Saturday, February 4, 2012

Ayurveda Defined

This is the first article in a series about Ayurveda and Yogic diets. 
To read the introduction first, click here.  

Aurveda is an ancient system of medicine developed in India somewhere between 4,000 and 6,000 years ago. Because of its antiquity, and close ties to both Hinduism and yoga, many western yogis accept Ayurvedic principles as part and parcel with yoga.

Most people are familiar with Ayurveda as three basic body types that require different diets for optimum health and weight-management. If they happen to have read more than a “Know your dosha” quiz in a women’s health magazine, they might realize that Ayurveda isn’t about weight-loss or dieting.

While mainstream focus is on eating properly for your dietary type, Ayurvedic medicine is a hugely complex system encompassing many medical fields. The classic texts, written more than 2,000 years ago, mention 8 fields of medicine: general medicine, pediatrics, psychiatry, toxicology, diseases of the face, eyes, nose throat and ears, male and female infertility treatments, and surgery. This last may come as a surprise to westerners, who may imagine Ayurveda as a general collection of good lifestyle advice and herbal teas, but surgery has been a part of the system since about 400 BC. The writer Charaka recorded the removal of cataracts and even cancerous tumors.  A licensed Ayurvedic Doctor is a real medical professional with a university degree in Ayurvedic Medicine and Surgery. In India graduates receive either a Bachelor or Doctor of Ayurvedic Medicine and Surgery (BAMS or DAMS).


Ayurveda has a lot more in common with Western medicine than some people would like to admit. After all, western medicine has its roots in Ayurveda, having been brought west by Alexander the Great around 300 BC. Ayurvedic doctors will prescribe different herbs, tinctures and mineral powders.  While some Ayurvedic remedies have been shown to be effective, they may feel aggressive, uncomfortable, or just plain bizarre (such as the use of cow urine, a powerful anti-bacterial). And in studies of Ayurvedic herbal remedies in the United States, researchers have reported high levels of heavy metals such as lead and mercury (see this article: http://jama.ama-assn.org/content/292/23/2868.ful). Doctors may prescribe particular foods and substances for an ill person that a completely healthy person would be advised to avoid.  

It’s a complex system, but the Doshas are the key component, which is probably why they enjoy the focus of dabbling dieters and yogis.  Dosha is a Sanskrit word that means “that which decays” or “that which spoils”, and the dominance of one dosha over the other two is what causes disease. Ayurveda focuses on creating a balance between the three doshas, so that optimally, a person would be dosha-neutral.

The three doshas are vatta, pitta and kapha. As the women’s health magazine probably already described, Vattas (air energy) are skinny airheads with high anxiety levels, Pittas (fire) are aggressive career-makers with stomach ulcers, and kaphas (earth) are your local potheads.  The magazine probably doesn’t use quite those exact words, but you get the idea. Dietary suggestions are given for each type to help achieve a balance and help you lose weight. 

A common mistake is to describe oneself as one particular dosha. It is very common to hear someone say “I’m a vatta dosha, so I can’t eat raw foods”, or “I’m a kapha, I guess I’m just lazy”. It is more proper to say “I have a vatta dominance” or “I have a tendency to be lazy”. Every single person alive embodies all three of the doshas in differing ratios. So that someone who self-describes as vatta also has elements of pitta and kapha within them. 

Even more proper would be to say “I have a vatta dominance right now”. A person is supposedly born with a perfect balance of doshas, and the imbalances develop over the course of their lifetime due to unhealthy lifestyle choices.  Which dosha is dominant may change as well, due to medications, pregnancy, aging, or other hormonal changes.  For yogis, this is a good lesson in non-attachment. Just because you are a pitta now does not mean you will be in 5 years.

A person may also have imbalances of more than one dosha. For example, you could be a pitta-kapha, in which case you would have more pitta and kapha than vatta. Even more difficult is a vatta-kapha, in which case you are essentially screwed as far as your food choices, as vatta and kapha have almost polar opposite dietary requirements (for example, a vatta pacifying diet is high in dairy products and sweet fruits, while kapha is supposed to avoid dairy products and sweet fruits). This is where Ayurvedic dietary recommendations can become very complicated, and advocates will suggest you visit your local vaidya, or ayurvedic doctor.

Memorizing and following all these dietary recommendations takes considerable effort and can be a big distraction from your yoga practice. That’s why it’s important to remember that Ayurveda is a medical system – designed to treat and heal illnesses – not to support a healthy physical practice.
That’s why the ancient sages designed a diet specifically for the practice of yoga.

Read more about the Yogic Diet in Part 3: Distilling the Confusion

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