Ayurveda means “the science of life.” As the world’s oldest mind/body medicine, Ayurveda considers our individual human existence, health and dis-ease in holistic terms––inseparable from the intrinsic cosmic unity of consciousness, energy and matter. Therefore, in order to determine what makes an individual body healthy, the first practitioners of Ayurveda studied the laws and interrelatedness of the cosmos. And in order to understand the functioning of the universe, they examined the operations of the human body.
The Five Elements (Tattvas) and Human Body
Within the human body lie many cavities comprised of the ether element. For example, space exists in the mouth, nose, respiratory and gastrointestinal tracts, capillaries, lymphatics and in all the tissues and cells. All functions of the body take place within space. All relationships and responses of the physical body require space as an element of their operation.
Space in motion is air, and in the human body the air element manifests in the movement of the muscles, stomach and intestines, the beating of the heart and the expansion and contraction of the lungs. On the molecular level also, constant motion within the human body is governed by the air element. These movements include the motility of individual cells, sensory and motor activity of nerve impulses and the wide-ranging operations of the central nervous system.
The fire element is responsible for digestion, metabolism and the maintenance of body temperature. In the brain, fire facilitates the thinking process. In the functioning of sight, fire makes it possible for the retina to perceive light.
Three quarters of the human body is composed of water. Water manifests in all bodily secretions and is vital to the workings of the body’s mucous membranes, tissues, organs, plasma and cytoplasm. It is the water element that cools and cleans all vital systems.
Every solid structure of the human body is a manifestation of the earth element. Bones, cartilage, muscles, tendons, skin, hair and nails are all constructed of the earth element present in the food we have ingested.
The Three Doshas: Vata, Pitta and Kapha
The science of Ayurveda states that each human being is born with a certain unique and perfect individual balance of the five elements: Space (ether), air, fire, water and earth. In each manifested form, including the human being, the five basic elements combine into three categories called doshas.
The three doshas of Ayurveda are vata, pitta and kapha. When balanced, the doshas maintain a healthy physiological and psychological condition; and when imbalanced, they contribute to the process of physical, mental and/or emotional dis-ease.
These doshas govern the everyday activities of both the body and mind. The balance of vata, pitta and kapha is responsible for the rise of natural urges and for individual preferences, such as the flavor, temperature and degree of spiciness of foods. The doshas influence the creation, maintenance and destruction of bodily tissue and the elimination of waste products from the body. Imbalanced doshas contribute to the arousal of emotions like fear, anger and greed, while balanced doshas facilitate human understanding, compassion and love.
Vata dosha, the combination of space and air, is present wherever there is movement in the body. Vata regulates such processes as breathing, blinking of the eyelids, beating of the heart, and the expansion and contraction in muscles, tissues, cell membranes and nerves. It is the cause of pain, tremors and spasms. The large intestine, pelvic cavity, bones, skin, ears and thighs are all sites where excess vata tends to accumulate. Excess vata is responsible for such emotions as worry, fear and anxiety. Vata is also expressed as cheerfulness, flexibility and creativity.
Pitta dosha is the combination of fire and water elements. Pitta governs the processes of digestion, absorption, assimilation, nutrition, metabolism, temperature, eyesight, skin coloration, and intelligence. The small intestine, stomach, sweat glands, blood, fat, eyes and skin are the sites in the body where excess pitta tends to accumulate. Excess pitta incites anger, hatred and aggression. Pitta is also expressed as efficiency, leadership and focus.
Kapha dosha is the combination of the elements of earth and water. The bonding quality and heaviness of kapha provides the material for the body’s physical structure. Kapha lubricates the joints, provides moisture to the skin, helps heal wounds, gives strength, vigor and stability, supports memory retention, gives energy to the heart and lungs and maintains the immune system. Excess kapha manifests as symptoms in the chest, throat, head, sinuses, nose, mouth, stomach, joints, cytoplasm, plasma and such liquid secretions as mucus. Kapha is responsible for emotions of attachment, greed and jealousy. It is also expressed as calmness, forgiveness and compassion.
Forming the Individual Constitution
The basic vata-pitta-kapha constitution of each individual is determined by a combination of doshic factors. The unique vata-pitta-kapha of the father, mother, time of day and season of the year all merge together into the unique vata-pitta-kapha of the egg and sperm to form the vata-pitta-kapha of the embryo at the moment of conception.
Although each person’s doshic balance is unique and specific, for the sake of practicality, Ayurveda recognizes seven constitutional types: (1) vata; (2) pitta; (3) kapha; (4) vata-pitta or pitta-vata; (5) pitta-kapha or kapha-pitta; (6) vata-kapha or kapha-vata; and (7) vata-pitta-kapha (also referred to as tri-doshic).
The constitution, or nature, of an individual is called prakriti. Its unique and perfect balance of the five elements present at birth, and it should remain virtually unaltered throughout one’s lifetime. However, this balance is subject to continuous influence by the vata, pitta and kapha of the external environment. The balance of space, air, fire, water and earth found in the food we eat, the seasons of the year, the time of day and the activities we engage in can modify the internal balance of elements. However, Ayurveda maintains that healing can take place only when an individual’s internal vata-pitta-kapha returns to the unique balance present at birth.
Balancing the Elements for Health
This original balance can be re-established by working with diet, habits and attachments, as well as by making changes in the external environment. By consciously making discriminating choices, we can make the power of Ayurveda an integral part of spiritual practice. Employing this wisdom helps purify the discriminating conscience (buddhi) so that our conscious choices serve our own Inner Wisdom.
The body is designed to operate in health, but habit patterns stored in the unconscious mind can motivate debilitating actions that contribute to physical, mental and emotional dis-ease. Because the vast majority of diseases start in the mind, most are preventable––and many existing diseases are completely reversible––if individuals can adopt an enlightened holistic approach to maintaining good health.
The practice of Ayurveda promotes human contentment, health and creative growth. A sister science to Yoga, Ayurveda is considered the mother of all intuitive healing arts. It helps the healthy person maintain health, and the diseased person regain health. Unlike some other medical systems, Ayurveda is not merely a band-aid applied to ameliorate a distressing symptom. By earnestly integrating the principles of Ayurveda into spiritual practice, we can actually retard the processes of physical deterioration and disease, develop skills that access superconscious knowledge, and even accelerate the process of spiritual transformation.
Understanding the Disease Process
If we maintain the original balance with which we were born, the body will naturally function at its optimal level of health, but for a number of reasons, this personal balance may not be easily maintained. The character of each food we consume, the specific hour of each day, the various seasons of the year and our own mental processes all contribute doshic influences that can upset our natural balance.
Such imbalances of the doshas retard the complete digestion of the food we eat and set the disease process in motion. Incompletely digested food generates a subtle poison called ama, which begins to accumulate in different receptive sites in the body. The most hospitable locations for ama are determined by our genetic weak links.
According to Ayurveda, all disease begins in the gut. When our imbalanced doshas cause food to be incompletely digested, the resulting ama is deposited in much the same way road crews fill potholes in city streets. When sufficient ama is produced, the accumulating site can become so aggravated that it is effectively sealed off from the nourishing life force of vital energy (pranas) provided through the air and food. At that point, the seeds of dis-ease begin to sprout. Remember, all of the seeds and the possibilities of life––past, present and future––exist at creation. Even the seeds of potential disease appear at the moment of conception. But in order for illness to manifest, the right conditions must arise, and in most cases, those right conditions mean an aggravation by ama.
Reversing the Disease Process:
The Role of Allopathic Medicine and Pharmacology
Neither Ayurveda nor Yoga Science advises, “Do not see a doctor; do not have an operation; do not take medicine.” If the disease process has advanced to a critical stage, the best remedy at that point may indeed be an allopathic medicine or even surgery.
It’s generally prudent to work in partnership with your allopathic (M.D.) or osteopathic (D.O.) physician. After all, Yoga Science proclaims that every thing and every one is a manifestation of the Supreme Reality. That includes your medical doctor, surgeon and appropriate drugs, should any of these become necessary to restore your health.
Since we eat so often and have developed many attachments to foods we like and aversions to those we dislike, if we control the palate, we can control much of our destiny.
The implications are profound. If the disease process has not advanced too far, we can initiate and accelerate the healing process by restoring our natural balance of vata, pitta and kapha. With a basic understanding of Ayurvedic principles we can retard the production of ama, enhance receptivity to healing pranas and encourage the body to fully manifest its inherent potential for good health.
By Leonard Perlmutter (Ram Lev), published in Yogic Herald March 2018