A Discussion of Ayurveda
with Leah Barr
What is Ayurveda?
Ayurveda, which means the “The knowledge of Life,” is the sister science to yoga and a complete body, mind, and spirit approach to health and well-being that has flourished in South Asia for more than 5,000 years. Like other Eastern systems of medicine, it views symptoms in their larger context and aims to treat and address disease at its root cause. It teaches us that human beings, as aspects of nature, are governed by its rhythms and patterns, and that healing is possible when these rhythms and patterns are well understood and honored. Ayurveda’s simple premise — that the body’s healing potential is unleashed when the causes of imbalance are removed— forms the foundation of Ayurvedic medicine and practices.
What is Balance or Imbalance according to Ayurveda?
According to Ayurveda, symptoms, whether mental or physical, are our body’s way of letting us know we are out of balance or out of alignment with nature. The innate guiding force of every cell in the human body is moving towards a state of self-preservation, health, and balance. This potential state of perfect health or balance which resides in each of us is our inner essence or sva. However, the stresses and toxicities of life, some of which are avoidable, some of which aren’t, come into play and move us away from a state of balance. These stressors can run the gambit from poor food and lifestyle habits to negative self-talk and other sorts of self-imposed stress, from a toxic work environment to literal toxins in the environment, to invading bacterial or viral pathogens. In short, the state of our mental and physical health is a question of resilience and immunity to physical, psychological, and environmental stressors. In fact, one of the greatest benefits of Ayurveda and living in harmony with your true nature is the increased capacity to flourish while resisting the effects of time and space.
How We Can Cultivate Resilience and Come Back into Alignment with Nature
From an Ayurvedic standpoint the critical question is, “How can we come back into alignment with our own unique nature?” This question brings us to the cornerstone of Ayurveda: the Ayurvedic constitutions or doshas. The three doshas— Vata, Pitta, and Kapha — can be thought of as fundamental biological energies that come together in unique ratios or combinations of elements to form a person’s constitution. The elements — air, ether, fire, water and earth — are considered the building blocks of life in Ayurveda and combine to form the doshas. Vata dosha is composed of air and ether and governs motion and circulation in the body, including the movement of nerve impulses and joints and even the circulation of thoughts. Pitta dosha is composed of fire and a little bit of water and governs metabolic function and digestion. Kapha dosha is composed of earth and water and governs the solid structures of the body like bones and tissues. All three doshas exist in every person but to know your own dosha is to know which of the elemental qualities predominate in your system. Elemental qualities including but not limited to cold, dry, mobile (air and ether or vata); hot, light, sharp (fire and water or pitta); or damp, immobile, heavy (earth and water or kapha) combine in different ratios inside each of us to create unique tendencies, conditions, dispositions, personalities, and states of being.
The interplay of these qualities in your system will heavily influence what you are drawn to, what you are repelled by, what will make you sick and what will make you well. The elemental qualities which we came into the world with impart their uniques gifts to each of us but when these qualities become excessive (too much of a good thing, if you will) we fall out of balance. The capacity to move back towards a state a balance involves the knowledge, awareness, and wherewithal to recognize which elemental qualities we need more of and which we need less of. Since the elements are the building blocks of the material world they exist in everything we see, touch, hear, taste and smell so knowing which qualities to bring in and which to avoid is key to healing. The more these elemental qualities are considered in regard to what we eat and take in through the senses, the healthier we will be.
The Empowerment of Knowing Your Constitution
If you are sick, knowledge of the nature of your imbalance can help you restore your natural balance and maximize the healing process. If you are relatively healthy, knowledge of your constitution can help you achieve your entire well-being—mental, emotional, and spiritual — as you learn what practices, foods, and sensory therapies provide the deepest nourishment to your body, mind and spirit. Sometimes the adjustments we need are subtle and relatively easy and sometimes the adjustments required are more extensive. Either way, it is the power of awareness, knowing ourselves, that shows us the path towards greater resilience, immunity, vitality, health and well-being.
The Role of the Clinical Practitioner
Much of the practice of Ayurvedic medicine hinges on the right food, medicine, practice, herb or activity for the right person. The constellation of the elemental qualities in your system unlocks the puzzling question of why one person’s poison is another’s cure. The practitioner’s role is to discern a person’s constitution and then to facilitate over time the implementation and integration of the most beneficial practices for that person.
It is important to understand that the qualities which comprise your constitution are your natural qualities — how you came out of the factory, as it were — but they do not necessarily represent how you look or feel today. Your environment and the totality of your experiences are functions of time and space which cannot only wear you down but mask the expression of your natural qualities. An Ayurvedic practitioner is trained to discern the difference between your inherent qualities from the qualities which are a function of your environment and your experiences, and to develop an individually tailored treatment plan so that the natural gifts and abundance of your constitution can emerge in their most optimal way.
Leah is a graduate of the California College of Ayurveda and has been practicing and teaching yoga for over 20 years. She is excited and honored to bring her offerings to Pekoe!