What is the Philosophy of Ayurvedic Medicine?
In Ayurveda, perfect health is defined as "a balance between body, mind, spirit, and social wellbeing." In fact, the twin concepts of balance and connectedness echo throughout Ayurvedic texts, thought, and practice.
Like all holistic health systems, Ayurveda emphasizes the unshakable connections between the body, mind, and spirit. However, Ayurveda's connectedness extends far beyond the individual, reaching into the universal.
Some basic but vital tenants of this philosophy include:
- All things in the universe, both living and nonliving, are joined together. In fact, everything in the universe is actually made of the same five gross natural elements: space, air, fire, water, and earth.
- There is a deep connection between the self and the environment.
- We are all initially connected within ourselves, to people surrounding us, to our immediate environment, and to the universe. This balanced connectivity ensures good health.
- We remain healthy if we retain balance, interacting with our environment in an effective and wholesome way.
- However, our initial balance is often disrupted by our lifestyles. Choices about diet, exercise, profession, and relationships all have the potential to create physical, emotional, or spiritual imbalances.
- This imbalance causes a lack of harmony, and makes us more susceptible to disease.
- Human beings are responsible for their choices and actions. We can attain and maintain good health if we make balanced choices that promote connectivity and harmony.
What are the Ayurvedic concepts of prakriti and doshas?
Ayurvedic philosophy maintains that people are born with a specific constitution, which is called the prakriti. The prakriti, established at conception, is viewed as a unique combination of physical and psychological characteristics that affect the way each person functions.
Throughout life, an individual's underlying prakriti remains the same. However, one's prakriti is constantly influenced by various internal, external and environmental factors like day and night, seasonal changes, diet, lifestyle choices, and more. Ayurveda places great emphasis on prevention of illness, and recommends maintaining health through following daily and seasonal regimens which create balance.
Ayurveda teaches that three qualities, called doshas, form important characteristics of the prakriti, or constitution. These doshas are called vata, pitta, and kapha, and they all have a specific impact on bodily functions.
Adherents of Ayurvedic medicine believe that each person has an individual, "tailored" balance of the three doshas. Individual doshas are constantly "in flux," and are influenced by eating, exercising, and relating to others.
Ayurvedic adherents believe that dosha imbalance produces symptoms that are related to that dosha and are different from symptoms of another dosha imbalance. (For example, if the aggressive and "hot" pitta-prominent person aggravates pitta, he/she may develop prickly rash or an acidic stomach.) Many factors can cause imbalance, including a poor diet, too much or too little physical or mental exertion, chemicals, or germs.
More about doshas
Each dosha is comprised of two of the five basic elements, which each have specific qualities. These elements are:
- Space (associated with expansiveness)
- Air (associated with gaseousness, mobility, and lack of form)
- Fire (associated with transformation, heat, and fire)
- Water (associated with liquidity and instability)
- Earth (associated with solidity and stability)
Furthermore, each dosha is associated with a specific bodily "build" or shape, and is linked to certain personality traits. Ayurveda also links each dosha with particular types of health problems.
It is important to note that only a trained Ayurvedic practitioner can accurately determine a person's prakriti and dosha. This classification is based on a thorough examination, which includes observing one's facial features, body build, way of walking, speech patterns, pulse, and much more. For more information, see What Happens In a Visit to an Ayurvedic Practitioner.
Some characteristics of each dosha include:
Pitta is a term originating from the Sanskrit word pinj, meaning "to shine." This dosha, which is comprised of the fire element, rules digestive, chemical, and metabolic function, and is associated with heat and oiliness. Its main seat is the small intestine, and it is the dosha believed to add luster to the eyes, hair, and skin. In a more figurative sense, pitta also governs our ability to "digest" not only the food stuff but also the concepts and information, which we then use to perceive our world.
Pitta-dominant people enjoy an efficient metabolism and hearty appetite. They are considered intelligent, aggressive achievers. Pitta people must be on guard against bleeding disorders, inflammations, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, rashes, and anger. To achieve Pitta dosha balance, Ayurveda advises avoiding extreme heat and eating less spicy food.
Vata is a term stemming from the Sanskrit word vayuu, meaning "that which moves." It is comprised of the space and air elements, and is sometimes considered the most influential dosha because it is the moving force behind both pitta and kapha. From its main seat in the colon, vata is believed to promote a healthy balance between thought and emotion, and fuel creativity, activity, and clear comprehension.
A vata-dominant person is quick, alert, and restless. She/he may walk, talk, and think quickly. However, vatas tend toward nervousness, fear, and anxiety, and are more susceptible to diseases like arthritis, insomnia, flatulence, constipation, and nerve disorders. To balance vata, it is important to maintain calm and routine, avoid extreme temperatures, and get adequate rest. Vata in the body increases with age.
Kapha is a term that derives from the Sanskrit word "shlish," meaning "that which holds things together." From its main seat in the stomach, this dosha relates to mucous, lubrication, and carrying nutrients into the arterial system. Kapha also governs immunity; Ayurveda teaches that its energy promotes the ongoing processes of self-repair and healing. Comprised of the water and earth elements, kapha is also thought to offer endurance and physical and psychological strength and stability, while also promoting human emotions, like love, compassion, empathy, understanding, forgiveness, loyalty, and patience.
Kapha-dominant people are considered strong but loving, tenacious but calm, and are blessed with wise tolerance. Kapha people are believed to be susceptible to weight gain, lethargy, excessive sleep, goiter, pulmonary congestion, allergies and asthma. To maintain balance, Kapha people are advised to frequently exercise, eat light meals, and avoid napping.
What is the Ayurvedic Approach?
Whether you go to an Ayurvedic internal medicine specialist or an obstetrician, or other specialist, they will take both a preventive and curative approach.
Preventive Medicine: This approach seeks to create and maintain health and longevity within the individual. It emphasizes defining each person's prakturi (or constitution) and creating daily and periodic regimens to support that prakturi and keep it in balance.
These health routines focus on everything from diet and exercise to herbal therapies, massage, meditation, and social behavior and positive relationships.
Curative Medicine: These treatments seek to heal an illness, which may be achieved by one or more of the following approaches:
- Internal measures, including shodhana (detoxification) and shamana (methods used to improve quality of life via palliative care).
- External measures, including snehana (oil treatments), svedana (steam therapy using herbal steam), and use of herbal pastes.
- Surgical methods, including removal of tissues, organs, and harmful growths
- Mental and spiritual therapies, called daivya chikitsa
- Herbal measures, including rasa shashtra (the use of various herbal and trace metal formulations)
What are the Ayurvedic Specialties?
Ayurvedic medicine features the following eight specialty branches:
- Internal Medicine (Kaya-Chikitsa), which focuses on doshic balance and imbalance, metabolic function, and digestion
- Surgery (Shalya Chikitsa)
- Eye, Ear, Nose, and Throat (Salakya Chikitsa)
- Obstetrics/gynecology (Prasuti and Stri-Rog)
- Pediatrics (Bala Chikitsa/ Kaumarbhritya)
- Psychology and Psychiatry (Bhuta-vidya or Graha-Chikitsa), which includes spirituality
- Toxicology (Agadha-tantra), which focuses on poisons ranging from insect bites to heavy metals and plants, and includes a medical jurisprudence role in which practitioners address cause of injury, death, and other medical ethics
- Rejuvenation/Geriatrics (Rasayana) and Virilification/Sexology (Vajikaran)
References and Further Reading
Guha, A. (2006). Ayurvedic Concept of Food and Nutrition. J Elements, 4(1).
Guha, A. (2005). Importance of Prakruti Analysis in Ayurvedic Diagnosis. J Elements, 3(3).
Lad, V.D. (2006). Six Stages of Nutrition. J Elements, 4(1).
Sharma, H., Chandola, H. M., Singh, G., & Basisht, G. (2007). Utilization of ayurveda in health care: an approach for prevention, health promotion, and treatment of disease. Part 1-ayurveda, the science of life. Journal of Alternative & Complementary Medicine, 13(9), 1011-1020.
Sharma, H., Chandola, H. M., Singh, G., & Basisht, G. (2007). Utilization of ayurveda in health care: an approach for prevention, health promotion, and treatment of disease. Part 2-ayurveda in primary health care. Journal of Alternative & Complementary Medicine, 13(10), 1135-1150.
Sharma, J., Guha, A. (2005). Sankhya: The Philosophy that Shaped the Tenets of Ayurveda. J Elements, 3(3).