Published on July 21st, 2008 | by Stephanie Evans3
Restore Your Life Force with Ayurveda
Ayurveda is an ancient holistic health science from India. Sanskrit for "the Science of Life," it is a set of self-care guidelines that will help you stay healthy by connecting the power of your mind with the physical health of your body.
The term ‘medicine’ is considered limiting in the context of this life science, as it suggests healing only as a result of predetermined illness. Ayurveda, however, is a complete system that addresses the prevention of illness in addition to providing a systematic approach for diagnosing and treating negative health issues.
Ayurveda recognizes that we are all different—that we all look and behave differently from one another, and react differently to everyday situations. We are unique in everything from the foods we eat to the emotions we experience. Our individual dispositions require that we customize diet, herbs, massage and bodywork, yoga, self care and lifestyle routines to help us maximize life force.
To stay healthy and balanced, Ayurveda recommends tailored lifestyle therapies, including digestive herbs, heavy oil therapies and detoxification programs. These are intended to be gentle, sustainable habits that can last a lifetime, not extreme regimes or quick fixes. An entirely natural system, Ayurvedic lifestyle therapies utilize organic ingredients that are drawn from animal, vegetable and mineral sources.
Our individual dispositions require that we customize diet, herbs, massage and bodywork, yoga, self care and lifestyle routines to help us maximize life force.
Ayurveda acknowledges that the mind and body are not two separate entities but are in fact two intertwined facets of the individual. We’ve all seen how our thinking affects our body (how stress upsets digestion) and how our body affects our mind (how our self-esteem plummets when we don’t get regular exercise). Ayurveda has two special ways to convey these facets:
- The physical body is our skin, bones, muscles—everything you would find in a Western anatomy textbook.
- The energetic body is that with which we feel, sense, spiritualize, emote and think. Happiness and joy, emotional pain, psyche, perceptions,hunches and intuition are all considered a part of our energetic anatomy.
Ayurveda works on healing both the energetic andthe physical bodies, because of their dependence upon one another; each part can never reach its full potential if the other is not strong.
The Origins of Ayurveda
Ayurveda is believed to have come from the gods over five thousand years ago, when a group of scholars and mystics met in the Himalayas to try to discover the secrets of longevity and the cures for illnesses of every kind. The scholars and mystics claim that through meditation and spiritual communion with the gods, they arrived upon guidance for everything from everyday well-being to internal medicine and surgery. Ayurveda was an oral tradition in India for hundreds of years, until it was collected into three basic books called the Charak Samhita, the Sushrut Samhita, and the Ashtanga Hridayam, all three written in different time periods.
The Charak Samhita, known for its author Charak, discusses physiology, anatomy, etiology, pathogenesis, symptoms and signs of disease, methods of diagnosis and treatment. It also discusses the effect of external influences on health including time of day, seasons, diet, and lifestyle, medicinal aspects of herbs, diet and reversal of aging. Its month-by-month description of the development of the fetus in the womb parallels almost exactly what we know about fetal development today. The Sushrut Samhita, also known for its author Sushrut, outlines the human anatomy in vast detail including descriptions of bones, joints, blood, vessels, nerves, heart and all other systems corroborated by today’s methods of mechanical investigation. It also includes descriptions of the energetic body and the science of massage using marma or vital body points. Both the CharakSamhita and the Sushrut Samhita are thought to have been compiled over 1,200 years ago based upon what had come down the ages as oral traditions of Ayurveda. The Ashtanga Hridayam is a more recent text that draws upon content from both of its predecessors.
Although these three bodies of Ayurvedic knowledge are the most widely known and used, several lesser texts exist. Colloquial manuscripts were also passed down from household to household over the ages, many of which have been lost.
Ojas – Maximize your Life Force
Ayurveda teaches that health is the result of a powerful energy within us. Maximizing this energy is the essential goal of Ayurveda. This energy is called ojas (pronounced oh-jus), which means “that which invigorates”. It is the life force, the energy that flows through every person and living thing. Like chi in Chinese philosophy, ojas is the force that makes us feel happy and alive. Responsible for wellness, harmony, and spiritual growth, it makes our eyes shine and puts a spring in our step. High levels of ojas bring bliss and happiness, which those around us see as radiance, poise and a sharp intellect.
Ojas connects people and living things, and is present in every aspect of life, from our emotional well-being to the foods we eat. For example, soil with strong ojas is rich in nutrients. It has the capacity to nurture a healthy apple tree that will root itself deep in the ground and grow to substantial heights. Filled with a high level of ojas, this tree bears lush and nutritious fruit. The person who eats the fruit absorbs ojas, which provides strength and longevity to his or her mind and body. When his or her own ojas potential is maximized, this person is energized, inspiring everyone around. The wheel turns full circle when the apple core goes into the compost heap and is recycled back into the environment, feeding the soil that gave life to the original tree.
When ojas is low we are like dried leaves—tired, worn out, and brittle. We experience a breakdown in the normal functions of our mind-body system and become susceptible to illness, both emotionally and physically. The best way to keep our ojas up is to live a balanced lifestyle that is pure and close to nature.
Tridosha – The Theory of the Three Individual Constitutions, Vata, Pitta, and Kapha
Ayurveda tells us that all living beings are made up of five essential elements or building blocks: ether (or space), air, fire, water, earth. Life proceeds from the subtlest of these elements to the most base. Ether, the most subtle element, mixes with eternity to create air, a more observable element. As air moves, it creates friction, which gives rise to heat or fire. Heat produces moisture, thus creating water. Finally, water produces the densest form of matter: earth. Ayurvedic healing works at this subtle level of human life, a level even more subtle than the molecular, atomic or subatomic levels of the human body.
These five elements do not exist separately within us, but unite to form three distinct energetic forces called doshas. The three doshas are called vata, pitta, and kapha.
Air, which provides movement, and ether, which provides vastness, unite to form the vata dosha, which has an overall light, cold, dry, and dispersing quality. Vata initiates movement in the mind—thoughts, ideas, and creativity and also physical movement in the body – movement of food through our gastrointestinal tract, nerve and motor impulses, blood and lymphatic circulation, walking, and even gesturing with our hands.
Fire, which provides heat, and water, which provides fluidity, unite to form the pitta dosha, which has an overall heating, oily, sharp and penetrating quality. Pitta controls our internal fire which governs transformations in the mind such as intelligence, reasoning, passion and the operation of the senses. It also governs physical transformations such as metabolism, hormonal activity, enzymatic behavior, the production of bile, body heat and temperature. It is responsible for digesting chyle into protoplasmic substances.
Water unites with earth, which provides solidity, to form the kapha dosha which has an overall heavy, cold, oily, and cohesive property. Kapha provides nurturing and lubrication to the mind, and helps to preserve our memory. It fills the spaces of the body as connective tissue and lubricates our physical tissues with mucus, body fluids, and plasma, making the body stable and firm.
The three doshas facilitate anabolic and catabolic metabolism, processes which nourish the body to build the tissues. Each person is a combination of the three doshas, which exist at varying levels given our unique dispositions. One or two doshas are typically dominant in each individual. Your dominant dosha determines your unique mental and physical makeup or prakruti.
When any or all of the doshas develop an imbalance, the body is no longer nourished, and ill health slowly begins to present itself. The Ayurvedic approach to healing is therefore threefold:
- It determines your individual mind-body constitution or prakruti
- It determines the cause of illness by understanding which doshas are imbalanced
- It applies therapeutic recommendations to balance the doshas that cause illness
Ancient though they might be, the principles of Ayurveda can be easily incorporated into modern lifestyles to maximize ojas of the individual and the community. Health and well-being will unfold naturally if you protect the mind and body against unhealthy influences and live in harmony with the natural laws of the universe.
Article Contributors: Reenita Malhotra Hora