Category Archives: Introduction to Ayurveda

Introductory articles covering the main concepts involved in the Vedic Healthcare system – Ayurveda

Introduction to Ayurveda

Summary: This article gives a brief overview of the ancient Vedic Healthcare System known as Ayurveda. Aimed at Westerners with little existing knowledge of the subject, it covers some key concepts such as mind-body types, diagnostic techniques, the emphasis Ayurvedas places on prevention and how we can best use it.

The aim of Ayurveda is to maintain perfect physical, mental and spiritual health.

Ayurveda is an holistic healthcare system. It operates on different principles and paradigms to other healthcare systems. Ayurveda does not just deal with the organs and matter from which the body is made. It also deals with the underlying field of energy and intelligence that pervades the body and, from the Vedic viewpoint, the whole universe.

Even an outline understanding of the principles of Ayurveda can help us maintain health and balance in our physiology through correct diet, appropriate exercise and daily and seasonal routines.

Ayurveda places great emphasis on the prevention of illness. It regards prevention as being much better than cure because prevention is both easier and cheaper.

Before recommending any dietary advice or routines, Ayurveda first categorises us into one of seven major mind-body constitutional types [1], therefore preventive advice and treatment is based on the individual. This is a unique strength of the Ayurvedic systemdifferent individuals will receive very different healthcare advice and even completely different treatments for the same set of ‘symptoms’.

It is possible to gain an approximate understanding of our own mind-body type from questionnaires concerning our physical and mental attributes; however a more reliable analysis can be performed by a trained Ayurvedic practioner.

In Ayurveda, disease is seen as an imbalance in one or more of the key elements in the body. This can be further complicated by the presence of toxins and imbalance in subtle energy channels and systems. Ayurvedic treatment usually involves first removing toxins from the system, followed by attempts to rebalance it and finally advice to maintain that balance.

Ayurveda offers an extremely cost effective diagnostic methodology which does not rely on invasive tests or high tech expensive equipment. Rather, the Ayurvedic Doctor follows an eight point (occasionally ten point) series of observations. Most remarkably for Westerners, one of these observations is the ‘pulse diagnostic process’ of ‘Nadi Pariksha’ (aka ‘Nadi Vigyan’) which seems almost miraculous. Not only can a skilled practitioner determine one’s natural dosha predominance, e.g. Vata-Pita, they can also determine the current state of dosha imbalance. Nadi Pariksha involves the practitioner feeling the pulse of the patient with three fingers – any imbalance result in subtle pattern differences which can then be detected. A fully enlightened Ayurvedic Specialists can also ‘read’ a patient’s complete medical history from this process!

Ayurveda is not herbal medicine, although herbs, minerals, etc. can be used as just one of a much wider range of rebalancing and detoxifying processes. In Ayurveda, food is also regarded as ‘medicine’.

Although some knowledge of Ayurveda is useful in understanding one’s own mind-body type, diagnosis of disease is a complex subject and best left to Ayurvedic practitioners. A suitably qualified practitioner would probably hold at least a degree in Ayurvedic Medicine (Bachelor of Ayurvedic Medicine – BAM, or equivalent), plus relevant experience.

If we have any illness, discomfort or disease it is worth first getting a diagnosis from a trained western physician. Armed with this information we can then make an informed decision about our choices of alternative treatments and the timescales involved.

Western medicine often offers ‘quick-fix’ solutions to symptoms via surgery, tablets, etc., whereas treatment from an Ayurvedic viewpoint often involves significant changes to diet, routine and lifestyle. Ayurveda can also take longer to achieve results – first to detoxify our system and then to re-balance our physiology. Many people who have had limited success with managing or curing long term chronic conditions via Western medicine, or who have experienced unwanted side effects from their treatment, are now exploring the health promoting possibilities offered by Ayurveda.

There is a major difference in how Ayurveda and Western medicine attribute different names to specific symptoms. From a Western medical diagnosis we may say we have ‘Asthma’; however traditional Ayurveda would not use the term ‘Asthma’ at all for this particular set of symptoms. This is because Ayurveda recognises the symptoms as being due to one of three possible underlying causes – by either a Pitta, or Vata or Kapha imbalance (with or without complications such as toxins etc.), so each different type requires different remedies to bring the system back into balance and restore equilibrium.

Ayurveda is ancient. It originates from the same vedic tradition as Yoga. Its origins lie in extreme antiquity – probably 5000 or more years ago. The knowledge was initially passed as an oral tradition from master to student, although it was first written down only a few thousand years ago. Ayurveda has been described as ‘the mother of all healing’. Ayurveda literally means ‘knowledge of life’. It is regarded as one of Yoga’s sister sciences. Ayurveda differs from western medicine in its origins. It was derived via a process called ‘vedic cognition’. It is not experimental or empirical, so it is not based on knowledge derived from dissection, anatomy and biochemistry. It is holistic in that it treats the person as a whole – not just as a collection of parts working in a complex machine.

Ayurveda also has two related vedic topics: the science of Vastu (Yogic Design) deals with promoting balance and life-supporting qualities in our homes (the vedic equivalent of Fegh-Shui); the subject of Jyotish (Yogic Astrology) deals with promoting balance between the planetary forces (which are indicators of our returning karmas) in our birthcharts.

Footnotes:

[1] The major constitutional types are made up from combinations of the three key Ayuvedic principles or doshas : Vata (V), Pitta (P) and Kapha (K). Vata is the principle of movement. Pitta is the principle of fire and metabolism. Kapha is the principle of solidity and structure. So everybody will fall into one of the following seven categories according to which principles are naturally predominant in the individual’s mind and body. In Ayurveda this inherent natural balance is called one’s ‘Prakriti’. If only a single dosha predominates the person will be described as having an inherent nature of either Pitta, Vata or Kapha: P, or V, or K. Often two doshas predominate giving rise to categories PV (or VP);  PK (or KP);  VK (or KV). Occasionally all three doshas are at the same level giving rise to the final category of VPK.


Additional Information

Frequently Asked Questions on Ayurveda FAQs 1, FAQs 2, FAQs 3

Vata, Pitta, and Kapha Explained

Summary: This article explains the key Ayurvedic principles Vata, Pitta and Kapha. It looks at the seven possible combinations of these doshas and their effects on our mind-body type.

In Ayurveda, the major constitutional types are made up from combinations of the three key Ayuvedic principles or doshas: Vata (V), Pitta (P) and Kapha (K). Unfortunately there are no words in the English language which directly correspond to these terms. In addition, these principles can be difficult to understand as we can’t directly see them – only infer their presence.

‘Lying as they do in the gap between mind and body, they resemble nothing that exists in our Western scientific framework’ D Chopra, ‘Perfect Health – The Complete Mind/Body Guide’

The Three Doshas – Vata, Pitta and Kapha

  • Vata governs bodily functions involving movement (Key word: ‘Movement’)
  • Pitta governs bodily functions concerned with heat, metabolism and digestion (Key word: ‘Fire’)
  • Kapha governs the structural aspects of the body and its fluids (Key Word: ‘Structure’)

Each of the three doshas is present in all of us, present in every living cell and present in every organ of our body! However, from an Ayurvedic perspective some organs are more associated with a particular dosha. For example, our stomach is associated with the ‘digestive fire’ element of Pitta, our continuously beating heart with the movement aspect of Vata, and our skeleton with the structural aspect of Kapha.

If we begin examining some of the dosha’s associations we find: Vata is linked to breathing, movement, the nervous system, and the process of elimination of waste products.  Pitta is linked with strong digestion, energy, sharp intellect and good speaking ability. Kapha brings strength and endurance, mental stability and patience.

Before making any lifestyle, dietary or treatment advice Ayurveda’s greatest strength lies in its ability to classify everyone into one of seven major mind-body types based on the combination of the doshas V, P and K

So everybody (really: ‘every body’) will fall into one of the following seven categories according to which principles are naturally predominant in the individual’s mind and body. In Ayurveda this inherent natural balance is called one’s ‘Prakriti’.

If only a single dosha predominates the person will be described as having an inherent nature of Pitta, Vata or Kapha (often referred to as ‘pure Vata’, ‘pure Pitta’, etc.):

P or V or K

Often two doshas predominate, giving rise to categories:

PV (or VP):   PK (or KP):   VK (or KV).

Occasionally all three doshas are at the same level, giving rise to the final category of:

 VPK

Ayurveda views anything that causes a change in this natural balance as potentially harmful. This disturbance could be due to many factors, such as improper diet, weak digestion, emotional disturbances and even environmental factors such as excessively hot, cold or windy weather.

In order to better explain the principles of Vata, Pitta and Kapha let us now examine the observable characteristics of people who just have a single dominant dosha – that is ‘pure Vata’, ‘pure Pitta’ and ‘pure Kapha’ mind-body types. It sometimes helps to ‘picture’ the pure dosha stereotypes. For example, a pure Vata type would probably apply to a ‘stick-thin’ fashion model whereas a pure Kapha type would probably apply to a large framed dark-haired motherly figure. People with a fiery personality and red hair are often Pitta types.

The following section lists the main physical and mental characteristics of these pure, single-dosha mind-body types:


Main ‘Pure Vata’ Type Characteristics

Vata Physical Characteristics

  • Light build and frame
  • Irregular hunger and digestion
  • Energy comes in bursts, perfoms  actions quickly
  • Talkative, fast speech
  • Dry Skin
  • Tendency towards constipation
  • Aversion to cold and windy weather

Vata Mental Characteristics

  • Learns very quickly, but also forgets quickly
  • Tendency to worry and exhibit nervousness
  • Can be vibrant, imaginative, excitable, moods change quickly
  • Light and interrupted sleep, tendency to insomnia
  • Dreams often are fearful, and involving flying, running, escaping

Main ‘Pure Pitta’ Type Characteristics

Pitta Physical Characteristics

  • Medium size frame and build
  • Strong digestion, can experience sharp hunger and thirst
  • Performs activity at medium speed
  • Articulate, can be good public speakers
  • Hair is often blond, light brown to reddish , tendency to hair loss
  • Pale skin, maybe with freckles
  • Aversion to sun and very hot weather

Pitta Mental Characteristics

  • Medium time to grasp new information
  • Tendency towards anger, aggression, arguments
  • Often holds strong opinions, likes challenges, strong intellect
  • Medium duration of sleep
  • Dreams can be fiery and hot, waking up hot and thirsty

Main ‘Pure Kapha’ Type Characteristics

Kapha Physical Characteristics

  • Heavy, solid, powerful build
  • Slow digestion, mild hunger
  • Good strength, stamina, endurance, with slow actions
  • Slow speech, maybe with a deep voice
  • Dark & greasy hair, smooth oily skin

Kapha Mental Characteristics

  • Slow learners but with excellent long term memory
  • Very relaxed, ‘laid back’, tranquil, loving, forgiving
  • Tendency towards inertia
  • Long, heavy sleep
  • ‘Romantic’ dreams

Please remember that the above lists just describe the characteristics  of pure V, pure P and pure K types.

Many of us however have two dominant doshas with the third dosha taking something of a back seat in our makeup. For example, in one person P and V might be dominant over K, in another V and K dominate P, etc.

Taking a VK type as an extreme example, we might think that the overall outcome would be a homogenous blend of the two types –  just like red and green light would combine to make an orange/yellow color. So, as a pure V type has a slim frame and a pure K type a heavy build, we might logically expect a VK type to have a blend of these two – namely a medium build. Unfortunately things are a little more complex.

In practice a  VK type may exhibit either a V or a K trait in their physical build (but not usually a mixture of both). They might also exhibit either a V or a K trait in aspects of their personality (but not a bland mixture of both.) The same goes for different patterns in their digestion. Depending on external circumstances and at different times, a two dosha type may also switch between one dominant dosha trait and another!  At this point we are getting beyond the scope of this introductory article – a really good description of the two and three dosha types is given in Deepak Chopra’s book ‘Perfect Health’ – highly recommended.


Additional Information

1. Article giving an Introduction to Ayurveda

2. FAQs on Ayurveda FAQS 1, FAQs 2, FAQs 3

Origins of Ayurveda – Vedic Cognition

Summary: This article examines the origins of Ayurveda  and the process of Vedic cognition. It identifies the great Vedic Seer Charaka as the ‘father of Ayurvedic Wisdom’.

Origins of Ayurveda and the process of Vedic Cognition

Ask any Western Doctor about the origins of their subject and they will give you a chronological account of how medical knowledge passed from country to country and from culture to culture. Western thought modes find this comfortable because it agrees with our sense of history. We enjoy quantifying the past with names, dates, timelines and places. Medical knowledge advanced hand in hand with the advancement of science.

Ask any Ayurvedic Doctor about the origins of their subject and they will tell you ‘it came from God[1].  According to tradition, the knowledge of  how to maintain perfect health – Ayurveda, and all the rest of the vast Vedic literature was ‘revealed’ or ‘cognized’. It was not discovered – neither was it invented by mankind, nor developed experimentally over many centuries.

We have no clear parallels in Western thought to the mechanics of Vedic cognition. The closest we can get is perhaps to consider flashes of artistic or creative genius, or scientific insight, where all the ‘information’ for a great work of art or theorem came into someone’s mind ‘in an instant’.

All the great Vedic works involved ‘revealed knowledge’ or ‘cognition’ in the consciousness of highly evolved sages, seers and rishis in a bygone age. They spent lifetimes practising yoga and meditation to facilitate this. A modern day analogy would be like using the Internet to connect our personal computer to a remote server (or even ‘The Cloud’) and downloading into our PC all the information we required. Of course, we must know how to operate our local PC correctly and have the right password (maybe the ‘right mantras’) to access the data on the remote server!

If we examine this analogy further, it is obvious that the information on the server exists whether or not it can be accessed by our remote device (PC, tablet, phone, etc.). The situation is exactly the same with the knowledge of Ayurveda. The information in the ‘Cosmic Computer’ is there all the time waiting to be accessed. In certain ages it may available to a few enlightened individuals. In the present ‘Dark Age’ of Kali Yuga [2] it is totally unavailable by direct cognition. So we have to now rely on the cognition of saints from past ages.

The Vedic Sage (or seer) who is regarded as the ‘father of  Ayurveda’ is Charaka. His Sanskrit text  theCharaka Samhita [3] is a key work in Vedic Healthcare. Exactly when or where he lived does not matter. If his knowledge (or the knowledge he collated from other sages, such as Atreya or Agnivesha) became lost over the long passage of time, that would not matter either, simply because it was not ‘his’ knowledge in the first place! Other rishis would be born in future Ages and the whole of the knowledge of Ayurveda could be re-cognised for the benefit of mankind.

In addition to the work by Charaka, there also exists another sanskrit text giving details on surgery  – it is called the ‘Sushruta Samhita’. However, over the millenia much of the practically useful knowledge associated with surgery in this text has been lost.

Footnotes

[1] The Vedic concept of God is very different from that of the remote, judgemental God of the Abrahamic religions. The Vedic tradition perceives the all-pervading ‘GOD’  as a three letter acronym representing key principles of nature: G – Generator (personified as Brahma), O – Operator (personified as Vishnu), D – Destroyer (personified as Maheshwara or Shiva). These principles are present in every living cell in our body.

[2] The Vedic literature identifies four major ages or great time periods, each of which has a predominant characteristic. Currently most (but not all) scholars say we are in the age of Kali Yuga, although exactly when it started (some estimate around 5000 years ago around 3102 BCE when Krishna left his incarnation on earth) and how long it will last (some say another 19,000 years) is a matter for debate. Some have also proposed there are minor cycles, each with their own characteristics, even within the major time periods.

[3] Further information on Charaka Samhita can be found on Wikipedia