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Ayurveda: the science of life
Ayurveda is one of the most ancient systems of healthcare known to man. First practised over 5,000 years ago in India, it is now recognised as the forefather of all Eastern forms of medicine and many scholars argue forms the roots of Western medicine. Its name is taken from the Sanskrit words ‘ayus' meaning ‘life’ and 'veda' meaning ‘knowledge’ and so quite simply is....‘The Science of Life’. As its name suggests, Ayurveda is a holistic science effectively covering all aspects of life including our mind, spirit and body and how we interact with our environment.
A natural philosophy
Typical western, allopathic medicines often treat each of our symptoms and ailments individually and we are regularly offered sticky plasters, magic pills or even surgery to eradicate and disarm them. The objective of Ayurveda is to treat and gently stem the root of all disease holistically. Ayurvedic wisdom teaches us that by taking time to understanding our unique make up, stimulating our own inner defences and bringing our mind, spirit and body back into balance we can prevent the onset and accumulation of such symptoms and eventual disease.
The five elements of ayurveda
The foundation of Ayurveda is that all matter, literally ‘everything’, is made up of five elements. These are ether (space,) air, fire, water and earth. First in the development of matter, there is ether and from ether comes air. Then from air comes fire, from fire comes water and so on. These five elements create, support and maintain life and harmony on our planet but if they become imbalanced universal problems arise and life may be threatened. Our bodies too are made up of matter and although we mostly have the same selection of cells, bones, tissues and organs our individual mind, body and spirit are all quite different. Ayurveda calls this uniqueness our ‘prakruti.’ As with the planet, if the elements of our prakruti become imbalanced our bodily tissues are affected and dis-ease may occur. Similarly, the planet (our environment) and our body must also have a good balance, or one will eventually suffer. Ayurveda believes that this holistic understanding of the dance between us and our environment is the key to a happier, healthier life.
Understanding your prakruti
Ayurveda explains our uniqueness, primal nature or ‘prakruti’ better by way of energies or doshas. There are three fundamental doshas – vata, pitta and kapha. Each dosha is made up of two of the five elements and each also have their own attributes. Our body, mind and soul are a unique blend of these doshas.
The percentage to which we are of each dosha is complicated. This combination is based on our genetic make-up or physical constitution and our mental and emotional paradigms but to simplify we often identify to one of the seven constitutions (commonly also called doshas) below;
vata . pitta . kapha . vata/pitta . vata/kapha . pitta/kapha . tri-dosha
Our dosha is not something we aspire to be, can make ourselves or eventually grow into but is gifted to us from the beginning - from the sparkle in our fathers’ eye, as it were. It is our make-up and we should truly embrace and celebrate each part of us. There is no better or worse dosha, each are equally wonderful and equally difficult – indeed each rely to some extent on each other and our body contains all three to some degree. Sometimes as we age, change and evolve in our environment it is hard to pinpoint our own original make up but Ayurveda believes the key to a healthier happier life is getting a clearer understanding of our own prakruti.
Vata comes from the Sanskrit term ‘vah’ meaning
vehicle, to carry or move.
Principally made up of ether and air.
Governs breathing, muscles and all bodily movements
In balance expresses creativity, flexibility, imagination and action.
Out of balance may bring fickleness, fear, anxiety and abnormal bodily movements
Pitta comes from the Sanskrit term ‘tap’ meaning
heat and to be austere.
Predominately composed of fire and water
Governs digestion, temperature and all metabolism
In balance promotes intelligence, understanding and discipline.
Out of balance encourages anger, hatred, perfectionism, jealousy and inflammatory disorders
Kapha comes from the Sanskrit terms ‘ka’ meaning
water and ‘pha’ meaning to flourish.
Principally made up of water and earth.
Its energy forms and holds together the bodily structure, it lubricates, moistens and provides water for all bodily systems.
In balance it expresses love, compassion, forgiveness, calmness and increases immunity.
Out of balance is brings on attachment, greed, laziness, possessiveness and congestive disorders.
Balancing your dosha
As with everything in Ayurveda, the more responsible we are for ourselves and the more we understand our dosha the better. We are each unique and so often what is good for one may not be good for another. Each dosha inside of us has preferences, habits, weaknesses and strengths and we process things differently. In order to keep a good system running therefore, it is important for us to regulate what we put into our bodies - not just through our mouths but through our eyes, ears, nose and what we come into contact with. All this matter or energy has an effect on our dosha and so understanding what is beneficial and what is not for our constitution and how we process it is essential.
Looking after your agni
Ayurveda believes that our digestive ‘fire’ or agni is the key to life! Agni governs our metabolism – it is the digestion, absorption, assimilation and transformation of food and sensations into energy and so we need to take it seriously. When we process and digest all food, experiences, emotions and information thoroughly we remain in balance but if they stay undigested, repressed or raw – they will surely cause a build up of toxins, (or ama) an eventual imbalance and finally our immune systems will become impaired.
Unfortunately, sometimes our agni is too high or too low or sometimes it’s just all over the place! Paying consideration to what we are consuming is necessary to come back to balance.
Ayurveda and food
You literally ‘are’ what you eat. Every crumb that enters your body is readily transformed into either waste products or nutrients that continue to build, care and cleanse your body. Food is without doubt a fundamental part of our life and without it we will surely die however, Ayurveda believes that not all foods are good for everyone and not all food combinations are good for anyone. For example; raw fruits should always be eaten alone and never with dairy, which is often a common mistake in western cuisine.
Similar to our body, Ayurveda believes that food is also made up of the elements and subtle, innate, doshic qualities or ‘gunas’. These gunas react with each of our doshas differently and can cause balance or imbalance. For example, when a pitta (fire) person has lots of spicy foods and alcohol this may aggravate the pitta in the body and that person may soon become angry and or inflamed. The agni may become too high, the food in the stomach may become overcooked and sour leading to little absorption of nutrients and even diarrhoea. Food can be powerful; food is medicine and we should be respectful of its potency and effect on our bodies. The healer is nature itself but the gentle practises of Ayurveda empower us to use our nature to heal.