Ayurveda as its name denotes (Ayu = all aspects of life from birth to death; Veda = knowledge or learning) discusses in detail about the “Science of Life” and perceives a close relationship between man and the universe. “As is the macrocosm (universe), so is the microcosm (individual)” says Ayurveda.
Every aspect of a person – ie mind, body, senses, emotion and soul (for lack of better word) is examined in depth in this all-embracing traditional Indian system.
Just as the universe has 5 states of physical entities of ether, air, fire, water and earth, the human body too has these elements combined into body constituents or Doshas called Vata (Ether + Air), Pitta (Fire + some water) and Kapha (Water+ Earth). This highly intricate science is deeply profound and logical which is still applicable to current time. Though the understanding of the elements and their roles in human, plants, environment and health requires a deeper study, a simplified analysis is provided below.
At a structural level, Space is seen in the cavities of our bodies (mouth, nostrils. respiratory tract etc). The second element Air, is the force behind all movements in our body (ie pulsation of the heart, movement of muscles, expansion and contraction of lungs etc). Together they combine to form the force called “Vata” which governs the principle of movement both in body, mind and emotion. It is also said to be the potential in a person. A person with a balanced Vata can be considered to be quick thinking, effective etc while aggravated Vata can lead to excessive movement and can result in stress and other Vata related disorders such as nervous problems. Yoga states that when a person’s Prana (Chi) is at optimum, the Vata becomes balanced.
The third element Fire (also known as Agni) is the energy of “transformation” and with some combination of water it forms the force called Pitta which controls the digestive system and its metabolism. All forms of transformation, including thoughts transformation are attributed to Pitta. Fire is also interpreted as “willpower” or the “fire in a person’s eye”. A person with a good balance of Pitta will be able to absorb subjects/ topics and transform blueprints into successful projects. However an unbalanced Pitta can lead to aggression, anger and other “heat” related diseases. Similarly a person with a good Pitta can absorb nutrients well but when off balance, it leads to several skin related diseases.
Water, the fourth important element is vital for the functioning of tissue and organs and manifests in the body as the fluid eg blood, mucous etc The fifth element, Earth, is represented by body mass and shape or the “binding force” eg. muscles, bones, cartilage, etc. A combination of Water and Earth results in the force called Kapha and is attributed to manifestation or binding force. A person with balanced Kapha is said to be well grounded and empathetic. By the same token, imbalance in Kapha leads to excessive attachment, possessiveness, laziness and other kapha related disorders.
Simply put, the five elements of Space, Air, Fire, Water and Earth play a structural role while the combinations of these five into doshas called Vata, Pitta and Kapha play a functional role and cannot be seen with the naked eye nor the microscope.
Every human has a combination of all five elements and three doshas and this combination is determined at birth and is known as a person’s Prakruti (body constitution). When a person lives in harmony with his Prakruti by following a proper diet and lifestyle, that person will remain healthy.
However when one deviates from his original Prakriti (either physically or by thoughts) it leads to disease (Vikriti). The lifestyle choices such as food, sleep, daily activities, thoughts etc play a major role in balancing or aggravating our doshas.
Ayurvedic Nutrition as a preventive Medicine
Ayurvedic treatments are both preventative and curative and rely on herbs, plants and spices. According to Ayurveda every food item has medicinal properties, a theory which is now being substantiated by research around the world. Turmeric for example, is indicated in Ayurveda for its healing properties. In 2010, a research published in the renowned gastroenterology and hepatology journal Gut stats that Curcumin (Turmeric) could be a treatment for liver cirrhosis.
This brings to mind the quote from the Greek physician and the father of western medicine Hippocrates, who said “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food”. Ayurveda works on the same principle about food and emphasises that taking the proper herbs, spice, plant according to one’s body type is crucial.
Both Ayurveda and Yoga state that our body is an “intelligent unit” and has it has its own self-healing mechanism. Our body works perfectly fine when it is in a balanced state (with itself and with the environment) and is therefore at “ease”. Only when there is an imbalance in the body, it leads to “dis-ease” and consequently the onset of a disease.
Diet and Lifestyle
According to Ayurveda, early stages of diseases can be cured by changes to diet (Ahara) and lifestyle (Vihara). A proper diet with herbs, spices, plants etc can play a significant role in re-establishing the body balance if the disease stage has not manifested fully. Herbal formulation referred to as “Oushadi” can be administered when needed. It also clearly states that treatment without changes to diet or lifestyle will have minimal desired effect.
Taste and Nutrition
Ayurveda states that there are six tastes (Rasa) namely, sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent and astringent. Each taste has a specific effect on the body tissues and can either balance, pacify or aggravate the Vata, Pitta and Kapha doshas. Apart from tastes, herbs have various attributes and play a major role in determining health or disease. Entire chapters are dedicated to discussing food, their attributes ie whether they are sweet, sour, cold, heavy, rough etc and the combination of these into proper meals has major impact on health.
A healthy person should ensure that all six tastes should be present in a meal, while a person who has aggravated dosha should take care to balance the diet with either adding or removing a specific type of food.
Digestion and Nutrition
Apart from taste, Ayurveda places a great deal of emphasis on digestion or Agni, stating that nourishing food will have minimal effect on the body, if the digestion is not balanced. Agni is pivotal in digesting and transforming food into cell nourishment. When the Agni is not in proper working condition, it will slowly lead to accumulation of toxins (ama) and thereby lead to disease. It is for this reason that many Ayurvedic treatments focus on Panchakarma (5 steps or actions to detox the body) to balance the Agni (digestion) first before treating a specific ailment.
The logical principle is that digestion or Agni transforms ingested food into the necessary basic elements for the cells. When the Agni is not balanced, ingested food will not be transformed to cellular nutrients. Cell absorption and elimination will also be affected thereby causing disease and “blocking” food channels.
According to Ayurveda there are 13 types of Agni that covers all types digestive enzymes. Ayurveda talks in terms of “tissue fire” where each level of body tissue has its own digestive capabilities and aids the entire digestion process. The main Agni called Jatharagni is referred to as the “digestive fire in the stomach” and can be equated with hydrochloric acid (HCL). All 13 types of Agni play a part in digestion with Jatharagni playing a major role.
Ayurveda clearly says that the state of Agni will determine how food will be digested, and eventually absorbed as cellular nutrients or known as “rasa” (juice for cells). According to Ayurveda, there are four possible states of agni or metabolism, namely irregular metabolism (vishamagni) which is the cause of aggravated Vata; hypermetabolism (tikshnagni) caused by aggravated Pitta and slow metabolism (mandagni) by aggravated Kapha. When Vata, Pitta and Kapha are in balanced, one will have a balanced metabolism (samagni).
Therefore nutrition from an Ayurvedic perspective is both complex and deep.When a person has a balanced lifestyle and diet and well being his dosha (Vata, Pitta and Kapha) will be in balance. In this state, together with good digestion, it is said that person has good Ojas (vigor). Ojas is equated with life energy and when in optimum level, it is compared to strong immunity. Deficient Ojas leads to weakness, tiredness and ultimately results in diseases.
Ayurvedic principles though complex and deep are holistic and logical. Several scientific studies are being conducted around the world substantiating the medicinal values of plants and food and pharmaceutical industries are jumping into the bandwagon of creating “health-food”
Vasanthi Pillay is the President and Founder of the Ayurveda Association of Singapore (AAOS) and the Director of Innergy Training & Consultancy Pte Ltd. She conducts several Talks/ Workshops on Ayurveda in Singapore and Asia. Vasanthi who has worked in a highly stressful corporate world, developed a keen interest in mind-body relationship. This prompted her to take up her Yoga Instructor Course in Bangalore India in 1995 and several Ayurveda Courses. Vasanthi also holds a Bachelor of Arts (NUS) majoring in Philosophy, Post Graduate Diploma in Business Administration (SIM) and Post Graduate Diploma in Banking and Finance (UNSW, Australia).
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