Intro to Ayurveda - Ayurvedic Medicine | Banyan Botanicals

Introduction to Ayurveda

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Have you ever longed for a straightforward map illuminating the elusive path to vibrant health, meaningful purpose, and an enduring sense of peace, contentment, and joy? Look no further. Ayurveda literally means “knowledge of life” and its scope is truly no less encompassing. While the tradition is thought to be over five thousand years old, Ayurveda remains as relevant as ever—and it is enlivened every day as individuals around the world engage its timeless wisdom in their day-to-day lives.

Embracing the Individual

Ayurveda is a remarkably individualized system of medicine. The tradition is rooted in the idea that each of us is born with a completely personal blueprint for optimum health. From birth onward, it is this reference point—your constitution—that, in many ways, defines who you are. No two constitutions are exactly alike; therefore, no two human beings can have precisely the same expression of ideal health.

In Ayurveda, everything is medicine and everything is poison; what might be beneficial to you could harm someone else, and visa versa. It all depends on the context of who you are, and what patterns are currently at play in your particular system. Ayurveda is fundamentally opposed to one-size-fits-all remedies. While there are certainly some practices that are considered to be beneficial for most everyone, Ayurveda places the focus firmly on you, the individual concerned. This is why your Ayurvedic Profile™—an assessment of your constitution, your current state of balance, and a set of personalized recommendations to support you in your journey towards optimal health—can be such an empowering resource.

Defining Health

Ayurveda is an unequivocally holistic tradition that reaches far beyond the realms of physical health, healing, and the prevention of disease. It has a remarkable capacity to help each of us sync up with our truest inner nature, honor and develop our strengths, hone in on our challenge areas, redirect detrimental tendencies, and offer real support wherever it is needed—so that we can better maintain balance in the face of adversity. At its root, Ayurveda is a way of life that can help each of us to claim and celebrate our capacity for a fully embodied sense of wellness.

The Sanskrit word for health, svastha, describes an authentically harmonious interaction of many parts within the whole—such that the mind, soul, and senses are infused with an abiding sense of Self, wellness, and even bliss. Achieving this quality of life may seem a lofty ambition, especially when human beings throughout the world are riddled with stress, anxiety, and chronic disease. But Ayurveda provides a treasure chest of elegant and insightful tools that can be used to assess the degree of discord (no matter how slight or severe), determine its root, and ultimately, begin reclaiming our health.

The Lenses of Ayurveda

As a starting place, it is helpful to have a basic understanding of some of the lenses through which Ayurveda views the universe. These are foundational tools for understanding the laws of nature, identifying various states of health or imbalance, and for charting a course toward improved well-being.

The Five Elements

Ayurveda recognizes five elements as the fundamental building blocks of nature—earth, water, fire, air, and ether (space). Every substance, every cell, contains all five of these elements. That said, in a given substance, one or two elements are typically predominant over the others.

The Twenty Qualities

Ayurveda also identifies twenty qualities (the gunas) that can be used to describe every substance or experience. These qualities are organized into the following ten pairs of opposites:

Heavy Light
Slow (Dull) Sharp (Penetrating)
Cold Hot
Oily Dry
Smooth Rough
Dense Liquid
Soft Hard
Stable Mobile
Gross Subtle
Cloudy (Sticky) Clear

The gunas are essential to understanding the Ayurvedic principle that like increases like and that opposites balance. For example, a person who is particularly cold natured, living in a cold climate, in the middle of winter, is likely to be experiencing an aggravation of the cold quality. The remedy? Heat—in the form of warming foods, hot drinks, heating spices, soothing baths, snuggly warm clothes, and if possible, an abundance of heart-warming experiences.

The Three Doshas

Then there are the three doshas (bodily humors): vata, pitta, and kapha. Each of them embodies a particular combination of elements and qualities to create a functional entity—an energetic force of nature. The doshas, or some combination of them, can be identified in various seasons, climates, landscapes, activities, plants, and animals. In the context of our bodies, all three doshas are necessary to facilitate important physiological functions. But if they accumulate beyond healthy limits (those determined by one’s constitution), the doshas can also wreak havoc on our health.

Dosha Vata Pitta Kapha
Primary Elements Air + Ether Fire + Water Water + Earth
Qualities Dry
Light
Cold
Rough
Subtle
Mobile
Clear
Hot
Sharp
Light
Liquid
Spreading
Oily
Heavy
Slow
Cool
Oily
Smooth
Dense
Soft
Stable
Gross
Cloudy (Sticky)

 

All three doshas are present in everyone, but the ratio between them varies a great deal from one person to the next. We will get to that in a moment, but first, here is an overview of the essential nature of each dosha.

Vata

Vata is the energy of air and ether, movement and impulse, creativity and connection. This dosha governs breathing, the pulsation of the heart, muscle movement in general, nerve impulses, sensory perception, communication, and our capacity to experience flexibility, joy, and expansive consciousness.

In excess, vata can cause fear, anxiety, physical and emotional constriction, ungroundedness, poor circulation, constipation, dry skin, cracking joints, emaciation, insomnia, twitches, tremors, and other abnormal movements.

Pitta

Pitta is the energy of fire and water, digestion and transformation. This dosha governs appetite, digestion, absorption, assimilation, intelligence, charisma, courage, and ambition.

In excess, pitta can cause anger, jealousy, inflammation, excessive heat, heartburn, loose stools, migraines, rashes, bruising, bleeding disorders, sharp hunger, an overactive metabolism, and difficulty sleeping.

Kapha

Kapha is the energy of water and earth, structure and cohesiveness, grounding and stability. This dosha governs nourishment, growth, lubrication, regeneration, fluid balance, fat regulation, strength, stamina, memory, and our ability to feel compassion and contentment.

In excess, kapha can cause attachment, greed, resistance to change, lack of motivation, heaviness in the mind and body, excessive sleep, depression, a sluggish metabolism, congestion, water retention, hardening of the arteries, and the formation of masses and tumors.

A New Paradigm

According to Ayurveda, your constitution (prakriti, in Sanskrit) is the particular combination of vata, pitta, and kapha that is established within you at conception, cemented at birth, and that remains constant over the course of your lifetime. It represents your natural state of equilibrium, your blueprint for perfect health, and it influences your physiology, your physique, your likes and dislikes, your tendencies and habits, your mental and emotional character, as well as your vulnerabilities toward imbalance and disease. Therefore, understanding your constitution can be truly enlightening.

But if vata, pitta, or kapha become imbalanced, and this baseline state of health is disturbed, the doshas can also cause a great deal of harm. When this occurs, recognizing which doshas are at play and where they have accumulated is a critical first step in discerning how to return to balance. This is why your current state of balance (vikriti, in Sanskrit), which reflects the present level of the doshas in your system, is equally important. In contrast to one’s constitution, the current state of balance can and does change over time, as we move through different climates, different seasons, and the various stages of life. It is also impacted by our daily routines, diet, exercise, relationships, stress levels, and our evolving life circumstances. In fact, it is not uncommon for one’s current state to undergo minute changes from one day to the next, or even over the course of a single day.

Together, your constitution and your current state of balance provide an invaluable context from which to consider your path forward. A seasoned Ayurvedic practitioner uses all of this information to identify the root cause of any departure from one’s natural state of equilibrium, and to determine how balance can best be restored.

 

Banyan friend, Tami

Cultivating Balance

At the heart of the Ayurvedic approach to wellness is the idea that like increases like and that opposites balance. So whether we are attempting to mitigate the effects of certain innate vulnerabilities, or trying to correct an active imbalance, we can apply the energy of opposites in order to steer our bodies in the right direction. The twenty qualities mentioned above provide the most straight-forward illustration of how the concept works, and their grouping into ten pairs of opposites makes for a fairly intuitive grasp of how this wisdom can be applied in practical terms.

A person with aggravated pitta can invite a return to balance by minimizing exposure to the qualities that provoke pitta (hot, sharp, light, liquid, spreading, and oily) and by increasing contact with the cool, slow, heavy, dense, stable, and dry qualities that balance pitta. And when we know which qualities, in particular, are aggravated, we can be even more precise in our treatment strategies. For instance, if this same person were suffering from acid indigestion and a short temper, we could focus on balancing the hot, sharp qualities with cooling, calming foods and herbs while cultivating more slow, relaxed experiences throughout each day.

The beauty of the Ayurvedic approach is that it is as elegant and intuitive to the novice as it is the seasoned Ayurvedic practitioner. For those relatively new to Ayurveda—especially those willing to cultivate enhanced self-awareness around their habits, strengths, and vulnerabilities—the tradition offers a clear path to improved wellness and vitality. The same set of fundamental principles guides the skilled practitioner of Ayurveda in directing potent remedies to specific organs, tissues, and channels throughout the physical and energetic bodies.

There are, of course, some universals in Ayurveda: practices that are generally understood to be beneficial for all of us, regardless of constitution or current state of balance. These include things like eating whole foods, proper food combining, and following a traditional Ayurvedic Daily Routine—which might involve cleaning your tongue upon waking, practicing some yoga or meditation daily, and soothing your system periodically with a loving oil massage. But if you follow only general principles, you may inadvertently limit Ayurveda’s extraordinary ability to specifically support you and your changing needs.

Harnessing the Power of Ayurveda

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Ayurveda recognizes seven basic constitutional types and then classifies imbalances according to which doshas are increased above and beyond their normal ratio in your constitution. Knowing your Ayurvedic constitution and your current state of balance amplifies your capacity to benefit from the wisdom of Ayurveda. It offers insights that can help you better understand yourself, your natural tendencies, as well as your habitual and current vulnerabilities. It also provides an important context for learning the core principles that make Ayurveda such a timeless art and science. In essence, self-awareness increases Ayurveda’s relevance in your life and can anchor your study of the tradition in personal experience. Beyond that, this knowledge will allow you to tailor any general strategies according to your personal needs, magnifying their impact. Once you know your constitutional make-up and your current state of balance, you can tweak the most basic components of your day—like how you exercise, or when you eat—to better support your overall well-being. As a result, these two pieces of information can be a dramatic catalyst in propelling you toward ideal health.

Next Steps

Remember, your constitution reflects the ideal ratio of vata, pitta, and kapha in your system. However, if any of the doshas are out of balance (and for most of us, at least one of them is), your constitution is not the entire story. Your current state of balance may actually be more important because it highlights which doshas you need to pacify in order to return to balance, and can help you identify the most effective treatment strategies for your particular situation.

Fortunately, Banyan has developed an assessment tool explicitly for the purpose of establishing your Ayurvedic Profile™. It is a simple questionnaire that, within just a few minutes, helps you to establish both your constitution and your current state of balance. Perhaps even more significantly, your results will generate a personalized set of recommendations and an extensive library of helpful resources tailored to your specific needs. Your Ayurvedic Profile is intended to be a celebration of who you are from an Ayurvedic perspective, and ultimately, it is designed to support you in your pursuit of optimal health.

In closing, we would like to offer you a warm-hearted welcome as you begin to explore the world of Ayurveda. We hope that you find it as inspiring as we do, and that we can support and serve you in your process of discovery.

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