Ayurveda: The Ancient Healing Art of India
You probably know what a downward dog is, but do know how to balance your doshas? Learn the principles of Ayurvedic medicine and how they apply to your health.
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Scott Gerson, M.D.
Medical Director, National Institute Of Ayurvedic Medicine
February 24, 2005
What is Ayurveda?
Ayurveda is a Sanskrit word meaning "Science of Life." (Sanskrit is the ancient language of India still in use today). Originating in India over 3000 years ago, Ayurveda teaches us how to live in harmony with Nature, and how living this way induces good physical and emotional health. Ayurveda acknowledges the individuality of each person's body type and teaches how different body types interact uniquely with their environment. In Ayurveda, no two people are the same, therefore, no one way of life, herbal remedy, diet, etc. works for all people. Ayurveda teaches us how to understand our body type so that we may provide ourselves with the diet and lifestyle that brings emotional and physical balance to out lives.
The Three Metabolic Principles: Air, Fire, and Water
This natural state of balance is understood in terms of an important Ayurvedic concept--three energetic and metabolic principles known as doshas which govern the functioning of the entire body. The three doshas are named Air, Fire, and Water (called Vata, Pitta, and Kapha in Sanskrit) and each has specific qualities and governs certain physiological activities. The doshas are not thought of as specifically physiological, but rather as subtle principles that emerge early in the manifestation of any natural form. Therefore, they are understood to operate, not only in the human being, but throughout nature.
In terms of the human body, Air--which governs motion and activity--is said to be at the basis of all movement in the physiology. It controls functions such as blood circulation and the expansion and contraction of the lungs and heart; intestinal peristalsis and elimination; activities of the nervous system; the contractile process in muscle; ionic transport across membranes (such as the sodium pump); cell division; and unwinding and pairing of DNA during the processes of transcription or replication. Air energy is of prime importance in all homeostatic mechanisms.
Fire governs bodily functions concerned with heat and metabolism, and directs all biochemical reactions and the processes of energy exchange. For example, it regulates digestion, the secretions of the exocrine glands and the endocrine hormones, and intracellular metabolic pathways such as glycolysis, the tricarboxylic acid cycle, ATP metabolism, and the respiratory chain.
Water governs the structure and cohesion of the organism. It is responsible for physical and biological strength, natural tissue resistance, and proper body structure. Microscopically, it is related to anatomic connections in the cell, such as the intracellular matrix, cell membrane, cellular receptors, and synapses. It is the energetic principle that holds things together and connects us to the intelligence of Nature.
All people consist of all three of these energies but have differing and unique proportions of the three. According to which one or two of these energies predominate in a particular individual, that individual will display certain physical and psychological characteristics. The one energy which is most dominant of all determines a person's body type.
What are the BodyTypes?
There are three basic body types which are traditionally named: Vata, Pitta, and Kapha but which are again commonly thought of as Air, Fire and Water. In this article we will use the latter common English terms for the three body types. Most people find that they have a primary body type and a secondary body type. For instance, a person may be primarily a fire type but also demonstrate many water characteristics as well. Body types refer to a person's physical characteristics as well as their mental and emotional qualities.
Physically, air type individuals are usually thin and angular physiques, love to be on the move, and have curly or frizzy hair. Their skin has a gray or bluish tone and can have lines around the eyes and mouth. Air people tend to forget things easily, though they are by nature bright and creative. Their flow of energy tends to be unsteady, and they often are attracted to stimulants such as sugar and caffeine, to maintain their energy.
Fire people are attractive and have medium-sized physiques. Although a redhead definitely has fire characteristics, fire people may also have blond, light brown, or prematurely gray hair. Fire types have oily skin and hair. Their skin may have a yellowish or reddish tint to it, As their name, suggests, fire people tend to be ambitious, driven people, comparable to stereotypical Type A personalities of Western psychologists. They tend to be intense and aggressive individuals who are naturally drawn to positions of leadership and responsibility. Indeed, fire types have an affinity for adversity and challenge and often seek it out. They may be prone to abuse alcohol, drugs, and hot spices in an unconscious effort to infuse their lives (and food) with intensity and flavor.
Physically, water types tend to have larger and more solid physiques, sometimes with a tendency to be overweight. They often have big eyes and beautiful dark hair. Their skin is generally healthy, with rosy complexions and their teeth are white and straight. Thickly built, water types tend to have a steady supply of energy and an easy-going disposition. Because of a love of food and a tendency towards heaviness, water types benefit from eating lightly and getting plenty of exercise. Unfortunately, water types especially have an affinity for heavy and sweet foods like ice cream, breads and pasta. Water types also have a relative aversion to physical exertion, preferring to relax and enjoy life.
Determining Your Body Type
Most people intuitively comprehend the idea that there are indeed unique body types and want more information to help them discover what type they are as well as that of their family members, business associates, and friends. Knowing your type and that of others can give you a tremendous amount of insight into the natural tendencies, strengths, and weaknesses of each person and therefore guide you in your associations and expectations.
Figuring out the body types of those around you can be a very interesting exercise. An airport, supermarket, or shopping mall are excellent places to see the different body types at work.
Imagine yourself calmly seated in the airport or walking around your local supermarket or mall. As you sit at the airport your eyes may be caught first by the air person who seems to be moving quicker and more "staccato" than the people around her. She is dressed in a colorful, flowing skirt and a scarf, and she is carrying numerous pieces of luggage and bags of differing styles and sizes. You may be amused as she seems to begin to move in five different directions at once! She takes a step towards the newsstand, then the restaurant, then finally toward the restroom where she quickly walks. Emerging a few moments later, she realizes her flight is about to take off and rushes off--in the wrong direction! Finally she arrives at the gate in the knick of time.
Now you are at the supermarket and you see a well-dressed fire person enter the store and go purposefully and directly to the aisle with the yogurt and butter. Undistracted by other foods and people, he then heads over to the poultry shelf and in a few seconds selects the highest quality (and most expensive) chicken breasts. Fire people are always organized, well-oriented, never appear uncertain, and rarely ask for help.
They also are concerned about their personal hygiene, are never sloppy, and enjoy spending money on high quality items. Having found the items he came looking for our fire person, without hesitation, somehow picks the shortest checkout line and efficiently completes his shopping.
At the shopping mall, you can see the water person casually strolling along window-shopping while enjoying an ice-cream cone. Being very social people, she is probably accompanied by one or more friends or children. She is comfortably dressed, perhaps slightly disshevled, and although she may have come to the mall for a specific purpose appears to be carefree and enjoying herself nevertheless. She may decide to sit down on one of the benches and chat with her friends or enjoy her snack. She, like all water types, is never in a rush and seems immune to agitation.
A complete assessment of one's body type is arrived at through use of an Ayurvedic questionnaire and an examination and pulse diagnosis by a trained Ayurvedic physician. But from the brief descriptions above you can begin to get a hint about which of the three types is most dominant in you.
How to Use This Information
The central principle of Ayurveda is the principle of homeostasis or balance. Homeostasis simply means the tendency for a living organism to maintain balance in spite of being exposed to numerous unbalancing influences. Each body type will establish and maintain a greater degree of balance by adopting specific diets, using specific herbs, performing different exercises, and enjoying unique lifestyles which are best suited to that particular body type. Treatments which support and balance each body type will incorporate qualities and energies which are opposite to those which tend to become excessive in that body type.
For example, the heaviness often encountered in a water type will be treated with lightness (e.g. light foods, aerobic exercises, stimulating herbs, etc.). Water types should consume plenty of salads and beans, use spices--except salt-- whenever possible, and minimize flesh foods.
Herbs which help reduce excessive water and fat in the body will be useful.
-Light, thin physique
-Tends toward dry skin
-Moves and performs activities quickly
-Aversion to cold temperature
-Quick to grasp new information, also quick to forget
-Tendency toward worry and nervousness
-Can experience constipation
-Light or interrupted sleep
-Irregular eating times and habits
-Enjoys being active but can tire easily
-Dislikes hot weather
-Experiences strong onset of hunger
-Cannot miss meals
-Tendency toward anger, irritability, and impatience
-Ambitious and focused in nature
-Excellent speakers and leaders
-Prefers cool foods and beverages
-Average memory and speed of performing activities
-Tendency towards reddish complexion, moles, and freckles
-Large, heavier physique
-Very muscular and broad
-Tendency toward obesity
-Slow and methodical in activities
-Slightly oily skin
-Needs more time to learn, but retains well
-Difficult to irritate, excite, or agitate
-Sleeps deeply and for long periods, if undisturbed
-Eats relatively small amounts of food
-Calm and reliable personality
-Hair is thick, dark and abundant
In a similar way the excess heat of the fire person can be treated with coolness (e.g. cooling foods like cucumbers, most fruits, plenty of dairy, as well as swimming, cooling herbs, and adequate water intake). They should also minimize spicy foods and find time for periods of meditation or simple quiet time to defuse the intensity that can often result in "burning out" syndrome so common in fire types.
The dryness of the air person can be balanced by including oil and fish in the diet and by having an occasional warm oil massage; they can also benefit from using plenty of ghee (clarified butter) in their diet which should include healthy amounts of grains and vegetable proteins to ground them and provide stability. Eating regularly and in a quiet, settled environment will help air types stay focused as will regular periods of yoga postures or other similarly gentle form of movement.
The Universal Appeal of Ayurveda
Ayurveda is the knowledge of how to live a long and disease-free life. It is as much a system of health promotion as it is a system of disease treatment. In fact, in its original teachings, the emphasis was not on health but on the achieving of higher states of consciousness which are possible for mankind. Physical and mental health were simply seen as prerequisites for these states of ultimate awareness, creativity, and joy.
However, Ayurveda is certainly not a religion. Although the writings reflect a deep reverence for the planet, Nature, and all living beings Ayurveda is an objective medical science for the well-being of all people, from all races, from all nations. In fact, although Ayurveda eventually became developed in what is today India, its earliest roots are further northwest in what is contemporary Afghanistan and Pakistan and probably dates back further than its often-quoted 5000 year history. Ayurveda is a holistic system of health-care which has universal relevance in the world today.
Except in the arena of acute illness, the modern reductionist approach to disease has little relevance. Most people do not have acute, life threatening diseases; they have chronic and debilitating diseases. Certainly in the case of certain acute diseases Western medicine is effective in identifying the single cause (i.e. meningococcal bacteria) of a disease (bacterial meningitis) and treating it with an appropriate medicine (penicillin). However, Western medicine does not address the multifactorial root of these much more prevalent chronic conditions and therefore has no theoretical framework for curing them.
The root of these diseases is not a single strain of bacteria or enzyme deficiency. The roots of these diseases are found in the whole picture which is formed by how a person lives his or her life. What we eat, how we digest and assimilate, how we breath, the rate of our metabolism, what we believe, what thoughts dominate our minds, what we feel, remember, and aspire to, what sounds, sensations, sights, smells, tastes we experience--all these things contribute to our state of health. So if we really want to comprehend the root of disease for any individual we have to know how that person lives and what that person experiences on a regular daily basis. Ayurveda counsels us to assess effects of toxins on each individual patient. This requires more than knowing about the purity of the water supply or one's constant exposure to car exhaust, although these too are important. Are there toxic habits, toxic relationships, toxic foods, toxic addictions, toxic thoughts and emotions, toxic speech, toxic lives? Is this person a happy, whole, connected human being or not? Until you can understand how a person thinks, feels, behaves, responds, desires, and dreams you cannot truly understand the origins of his or her disease. And you will not find an antibiotic, antidepressant, or antihistamine that will cure these diseases; at best allopathic medicine may succeed in temporarily masking the symptoms.
Ayurveda's focus on detoxification, strengthening immunity, and incorporation of individualized diets and lifestyle programs is recognized worldwide as an effective approach to preventing disease and improving well-being. Many of the central concepts of Ayurveda are beginning to gain acceptance even in the allopathic arenas--such as the crucial role that diet and emotions play in the disease process--and are now being actively researched. Studies of the effects of Ayurvedic herbal medicines have produced a large body of scientific knowledge whose application to human health has yet to be fully explored. Similarly, many research studies into the benefits of yoga and meditation in the treatment of disease are stimulating interest from physicians worldwide. As we enter a new millennium Ayurvedic medicine, along with other natural and holistic approaches to living, holds great promise for increasing our collective health as a nation and as a planetary community.
© 1999 Scott Gerson, M.D.
Disclaimer: This article does not represent the views of HealthyLivingNYC. Individuals should speak with their doctor before making any changes to their diet, exercise or medical behavior.