generalized sluggishness or hypoactivity. This dosha maintains body resistance to disease. Kapha has a tendency to thicken and obstruct the passages of the body and damage the process of lubrication.
Ayurvedic theory states the human body is composed of seven tissues called dhatus.
- plasma and interstitial fluids (rasa)
- blood (rakta)
- muscle (mamsa)
- fat or adipose tissue (medas)
- bone (asthi)
- bone marrow (majja)
- reproductive tissue (sukra)
Kapha is specifically responsible for plasma, muscle, fat, marrow, and semen. Pitta creates blood. Vata creates bone. Diseases of the humors are usually reflected in the tissues they govern. When out of balance, the humors can enter any tissue and cause disease.
The quantities and qualities of the three excreta from the body, sweat (sweda), feces (mala), and urine (mutra), and other body waste products play an important role in the diagnosis and treatment of disease. The Sanskrit word for these waste products is malas.
Tripod includes the doshas, dhatus, and malas. They maintain health when they are in equilibrium and produce disease when they are not.
The human body has numerous channels to allow the flow of energy, nutrients, and waste products. These channels are called srotas. Some of the srotas such as the alimentary canal (the digestive channel that runs from the mouth to the anus) are very large. Some are small such as arteries and veins. Others are very minute such as the capillaries, nerve terminals, and the lymphatics. Some srotas carry nutritional materials to the tissues of the body. Other srotas carry waste materials out of the body. The three doshas are present in every part of the body and move through every srota. Blockage or improper flow within the srotas produces ailments. The physical channels are similar to the different systems of western medicine such as the digestive, respiratory, and cardiovascular systems. Diseases are classified according to the systems they involve.
Agni and Aama
Poor functioning of the digestive system leads to many diseases. The digestive fire or agni controls the activities of digestion. According to Ayurveda, digestion is the cornerstone of good health. Good digestion nourishes the body.
Eating the correct foods makes a big difference in your well-being. Agni helps the body produce secretions and generates the metabolic processes necessary to create energy, and maintain and repair the body. Agni is also part of the immune system since its heat destroys harmful organisms and toxins. There are 13 agnis. The activity of agni varies throughout the day. A natural ebb and flow of your digestive fire is necessary for good digestion and immune function, and resistance to disease.
The opposite of this process is aama. Aama is defined as imperfectly metabolized food or drugs. In other words, an aama is a toxin that needs to be eliminated from the body. Aama is usually generated in the body because of weak digestive fire or jatharagni. It is also believed that aama is produced by out of balance doshas. Aama is mixed up with the tissues and causes disease by clogging the channels.
Ojas is the essential energy of the immune system. It is a unique concept of Ayurveda that embodies a subtle essence of all the tissues in the body.
Ojas is the glue that cements the body, mind, and spirit together, integrating them into a functioning individual.
Proper agni is required for proper production of ojas. Ojas decreases with age. Low ojas levels cause chronic degenerative and immunological diseases. In western medicine, ojas would be similar to immunoglobulins and other immunomodulators like cytokines. Abnormalities of ojas lead to decreased immunity, making a person more vulnerable to infections including hepatitis.
Prakruti and Gunas
The proportion of the humors varies from person to person. One humor is usually predominant and leaves its mark on a person’s appearance and disposition. Based on the predominant humor, every person is born with a unique mind-body constitution called prakruti. Gunas denote a person’s mental make-up and are of three types: satva (perfect), rajas (semi-balanced), and tamas (unbalanced). A person’s prakruti is determined at the time of conception.
Every person has specific physical, mental, and emotional characteristics. These characteristics are called a person’s constitution. Prakruti must be considered in determining natural healing approaches and recommendations for daily living.