The Channel of the Mind
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 as a completely holistic level of vitality throughout all facets of 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.
Ayurveda considers even minor disturbances in the mind to be deeply influential, with the potential to compromise the quality of our lives, and to 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—a thriving state of mental, emotional, and even spiritual well-being. With this goal in mind, Ayurveda offers a number of practical and powerfully effective tools for balancing common disturbances of the mental and emotional realm.
Whether you are interested in fine-tuning the habits of your mind, strengthening your mental acuity, or simply cultivating a more calm and peaceful emotional state, you’ve come to the right place.
We will begin by 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 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. Beyond these, there are countless other ways that imbalances in the mind can manifest as physical disease.
When it comes down to it, the mind is incredibly influential and 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.
Ultimately, our focused efforts to support the channel of the mind can’t help but ripple out to positively impact every cell, tissue, and subtle pathway throughout our mind-body ecology.
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 tells us how important a role the mind plays in our overall health and longevity. And the more we explore the particulars of this channel, the more we will see how significant and influential it actually is.
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” 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 serve to orient us to its prominent locations in the body, illuminate important influences upon it, and inform our approach when it comes time to restore balance.
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—very likely the brain. Now, consider this: according to Ayurveda, mano vaha stortas is rooted—not in the brain—but in the heart. Let me say that one more time.
It is also located in the ten great vessels, but we’ll get to that in a moment. So as soon as we begin to explore the channel system of the mind, Ayurveda asks us to get out of our heads and 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—one that includes the heart and its connection to the entire body.
The Ten Great Vessels
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, the three that are considered most influential are the solar, lunar, and central channels—ida, pingala, and sushumna.1
These nadis, or 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, or life force. These subtle channels establish 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 brain and 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 and undeniable relationship between the mind and our overall health and vitality.
And this field of influence travels in both directions. In other words, while the mind certainly influences physical matter, our physical health also affects our state of mind. In this way, our every experience has the potential to either support or disturb our overall state of balance—in both the body and the mind.
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, ears, nose, tongue, and skin.
For better or worse, we tend to align 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 that energetic pattern—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 disturbing news broadcast can cause a noticeable shift in the tendencies of the mind. Others are less sensitive and may not notice much of a shift at all when exposed to the same sensory input.
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 a vitally 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 working with these points can be an effective means of restoring balance to mano vaha srotas.
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 restful 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 directly 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 these energies.
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.
This reflects our capacity, with practice, to develop more sattvic states of consciousness throughout our lives.
Of course, manas prakriti can also change for the worse, especially 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 where 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—pranayama, yoga, meditation, and prayer.
The Mind and the Three Doshas
As we move toward understanding more specific imbalances and how to address them, the three doshas provide an important context for our exploration.
Much like the three maha gunas, the three doshas each have an important role to play in our overall health. 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 thoughts and words, 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, 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.
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, which is closely related to a number of rajasic qualities, accumulates in excess, it tends to cause aggravation in the mind. For example—anger, irritability, frustration, impatience, resentment, envy, judgment, criticism, a rigid attachment to one’s personal beliefs, excessive ambition, and a ruthless desire for power.
Disturbances 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, 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 and is strongly connected to our capacity for memory.
Healthy kapha is generally associated with love, compassion, patience, groundedness, loyalty, steadiness, endurance, and an overarching sense of ease in one’s life.
But as the densest of the doshas, kapha can bring the heavy qualities of tamas to the mind, causing 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 an overly sedentary lifestyle, a lack of stimulation or interest in one’s life, inadequate exercise, a sluggish digestive fire, and an excess of downward moving energy in the body.
Excess kapha in the mind can also be triggered by a kapha-provoking diet—too many foods that are heavy, dense, or cold, 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 broad perspective that includes our physical, mental, emotional, and even spiritual health.
Restoring balance to the channel of the mind can involve a diverse array of therapeutic strategies, and it is certainly ideal to seek the guidance of a trained Ayurvedic practitioner to guide you in your journey.
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 the resources that will best serve you in this moment, and come back to these guides as often as you need.
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 Anxiousness with Ayurveda is a practical guide to quieting one of the primary manifestations of excess vata in mano vaha srotas. The strategies offered here will 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. It offers therapeutic strategies to help 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 techniques discussed in this guide will help to cultivate kapha’s more supportive mental and emotional characteristics, like love, compassion, patience, groundedness, calm, and steadiness.