What is Ayurveda?

(pronounced ah-yer-vey-duh)

Ayurveda is a Sanskrit word that means:   ayu = life  |  veda = knowledge

The Science of Life

Ayurveda is a 5,000 year old traditional Indian medicine system with centuries of clinical observation.

It is based on the principle that macrocosm effects microcosm – we are all connected and part of the whole.

The Pancha Mahabhutas, Five Elements in nature: Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Ether and their impact on the human body are at the very core of this science.

Ayurveda works with the Tridosha Theory – that we are each made up of three bodily intelligences called Doshas – those being Vata, Pitta and Kapha. The Doshas are made up of and influenced by the Five Elements and the seasons – so in essence Ayurveda is about living in tune with nature.

Vata = Air and Ether

Pitta = Fire and Water

Kapha = Earth and Water

We are each born with varying quantities of these Doshas – no individual is the same. You will usually have one that is dominant. This is called your constitution or Prakruti. This does not ever change.

Vata means ‘to move’ or ‘to flow’ and is closely related to our Prana (life force energy).  It governs all movement, absorption and elimination in the body and functions within the entire nervous system, lungs, colon, bladder, kidneys, thighs, hips, ears and bones.

Tatra ruksho laghu sheetah, khara sukshmaschalo nilah
The qualities of Vata are dry, light, cool, rough, subtle and mobile

— Ashtanga Hrdayam: Sutrasthana I:11

Pitta comes from the word ‘tapa‘ which means ‘to heat’.  It governs heat, regulates temperature and all of the chemical reactions in the body and functions within the liver, gallbladder, spleen, lower part of the stomach and small intestines.

Pittam sasneha tikshnoshnam laghu visram, saram dravam
The qualities of Pitta are oily, sharp, hot, light, fleshy-smelling, spreading and liquid

— Ashtanga Hrdayam: Sutrasthana I:11

Kapha is made up of two words, ‘ka’ meaning water and ‘pha’ meaning flourish – so that which flourishes in the presence of water. It governs lubrication and protection in the body and functions within the lungs, oesophagus, tongue, upper part of the stomach, skull, nose and ribs.

Snigdhah shita gururmandah shlakshno mritsnah sthirah kaphah
The qualities of Kapha are unctuous, cool, heavy, slow, smooth, soft and static

— Ashtanga Hrdayam: Sutrasthana I:12

At certain times in your life your Doshas may become imbalanced and illness can manifest in the body. For example, you may have too much heat in the body (Pitta – fire element) causing you to suffer from various ailments such as inflammation, skin conditions or ulcers etc. This imbalance is called your Vikruti. This has the ability to change due to your choices and environment.

Ayurveda is unique because it looks at the root cause of your illness, unlike Western medicine that just addresses the symptoms and masks them.

At a consultation with an Ayurvedic practitioner the following things will be considered:

  • Diet and lifestyle
  • Environmental factors
  • State of mind
  • Individual health history
  • Family health history
  • Tongue and pulse diagnosis
  • Physical observation and touch

Your practitioner will assess your Prakruti and Vikruti and a treatment plan will be developed that is suitable for your current health concerns. One treatment does not fit all in Ayurveda – it is a holistic individualised approach to wellbeing. You may be prescribed Ayurvedic herbs, diet and lifestyle changes, daily regimes and other treatments to help you become well and balanced again. This may take some time, so the key is to be patient and work openly with your practitioner.

Some benefits of Ayurveda

  • to detoxify the body
  • relieve fatigue
  • slow down the ageing process
  • enhance your immunity
  • revitalise the nervous system
  • counteract both physical and mental stress

Ayurveda can also be adopted into your lifestyle as a preventative for illness, as well as for generally keeping the body systems working well to aid in good health and longevity.

Ayurveda is the sister science of Yoga and works well when combined with Yogic practices. As with Yoga, there are also 8 Limbs (or branches) of Ayurveda (Ashtanga Ayurveda):

  1. Kayachikitsa (internal medicine)
  2. Shalakya Tantra (ENT)
  3. Vishagara-vairodh Tantra (toxicology)
  4. Kaumara Bhritya (paediatrics)
  5. Shalya Tantra (surgery)
  6. Bhuta Vidya (psychiatry)
  7. Vajikarana (aphrodisiacs)
  8. Rasayana (rejuvenation)

The first one to six branches above deal primarily with the treatment of disease and the remaining two, Vajikarana and Rasayana deal with the preservation of health and vigor.

The importance of Agni (Digestive Fire)

Ayurveda believes the root cause of all illness is improper digestion. If your Agni is not functioning correctly then food will not be properly ‘cooked’, assimilated and eliminated, and this undigested food can turn to Ama (toxins). These toxins then vitiate and move through the channels into weak areas in the body blocking and interfering with the body’s natural processes. Over time, if left untreated, can manifest into serious illness.

The digestive fire needs to be working at optimum levels for food to be processed properly. Not only does our physical body play a part in this, but our mental, emotional and spiritual state effects digestion as well. For example, if we are stressed or upset, or eating on the run, then our body is unable to digest effectively.

Ayurveda recommends the following tips for proper digestion:

  • eat organic, whole foods that are in season and warm/cooked
  • if eating cold/raw food i.e. salad – it should only be eaten if your digestive fire is strong, you can add digestive antidotes to help, it is best to eat raw food at lunchtime when the sun and digestive fire are at their highest
  • eat the right quantities, do not over or under eat
  • eat three meals a day, do not snack
  • eat fruit separately to all other foods
  • be careful when food combining as some foods are incompatible and will become difficult to digest
  • sip on warm water and herbal teas like ginger throughout the day or at meal times to aid in digestion
  • do not drink chilled or cold drinks as this will put out your digestive fire
  • cook with concentration and good intentions
  • eat with awareness, take the time to sit down and chew well
  • have a calm and balanced state of mind
  • always bathe before eating – if you bathe after, blood and energy will be focused on the skin instead of where they are needed most in the digestive system
  • cleanse the body at certain times throughout the year to aid in detoxification, kindle and reset digestion

Ayurveda is a lifestyle choice and a natural way of living in tune with your constitution and the environment. It is a vast science. Once you learn more about it and incorporate it into your daily life, you will be surprised just how much your choices effect your health and quality of life. You will soon realise how very powerful you are!