The following information, first published in an article I wrote for Peninsula Lifestyle magazine, spring 2006, and found in my cookbook, Simple Cooking for Wellness, gives a brief historic background and elementary explanation of Ayurvedic principles.
There are numerous books about Ayurveda (I list several), and since my first writing of this article I’ve seen an increased interest in, and growth of, Ayurveda practitioners, as well as the basic concepts being incorporated into other holistic health care modalities.
Ayurveda, often called the “Mother of all healing”, is considered to be the oldest form of health care in the world, influencing Chinese medicine, the humoral medicine practiced by Hippocrates in Greece, homeopathy, and modern plastic surgery. The word Ayurveda means “Science (veda) of Life (ayur)”. This holistic system of health and healing began around 5000 years ago in India during the Indus/Sarasvati Civilization, a sophisticated culture along the Sarasvati River. Cities with elaborate brick road systems and multiple storied buildings conducted maritime foreign trade with many other cultures. Public baths and complex sewage systems evidence concern for the health of citizens. The Vedic teachings of this period taught people how to live in harmony with nature through architectural principles (called Vastu), spiritual practices (Yoga), healthy lifestyles and treatment of diseases (Ayurveda). This Vedic Period of India’s history ended around 2000 B.C., possibly when the Sarasvati River dried due to geologic events.
From 2000 to 3000 B.C., Ayurvedic teachings, originally memorized as oral verses, were preserved in written texts and expanded upon through research and observation. Two important texts of this period were the Charaka Samhita, still used today, and the Sushruta Samhita, the surgical text that became the basis for modern plastic surgery.
Ayurveda flourished as a health science from 3000 B.C. to 1000 A.D. Hospitals were built, nursing began, and efforts to make therapeutic knowledge available to all was exemplified by the planting of medicinal herbs along public roadways. A well-known physician, Jivaka, the royal physician of King Bimbisara of Magadha (now part of the state of Bihar in India) was appointed by the king to supervise the health of Gautama Buddha and his followers.
Following this golden age, numerous Muslim invasions between 1000 and 1750 A.D. eroded the existing culture of India through anti-Buddhist and anti-Hindu campaigns. Many universities, hospitals and temples where books were kept were destroyed. During the following 200 hundred years, 1750 to 1950, under British colonization, the remaining medical schools were closed, though Ayurveda continued to be used among the Indian population. This ancient knowledge was kept alive through apprenticeships and continued to grow, in spite of cultural suppression.
Modern India has seen a resurgence of Ayurveda as medical schools reopened following independence. The World Health Organization sees Ayurveda as one of the most important health traditions in the world.
Basic Ayurveda Principles
Ayurveda is a system of healthy living and healing based on the five elements that make up everything in the universe. Those elements are ether, air, water, fire and earth. The three doshas, often called the humors, are Vata, Pitta and Kapha and are the active, or mobile manifestations of the elements. The root word, dus, means decay or spoils, signifying that the doshas, when out of balance are a cause of disease. These doshas, or life forces, are found not only in the human body, but in all life.
The exact functionality of each dosha in the body is multi faceted and complex. However, a simple over view of each dosha can be offered. Vata, the air or wind humor, means “that which moves things”. It governs many aspects of biological functioning from the nervous system to the large colon. Pitta, the fire humor, or “that which digests”, is responsible for all metabolic transformations, from the digestion of food to the “digestion” of information. Kapha, the water humor, “that which holds things together”, makes up most of the bodily tissues and mucus membranes. There are five forms, or sub doshas, of each dosha, which give a detailed understanding to how the body functions. The doshas contribute to both the physiological and psychological characteristics of a person. It is the aggravation of, or increased state of, one or more dosha that becomes the symptoms and conditions disease. Health, therefore, is maintaining a healthy balance of the three doshas.
Ayurvedic recommendations for maintaining health and treating disease are individualistic, each person seen as unique. This is due in part to an understanding that when born, due to a number of prenatal circumstances, a person has a dominance of one or more dosha. This dosha dominance is called one’s constitutional dosha. You may, for example, have a predominance of Vata in your system, making you prone to diseases caused by Vata imbalance. Making lifestyle choices, including diet and activity, which would decrease Vata and increase the other doshas would help maintain health.
In a system with three doshas and fifteen sub doshas the complexities of diagnosis become obvious!
According to Ayurveda there are seven dhatus, or tissue layers, which comprise the body. Dhatus correspond to what western medicine calls plasma, skin, blood and hemoglobin, muscle tissue, fat tissue, bone tissue, marrow, nerve tissue, and reproductive tissues. Diseases of the doshas are expressed in the tissues, each dosha having specific tissues in which they manifest.
Another Ayurvedic concept is that of strotas, or channels, in the body, which must flow unobstructed to supply the tissues or dhatus. This complex system can be likened to both the physiological systems of western medicine and the energetic channels of Chinese medicine in which chi flows.
Two important principles of Ayurveda are that of ama and agni. Ama is toxins that accumulate in the tissues and contribute to disease. Ama can be the result of undigested food or other substances the body cannot process and transform. Ama is the cause of most diseases and clearing the body of ama is an important part of treating disease. Ama can block the absorption of important nutrients.
Agni is the process of digestion, the taking in that which is outside the body, and breaking it down to be assimilated and used by the body. A healthy digestive system is at the heart of maintaining good health. Insufficient agni, or digestive fire, results in accumulation of ama, which in turn results in disease. This disease process can occur when it is difficult to “digest” life experiences through healthy emotional and mental assimilation, as well as digestion on the physiological level.
Balancing the doshas, creating healthy agni, digestive fire, and keeping the body clear of ama are at the core of creating health. Ayurveda is a science that does not just treat disease once it occurs, but recommends lifestyle routines and dietary guidelines to prevent disease from developing. What we eat every day is important in maintaining the healthy functioning of these systems and keeping a balance of the doshas.
Using Ayurvedic principles in food preparation is a fun and tasty way to benefit from the wisdom of the ancients. According to Ayurveda there are six tastes: bitter, pungent, astringent, salty, sour and sweet. All six have an influence on the body. Taste in Ayurveda is not just what is experienced in the mouth. There are three sites of taste. That which is experienced in the mouth is called rasa, that which is experienced in the digestive system is called virya, and that which is experienced when the food is absorbed into the body is called vipak. A food may have a sweet rasa but a pungent virya and this is taken into consideration when treating disease or doshic imbalance. Each of the doshas is aggravated by three tastes and balanced by three tastes. Foods that are sweet, sour and salty balance Vata. Foods that are sweet, bitter and astringent balance Pitta. Kapha is balanced by pungent, bitter and astringent.
The proper use of herbs and spices, as well as cooking method, is important in food preparation. How a food is prepared can make it more digestible and more balancing to a particular dosha. In general, most foods are more digestible if cooked, raw foods being reserved for summer time. As with other holistic health care systems, treating with opposites is a healing principle that particularly applies when choosing foods, spices and herbs. For example, foods considered light and dry will aggravate the Vata dosha, which as an expression of the elements air and ether, is light and dry. Light and dry foods reduce and calm Kapha dosha, which as an expression of the elements water and earth, is heavy and moist. Each dosha has a time of year when it exerts a stronger influence on the body. For example Pitta, the dosha of digestion, is stronger in the summer, making the eating of raw, harder to digest foods preferable during that season. Pitta is aggravated by very spicy foods, but certain spices, such as cumin and coriander are considered good for digestion and calm not only Pitta but all three doshas. This example indicates the importance of choosing the proper spices when preparing food.
Ayurvedic guidelines that govern daily choices in our household are:
Food is prepared fresh and only in portions we plan to eat, (a favorite phrase of mine is “it’s dead”, referring to leftovers, canned food, fruits or vegetables that have begun to spoil).
Food is generally eaten cooked, exceptions being summer time when we eat more salads and fruit. As mentioned, digestive fire is higher in summer months enabling most people to better digest raw foods. Although cooking food makes it easier to assimilate, over-cooking food can increase ama.
Herbs and spices are always used in cook. These are Nature’s medicines and enhance both the taste and benefits of food. Spices aid digestion, but too much is counter-productive. Like so much in life – it is about finding balance!
Certain food combinations are best avoided: dairy with fruit, dairy with fish or meat, and eating fruit with meals. Fruit digests quickly and if eaten with heavier foods will ferment in the digestive system while waiting for other foods to digest, best to eat between meals. There are many popular American dishes that do not follow these simple principles, and thus cause much indigestion for many people! Honey, full of healthy enzymes, becomes a toxic substance (ama) in the body when cooked. It is best used in it’s raw form and not in baking. Foods cooked together, make them more digestible, making easy to prepare one-pot meals and soups ideal and balancing for all.
For excellent information on the history of Ayurveda, general principles, and recommendations you can incorporate into your life, the following books are recommended:
*The Ayurvedic Cookbook – Amadea Morningstar with Urmila Desai. An excellent introduction to Ayurveda. A good “first” read because you can practice what you read through using the recipes.
* Ayurvedic Healing – David Frawley , a respected Vedic scholar in the U.S. and India, Frawley has many books on Ayurveda.
*Ayurveda, Life, Health and Longevity – Dr. Robert Svoboda, the first westerner to be trained at an Ayurveda medical school and licensed to practice in India.
Ayurveda, The Science of Self Healing – Dr. Vasant Lad, one of the first books printed and available in the U.S. on Ayurveda. Dr. Lad is the founder of the Ayurveda Institute in New Mexico, established in 1984.
The Complete Book of Ayurvedic Home Remedies, – Dr. Lad’s excellent introduction to Ayurveda and information on applying it to your life.
The Book of Ayurveda, – Judith Morrison , a fun, informative & very visual, lots of pictures and charts used to enhance Ayurvedic concepts.
* These books are the primary resources used in this article.
On the web:
There are many web sites about Ayurveda. Here are a few that have been around the longest:
www.ayurveda.com Dr. Lad’s web site. Good, informative articles by Dr. Lad can be downloaded.
www.banyanbotanicals.com A excellant source of organic herbs, spices and Ayurvedic remedies, also has archived articles to read under “E-newsletter”.
www.ayurvedacollege.com This college in California offers courses, services and has articles under “resources” on its website.