Updated: Dec 16, 2020
In honor of Diwali, the Indian festival of lights, as well as the birthday of the patron deity, or energy, of Ayurveda, Dhanvantari, let’s take a quick look at what exactly Ayurveda is and how it can help.
Ayurveda is an ancient Indian system of holistic medicine and the Vedic sister science of yoga. Similar to yoga, its roots lie in the Vedas and Samkhya cosmology. It addresses all aspects of life and health; physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual.
Traditionally, Ayurveda holds the authority on matters of the body while yoga holds the authority on mind management. While each branch of Vedic thought provides its own unique holistic paths to self-healing and Self-Realization and can be viewed separately, observing and integrating their profound practices has personally proven essential to a well-rounded practice and lifestyle for me.
Beginning with the word itself, Ayurveda can be broken down to mean “life knowledge.”
Ayu = life (referring to all aspects of natural life, from birth to death)
Veda = knowledge
Ayurveda is essentially the culmination of observational and experiential knowledge of cause and effect collected over thousands of years (aka knowledge of life). To better understand manifest creation, Ayurveda (along with Samkhya and yoga) breaks down the natural world into 5 basic elements, or Panchamahabhutas, which can be observed through the varying states of matter. They are:
akasha (space or ether) - etheric
vayu (air) - gaseous
agni (fire) – radiant
jala (water) - liquid
prithvi (earth / matter) - solid
These elements are then further categorized through their combinations into the tridoshas, or 3 primal forces.
ether + air = vata dosha: “that which moves” (energy)
fire + water = pitta dosha: “that which transforms” ( light)
water + earth = kapha dosha: “that which binds” (matter)
The doshas are combinations of the observable elements within us. The entire manifest world, including ourselves, is composed of various combinations of these 5 elements, and therefore the doshas.
As the individual, so the universe, as the universe so the individual” – Yajur Veda
Much like this quote, Ayurveda explains our inner world of bodily functions relative to the corresponding movements of the outer world. The 3 main forces of the external world you could say are the sun, moon, and wind. They govern the processes of nature and correspond to the primary elements (earth, water, fire, air, and space), and therefore the doshas.
The sun corresponds to pitta dosha, fire, heat, and the energy of transformation.
The moon, cooling in nature and deeply connected to the water element, corresponds to kapha dosha.
The wind corresponds to vata dosha, movement, and air.
Just as the activities of the sun, moon, and wind affect the climate, seasons, time, and our external environment, they similarly impact our internal environment.
“Vata, Pitta, and Kapha are called the three supports, knowing this group of three as the sacred threefold mantra OM, the wise are liberated.” – Brihat Yogi Yajnavalkya Smriti
Once we understand the elements and have a general idea of the doshas, we can start to consider the gunas, or qualities, the doshas encompass, such as whether they are hot, cold, oily, or dry in nature.
The great Ayurvedic physician, Charak, classified 20 basic gunas and their actions. To give you an idea, a few of the main attributes of each dosha are listed below. These qualities help us to better identify the gunas within ourselves and the world around us.
We can also assign psychological and emotional characteristics to the tridoshas.
For example, vata dosha is associated with creativity and enthusiasm, pitta with intelligence and organization, and kapha with commitment and compassion.
From here, it of course gets a bit more complicated, but to begin with, we can understand that the tridoshas create, preserve, and destroy the physical body. In each individual, one of these doshas dominates and is responsible for natural urges and personal preferences towards food, temperature, environment, etc. Ayurveda then defines health, or ārogya, as balance and proper functioning of the doshas within us.
Imbalance of the elements within us is termed a roga, or disease.
Daily, seasonally, and over the course of our lifetime, the doshas within us will fluctuate in and out of balance with our lifestyles, habits, and the world around us. The name of the game then lies in consistent awareness and practices that bring us back into balance. From an Ayurvedic perspective, the key to self-healing and Self-Realization therefore lies in the understanding, acceptance, and care of our individual constitutions.
What I personally love about Ayurveda is the different perspective on life it provides. Rather than viewing natural life processes from an emotional, egotistical, or judgmental perspective, it provides the tools to simply observe, classify, and move forward from an informed and intelligent place.
Curious to learn more about Ayurveda? Join any of our 200-hour courses where we explore an introduction to the basic healing principles of Ayurveda. You can also check out the link below to a clip from our online teacher training course to learn a little more about this fascinating science.
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Laura Sutton Shanks