What is Ayurveda? A Practical Introduction

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Ayurveda, the traditional natural healing system of India, has been gaining popularity in the western world. I became interested in it whilst spending a substantial amount of time in India. However, many people are still wondering what is Ayurveda? You may have heard of Ayurvedic massage or Ayurvedic herbs. But how do all the different aspects of it fit together?

Ayurveda as a Pranic Healing System

In short, Ayurvedia is the medical side of yoga. It’s a comprehensive system of medicine that’s been in existence for more than 5,000 years, and involves diet, herbs, massage, meditation, and lifestyle practices. In contrast to modern western medicine, when treating illness, Ayurveda looks at each person as a whole and views the illness as part of the whole. It’s primarily a pranic system of medicine, whereby prana is life energy (similar to “chi” in Chinese medicine). Hence, it’s this prana that’s the controlling force in the body. It’s made up of:

  • three doshas (constitutional types): vata, kapha, pitta.
  • three gunas (qualities): sattva, raja, tamas.
  • five senses.
  • atman (individual self or consciousness).

Which Dosha are You?

Each person has a natural state (one particular dosha, or more rarely a combination of doshas), that they should seek to keep in balance.

  • Vata people: tend to be thin, and either noticably tall or short. They have fast metabolisms, and dry skin or hair. Their hair is usually dark and course. They think and talk quickly, and can be erratic and lacking in stamina. They can easily formulate ideas and tend to be creative. However, they may not be good at following ideas through. They like binges, indulgences, and overdoing things. The main quality of vata is DRY. Anxiety, fear, worry, nervous tension are problems.
  • Kapha people: tend to carry a bit of extra body weight (but are not necessarily fat). They’re physically strong and have good stamina, and when motivated, work hard and steady. They generally have brown or black hair that’s slightly oily. They’re laid back and don’t like trouble of any kind, especially emotional. They have difficulty communicating their feelings, and often end up suppressing them. Food represents comfort and security, and has special attraction. The main quality of kapha is HEAVY. Depression is a problem.
  • Pitta people: are of average build and height, and tend to be physically strong. They have hot, fiery temperaments. Their hair and skin color is lighter and fairer. They can get impatient easily because of their quick intelligence. Although good at following through with projects, they’re prone to being critical, judgmental, and irritable. The main quality of pitta is HOT. Anger is a problem.
Still not sure which dosha you are? India Herbs has a free online quiz. Take it to find out yours!

Doshas and Diseases in Ayurveda

According to Ayurveda, disease happens when the three doshas become out of balance. Traditionally, the imbalance of vata is viewed as being the primary cause of disease, as it’s most disruptive to the other two doshas. Due to its association with mental/psychological factors (such as stress and tension), vata is strongly related to prana and quickly affects it. We don’t need Ayurveda to know that too much stress kills!

One of the most important aspects of Ayurveda is the movement of disease through the body, and the need to correct the root imbalance that’s causing the symptoms of disease to appear. Each of the doshas primarily lives in one place of the body (vata in the large intestine, pitta in the small intestine, and kapha in the stomach). If there’s an imbalance in any one, this is where disturbance will start. It will then move through the body’s pathways. The further along the disease progresses, the harder it is to cure.

An imbalance will start in the body’s inner pathway (the intestinal tract), move to the outer pathway (the blood, skin, and lymphatic system), then come to rest in the middle pathway (inner tissues, bone, marrow, and muscles).

The Importance of Digestive Health in Ayurveda

Ayurveda places a great deal of importance on the intestinal tract and its health. Given the understanding of how diseases progress, it’s easy to see why.

Poor digestion will allow toxins to accumulate in the large intestine, thereby aggravating vata. As these toxins move up and start accumulating in the large intestine, pitta will be aggravated. Then, when the stomach accumulates these toxins, kapha will be aggravated. This movement of toxins through the body greatly affects prana and vata.

What’s more, Ayurveda says that each of the three doshas contributes to the digestive process. Vata contributes to movement, kapha to lubrication, and pitta controls the ability to digest.

Hence, in Ayurveda there are two primary factors for controlling or preventing disease: the management of vata and keeping the digestive tract free of toxins.

Overview of Ayurvedic Treatments

Ayurvedic herbs all have a specific action, as well as a therapeutic action that affects one or all of the three doshas. Herbs are commonly used to balance the doshas, increase the digestion of food and raise the metabolic process in general, as well as to help regulate the nervous system. Ayurveda has a complex method of eliminating toxins from the body and returning the doshas to balance. It’s called pancha karma (the five actions). It needs to be administered or supervised by a qualified Ayurvedic doctor. Specialized Ayurvedic massages are also designed to loosen and remove toxins from the body. An Ayurvedic diet is often prescribed. This is designed to affect the three doshas. Some foods have cooling and calming qualities (gunas) that support the mind, and are known as sattvic. Other foods are rajasic (stimulating) or tamasic (sedating).

Pranayama: Another Way of Regulating Prana

Yogic breathing techniques, known as pranayama, control the breath. This regulates and enhances the flow of prana in the body.

Try this Alternate Nostril Breathing exercise and see how it can help you.

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