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AYURVEDA, THE SCIENCE OF LONG LIFE
The word Ayurveda can be broken down to its roots: ayur, which means "life," and veda, which means "knowledge." It is most commonly translated as "the science of life" or, more specifically, "the science of long life."
This ancient Indian system of healing has evolved over many centuries and is believed to be 5,000 years old and possibly older. It is still practiced in India today, and for many Indians, its simpler folk remedies are a normal part of growing up. In the West, in the last fifteen years or so, there has been a wave of new interest in Ayurveda. What Westerners are realizing as they explore Ayurveda is that, while some of the principles and practices may at first seem foreign, the system as a whole makes sense. More important, it works, and people are discovering that Ayurveda has a great deal to offer the modern Western person.
This new interest has partly to do with the sudden and widespread popularity of one of Ayurveda's sister sciences, yoga, which comes out of the same Vedic tradition. Ayurveda and yoga evolved simultaneously and are complementary systems. David Frawley, a scholar of both systems, describes Ayurveda as the healing branch of yogic science, while yoga is the spiritual aspect of Ayurveda. Many people come to Ayurveda through their practice of yoga, but the opposite is true as well. The point is that the two systems are meant to work together.
The idea is to create such abundant health through Ayurveda that we begin to open more and more to the spiritual aspect of our being. The flowering of our health allows and supports us to be more directly in touch with our spirit—our innate intelligence, or wisdom—and to live more consistently out of that growing awareness. This is the path of yoga, and its final aim is liberation, or Self-realization. Self-realization is said to be an ecstatic state that is quite beyond anything we have previously experienced.
Ayurveda's primary methods for healing are natural: instead of relying on synthetic drugs for quick fixes, Ayurveda mostly uses food, herbs, and gentle lifestyle practices like yoga, breathing exercises, and meditation to cultivate optimal health. Other adjunct therapies that are sometimes used include mantra (chant), massage therapy, self-massage, aromatherapy, gem therapy, and metal and mineral therapies. Through the use of these natural, noninvasive methods, the total health of your being is built up slowly and steadily.
Ayurveda is nature-based in another sense as well. Each person is seen as part of an even greater whole: we exist not in some void by ourselves, but within the natural world. This world has certain irrefutable laws and patterns that regulate all that exists: we see this every day in the simple rising and setting of the sun. As creatures that are part of this natural order, we also are subject to the laws of nature—the laws of our own human nature. It makes sense that if we live according to these laws, we have a much better chance of surviving and enjoying a healthy life. If, on the other hand, we don't align ourselves with these laws, then disease, disharmony, and unhappiness result.
For example, suppose you are the kind of person who happens to need a fair amount of sleep, but you keep staying up late. Then, because you have to get up early in the morning to go to work, you end up drinking lots of coffee during the day to stay awake. The coffee actually gives you indigestion, and over time you start having stomach problems. Because your stomach is bothering you, you can't manage to get to bed at a reasonable hour. In this way, an unhealthy cycle gets set up, which could have been avoided entirely if there had been some recognition of your natural need for more sleep. This is a simple example, but it illustrates how Ayurveda's purpose is to realign us with our own nature.
Ayurveda has a highly developed theoretical side that explains the workings of the universe and how we as human beings fit into that. To fully grasp this view, one must become familiar with Indian philosophy, and this can take many years of study. Luckily, Ayurveda is also amazingly practical and accessible, and it offers a precise and profound understanding of human nature that includes many specific suggestions and guidelines to live by.
BODY, MIND, AND SPIRIT
In Western medicine, there is a tendency to identify and treat physical symptoms without necessarily probing into their origin. By contrast, Ayurveda looks at the whole person in order to gain a deep understanding of the presenting symptoms.
Suppose, for example, that you go to a typical Western doctor because you're feeling sick. You will likely be given a prescription for a drug that will effectively suppress your symptoms but won't actually address the root causes of your illness. An Ayurvedic practitioner, on the other hand, will be interested in looking at all dimensions of your being to see what might have made you vulnerable to getting sick in the first place. Your overall physical health will be considered thoroughly, but so will the mental and spiritual aspects of your being. What was your mental state before you got sick, and what are your general mental tendencies most of the time? Are you in a happy place in your life right now? In Ayurveda, it doesn't make sense to try to heal the body without taking into account a person's mental and spiritual condition. Body, mind, and spirit are seen as inextricably intertwined, so any kind of treatment or lifestyle recommendations that are made have to take into account these three aspects. Deepak Chopra writes in Perfect Balance, "The guiding principle of Ayurveda is that the mind exerts the deepest influence on the body, and freedom from sickness depends upon contacting our own awareness, bringing it into balance, and then extending that balance to the body."
Ayurveda also takes into account the larger context of your life. After all, you can't really look at these three dimensions of yourself—body, mind, and spirit—without giving some thought to the exterior things that will influence those parts of you. So Ayurveda considers factors like the weather and the seasons and how these may affect you. Ayurveda also looks at the food that you are putting into your body, the kinds of activities that you are engaged in, the work you do, and the relationships you're involved in. Every aspect of daily life is factored into the assessment of your health and the treatments and lifestyle recommendations that are then prescribed.
Ayurveda has treatments for all different sorts of health problems, from more mild conditions like common colds to those that are quite severe and even life-threatening. The thrust of Ayurveda, though, is to try to prevent disease from occurring in the first place.
In order to stay healthy, you need to be an active participant in your health management. This means that while you may receive prescriptions and lifestyle recommendations from an Ayurvedic practitioner, it is ultimately up to you to take responsibility for integrating these into your life. In this way, you are empowered to actively participate in your own healing instead of just relying on someone else to cure you. With this approach, you'll be able to attain and maintain a whole new level of vibrant health.
Part of what makes it possible to monitor your own health is understanding your unique constitution. Ayurveda has long recognized how much human beings can vary from one another. Some people have fast metabolisms and need to eat frequently and regularly; others can easily skip meals without even noticing. Some people feel at ease in a hot climate, while others are totally enervated. Some can stay up all night and hardly feel it, while for others this would create exhaustion the next day. There are light sleepers, and there are people who can barely be roused in the morning. The list could go on and on. The point is that the same weather, foods, activities, and lifestyle choices do not have the same effect on everyone: we are unique beings, with our own special physical and mental tendencies. While we are unique, Ayurveda also recognizes that certain patterns are common; hence, a clever system of classifying people by their type, or constitution, is used.
Understanding what your type is puts you in a much better position to make sensible, health-promoting choices. As you understand more about your type, or dosha, as it's called, you'll have a better sense of what foods are good for you, how much sleep you need, what sort of exercise is likely to be most beneficial, and many other things. Even subtle changes in your life can, over time, have a profound impact on your state of health. In addition to the physical benefits, you may experience the mental relief that comes with seeing yourself more clearly; instead of trying to be something you aren't, you may recognize that "this is just the way I am, and it simply means that I need to do this as opposed to that." Knowledge of your own dosha may make you curious about other people, too, eager to understand them according to this system, and these insights can help bring harmony to your relationships. In the next chapter, you'll find more information about the doshas as well as questionnaires to help you determine your dosha.
The exact origins of Ayurveda are unknown, but it is clear that it began somewhere in ancient India, long before Christ's time or even the Buddha's. It was originally an oral tradition, passed along by enlightened seers, or rishis, who had closely observed nature and were able to ascertain certain fundamental laws and how they related to human beings.
The earliest written records of Ayurveda are contained in the Vedas, or Vedic hymns, which make up the oldest and largest body of sacred knowledge in human history. (The Vedas were written somewhere between 2000 and 4000 B.C.E., and they consist of 20,358 verses!) Ayurveda's first appearance is in the last and youngest of the Vedas, known as Atharva Veda; according to scholar Georg Feuerstein, this text consists of about 6,000 verses and 1,000 lines in prose, "most of which deal with magic spells and charms designed to either promote peace, health, love, and material or spiritual prosperity, or to call down disaster on an enemy."
How Ayurveda further developed is not exactly clear, but a later medical text that emerged is called the Charaka-Samhita. Charaka refers to the author; Samhita translates as "compendium." This text is the most famous of all the ancient Ayurvedic texts; it is full of theory and philosophy, but it also describes, among other things, the cellular structure of the body and includes lists of microscopic organisms that may cause disease.
Another well-known medical text is the Sushruta-Samhita, believed to have been authored by the physician Sushruta, who may have lived in the sixth century B.C.E. and was possibly a contemporary of the Buddha. The Sushruta-Samhita contains information on surgical methods and equipment; along with detailed medical information, it also includes philosophical and spiritual advice on how to live a healthy life. (An interesting point to know about the Sushruta-Samhita is that it contains details of an operation on noses and ears that is still famous today. Surgeons throughout the world continue to think of Sushruta as the founder of plastic surgery.) Other texts came later, including the Ashtanga Hridaya of Vagbhata, which is said to have been written around 700 C.E. and is the most widely used Ayurvedic text today.
Over the centuries, Ayurveda spread into many other parts of the world; traces of it are evident in traditional medical systems of China, Nepal, and Tibet, and it even traveled as far east as Indonesia. We also know that Alexander the Great's invasion of India in the fourth century B.C.E. led to a certain amount of overlap between Greek and Indian cultures, and Ayurveda eventually penetrated into Greece itself, where it influenced the development of medicine there.
Many years later, during the fifteenth century, European colonization of India began. India did not fare well under the thumb of the nations that variously ruled during the following centuries; many atrocities were committed against Indians, and much of Indian culture was suppressed. By the early nineteenth century, when the British reigned, Ayurveda had no official support; in fact, in 1835 the British banned the practice of Ayurveda in favor of European medicine in those regions where the East India Company ruled. From this point on, Ayurveda was practiced mostly in rural areas. Then, at the beginning of the twentieth century, those in favor of Indian independence began arguing for the restoration and proper recognition of Ayurveda, and eventually, after 1947, this movement bore fruit.
Today, Ayurveda is taught in a number of reputable schools and universities in India, and there seems to be a stronger resurgence of interest in this ancient science, even in India. In the West, during the eighties, many people began to learn about Ayurveda through Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the founder of the Transcendental Meditation movement. Since then, Deepak Chopra has been instrumental in educating people about Ayurveda. Several other doctors and scholars have emerged, both from the East and West, some of the most influential being Vasant Lad, David Frawley, and Robert Svoboda. These people and many others have done a great deal to help interpret the ancient teachings of Ayurveda in a way that makes sense to Westerners.
Ayurveda is a deep science, and it is just as relevant today as it was four or five thousand years ago—perhaps even more so! This is an exciting time to be living in, as the wisdom of this tradition is brought forth again and made available to interested people.
LIVING IN TUNE WITH YOUR NATURE
Discovering Your Constitution
Ayurveda explains that all of nature is made up of five elements: space, air, fire, water, and earth. When these elements are charged with the life-force, or prana, they combine to form the three doshas. Space and air combine to form the Vata dosha; fire and water together create the Pitta dosha; and water and earth combine to make the Kapha dosha. These three building blocks are in everything that exists, including, of course, humans.
Our existence is a kind of play among these three forces, and the balance among the doshas is what determines our state of health. It is as simple as this: when the doshas are in their ideal, balanced state, we feel strong, our organs function properly, our complexion is healthy, and we experience a sense of well-being. When any one of the doshas is out of balance or in an aggravated state, then our systems go awry in any number of ways.
It is said that our constitution is determined at the moment we are conceived; this original constitution is known as prakruti. It is decided both by the dominant dosha of the moment itself—the season you are born in and the time of day—and by the dominant doshas of the parents. Thus, a person born of parents who have Kapha dominant in their constitutions will likely have Kapha dominance, too. The constitution that we are born with stays with us for our lifetime. We remain healthy when we can learn to regulate the dosha that tends to dominate and to go out of balance.
Each of the doshas controls different aspects of our being, and each locates itself in particular areas of the body. Each of us has all of the doshas within, but usually one dosha is predominant. This simply means that a person has more traits associated with one dosha over another. It also means that a person will have more of a tendency toward imbalance in that particular dosha. However, it's important to note that while one dosha may be more prone to imbalance, it is still possible for the other doshas to become unbalanced as well.
A note about terminology: the words dosha, type, and constitution are used interchangeably. Also, when we speak about a person's dominant dosha, we usually refer to that person as being his or her dosha; in other words, we might say, "Jane is a Vata," or "Jane is a Vata type," or even, simply, "Jane is Vata." In addition, it is common to talk both about the qualities of the dosha itself and about what happens to a person when a dosha gets out of balance. Finally, when we talk about a dosha going out of balance, we may alternatively describe it as being aggravated, increased, or in excess. This fluid use of terminology will become obvious and make more sense to you as you read on.
The Vata dosha can be described as the force that allows for all movements within the body. These include circulation of breath and blood; menstruation; and the passage of food through the digestive tract and out the body. Vata is the dosha that controls the entire nervous system; it is also what moves the other two doshas. Vata resides primarily in the colon, and when Vata is out of balance, a physical symptom can be excessive gas. Aggravated Vata can create psychosomatic disturbances, too, giving rise to emotions like fear, anxiety, and worry. It is considered the most important dosha and is often the most out of balance of all the doshas, leading to the greatest number of diseases and conditions.
Excerpted from AYURVEDA WISDOM by CYBÈLE TOMLINSON. Copyright © 2002 Cybèle Tomlinson. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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one Ayurveda, the Science of Long Life
two Living in Tune with Your Nature: Discovering Your Consitution
three Laying the Foundation for Health: Eating for your Constitution
four Going Deeper: Assessing the Other Influences on Your Health
five Healing the Body
six Healing the Mind and Spirit
seven Staying Healthy with an Ayurvedic Routine
eight Ayurveda for Women
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