Introduction to Ancient and Modern Systems of Ayurveda – Part I
By Hansaraj Chand
I first came upon Ayurveda and yoga in my late teens. They have profoundly impacted my life and continue to unfold to me with each new day, new season and new year as an opportunity to refine my understanding and integration of these principles into my own life cycle. I feel incredibly lucky to share some of what I have learned personally and professionally these last 15+ years. These traditions were passed on verbally for many thousands of years before being codified. When offered the opportunity to connect to that stream of consciousness through sharing it is truly a blessing.
Ayurveda is an ancient science of health and healing. Ayurveda primarily uses lifestyle practices like yoga as a therapeutic instrument along with diet, herbs, sounds and mantra, meditation as well as cleansing and balancing therapies. There is a modern approach to Ayurveda that is more common and another more ancient one that is not as well known
This two-part article will be discussing both, as there is much that they share. The first part will be more focused on the basic principles of modern Ayurveda as a foundation with some more advanced concepts touched upon. The second part will summarize the first article and the ancient system will be more formally introduced.
To help understand the ancient system of Ayurveda discussed more in part II it will help to understand it how it is being largely presented and understood today. Additionally, understanding some key things about the more ancient while reading about the modern will help to deepen the modern.
Introduction to Ayurveda
Ayurveda is made up of two Sanskrit words: ayus which means life or life energy and veda which means knowledge or teaching. Ayurveda essentially means “knowledge of life”; sometimes it is called the “science of life”.
The word Veda has additional significance as it is also referring to the ancient literature to come out of the continent of Asia and particularly the area that has come to be known as India. This literature is among the oldest known in the world. Prior to having been written down this knowledge was passed on verbally as were all indigenous shamanic teachings. When considering this it is generally accepted that the information is many thousand years older than the surviving written records.
Ayurveda is an upaveda, meaning a smaller and younger work out of the larger Veda. For comparison yoga, although the youngest of the Vedic inspired knowledge, has been more exposed to the world. It is much more well-known than Ayurveda. Today Ayurveda is called the “sister science” to yoga, however it would be more appropriate to at least say that Ayurveda is a much older and wiser sister. The two are not on par with another although very related.
It would be preferential for Ayurveda to be given its proper respect as the higher science of which yoga is a therapeutic subset. I believe this will happen as do modern scholars. The reason is because yoga is largely culture centric. The popularity of yoga is getting a wider, universally appealing base, but Ayurveda is already that Universal philosophy that supersedes culture.
There are many reasons that yoga and Ayuveda have developed in the way that they have. Essentially, the specific therapy and distillation of yoga which can be considered an Ayurvedic therapy, was widely adopted by an entire culture and has been passed on over time to other cultures largely intact. As knowledge and interest increases, yoga will come to be known as a specific set of tools to use to balance the physiology from the broader and more in depth philosophical foundation of Ayurveda. Additionally, Ayurveda will be given its proper place in being a Universal healing system that is a subset of the older and broader Vedic philosophy.
Ayurveda comes out of the Vedanga (core Vedas) known as Jyotish (Vedic astrology) which was the study of astronomy and astrology as well as Kalpa (ritual). These two are historically linked, as were Jyotish and Ayurveda. The ancient system of Ayurveda included astrology as an important component not just diagnostically but also as treatment.
Macro and Micro
Ayurveda teaches us that we are made up of nature. We are not separate from it. It is through observing nature and the cycles of nature we come to understand our own cycles. How we are a part of nature. How it impacts us. How we impact it. The Ancient seers found this knowledge through meditation and experimentation. This is the foundation of all Vedic knowledge. All that can ever be known exists within consciousness, within nature. We only need to learn to align to it and it will unfold itself to us.
Ayurveda teaches that all of life is made up of five elements known as panchamahabhuta or “five great elements”. From dense to subtle they are: earth, water, fire, air and ether. All life is composed of these five elements.
The Three Classifications (Doshas)
According to Ayurvedic philosophy, the elements show up in a particular way in all living things. There are three classifications that are most often called the doshas. They are: vata, pitta and kapha. Each dosha has a predominance of elements and qualities.
Every one of us has vata, pitta and kapha. A kapha body type does not mean they are only kapha. These elements make up everything in nature. A “kapha” is someone who has more of those qualities and forces in their makeup.
Vata is made up of primarily the elements of air and ether. It is catabolic. The predominant qualities are: dry, cold, light, unstable, mobile, clear, subtle and rough.
Pitta is made up of primarily the element of fire. It is also often said to be made up of water as it is liquid in nature. It is metabolic. The predominant qualities are: hot, light, intense, motile, liquid, oily, and pungent smelling.
Kapha is made up of primarily water and earth. It is anabolic. The predominant qualities are: heavy, oily, cold, subtle, smooth, soft, sticky, and solid.
The doshas are not just static attributes however.
Doshas or Dhatus?
These three classifications are commonly referred to as doshas, as stated above, but this is not the entire story. Dosha means coloring or accumulation. It is an excess of these categories more appropriately also considered as forces and called dhatus. Vata, pitta and kapha are also dhatus, forces. When these forces become out of balance to the other forces we have an accumulation that are doshas. In most communication it is fine to treat them as synonymous as when doshas accumulate the dhatus too are not working properly. This additional information can lead to a much greater understanding, however, as one progresses along this path.
Vata relates largely to movement. It is considered to be more like a process. A mechanical process more specifically. It is the subtlest and when out of balance largely affects the mind and emotions. It is said in Ayurveda that 80% of all illness is vata related.
Kapha relates largely to substance and structure. It is the most physical and observable.
Pitta is like each of these as it is process and substance. Pitta is different because, being metabolic, it involves transformation and change. Acting largely as a fulcrum between the other two, when pitta is out of balance this often leads to the other two becoming out of balance as well.
The modern system of Ayurveda deals largely with body-types, and this is typically known as constitution. There are seven major types that involve the three doshas already mentioned. The somatotype designation as it is largely synonymous in context of structure and better known.
Kapha – typically larger build and having the most mass and structure (mesomorph). This body type tends toward health issues that deal with excess such as weight, mucus. Words that could be used to describe a classic person of this type would be “big boned”, grounded, earthy, loyal, laid-back.
Pitta – typically medium build mass is predominantly muscular (endomorph). This body type tends toward health issues of inflammatory and/or metabolic conditions. Some words to describe pitta types: hyper, intense, reactive, industrious, motivating, competitive, athletic.
Vata – typically a smaller build, least amount of mass, more delicate structure but can be abnormally tall (ectomorph). This type tends towards issues of deficiency. Some related descriptive words: spacey, imaginative, sensitive, random, creative, playful.
Kapha and pitta mixed
Kapha and vata mixed
Pitta and vata mixed
Vata, pitta and kapha mixed
How You Were: Prakriti
A person’s original state is known as Prakriti. This is how we were when we were born and also likely how we spent at least a good portion of our childhood.
This original state is better equated to vata, pitta and kapha as forces. This will be the natural tendency of the person. It may help to explain that a person can be without any dosha when in health. They have no excess, no accumulation but even then they will have a natural tendency towards being like one of these (or a combination).
A naturally high metabolism for instance (pitta) would be something that would be seen as a baby and largely throughout childhood. This may change over time and this may be as the result of lifestyle factors that have not helped to cultivate this natural gift.
Over time everyone’s digestive strength diminishes. This is part of the larger life cycle that we each will experience.
How You Are Now: Vrikriti
An individual’s current state is known as their Vrikriti. Ayurveda would say that the closer one’s current state is with their original state, the closer they are to health. This is the person in the example about having no dosha but still dhatu.
In the previous example, a person who had a Prakriti of pitta may become quite vattic or kaphic. Their Vrikriti is no longer matching their Prakriti. When this happens, the person is not in balance with the vata or kapha, as it is not a natural part of them to this degree. This means that these natural forces manifest as health issues. Kapha for example could manifest as being overweight or depressed. Vata could manifest as being underweight and anxious.
A more specific example would be if the person above had a current state of vata. They now have a dosha of vata. The practitioner would look secondarily to see if pitta is still strong or has become weak. Each would be treated differently but the goal in treatment would be to lessen the dosha (accumulation) of vata. And steady the dhatu (force) of pitta.
In a modern Ayurvedic consultation both of these would be analyzed as much as possible as one’s original state has to be largely inferred. Obviously the ability available information for one’s current state will be more available. The interview is considered important as the practitioner is looking for the full experience of the individual, their cognition and description of their health and issues, what is observed, what is inferred and also what is intuited.
Progress would be measured through another interview and re-testing after a course of lifestyle recommendations were undertaken by the individual.
The imbalance types are less known by even those familiar with Ayurveda. They come from a more ancient system of Ayurveda that was originally linked to Jyotish (Vedic Astrology). These are a deeper energetic pathology that happen regardless of body type. These will be covered in part II.
Crimes Against Wisdom
There is an important concept in Vedic thought called Prajnaparadha that means “a crime against wisdom.” This is paramount in Ayurveda and considered the cause of all disease. Wisdom is characterized as something natural as opposed to something that has been learned. Ayurveda would say that there is a natural intelligence within us that guides us towards things that support us if we are allowing and paying attention. One of the practices that we can come into a better understanding of this is to make an effort to not suppress any natural urge. These natural urges are: flatulence, defecation, urination, belching, sneezing, thirst, hunger, sleep, cough, breathing rapidly with exertion, yawning, tears, vomiting and ejaculation.
This teaches us what is natural and what is typical are not the same. I have often been asked “if Ayurveda (or yoga) is natural, why is it so hard?” It shouldn’t be hard but it is. Considering the list above, if one gave into the natural intelligence of the body fully they would not be fit for modern society. This is just one example of how we have become unnatural over time. We developed control over these natural urges but in that control we have also made their importance something of convenience for us and what we want to accomplish. Every person alive can think of how they have had to “hold” a bowel movement. This can also be a chronic problem. If, for example, a child doesn’t feel comfortable using the bathroom at school and regularly “hold” back this natural urging overtime this has an effect on the entire system leading to future issues on many different levels.
Advantages of Ayurveda
Ayurveda is considered a universal system. It looks to the person as a makeup of elements and forces and considers them largely multidimensional. We are an energetic structure seeking harmony with its environment. The Universe too is seen as multidimensional and energetic. Ayurveda looks at the person at that time and considers the environment at that time as well as the components of all the treatments and recommendations to the deepest level it can. For example, in recommending a specific herb as being therapeutic the recommendation may not only include the herb but the location and time of its collection, to be taken at a particular time of day, with a particular way of delivery. All to aid the person on these different levels. It is highly specialized and incorporates knowledge along with intuitive development.
Aligning Micro to Macro
Ayurveda is highly specialized as it is concerned with understanding the individual as well as the environment. Practices differ during the time of day, the season, the age of the individual and the individual’s constitution. This is a major advantage and moves this health science into a present oriented philosophy. The different was of alignment that can only be mentioned briefly allude to this wonderful holistic complexity. By request these can be expanded upon in future articles.
Aligning to the Day: Dinacharya. Dinacharya means daily routine. This deals with our daily routine. To balance vata spending a little more time in bed whereas balancing kapha would require getting up much earlier. From variations on when to eat and when to exercise a person in a sense learns how to master the day and be their most productive. Successful days eventually turn into a greater experience of general health and contentment.
Seasonal Alignment: Ritucharya. Ritucharya is alignment to the seasons. This is very important to health. In a companion to this article we have included resources to help align to the current change that is taking place. When we align to these seasonal changes we give our bodies what is needed to handle the change by maintaining balance. We change along with the season.
Life Cycles: these involve practices most appropriate to times of our lives. There is an broader overall that our early life to early adulthood is more on learning and merging into the society (kapha period), middle age (pitta period) is obtaining financial success and building a family and later life is focused on spiritual pursuits (vata period). In addition each decade of life there is a beginning of decline in a major system. Through extra support it is possible to maintain a highly functional state of health.
Ayurveda, Yoga and Jyotish
To properly understand these to an appreciable depth they must be placed in proper context. Each of these topics by themselves have a body of work that encompasses libraries. It is not possible to give them any justice in a small article such as this. Each cannot be understood without the other. My summary definitions here are to provide some preliminary interest in seeking out a larger understanding.
So I thank you for taking the time to read this introductory article to a life-long study. Please do not hesitate to send comments or questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hansaraj Chand (Matthew Russell LaBarre) is a psychic empathic spiritual counselor and medical/health intuitive. He uses Jyotish, Ayurveda, yoga, meditation, sensory deprivation, vibroacoustic (sound) healing and bodywork with clients at the calm center in Endwell.