Ayurveda and Mental Health | Connecting Mind, Body, and Soul
“It’s all in your head.” I was sitting in a freezing doctor’s office in one of those thin paper gowns, seeking help from yet another specialist for my chronic health condition. After going through my health history and exam, I was anything but comforted by these words.
The doctor’s diagnosis connoted that somehow my condition was in my control—as if I could just change my mind about my experience, yoga my way out of stress, or embrace some positive psychology that would make everything better.
I hear stories like this all the time from my Ayurveda clients, friends, and family. Too often, the default response to a complex or idiopathic (no known cause) disease is that the solution is in the mind.
This response is frustrating and guilt-inducing to patients, who are often overwhelmed by mysterious symptoms and a breadcrumb-trail of appointments, specialists, and attempts to find answers. It’s also an unfair interpretation of the role of the mind in our overall health.
Western medicine is built on a fundamental separation between body and mind—a theory that goes back to seventeenth-century philosopher René Descartes, who distinguished the mind as immaterial and unbound by mechanical laws when compared to the material body (think gravity).
But the “soul” part is still largely absent, left to the domain of more elusive and “woo woo” practitioners of shamanism, astrology, and other occult or religious traditions.
Ayurveda and other ancient medical systems, including Traditional Chinese Medicine, Unani-Tibb (Iranian) medicine, Native American traditions, and the ancient Egyptians and Greeks, see things differently. Consider Ayurveda’s definition of health:
“One is in perfect health when the three doshas (vata, pitta, and kapha), digestive fire (digestion, assimilation, and metabolism), all the body tissues and components (dhatus), and all the excretory functions (the physiological functions of urination and defecation) are in perfect order, with a pleasantly disposed and contented mind, senses, and spirit.”
This perspective not only embraces the many layers of anatomy and physiology, which are often siloed into different specialities in Western medicine, but also incorporates the body, mind, senses, and soul into one intelligent system of holistic well-being.
The deeper we go into Ayurvedic psychology, the more integral we see the role of the mind as a conduit between body and soul. It is the hinge on which our individual well-being swings to open us up to, or close us off from, a connection with the universal consciousness (known as Atman in Sanskrit).
Ayurveda and the Mind
While Ayurveda acknowledges the role of both body and mind in our overall health and existence, there are still distinguishing factors between them not unlike Descartes’s description. Both body and mind possess certain doshas and gunas (qualities) that reflect their nature, tendencies, and modes of going out of balance.
Ayurvedic Framework of the Body
The body, being gross, has more tangible qualities—heavy/light, cold/hot, etc.—and has three main constitutional influences (vata, pitta, and kapha) which contribute to imbalance. We use diet, lifestyle, and herbs to balance the gunas and doshas using the concept of “like increases like and opposites balance.”
For example, if the body demonstrates excess cold, dry, and light qualities, we would employ foods and activities that have the opposite qualities—warm, unctuous, and heavy.
The qualities and doshas also have a healthy function in the body—so the mere presence of vata does not mean there is a problem. Feeling cold in the winter is expected, and so the measures we take to balance it are not as extreme as if someone felt cold in 90-degree heat. Likewise, we wouldn’t try to remove all of the heating properties of pitta since that heat is vital to digestion, cognition, and more.
Ayurvedic Framework of the Mind
The mind responds similarly to “like increases like and opposites balance,” but in slightly different realms. Like the doshas of the body, there are also doshas of the mind—rajas and tamas—that can cause imbalance in our thoughts and emotions.
Also like the doshas of vata, pitta, and kapha, rajas and tamas have positive and necessary functions in our lives. Without rajas, we wouldn’t wake up feeling energized in the morning, and without tamas, we would never know the feeling of deep rest, the satisfaction of a good meal, or the profound comfort of cuddling.
It’s only when these energies become excessive that they cause problems and require interventions. Foods can affect these mental doshas, but activities (such as how we eat) and other influences (like planetary movements) have much more impact.
In excess, rajas and tamas pull the mind away from its inherent state of sattva, which is described as calm, harmonious, content, and clear. A common metaphor for the states of the mind is the surface of a lake:
Addressing Mind and Body
It’s important to distinguish between mental and physical doshas because they are often conflated in our modern Western presentation of Ayurveda. We wouldn’t say one has a “vata mind,” for instance; if a person’s mental state is active and restless, it’s affected by rajas.
Nevertheless, Ayurveda recognizes that imbalances involving both mind and body (which are almost all imbalances, since they’re connected!) can originate in either place. This, in turn, determines how to address the issue.
For instance, if someone is consuming excess amounts of coffee, it can contribute to excess vata and pitta in the body while causing anxiousness, racing or aggressive thoughts, or fiery emotions (rajas). This is the body influencing the mind.
On the other hand, someone who is navigating intense pressure from work, overwhelming family responsibilities, and a period of grief (a common situation in the age of COVID), may experience insomnia, fatigue, and physical cravings for stimulants like coffee. In this case, the mental doshas (rajas and tamas) are affecting the body.
The Manovaha Srotas—The Conduit of Mind and Body
The two-way street of mind-body ailments is possible because of where Ayurveda places the mind in the human experience. Unlike Western psychology, where the mind is seen in the brain or somehow disconnected from the body—floating around in space—Ayurveda believes the mind exists in the body in the form of the manovaha srotas—the channel of the mind.
For context, Ayurveda recognizes thirteen physical channels in the body—one for each of the seven dhatus, along with the three waste products (feces, urine, sweat) and the three sources of nourishment (food, prana, water). Manovaha srotas stands apart from, yet is intertwined with, all of those channels.
Likewise, if the mind becomes imbalanced by rajas or tamas, those mental doshas can touch upon any aspect of the body that this channel moves through.
Getting to the Root
If the mind and body can become imbalanced basically anywhere, how do we restore balance? The answer lies in the root (mula) and opening (mukha) of the manovaha srotas. The channel is believed to have its root in the heart, as do the channels of rasa and prana.
Each of these three channels corresponds with a specific aspect of health:
- Rasa, made from the food we eat, connects to the physical body.
- Manovaha srotas governs the mind and emotional experience.
- Prana, the life force that rides on the breath, connects to the soul.
By examining the state of the heart on a physical, mental, and spiritual level, we can trace any imbalance back to its root in order to find a solution.
The end point or opening of the manovaha srotas is in the sense organs, meaning that the mind exits the body through these orifices of stimulation. Have you ever felt overwhelmed or exhausted after being in a big crowd with lots of noises, smells, and colors? That’s because your attention was being pulled out of its home in the heart and body to take in and interpret all that sensory information.
With prana flowing outward instead of inward, the functions of the body suffer, even if only for a few minutes or a few hours. And in the case of long-term sensory overload, the divide between mind, body, and spirit can cause serious imbalance.
The Mind and the Senses
Knowing the mula and mukha of the mind, we can more directly and efficiently support a state of mind-body-spirit balance by redirecting our senses inward and ensuring that we feed our heart with high quality input.
The classic Vedic text The Bhagavad Gita offers a clear explanation of the role of the senses in our health. In the epic poem, Lord Krisnha takes a human form in order to help a warrior, Arjuna, cope with having to battle against his relatives. Over the course of their dialogue, Krishna describes the mind-body like so:
“The body is a chariot, pulled by five horses (the senses) directed by reins (the mind), with the soul (atman) holding the reins. When all is well, the soul steers the movements of the chariot (the body) via the mind and senses (the reins guiding the horses) in a way that keeps it on the path of truth. But when the senses and mind take over, they direct the chariot off the path, toward fleeting desires that temporarily satisfy the mind’s fickle urges: The senses, mind, and intellect are said to be breeding grounds of desire. Through them, it clouds one’s knowledge and deludes the embodied soul.”
This imagery underscores the intersection of mind and body via the manovaha srotas, but zooms out even further to incorporate the soul as both the means and ends of our path. It reminds us that the mind in and of itself is not to be trusted, as it’s inherently linked to the distractible sense organs that are designed to interface with the external world.
Succumbing to these fleeting surface desires against the true knowledge of the soul is described as one of the causes of disease in Ayurveda, known as prajnaparadha.
Because our chariot needs reins and horses to move at all, we can’t expect to escape desire or imbalance—they’re part of life. Yet, we can do our best to minimize how often we go off course by trusting our soul to keep us on track.
Daily Routine for a Healthy Soul
Connecting with the soul sounds like a big job—more than most humans have the power or time for. But given the primary role of the senses in the mind-body-soul trifecta, we can actually touch base with the soul every single day through dinacharya, the daily routine.
Whether our daily rituals revolve around our own personal self-care or tending to the well-being of others, they offer an opportunity to reconnect with our hearts and remember that we’re part of something greater than ourselves.
The Power of Self-Care
First, and most obvious, the hygiene rituals keep our physical bodies clean and clear, while allowing us to notice the first sign of imbalance—a stuffy nose, inconsistent bowel movements, or suddenly dry skin might be signs that kapha, pitta, or vata (respectively) are settling in.
By cleansing and oiling the sense organs, we also keep those jumpy horses calm and well fed, so the mind can seek out and receive information that is wholesome and true, ultimately keeping the chariot moving in the direction the soul wants to go.
Consider this example:
Let’s say you are sick with a virus. For a few days you lounge around your house in the same pajamas, eating irregular meals of crackers and soup and feeling down. You wonder if this funk will last forever. With your body ill and your senses clouded, tamas rises in the mind and creates a haze. The truth of the situation—that you’ll probably be better in a few days—feels far away. When you finally do feel better—take a shower, change your clothes, have a nice meal—the doom and gloom lifts and your faith in life is restored.
This downward spiral can happen not just from illness, but from other habits that cause imbalance in the senses: too much time on screens affecting the eyes, smoke and pollution affecting the nose and mouth, chemical-laden clothes and body products affecting the skin, hateful speech and bad news affecting the ears.
Those stimuli have a real effect on the body and mind, which separate us from our charioteer—the truth of our soul. Without that connection, we forget the inherent goodness and interconnectedness at the root of our hearts and begin to feel off balance in both body and mind.
In those moments of self-care, we build important patterns of non-judgment, quiet, and fulfillment of the natural urges of the body that lessen the strength of the mind over our chariot’s course toward divine connection.
In fact, dinacharya is typically performed in the early morning hours, known as the brahma murta. During this auspicious pre-sunrise time, the veil between the physical world and spirit world thins, allowing for more profound prayer, meditation, and contemplation—thus cultivating sattva in the mind and heart.
Imprinted with these qualities, we move through the day with more grace and ease—and less of the skittish, reactive qualities imparted by screens, caffeine, and endless to-do lists.
The Power of Good Deeds
The classics describe another aspect of dinacharya that is a more outward-facing version of this inner work: sadvritta, or good deeds. These gestures of respect toward elders and teachers, and general kindness and compassion, are similar to the yamas (ethical restraints) of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras or the 10 Commandments of Christianity.
Using our senses to send positive energy out into the world—through our speech and actions—is another way of ensuring the integrity of the soul. By connecting with others, we’re reminded of our inherent worth and our duty to share that worth with others—creating an impenetrable web of love.
The mind loses some of its power here, too, as it no longer needs to erect a protective barrier around itself in the form of the ego.
This vision of ourselves and others is the most important renewable resource we have because it reinforces the health of our entire system—within our individual bodies, among our fellow humans, and between all human and non-human beings. The Caraka Samhita describes the incredible outcome of sadvritta as such:
“One who follows the code of good conduct for the maintenance of positive health lives for a hundred years without any abnormality. Such persons, praised by the noble ones, earn fame all over the world, attain virtue and wealth, friendship of all living beings and at the end, with holy acts, attain the excellent abode (virtuous world) of good souls after death. Hence this code of conduct should be followed by everybody. Even if something has not been stated here, but prescribed elsewhere as a virtuous act, is also acceptable to Lord Atreya.”
Since studying Ayurveda, I’ve often thought back to my doctor’s flippant and unhelpful response of “it’s all in your head.” Now, I see that she was right—it is all in my head. This view no longer feels dismissive and limiting, but rather freeing and empowering.
Acknowledging the simple source of my health—within my heart—inspires me to commit to my dinacharya with vigor every day, knowing that the results of my swishing and massaging and scraping go far beyond my body.
These practices are the devotional homecoming that our stressed, tired, and disconnected souls are desperately calling out for. In our quiet morning rituals, and every small good deed, we’re answering that call with the warm embrace that poet Joy Harjo describes when she writes:
“Welcome your spirit back from its wandering. It may return in pieces, in tatters. Gather them together. They will be happy to be found after being lost for so long.”