What is Ayurveda?
Ayurveda is one of the three branches of yoga. If you practice yoga, you’ll eventually hear about it. And because so many people love yoga, there’s a lot of curiosity around this ancient healing medicine practice.
I wish I had a short, simple answer for the question “What is Ayurveda?” A basic answer comes from the word itself. Ayurveda is made up of two words. “Ayus” meaning “life” and “veda” meaning “science’.”
Ayurveda could also be referred to as knowledge, study, or wisdom. So it’s the knowledge or study of life. And this is where it starts to get really complicated
I think one of the easiest ways to start is with the basic life sciences. When we think of life sciences, we think of biology, psychology, physics, chemistry, and then we get into other sciences.
Neuroscience, gerontology, which is the study of elder life and elder care. There’s epidemiology of just the study of epidemics, a hot topic right now. Psychology, embryology, among many others. So when we think about Ayurveda and the study of life, we are really talking about all of those life sciences.
Ayurveda is the study of all of life, literally.
It is used as an umbrella term. And so everything we have in modern times now has its own discrete branch of study, it’s all covered under Ayurveda with notable exceptions (like astronomy).
Ayurveda is a traditional medicine at its heart. It looks at the totality of life. Everything from the climate you live in, what you eat and drink, how you eat and drink, when you go to bed, the environment of your home, the current season, your current stage of life, lifestyle choices, your heritage, and many other factors to determine health levels and treatments.
So it’s a traditional medicine. It’s the study of life. Ayurveda is also the longest, continually practiced healthcare system in the world. It has been in people’s daily lives for thousands of years. And it has adapted. We’re not practicing the same Ayurveda that people were practicing in 2,500 BC, our lives are very different now.
The world is a different place and Ayurveda is now reaching all corners of the globe. It originated in what is now called India. It’s very adaptable, which is one of its beautiful qualities.
When you go to the doctor, you are most likely going to see an allopathic doctor, unless you’re seeing a naturopath, which only a few states are licensed to do.
The biggest difference between allopathic medicine and Ayurvedic medicine is that Ayurvedic medicine is holistic. By definition, Ayurveda includes the health of mind, body and spirit.
Sometime in the 1800s, there was this big shift in the western world when the spirit became the providence of church and religion, and the body became the providence of science.
So doctors, allopathic doctors went down that path in the west, which is very much focused on the body. And of course you do have psychology, which is focused on the mind, but not quite the spirit. Neuroscience is focusing on the mind as well, and is just starting to bleed over into the realm of spirit.
There’s this looking at the whole person. And the whole person, whether you want to call it the divine or nature, there’s a soul in a person. And that soul, that spirit, has an impact on a person’s health. And so Ayurveda really takes that into account.
Comparing Ayurveda to allopathic medicine is a little bit like comparing apples to motor oil. Like it’s just so different.
Allopathic medicine really wants and is very good at isolating one part of the body and addressing that part of the body and addressing the symptoms that are occurring in that part of the body and like really life-saving operations, surgeries, interventions.
Ayurveda is going to look at a person’s whole self, what’s happening in their heart might actually be related to something that’s happening in their kidneys. Ayurveda says “we see something happening in one part of your body, but where’s it really starting out from?” And it aims to address the root cause.
I don’t think you can ever disregard allopathic medicine or modern medicine because it does have its place. But you must be willing to address more than just the symptoms of ill health, or unhappiness.
How does the practitioner determine what needs to be done for the patient? A lot of it has to do with observation. A practitioner can see what’s happening for them, whether it’s the color of their skin, the texture of their hair, how their nails look or their fingernails different from their toenails, what’s the person’s shape and size.
Other practitioners might listen to the breath, pulse, and other noises of the body much like an allopathic doctor would. Diagnosis takes place through questioning in Ayurveda. They might ask about your daily habits, what happened 20 years ago, and other things to make diagnoses.
You can find the same amount of information by just sitting with the person and observing them. It’s surprising in a way to think that someone could know so much about you just by looking at you or watching you move.
There’s a great deal of information to be had just by seeing the shape of a person, how they hold themselves, how they speak, what their eyes are doing, how their mouth is moving, what their tongue looks like, etc.
Elements of Ayurveda
We all have different combinations of the five elements within our bodies, and Ayurvedic treatments often involve working to balance out those elements.
Earth is heavy, dense, with lots of mass. It’s very stable, solid, with a cool calmness. In our body specifically, Earth is bone. Water is insulating and fluid, and connects with our lymphatic system. All the interstitial fluid. Fire is associated with passion, cleansing, light, and heat. See see fire in our blood, our complexion, in our eyes, and in our intellect. Air is dry, light, and subtle. As well as space, or spirit, which is the fifth element.
Ayurvedic medicine seeks to understand the body in terms of the elements. Does someone have too much fire? Does someone not have enough? Does someone have too much earth? Does someone not have enough? And all of those qualities break down the elements further. So you could not have enough earth, but it could be that you don’t have enough of the solo quality and earth.
The most basic practice of Ayurveda is that opposites balance each other. Hot balances cold, oily balances dry, and vice versa. There are 10 pairs of qualities that practitioners use to balance out the elements within our bodies:
- Dull / Sharp
- Oily / Brittle
- Solid / Liquid
- Slow / Quick
- Rough / Smooth
- Hard / Soft
- Cold / Hot
- Wet / Dry
- Dense / Subtle
- Heavy / Light
The reason to introduce the elements and the colonies first is because each dosha is made up of the elements and the qualities. Each individual has a certain combination of the doshas. depending on the individual, how many elements that they have determines their combination.
And that combination is ours and ours alone. It’s influenced by our parents. It’s influenced by what our mom was eating, what she was doing when she was pregnant with us, our genes, but also our soul.
Vata dosha is the air element and ether/space element. It is dry, cold, light, clear, and subtle.
Pitta dosha is the fire and water element. It’s hot, light, oily, sharp, dry, clear, and subtle.
Kapha dosha is the earth and water elements. It’s heavy, cold, liquid, slow, stable, quick, and solid.
Once we’re born, life starts to act on us. Our life experiences begin to affect the balance of doshas (and elements) within our bodies. Our basic constitution doesn’t change, but experiencing extremely hot weather or traveling constantly for a decade will begin to sort of “cover” our original constitution.
With Ayurveda, it’s a little hard to go back in time and figure out what you were when you were born. So what’s kind of important in my opinion is to look at where you are right now. And so where you are right now, you might have too much fire or you might have too much air.
And from there, that’s when we can start to utilize the elements and the qualities to bring things back into balance.
Ayurveda can be simple if you’re basically a healthy person looking to cultivate a healthy lifestyle. If you have any sort of health challenge that is chronic, I’d encourage people like your listeners and viewers not to do too much on their own without doing quite a bit of reading and learning about Ayurveda before you kind of start meddling with things in that way.
There are definitely some general points of lifestyle advice that I can give that are pretty universally acceptable. But it’s kind of tricky to self-treat.
Go to bed at the same time every night, wake up at the same time every morning, um, eat at the same time. Those are probably three of the best things that you could do for yourself in terms of creating a grounded, stable routine for yourself. And you’re on your way to an Ayurvedic lifestyle.