RYS 200, 300, 500 in Rishikesh
by Shelby Thoma
“As is the cosmic body, so is the human body
As is the cosmic mind, so is the human mind
As is the macrocosm, so is the microcosm”
The term Ayurveda is derived from the Sanskrit words ayus, meaning life, and veda, meaning science; therefore, Ayurveda can be translated as “the science of life.” The Sanskrit interpretation of ayus is considered to be the union of the mind, body, senses and soul - an energy and a vitality that is eternal (Yarema, Rhoda et al, 20). This science of self-healing, emerging from the spiritual texts of ancient India (the Vedas), is at least five thousand years old. The Vedic texts evolved from the minds of the ancient rishis, or seers of truth. These devotees would sit in meditation for several hours, receiving wisdom from the Gods about the nature of life and all of its aspects. While studying what the rishis had transcribed, the scholars of that time experimented with the wisdom within the texts. Consequently, they created two major works that are considered the oldest and lengthiest medical texts in the world. The first, Charaka Samhita, was written sometime during the 5th to 3rd centuries B.C. and stands as the initial codification of Ayurvedic medicine (Yarema, Rhoda et al, 21). The second, Sushruta Samhita, was written by surgeon the Sushruta and focuses mainly on advanced surgical procedures. These texts illustrated how to live in harmony with the basic laws in nature, offering individuals a holistic guidemap for awakening to his or her own healing potential.
Ayurveda, in a stark contrast to Western medicine, believes that health is a continuous and participatory process that holds all aspects of life as essential to the healing journey. These aspects include the physical, mental, emotional, behavorial, spiritual, familial, social, and universal (Yarema, Rhoda et al, 20). Under this impression, we can begin to view ourselves as one-of-a-kind, with an equally unique design for optimal health. Through Ayurvedic medicine, we learn to honor our Self-nature and support our distinctive qualities with compassion and attention.
Those who seek out Ayurveda as a discipline are interested in the achievement of good health and longevity. In addition to Ayurveda, there are two other ancient disciplines of life that have been practiced in India for a hundreds of years: Yoga and Tantra, which are also mentioned in the Vedic texts. Just as Ayurveda is the science of life, Yoga represents the science of union with the Divine, while Tantra is considered to be the most direct method of controlling the energy that creates the ultimate union with that Truth (Lad, 19). These three disciplines make up an interdependent trinity of life. Without the knowledge and practice of these disciplines in daily life, our optimal health within body, mind, and consciousness may suffer.
The rishis believed that consciousness was energy that manifested into five basic elements: Ether (or Space), Air, Fire, Water, and Earth (Lad, 21). In nature these five elements provide the foundation for the physical world. They are considered by some to be a dynamic continuum of energy, starting at the subtlest vibrations of Ether, ending in the densest vibrations of Earth. Since human beings is a reflection of Nature itself, Ayurvedic medicine recognizes that the human body holds these five elements as well. They are manifested within us as the three basic principles of humors, or the tridosha (Lad, 26). Doshas are biological energies that are found throughout the human body, as well as in the mind. Ascribed to their subtle enegetic qualities, these doshas cannot actually be recognized directly in the body, but are more distinct in a person’s actions and qualities. These distinctions can be found anywhere from an individual’s intricate biological functions to their personality traits. We are each born with a unique proportion of doshas, which comes from the combination of one’s parents’ doshas at the moment of conception. The bodily air principle, Vata, is manifested from the Ether and Air elements; the fire principle, Pitta, manifested from Fire and Water; and Kapha, the water principle, from Earth and Water (Lad, 26). In Charaka Samhita, it suggests that when we take in appropriate quantity of food, it aids us in conjuring strength, complexion, happiness, and longevity without disturbing the equilibrium of tissues and doshas in the body.
The doshas are considered to govern all of the biological, psychological and physiological functions of the body, mind, and even consciousness. Typically, one dosha tends to be predominant in most individuals, commonly with a second dosha having a strong influence. Although every cell in our bodies contains Vata, Pitta, & Kapha, it is the varying proportion of the doshas that contributes to an individual’s unique mind-body composition. This composition is called prakruti, and Ayurveda believes we are meant to live into the fulfillment of this underlying nature (Yarema, Rhoda et al, 24). We can begin moving towards fulfillment by becoming aware of our constitution and making conscious choices to balance the doshas within us. Diets act as a major outlet for action and change. Since the doshas are so incredibly dynamic in their energies, they are also constantly in flux in response to our actions, emotions, thoughts, the foods we eat, the season, as well as other sensory input. By making both lifestyle and dietary decisions that foster balance within our doshas, we begin to live into the fulfillment of our individual natures. When our doshas are out of balance, they contribute to processes that create disease and other illnesses. By making choices that go against our natures, we support unhealthy patterns that lead to physical and mental imbalances. This imbalanced deviation from prakruti is called vikruti, and the greatest number of these imbalances are caused by increased or aggravated doshic states (Yarema, Rhoda et al, 25). There are eight factors listed in the Charaka Samhita that should be considered when choosing an appropriate diet for your individual self:
1. The natural qualities of food,
2. How the natural qualities in foods can be altered,
3. The effects of combining foods,
4. The quantity of food eaten,
5. The place(s) and climate where the food was grown, prepared, and eaten,
6. The effects of the seasons and time of day,
7. General guidance on eating habits,
8. Individual differences in the consumer of the food. (Morrison, 131).
Rather than obsessing over nutritional proportions such as getting x amount of carbohydrates and y amount of protein, Ayurveda recommends using six distinctive tastes as a guide towards fulfilling our body's optimal nourishment. Since the brain sends the body signals when it requires energy from food, we can be sure that these signals are adequately met by incorporating these six tastes into each meal: sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent, and astringent. These six tastes naturally feed our mind, body, senses, and spirit in unique ways. Just as we find the elements within our doshas, we can detect them again within each of the six tastes - sweet containing earth and water; sour, earth and fire; salty, water and fire; bitter, ether and air; pungent, air and fire; and astringent, air and earth. The sanskrit word, rasa, describes the sensation that the tongue experiences when consuming a taste; in fact, these tastes are experienced on different areas of our tongues (Yarema, Rhoda et al, 46). The tastebuds on the tips of our tongues detect sweetness, the reason why we lick ice cream as well as other sweet treats. The salty taste is located in this area as well, with the sour tastes recognized on the sides of our tongues, and bitter near the back. Located in a more generalized area, the pungent taste fires up the mucous membrane of the tongue, while astringent tastes cause these membranes to constrict.
Of course, this perspective on fulfilling our bodies' nutritional needs with regard to the six tastes largely conflicts with how we eat in the West. However, one can quite easily spot egregious nutritional imbalances in our culture that can be linked to the bias towards sweet and salty tastes. Without the balancing effect of the four other tastes, over-consumpution of sweet and salty foods leads to obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart disease in North America (Yarema, Rhoda et al, 45).
In accordance with the six tastes, Ayurveda pays attention to gunas, the physical qualities of food, when analyzing an individual's unique nutritional fulfillment. Although there are ten pairs of opposite gunas that are used to examine food, these three are the most significant: heavy/light, hot/cold, and moist/dry. Gunas can also be described as the physiological and energetic effects of food on our bodies, minds, and spirits. For example, food that is eaten hot will have a mild heating effect on the body, but foods that are high in the fire element (sour, salty, and pungent tastes) will create an even stronger heating effect, increasing metabolism and acidity. The heavy gunas that are dense in nutrients are commonly found in tastes that contain the earth and water elements, such as sweet and salty. Lighter foods require less energy to digest, and are comprised of air and ether (such as pungent and bitter tastes). Drier foods extract moisture from bodily tissues, through fire, air and ether, and moist foods build and lubricate tissues through the elements of water and earth.
InThe Book of Ayurveda: A Holistic Approach to Health and Longevitiy, author Judith H. Morrison states: "As you eat you take into yourself the subtle influences attached to the food and prana as well as the physical form of the food" (Morrison, 130). This clearly suggests the dual nature of nutrition, feeding not only our bellies, but our spirits as well. Even though food isn't considered to have a pranarating, Ayurvedic practitioners believe that the lack of prana in the food that we eat will lead towards a lower vitality and weariness. This lack of prana, or life force energy, is thought to result from modern methods of production, such as processing, packaging, and distribution. An assortment of processed food products contain certain substances that are used to please our senses. However, rather than adding nutrients to the body, they may distort the body's natural intelligence. Furthermore, these substances are able to make our minds crave food that are inappropriate for our individual constitutions. On a more subtle level, the attitudes and emotions of the people who prepare our food may affect us as well. This not only includes the cooks in the kitchen, but the attitudes of those involved in growing, preparing and marketing the food we eat. Food cooked out of anger will subtly upset digestion, so cooking mindfully and with love will always be best.
As we know from yoga and various other spiritual practices, the mind and body are one hundred percent interrelated. As we nourish the body, we nourish the mind simultaneously. Ayurveda notes that there are three primal qualities of nature that manifest in every mind (Yarema, Rhoda et al, 67). Sattva is the quality of purity, knowledge, truth, and light. Rajas is the quality of change, activity, and movement. Tamas is the quality of dullness, darkness, and inertia. It is thought that each of these qualities are present within the mind at all times.
Foods that are qualified as sattvic help our minds to remain focused and light. They are fresh, pure, and vibrant, including natural, organic ingredients that are easily digested. Many of them are sweet by nature, which have a rejuvenating effect on the body as well as a calming effect on the mind. Since sattvic foods are usually grown above ground in the presence of sunlight, they are lighter in nature than foods grown underground (Yarema, Rhoda et al 69). Sattvic foods include most fresh fruits, vegetables, freshly-prepared grains, several types of beans, yogurt, ghee, honey, and some nuts and seeds.
Rajas foods have a stimulatory effect on our minds, enlivening and provoking them. They are recommended to be used in moderation in order to provide our bodies with vital energy and help to kindle weak digestion. When they are overly consumed, we may become imbalanced. Rajasic foods are salty, sour, bitter and pungent tastes. An excess of rajasic foods will create imbalances within all three doshas, leading to jealousy, anger, and egotism. These foods include peppers, tomatoes, lemons, limes, red lentils, garlic, peanut, avocado, eggs, vinegar, salt, white sugar, and many more.
The most significant caution we must take is against the consumption of too much (better yet, any) tamasic foods, which weigh down our minds, dulling our senses and concurrently creating heavy emotions. Dull and lifeless, these foods suppress our digestive fire (agni) and require quite a lot of energy to digest. Artificial processes, such as canning, freezing, and microwaving can render food to be dull and lifeless, even if it's sattvic by nature. According to Ayurveda, it's best to avoid leftovers, stale, deep-fried, microwaved, and frozen foods, meat, fish, margarine, ice cream, onions, mushrooms, white sugar (in excess), alcohol (in large amounts), and cheese as much as possible.
The spectrum of Ayurvedic nutrition is vast - there are several guidelines for all things food, and each of them pay strong attention to the individual. Perhaps these methods could be a successful alternative to fad diets in Western culture. Certainly, Ayurveda helps in alleviating the confusion within many people about their nutritional fulfillment due to overwhelming amounts of conflicting information in the West. In addition to the doshas, gunas, and primal qualities of the mind, Ayurvedic medicine touches on several other topics. These topics include how and how not to combine foods, appropriate portions, how to eat seasonally, as well as other general rules about diet. All in all, Ayurveda asks us "Is your desire to eat coming from your mind or your body?" and encourages us to eat only when our bodies are naturally hungry, not when we are emotional, angry, worried, or upset. This same awareness to our food coincides with the awareness we cultivate during meditation or asana practice. The methods revolve around self-healing and love, aiming to satisfy our beings on a holistic level. As an ancient text, Ayurvedic methods are continuing to transform countless individuals healing journeys across the globe. With an Ayurvedic approach to our diets, we take a step towards honoring our minds, bodies, and spirits, all the while maintaining a yogic awareness. Certainly, there has got to be truth within these methods; and when we turn towards truth, we are choosing to experience a new level of conscious living.