March 11, 2021

A Brief Introduction to Ayurveda

Despite its recent rise in popularity, Ayurveda is more than a trendy form of alternative medicine. It originated in India thousands of years ago and is considered to be the world’s oldest healing science. That’s why Ayurveda is often referred to as the “mother of all healing.” This introduction offers a brief overview of the history, principles, and benefits of Ayurveda.

A Brief History of Ayurveda

Some concepts of Ayurveda date back to over five thousand years ago, to the times of the Indus Valley Civilization (3300 – 1300 BCE). This advanced civilization gave rise to the Vedas, the oldest scriptures of Hinduism. These texts contain the roots of India’s spiritual and philosophical traditions, as well as its medical system. They are the earliest written references to Ayurveda and its sister science, yoga.

During the Vedic Age (1500 – 500 BCE) and the Common Era, Ayurveda flourished and spread. Important texts were written such as the Charaka Samhita and the Sushruta Samhita, which outline various surgical procedures, medicinal herbs, and dietary guidelines for a wide range of diseases. These medical works were translated to Chinese, Arabic, and Persian, and eventually reached Europe in the 12th century. Students from all around the world visited India’s universities to study Ayurveda and other subjects. 

This period of prosperity was followed by a nearly thousand-year struggle. India was invaded and occupied by various other nations – most notably the British Empire. During this period, the practice of Ayurveda declined because ruling invaders instituted their own medical systems.

After India gained independence in 1947, Ayurveda resurfaced and became an integral part of the Indian national health care system. During the New Age movement in the 1980s, Ayurveda gained popularity in the West, along with yoga and other spiritual practices. Today, Ayurveda provides tools for a growing number of health-conscious people worldwide.

What is Ayurveda?

The name Ayurveda is derived from the Sanskrit words ayur, meaning “life” or “longevity,” and veda, meaning “science” or “knowledge.” That’s why Ayurveda is defined as “the science of life.”

Ayurveda is founded on the principle that everything is interconnected. Therefore, it addresses all aspects of life – body, mind, and spirit. It recognizes that everybody is unique, with different needs, strengths, and challenges. Because many practices can be done from home, Ayurveda empowers a wide range of people to take charge of their physical, mental, and spiritual health. Today, Ayurveda is mainly practiced to:

  • Prevent and treat disease.
  • Establish healthy routines and lifestyle changes.
  • Maintain health and balance according to one’s individual constitution.
  • Cultivate the ideal physical and mental state for yoga and meditation.

The Five Elements

Ayurveda teaches that everything in existence consists of five elements: earth (prithvi) which represents solidity, water (jala) which represents cohesiveness and fluidity, fire (agni) which represents the transformation from one state to another, air (vayu) which represents movement, and ether (akash) which provides space for the other elements. These five elements are the bricks from which all matter is built.

Each of these elements is responsible for different structures in the human body. The earth element forms solid structures such as teeth and bones. It gives the body solidity and strength. Water forms liquids like saliva, blood, and sweat, and allows the body to function as one cohesive system. Fire maintains a certain temperature and supports all transformative processes within the body such as digestion. Air is responsible for all movement, whereas the ether element is present in the hollow cavities of the body.

The Three Doshas

The five elements combined form three distinct energies, called doshas. Their Sanskrit names are vatapitta, and kapha.

Vata is associated with movement and impulse – made up of air and ether. It governs muscle movement, breathing, pulsation of the heart, and movement on a cellular level. In balance, vata is expressed through creativity, flexibility, and joy. Out of balance, it arouses fear and anxiety. 

Pitta is the energy of transformation – composed of the elements fire and water. It governs appetite, digestion, absorption and assimilation of nutrients, metabolism, and body temperature. In balance, pitta promotes intelligence, ambition, and charisma. Out of balance, it quickly turns into anger.

Kapha provides structure and holds the body together – made of earth and water. It forms solid bodily structures like bones, muscles, and tendons. It also regulates bodily fluids, thus lubricating the joints and moisturizing the skin. In balance, kapha promotes grounding, compassion, and contentment. Out of balance, it is expressed as attachment, greed, and lethargy.

All people have the energies of vata, pitta, and kapha, but at different levels. Usually, one quality is primary, one secondary, and the third is least prominent. This combination determines an individual’s constitution, called prakriti in Sanskrit. It represents one’s natural state of equilibrium and health. It’s determined at conception and remains the same throughout one’s life. 

However, this constitution can be disturbed by many factors, like one’s food choices, relationships, and emotional state, as well as the weather and seasons. These internal and external stresses cause an excess or deficiency of a certain dosha. As opposed to one’s original constitution (prakriti), this current state is called vikriti.

Health Through Balance

According to Ayurveda, imbalance (the excess or deficiency of a certain dosha) is the root cause of disease. Therefore, the main goal is to return to one’s innate state of balance. This can be achieved through dietary and lifestyle changes, the use of herbs, and other therapies.

This shows the basic difference between Ayurveda and Western medicine: Western medicine tends to focus on treating the symptoms of a disease (often using drugs or surgery). Ayurveda, on the other hand, focuses on holistic measures that enhance a person’s overall health. While Western medicine has saved many lives, the prolonged use of medication can have adverse effects on the body. Therefore, Ayurveda can be utilized as a complementary system of healing.

While only an Ayurvedic doctor can assess your constitution and possible imbalances, there are many online quizzes such as this one that may provide some insights to start your Ayurveda journey.