‘Ayur’ in Sanskrit translates to mean Life or Longevity, and ‘Veda’ to mean Science, Knowledge, or Understanding.
Simply put Ayurveda is ‘The Science of Life’ or more specifically ‘The Science or Understanding of how to live your Life based on your Uniqueness’.
Ayurveda is the ‘Yoga of Life’ and its aim or goal is to help us utilize our Body and Mind to achieve Yoga or Self Realisation.
Ayurveda is not all that widely understood. Most people who have heard of it know that this science originates from India and is related to Yoga in some way. Others have never heard of Ayurveda at all. Many people find the word Ayurveda difficult to pronounce (it sounds a bit like this – ‘ah yer vay dah’).
Ayurveda is a very practical system that can be simply applied in everyday life regardless of culture and beliefs. It explains natural laws that affect us all.
Like all systems of Yoga it provides practical and scientific means to perceive that highest knowledge; that of the Self, the Truth that is unchanging and beyond that which is constantly in flux.
It is this knowledge that can take away our misery (which is caused as a result of fear of the unknown and unsatisfied desires). The techniques and methods to acquire such knowledge have been shared by realised masters through the ages, and allow us to realise or ‘taste’ this awareness firsthand. This is through scientific means of observation, analysis, and direct personal experience.
The whole basis of Ayurveda rests on the fact that each and every one of us has a body and mind that is uniquely different to everybody else.
We therefore all need to live our life differently to others as what suits another may not suit us.
As the saying goes;
“One man’s meat is another man’s poison”.
The question arises; why are we all different? Why are identical twins, no matter how similar, still uniquely different to each other? Why do we all have a unique fingerprint? In a single family where both parents are the same, why are all the children so different to one another? Why are some children born with disease or disability? Is it just ‘chance’ and what causes this ‘chance’?
Ayurveda explains this and also tells us exactly how we are different and what we can do manage our life better based on this knowledge.
Why we are born so different to each other is explained by the natural law of Karma; that is, “every action has an equal and opposite reaction” or “cause and effect”. This can be compared to Newton’s Third Law of motion.
Karma is a natural law (just like gravity), and understanding this we come to understand why we are the way we are.
This allows us to accept our situation and realise we were born this way in order to experience certain things in a certain way.
For any event to take place there must have been a cause. And for every action there must be a completion or an effect. Once we release the arrow from the bow it must reach the target. When we throw a ball against the wall it must bounce back. How this happens depends on all the factors involved in the action.
Each and every aspect of the environment will have an effect on us, whether significant or not. Reactions also require certain conditions to occur. For example, for a fire to start there must be fuel, heat, and oxygen, and the fire won’t start until the conditions are right and sufficient.
We are all aware of the natural law of cause and effect and just like the law of gravity it is not something we dispute. However, very often when we are experiencing the effects of previous causes we don’t remember the cause itself and may not know why a certain event or experience is taking place.
The cause may have happened a long time ago and only now the conditions are right for the effect to take place. The effect may seem unrelated to the thoughts or actions that led to it. That is why we fail to take responsibility for the role we play in everything that happens to us. Somewhere, somehow, whether consciously or not, we started the process and realising this helps us to take responsibility for our life and actions.
Our body and mind is formed from previous causes but we don’t remember them. It is formed in the way it is so that we are able to complete and experience those things that are waiting for us. In this way, we can consider our body and mind as our instrument, and accept its disturbances as necessary for us as they allow us to exhaust this Karma and complete the cycle of cause and effect.
The philosophy of Ayurveda helps us to firstly understand why we are different and to accept that. It then looks at how this difference manifests in each of us and how to manage it as best we can.
Ayurveda tells us that all that is matter contains the five great elements known as Ether (Space), Wind (Air), Fire, Water, and Earth. This includes our body and mind, and reminds us that we are an integral and inseparable part of Nature.
Each element has its own particular qualities. For example the Wind element is cold, dry, light and mobile; Fire is hot, sharp, and light; Water is cold, wet, and smooth etc. Our bodies and minds are made of these same great elements. However, as the proportions vary in each individual this imparts distinct differences making us each unique.
According to Ayurveda, there are three primary life forces or energies formed by the combination of these five elements. These three energies are known as Dosha and classified as follows:
Vata Dosha – Ether/Wind Elements. Vata manages all that moves in our body and mind.
Pitta Dosha – Fire/Water Elements. Pitta manages digestion and transformation of food and thoughts.
Kapha Dosha – Water/Earth Elements. Kapha provides stability, strength, and lubrication/protection.
The word ‘Dosha’ can be translated to mean disturbance, fault, or corruption.
We are born with a certain combination of elements and hence ‘Dosha’ and this is known as our ‘Prakriti’ or inherent nature. Our Prakriti remains the same for our entire life span. It is natural for us and can be considered our ‘home’.
Even though it is natural for us we can see that the very word Dosha indicates disturbance. It is this Dosha that gives us our predominant traits, personality, physical qualities, strengths, weaknesses, and other tendencies. It causes us to see the world in a way only we can.
Traditionally, this knowledge of our Prakriti would be understood from birth and we would be put on a path from a young age of choosing the right foods, activities, and routines to suit us. We all have to do the same things – eat, sleep, work, exercise etc. but the way we go about this needs to be tailored to our individual nature.
However, often we don’t fully understand and appreciate our unique nature and we then don’t know how to manage our inherent strengths and weaknesses very well.
We think we can do and be anything, and although it is nice to hear this, in reality our body and mind has certain physical and mental limitations. We can break the natural laws but nature will remind us of this in the form of disturbance, discomfort, and often times dis-ease.
Prakriti is identified through Ayurvedic diagnosis (most important here is Naadi Parikshai or Ayurvedic pulse reading) which will determine how the three Dosha are represented in us, and how to live to not disturb that nature further.
It explains how to live naturally or ‘according to our unique nature’. We now understand the purpose of our life and we allow Karma to unfold by staying present and being constantly aware.
Typically one Dosha or possibly a combination of two Dosha will be predominant at birth. That Dosha which is predominant is also that which will give us most of our problems and is where we need to be most careful and learn how to keep it ‘pacified’.
Although our Prakriti doesn’t change during our life span, the combination of elements often changes in the body over time due to the environment and our lifestyle. These changes are identified by Ayurvedic diagnosis and are termed Vikriti.
When our Vikriti differs from our Prakriti there is an imbalance and we are not living according to our true nature or purpose.
It is in this state of Vikriti that we may first encounter disturbance in the form of dis-ease or distress without understanding why.
The first step to managing this excess Dosha is to understand its qualities (eg hot, cold, wet, dry, light, heavy, soft, rough etc). After that the approach is simple and common sense. We use the law of ‘Like increases like’. So we apply those qualities that are opposite in nature.
We build our life around that kind of thinking and adjust everything we do to help support it. We become aware of the constant changes in the environment around us and how that is likely to impact us and make constant adjustments. It is a process of watching ourselves in every moment and being always flexible and ready to change.
An Ayurvedic diagnosis helps us to understand our true nature and our current disturbed state and we can then determine how to return to our Prakriti using correct and compatible diet and Life-style, and temporary treatment to remove the excess Dosha and toxins from our ‘Body’ and ‘Mind’.
Once returned to our Prakriti, it is a constant process of adjustment and refinement for the rest of our life to live in balance according to our own nature and the ever changing environment we live in. This is what living ‘naturally’ and achieving ‘balance’ means.
With the science of Ayurveda we learn to manage our bodies and minds as instruments given to us in this life for a specific purpose.
With discipline, application of the natural laws, and by taking responsibility for our attitude and actions, we prepare the field (the Body and Mind) and allow our true nature to prevail, and we learn to live in the present moment.
Rather than seeking Yoga as something outside ourselves we prepare ourselves to experience it – there is nothing to seek as nothing has been lost – we are simply unable to see the Truth as we are drawn away by the senses and attachment to the Body and Mind. Yogic practices such as Ayurveda are there to help us remove those things that keep us ignorant of the Truth and cause us much suffering.
Ayurveda utilizes short term treatment to help remove the excess Dosha and toxins accumulated over the years due to incompatible and incorrect life-style.
Ayurvedic pulse reading and diagnosis helps us to see subtle disturbances. As they are subtle they may or may not have yet resulted in disease but such disturbances, if left unchecked, may contribute later on to further excess Dosha and toxins accumulating and further disturbance to one’s Prakriti.
Short term treatment includes many of the aspects of Ayurveda we may have heard about.
Some examples are Ayurvedic Herbal formulas; Ayurvedic oil massage; Yoga for Dosha Therapy (postures, breathing, meditation to suit the individual), Shirodhara Treatment (pouring of warm oil on forehead); Shiro-Abhyanga Ayurvedic Head Massage; and Pancha Karma (intensive detoxification).
The period of short-term treatment is not fixed but depends on an individual’s needs and much will depend on their attitude, discipline and commitment; also the degree of any disturbances and how stubborn the excess Doshas are to remove. Typically this short-term intensive treatment may last for one to several months. Panchakarma is only undertaken after one to several months of standard treatments once the individual is suitably stable and prepared.
Long term treatment mainly deals with lifestyle management.
This means how to live your life on a moment-to-moment basis without disturbing your natural and unique state (Prakriti). This continues throughout your life.
The main aspects of lifestyle management include Ayurvedic Dietetics (correct food for you), exercise, attitude, work, relationships, climate, seasons, time management etc. The awareness of our own nature and the constantly changing environment allows us to adapt and adjust as things change around us. This is what Ayurveda is really all about.
While short-term treatment is very important when Dosha are aggravated and disturbed (for detoxification) and to rebuild and nurture (for rejuvenation), treatment is still a temporary aspect – not the main or only consideration.
However, today, modern Ayurveda is often being used more as an alternative medical system to treat the symptoms of disease, rather than to treat the underlying subtle disturbances of the whole individual.
Traditional Ayurveda works to remove excess Dosha and to support and educate the individual. Oftentimes disease symptoms may disappear or reduce once a person’s Dosha become more stable and an individual takes on more responsibility for managing their life.
This stability is what is required to help ‘prepare the field’ (the body and mind) for Self Realisation – and why Ayurveda is such a good companion for Yoga. they both work towards the same goal – Self-realisation!
(First compiled and published for the Yoga Lunchbox website in April 2014)