Ayurvedic medicine offers a totally holistic approach to health, where mind, body and consciousness are viewed as equal aspects of our being. Nutrition and lifestyle choices affect us in every way, but it is their qualities that are important. Everything we eat and drink, every thought we have, every activity we choose, every relationship we have, can be medicinal or toxic! If we understand the principles of Ayurveda, we can learn to manage our health ourselves.
An important Ayurvedic theory which helps us to understand self-healing, is that the universe is made up of five elements, Ether, Air, Fire, Water and Earth, present in everything organic and inorganic. They are grouped into three functional principles known as Vata, Pitta and Kapha, and collectively known as the Doshas. We see these elements, and so the Doshas, through their qualities, known as gunas, in varying proportions in our bodies, minds, the climate, the time of day, our time of life, our food, thoughts and actions. They are categorised as ten opposite pairs, for example, hot and cold, heavy and light, sharp and dull. Vata (Ether and Air) can be described as cold, dry, rough, mobile, subtle and clear. Pitta (Fire and Water) similarly, can be described as hot, sharp, light, liquid, mobile and slightly oily. Finally, kapha (Water and Earth) has qualities that are heavy, slow (dull), cold, oily, liquid, slimy (smooth), dense, soft, static and sticky. These qualities express the nature of a substance in its static state. The potential energy of a substance becomes an action when the substance is transformed chemically. For example, food and its qualities are altered during different stages of digestion. Similarly, a ripe mango undergoes chemical changes to become ripe, and thus its qualities are altered. When water is boiled, it becomes steam; when it is subjected to extreme cold, it becomes ice. Each of us has a unique constitution type made up of different proportions of the three Doshas, with one or two of them generally being more dominant. This can be seen in our body types, our personalities, our relationships and emotions, the foods we like and dislike, the hobbies and lifestyles we are drawn to – in fact, in every aspect of our lives.
According to Ayurveda, the universe can be viewed as the interaction of opposite attributes, and human beings, as the microcosmic replica of the macrocosm that is the universe. The method of disease management is based on the principle that ‘like increases like’, and ‘opposites decrease each other’. What is seen in the qualities of our external environment is seen to increase the same qualities in us, or decrease the opposite qualities in us. Likewise, the qualities in the food we eat, and our actions, follow the same principle. The following simple example shows our innate understanding of what is good for us:
On a cold , windy day (the external qualities of cold, light, mobile, rough), we do not usually crave the same qualities in our food, we tend to desire the opposite. So, one would choose a warm, thick, earthy soup (hot, heavy/grounding, and smooth) over an ice cream ( cold). One would want to wrap up in a warmcoat and would long for a hot bath.
When they are in balance, the doshas promote positive qualities, but out of balance, they become negative in their effects. Vata in balance is creative, flexible, light, happy and joyful, but out of balance, it is fearful, anxious, indecisive, flighty. Pitta in balance is intelligent, promotes learning and understanding, but out of balance it can be fiery, angry, hateful and critical. Finally, Kapha in balance promotes calm, forgiveness, love and harmony, but when it is vitiated, it causes grief, envy, attachment and greed. Occasionally, we all experience health imbalances due to vitiation of the doshas. This is normal, and does not necessarily pose a health threat as a one-off event, but if we leave the imbalance untreated, we invite disease.
Ayurveda is a medicine system aimed at prevention of disease through the concept of self management and awareness, and this concept is the key that will open the door to the future paradigm of healthcare in the modern world. We have exhausted the possibilities of the current paradigm of healthcare. In every other sphere of life, we are encouraged to be the masters of our own destiny. We learn about choices regarding schools for our children, buying our homes, our careers, and finances.Why are we not also encouraged to manage our own health? We should all learn to do so, and from a young age, so that it becomes second nature. This would surely lift the burden that is placed on the National Health Service, for instance in the UK, and allow it to function as a support system, available to us during absolutely crucial, acute times of need, rather than as the mother we repeatedly offload our often self-induced health issues on, in the hope that she will instantly fix us.
We have a growing population that is living longer, but longevity is surely only desirable if it is achieved with our health still mainly intact? Through learning how to balance the qualities of foods, actions and thoughts with which we feed our bodies and minds, we can look forward to healthier old age. The process of growing older is natural, and should not be seen as a disease that needs treating, or as a stage of life when we have to accept that endless medical intervention is inevitable. It should be a time of contentment and reflection, a time to enjoy the fruits of life’s labours, to spend quality time with family and friends, and to be able to remain healthy protagonists, not ailing spectators, in our life story.