The Channel of the Mind

Ayurveda and the Mind-Body Connection

Banyan friend, Kael

 

Have you ever wondered just how much impact your state of mind has on your health? This has long been debated, and is somewhat difficult to study empirically. But the short answer, at least according to Ayurveda, is that the mind has a very powerful influence on our overall health and well-being. Ayurveda defines health not only as an absence of disease, but also as a very holistic level of vitality throughout our lives. As a result, the Ayurvedic approach to treating any single aspect of our health begins with taking into account the whole of who we are—body, mind, and spirit. Similarly, the Ayurvedic tradition recognizes that any of these three aspects of self—body, mind, or spirit—can either support or undermine our well-being, making the mind one of three equally influential players in our overall health. Further, Ayurveda considers even minor disturbances in the mind to be deeply influential, with the very real potential to compromise the quality of our lives, and to more directly cause any number of diseases—physical and otherwise.

Thankfully, Ayurveda also provides us with a very elegant and insightful perspective on the mind, and on the art of fostering its health, which is considered to be a thriving state of mental, emotional, and even spiritual well-being. The Ayurvedic tradition also offers us a number of practical, and powerfully effective, tools for balancing common disturbances of the mind.

So whether you are interested in fine-tuning the habits of your mind, strengthening your mental acuity, rejuvenating your mind and mental capacities, or just cultivating a more wholesome state of mind in general, you’ve come to the right place. We will begin by introducing, and briefly exploring the Ayurvedic perspective on the mind—and conclude with links to several useful resources geared toward supporting you in cultivating vibrant mental and emotional health.

The Channel of the Mind

According to Ayurveda, substances and energies move throughout the body via distinct channels—both physical and energetic—known as srotamsi. Remarkably, one of the primary channels named in the Ayurvedic tradition is the channel of the mind, known in Sanskrit as mano vaha srotas. The fact that there is a channel of the mind at all should elicit some suspicion that Ayurveda views the mind as an important participant in our overall health and longevity. And in fact, the more we explore the particulars of this channel, the more significant it seems to become.

But before we delve into the Ayurvedic perspective, let’s examine our own personal and cultural preconceptions for a moment. Briefly reflect on this idea of “mind.” What are your natural associations with it? And where in the body do you imagine the mind resides? Here in the West, most of us think immediately of the head. Our culture tends to associate the mind with the brain itself, and so we are naturally inclined to envision the “mind” (at least to a large degree) residing within the confines of the cranium. But in no way does Ayurveda subscribe to these same limitations. Instead, the Ayurvedic tradition defines the mind far more broadly. Ayurveda’s map of the mind quite elegantly reveals its significance in the broader landscape of who we are—both in terms of its level of importance, and also in terms of its vast field of influence on our overall mind-body ecology.

Ayurveda’s Map of the Mind

For each of the major srotamsi, Ayurveda describes a root (mula), a pathway through the body (marga), and an opening (mukha). These aspects of each channel (srotas) serve to orient us to its prominent locations in the body, illuminate important influences upon it, and can inform our approach when it comes time to restore balance to an individual channel.

The Root of the Mind

In general, the root of each channel is seen as the developmental center, or point of origin, for that particular srotas. As such, it tends to hold a unique significance for the channel system as a whole. Think back to where you first imagined the mind might be located in the body. Great. Now, consider this: according to Ayurveda, mano vaha srotas is rooted—not in the brain—but in the heart. Let me say that one more time. The channel of the mind is rooted in the heart (and in the ten great vessels, but we’ll get to that in a moment). So actually, as soon as we begin to explore the channel system of the mind, Ayurveda asks us to get out of our heads, and in fact, to step into our hearts.

This is incredibly significant because the Vedic sciences of Ayurveda, Yoga, and Tantra all view the heart as a critically important energetic hub in the body—a meaningful intersection of a diverse range of physical and energetic pathways. Picture a wagon wheel with the heart at the center, each spoke representing a different system, channel, or substance that either originates from, resides within, or passes through the heart. For example, of the thirteen srotamsi present in both men and women, three of them are rooted in the heart. This is notable because it is actually rather unusual for the physical location of distinct channels to overlap at all. Incidentally, the three channels rooted there also happen to permeate the entire physical body—which is also rare.

So we are beginning to get a sense of the heart as the powerhouse organ and energy center that it is. The heart is intimately connected to every cell and tissue throughout the body, three different times, through three distinct channels. No other organ in the Ayurvedic srotamsi shares that level of integration with the entire body. The heart center is also said to be the very seat of our emotional experience, home to our purest form of self, and, of course, the heart chakra (anahata chakra) is associated with our capacity for unconditional love. As the root of the mind, all of these energies that are associated with the heart take on a newfound significance. In truth, Ayurveda invites us to adopt a fundamentally expanded view of the mind as a whole.

The fact that the mind is also rooted in the ten great vessels (an important set of subtle energetic pathways that inform the subtle body) is a testament to the profound level of influence that subtle energies have upon the mind. While this is a vast and meaningful topic, we will keep our exploration brief. For now, it is important to understand that, of the ten great vessels, three (the solar, lunar, and central channels of ida, pingala, and sushumna, respectively) are said to be the most important.1 These nadis (subtle energy channels) travel from the base of the spine to the crown of the head, intersecting at each of the seven chakras, and are said to carry the flow of prana, establishing an important relationship between prana, the subtle body, the heart, and the mind. Interestingly, when we practice pranayama (yogic breathing exercises), ida, pingala, and sushumna are among those pathways that are most profoundly activated, cleansed, and balanced.2 This is why pranayama so powerfully supports our psycho-spiritual health.

As we can see, mano vaha srotas extends far beyond the boundaries of the rational mind. In fact, as we continue to explore the Ayurvedic map of the mind, this channel’s immense field of influence only expands further.

The Pathway of the Mind

According to Ayurveda, the pathway (or physical location) of mano vaha srotas is the entire body—making it the most overtly all-encompassing srotas of them all. The mind quite literally affects, and is affected by, every cell and tissue throughout the body, meaning that there is a direct relationship between the mind and our overall health and vitality. And this field of influence travels in both directions. In other words, yes, mind influences matter, but our physical health also very much affects our state of mind. In this way, our every experience has the potential to either support or disturb our overall state of balance—both mind and body.

Doorways to the Mind

The channel system of the mind also has a number of important openings (mukhas) to the exterior of the body. These doorways significantly influence the channel of the mind, and, when necessary, can be used strategically to help restore balance to mano vaha srotas. First among these openings are the five sense organs (the eyes, the ears, the nose, the tongue, and the skin). This means that, when it comes to the mind (and to our psycho-spiritual health), the sense organs matter—as does the sensory input they receive on a daily basis. For better or worse, we tend to align (at least energetically) with the qualities of our day-to-day sensory experience. For instance, if we are exposed to a great deal of trauma, our systems develop a natural and familiar association with the energetic experience of trauma—and begin to anticipate its recurrence. On the other hand, if we are routinely surrounded by loving, inspiring relationships, our systems naturally tend to orient toward hope and possibility. Of course, each of us has a unique degree of sensitivity to these influences. For some, simply watching or listening to a news broadcast that is focused on the more disturbing elements of our society can cause a noticeable shift in the tendencies of the mind—especially when compared to times when we chose to limit our exposure to these types of inputs. Others are less sensitive. But for all of us, changing the overall quality of our sensory experience can radically alter our state of mind. If we are serious about inviting vibrant health and balance into the channel of the mind, the quality of our sensory input is certainly an important consideration.

Another important doorway to the mind is found in the marmani—a set of precise energy points on the surface of the skin that are connected to deeper, more subtle energetic pathways throughout the body. Each marma point offers a powerful access point for shifting the energy within the channel of the mind. And in this way, working with the marma points can be an effective means of restoring balance to mano vaha srotas.

The Big Picture

According to Ayurveda, the body is a crystallization of the mind. So just as impaired agni and indigestion are at the root of all diseases, the mind also plays a critical role in our overall health. In fact, mental ama (toxins) and unresolved emotions can lead to disease in very concrete ways. For example, unresolved anger can accumulate in the liver and impair its functioning, unprocessed grief can disturb the lungs, and chronic anxiety can upset the health of the colon. But these are only a few simple examples; there are countless ways that imbalances in mano vaha srotas can manifest as physical disease.

When it comes right down to it, the mind is incredibly important, broadly influential, and it has a very direct, and potent impact on our overall health and well-being—making the channel of the mind genuinely worthy of our sincere care and attention. And ultimately, our focused efforts to support the channel of the mind can’t help but ripple out to positively impact our every cell, tissue, and subtle pathway throughout the mind-body ecology. It’s no wonder that, throughout the Vedic sciences, there is such a universal emphasis on practices (such as meditation, yoga, and pranayama) that promote psycho-spiritual health.

Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas

Ayurveda names three maha gunas (universal attributes or qualities of consciousness)—sattva, rajas, and tamas—that are especially pertinent to this conversation. Though these qualities are very subtle, they are present in our food, our experiences, and our overall state of consciousness. Together, sattva, rajas, and tamas are said to give rise to all phenomena in nature, and they have a profound influence on the subtle body and the mind.

  • Sattva engenders equilibrium, clarity, light, intelligence, compassion, insight, and wisdom.
  • Rajas ignites kinetic energy, movement, passion, and the ability to act.
  • Tamas is responsible for inertia, darkness, heaviness, slowness, sleep, and decay.

Over the course of our lives, there is a natural place for all three of these energies. For example, tamas supports sleep; rajas engenders decisiveness and excitement in our lives; and sattva supports clarity of mind. But when it comes to our evolving psycho-spiritual health, the Vedic sciences reflect a clear preference for sattva, because it is more aligned with the qualities of liberation and enlightenment. Conversely, most mental imbalances can be attributed to an imbalance in rajas or tamas—usually an excess in one or both of them.

Mental Constitution

Just as each of us is born with a unique ratio of vata, pitta, and kapha in our constitution, we are also born with a distinctive proportion of sattva, rajas, and tamas. The relationship between the three becomes an individual baseline for what Ayurveda calls manas prakriti—the mental constitution. However, unlike the ratio of vata, pitta, and kapha in the constitution (which is established at conception and considered fixed from that point onward), the mental constitution can, and naturally does, change over time. This reflects our capacity, with practice, to develop more evolved states of consciousness throughout our lives. Of course, manas prakriti can also change for the worse, and will eventually do so if we consistently make poor lifestyle choices and surround ourselves with negativity.

This is where Ayurveda’s map of the mind becomes an incredibly useful tool. It helps us to see the most potent places to direct our attention in order to support the evolution of consciousness—to encourage thriving mental and emotional health. As we have already discovered, some of the most effective tools in this realm include welcoming the heart center into the conversation, monitoring the quality of the sensory input we receive daily, being mindful of the quality of our relationships, working with the marma points, and engaging with practices that help to activate and balance the subtle pathways of the mind (like pranayama, yoga, meditation, and prayer). The specifics will largely be determined by the nature of each individual imbalance.

 

three women sitting in meadow

The Mind and the Three Doshas

As we move toward understanding more specific imbalances, the three doshas provide an important context for our exploration. Much like the three maha gunas, vata, pitta, and kapha each have an important role to play in our overall health (provided they remain in balance), and when provoked, each of them tends to cause a specific range of imbalances that can manifest either in the physical body or in the more subtle realms. As a result, vata, pitta, and kapha each have a particular flavor of influence on the mind, emotions, and overall consciousness, and each of them can either support or undermine our overall health—it all depends on whether or not they are in balance.

Vata and the Mind

Vata dosha, which governs the nervous system and the mind, is primarily made up of the air and ether elements. Not coincidentally, the mind is also primarily composed of the air and ether elements, making it especially susceptible to vata imbalances.3 When in balance, vata is generally associated with creativity, intuition, clairvoyance, the capacity to connect with the subtle realms, profound spiritual understanding, and a natural sense of expansiveness. Vata imbalances, on the other hand, typically manifest as a certain instability, agitation, or hypersensitivity in the mind, and often involve excess rajas as well.

Aggravated vata can cause rapid changes in mood, fear, anxiety, contraction, a sense of being scattered, a lack of direction, spaciness, ungroundedness, excessive speed in the thoughts and words, over-activity in the sympathetic nervous system, and a sense of loneliness or isolation. Excess vata also tends to draw us out of our bodies and can leave us feeling somewhat disassociated or disembodied, disturbing our sense of security and belonging to the material world.

Aggravations of vata in mano vaha srotas are often the result of overexertion, overworking, stress, trying to attend to too many things all at once, times of travel or transition, overstimulation (e.g., lights, crowds, technology, etc.), loud noises (or loud music), stimulants such as nicotine, caffeine, and recreational drugs, and excessive exercise or sexual activity. Vata can also be elevated in the mind as a result of a vata-provoking diet, which may include too many dry, light, and rough foods like raw vegetables, crackers, dried fruits, and the like.

Pitta and the Mind

Pitta dosha, which governs insight and intellect, is primarily made up of the fire and water elements. Pitta is closely associated with the gray matter of the brain and has a very important connection with the mind as a whole. Pitta is also closely aligned with a number of rajasic qualities, which can accumulate in the mind and cause very pitta-specific types of imbalances. Healthy pitta is generally associated with courage, confidence, will power, intelligence, leadership, a sense of vision, acceptance, contentment, satisfaction, enthusiasm, cooperation, and the capacity to surrender.

But when pitta accumulates in the mind, it tends to cause anger, hatred, irritability, frustration, impatience, resentment, envy, judgment, criticism, a rigid attachment to one’s personal beliefs and perspectives, excessive ambition, and a ruthless desire for power.

Aggravations of pitta and rajas in mano vaha srotas are often caused by excess heat and upward moving energy in the body, imbalances in the liver, periods of intense focus or ambition, as well as a tendency to disregard the needs of one’s body in favor of achieving one’s goals. Pitta can also be elevated in the mind as a result of a pitta-provoking diet, which may include too many hot, spicy, especially sour, oily, or fried foods.

Kapha and the Mind

Kapha dosha, which governs structure and lubrication in the body, is primarily made up of the water and earth elements. Kapha is closely associated with the white matter of the brain, the adipose tissue that comprises the brain and nervous tissue, and is also strongly connected to our capacity for memory. As the densest of the doshas, kapha is also aligned with tamas, which can accumulate in the mind and cause very kapha-specific types of imbalances. Healthy kapha is generally associated with love, compassion, patience, groundedness, loyalty, steadiness, endurance, and an overarching sense of ease in one’s life.

But when kapha accumulates in the mind, it tends to cause lethargy, complacency, laziness, depression, stubbornness, attachment, greed, emotional possessiveness, and a tendency to hoard material possessions.

Aggravations of kapha and tamas in mano vaha srotas are often caused by excess density and heaviness in the physical, mental, and emotional spheres, and can also involve an excess of downward moving energy in the body. Excess kapha in the mind is also triggered by an overly sedentary lifestyle, a lack of stimulation or interest in one’s life, inadequate exercise, a sluggish digestive fire, or a kapha-provoking diet—which might include too many especially heavy, dense, or cold foods (like cheese, ice cream, and fried foods).

Correcting Imbalances of the Mind

The Ayurvedic tradition is a holistic approach to health and healing. As such, disturbances of the mind must be understood from a broader perspective that includes our physical, mental, emotional, and even spiritual health. As a result, restoring balance to the channel of the mind can involve a diverse array of therapeutic strategies, and it can certainly be helpful to seek the guidance of a trained Ayurvedic practitioner. That said, there are a number of common imbalances that are worth exploring collectively. We hope that the links below will help to further inform your journey towards vibrant mental, emotional, and physical health. Feel free to pick and choose those resources that will best serve you in this moment. We also invite you to return to this department again and again to balance the ever-changing landscape of your mind, and to explore new material, as it is added. We sincerely hope that we can continue to support your quest for optimal health, as it evolves.

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Additional Resources

The following resources are intended to serve as a starting place for correcting common imbalances in mano vaha srotas:

Cultivating Calm: A Guide to Balancing Anxiety with Ayurveda is a practical guide to quieting one of the primary manifestations of excess vata in mano vaha srotas. The strategies also invariably help to cultivate vata’s more supportive mental and emotional characteristics, like expansiveness, creativity, intuition, excitement, and a connection to the divine.

Surrender and Serenity: A Guide to Balancing Anger with Ayurveda is aimed at helping to relieve mano vaha srotas of disturbances caused by excess pitta, and offers practical guidance for doing so. The therapeutic strategies also invariably help to cultivate pitta’s more supportive mental and emotional characteristics, like courage, confidence, acceptance, surrender, and will power.

Motivate! Overcoming Lethargy with Ayurveda is a practical guide to expanding beyond the typical limitations of accumulated kapha in mano vaha srotas. The therapeutic strategies also invariably help to cultivate kapha’s more supportive mental and emotional characteristics, like love, compassion, patience, groundedness, calm, and steadiness.