What is Ayurveda?

Updated: Dec 26, 2020

Ayurveda is the oldest system of mind-body medicine known to humanity. The origins date back at least 5,000 years to the spiritual texts of ancient India known as the Vedas and go back deep in both time and in consciousness. The word comes from Sanskrit – the mother of all languages. Ayur refers to life as the union of mind, body, senses, and soul which contains energy and vitality, and is considered to be eternal. Veda refers to a living wisdom which was heard, rather than remembered, by the ancient sages. It aligns closely with the spiritual science of Yoga and developed parallel to it both historically and in terms of its prime concepts.

This system of health and healing deals with the nature, scope and purpose of life and includes metaphysical and physical aspects of health and disease, happiness and sorrow, pain and pleasure. This ancient body of wisdom brings into view the nature of life through the wisdom of Mother Nature herself. It teaches how to live in harmony with the basic laws of nature and offers a holistic guidebook for awakening our healing potential. The underlying prescription is to recognize the power of self-healing. Health is a continuous and participatory process that embraces all aspects of life: physical, mental, emotional, behavioral, spiritual, familial, social and universal. Achieving balance on all levels of being is the true measure of vibrant health. Every individual is one-of-a-kind with an equally unique blueprint for health. Ayurveda provides universal framework for understanding these blueprints and teaches us to honor and support our true individual natures.

Mukunda Stiles points out the fact that both Yoga and Ayurveda developed during a cultural period of India’s history that was broad in its perspective in regard to the significance of human existence.

According to the teachings of Classical India, called the Sanatana Dharma, there are four avenues which must be fulfilled in order to live a full life: Dharma - the basis for all actions and the vehicle that can prepare one for knowledge of the Self Kama - sensual pleasures Artha - material prosperity Moksha - self-liberation If one performs duties in a virtuous manner, maintains health and vitality necessary to fulfill desires, acquires and possesses the material wealth necessary for social position, and pursues peace of mind and spiritual liberation an authentic and actualized life will be realized.

The goal of Ayurveda is to balance the subtle elements (doshas) so that health may be maintained or restored. For Classical Yoga, the goal is to promote spiritual progress through deepening practice of the Eightfold Path.

My first introduction to Ayurveda was in 1994. My life was in flux. I needed emotional and spiritual renewal. So, I went to Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox, MA for a month long residential 200 hour yoga teachers training. The food provided was prepared in the tradition of Ayurveda. I bought the Kripalu Kitchen cookbook, The Ayurvedic Cookbook: A personalized guide to good nutrition and health. It is great introduction to ayurvedic principles with an explanation of the doshas, a test to figure out your constitution, recommendations for lifestyle and diet, how to stock an ayurvedic kitchen and recipes. I read and studied the book. Became familiar with the vocabulary and completed the test to figure out my dosha. But, the truth is, the concepts were too foreign; I didn't have a palate for Indian food; I was not able to digest and assimilate the information; I was not able to embrace the kind of change in thought, belief, and behavior required to make progress towards a comprehensive understanding and integration of this healing path.
In retrospect, I realize that in the early 1990s I was completely indoctrinated into a western scientific world view that mind and consciousness arise out of human physiology. The key to understanding Ayurveda is to understand the world view and creation story out of which it originated. I couldn't get my head around it. The book went onto the shelf, but it was one of my prize possessions. I had an intuitive understanding of its importance. It was not until 2007, when once again in dire need of spiritual renewal, I attended a 300 hour Yoga Therapy certification course in Santa Rosa, CA. One of the primary instructors was an Ayurvedic Practitioner, a wonderful teacher and role model. Sarasvati Buhrman (Ph.D., Ayurvedic Medicine and Classical Yoga Therapy) instilled in me both an understanding of the major concepts and world view, and a desire to begin to adopt an Ayurvedic lifestyle. I came home, got the book off the shelf and began adopting an Ayurvedic lifestyle. I am happy to say that after many years of slow steady progress -- theoretically and practically, I have a functional knowledge of the principles of Ayurveda. I know when my doshas are out of balance and what to do about it. I am a much healthier and happier person for it.

An Eastern Worldview

Samkhya is one of the six systems of Indian philosophy which informs both Yoga and Ayurveda. Many of the concepts contained within this philosophical system show up in both the Bhagavad Gita and the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.

Samkhya describes a consistent dualism of matter (prakriti) and the eternal spirit (purusha). The two are originally separate, but in the course of evolution purusha (spirit) identifies itself with aspects of prakriti (matter).

Purusha is ubiquitous, all-conscious, all-pervasive, motionless, unchangeable, immaterial, and without desire. 
Prakriti is the fundamental substrate from which all matter in the universe arises.

The ancient seers of India perceived this dual principle behind existence: Spirit (Purusha) and Nature (Prakriti). The swirling and twirling together of Spirit and Matter produces everything. Together they are consciousness and creativity.

The Mahat (the Great One) or Cosmic Intelligence is the first reality to emerge from Prakriti, when sattva is predominant. It has a universal aspect as the source of the world and contains within it the seeds and laws of nature.

Cosmic Intelligence contains a physical aspect as intelligence or buddhi in living beings. It is responsible for rationality and discriminating awareness.

From Buddhi, Ahamkara or the feeling of individuality evolves as Rajas predominates. Ahamkara is responsible for ego, or the principle of division which gives rise to the experience of being divided from the unity of all creation. From Sattva, arise the five sense faculties (panchendriyas), the five organs of action (karmendriyas) and the physical aspects of mind (manas). From Tamas, the five gross elements (mahabhutas) and the five subtle elements (tanmatras) arise. And thus, the manifest and unmanifest world is created.

The Theory of Tridosha and the Evolution of Prakriti

All matter in the universe arises from the fundamental substrate called Prakriti. From this ethereal Prakriti the three primary gunas (qualities) emerge creating the essential aspects of all nature—energy, matter and consciousness.

Nature consists of 3 basic qualities (gunas):

Sattva is pure essence of the light of consciousness, vast clear space, potential energy. In terms of perception, the knower; the observer.

Rajas is movement, turbulence, change, excitability, kinetic energy. In terms of perception, the process of attention and knowing, observing.

Tamas is inertia, darkness, confusion. In terms of perception, the known or the object to be observed.

Sattva is the quality of purity. If out of balance, Rajas and Tamas become impurities that weaken perception. When Sattva dominates, we uncover our capacities for truth, honesty, humility and interest in the good of the whole. A predominance of Rajas generates value for power, prestige, authority and control. Tamas traps us in fear, servility, ignorance, and the forces of decay.

The Three Gunas give rise to the five gross elements (mahabhutas) – ether, air, fire, water and earth. From Sattva comes ether; from Rajas fire and from Tamas earth. Air arises between Sattva and Rajas. Water arises between Rajas and Tamas.

The Three Doshas

The entire cosmos is an interplay of the energies of the five elements. The three doshas – Vata, Pitta and Kapha are combinations of the five elements that manifest as patterns in all creation. The doshas bind the five elements into living flesh. Everybody has at least some of each dosha, without all three doshas, life cannot exist. The doshas are agents of DNA which form the blueprint for the physiology of the organism.

Each individual is born with a unique ratio of Vata, Pitta and Kapha which is called one’s constitution or individual prakriti. Constitutional type or individual prakriti is the concept in Ayurveda, which defines physical, physiological, and psychological traits of an individual. The knowledge of one’s constitution or individual prakriti, along with an understanding of the principles of Ayurveda, empowers the individual to make diet and lifestyle choices to prevent illness and promote health, happiness and longevity.

Vata dosha is comprised of ether and air – it is cold, dry, rough, light, expansive, empty, subtle, moving and changeable. It is the subtle energy associated with movement which governs breathing, blinking, muscle and tissue movement, the pulsation of the heart, and all the movement in the cytoplasm and cell membranes. In balance it promotes creativity and flexibility. Out of balance it produces fear, anxiety and abnormal movements. Other personal traits associated with vata dosha may include quick comprehension, mental spaciness, empathy, creativity or emotionality.