Ayurveda was the enlightenment of a group of sages who retied to the foothills of the Himalayas to meditate on the secrets of life and the methods of staying untouched by disease. They got their knowledge from a God called Atreya and came back to spread the knowledge. The knowledge was transmitted for thousands of years by verses that carried down through generations, so their date of composition; the exact date of the birth of Ayurveda cannot be ascertained.
The science itself considers earth to be made of five basic elements namely, ether, earth, fire, water and air. It is the fine balancing between these elements that forms the basis of human health, and any tipping of the scale causes disease, pain and even death. The science of Ayurveda is about how best to keep the body tuned to its natural balance. The sages who practiced it, enjoyed a healthy and very long life.
The science does not differentiate between food and medicine. Foods are nourishment as well as therapeutic, often playing the role of medicines, in case of need.
From the Ayurvedic point of view, it is not only the food we eat but also the way it is eaten and cooked, presented and even preserved, that makes it nourishing. So the general guidelines included that food should be hot (as in freshly cooked, or even of a heating quality to the body), tasty and easy to digest, eaten in right quantities and only after the last meal has been digested. The ritual of eating should be done in pleasant surroundings, at one’s own pace, and the attention of the eaters should be on the food, not wandering. The single most interesting thing that Ayurveda proposes is each person should find out their temperament type and eat food according to it, that which is suited to the person’s physical and emotional makeup. While these are common sense dictums, most of us can identify times when we have not adhered to these.
One more important thing to know is that the term ‘Hot Food’ in Ayurveda does not mean foods hot in temperature, but foods hot in intrinsic nature. These are foods that stimulate digestion, deterring the growth of bacteria and other microbes. Of course, cooking takes care of the bacterial load in any food, but there are certain conditions for which the Ayurvedic doctor can prescribe a raw foods or juice diet.
The basis of all study in Ayurveda is identified from your body type. At the time of birth, each person has a particular combination of energies present. These determine our constitution and everything we do. One could be a Vata, Pitta or Kapha, body type. Of course, there are long lists of characteristics for each of these but for the sake of brevity, we will just summarize the attributes.
Vata dominant people have sharp minds, ready flexibility and creative resources. The other attributes are dry, light, cold, rough, subtle and clear.
Pitta people are usually determined, with a robust constitution, strong will and healthy appetite. The other attributes are oily, light, mobile and liquid. They prefer cooler climates and is very creatively expressive.
A Kapha person is strong, enduring, steady, calm and very stable. Their other attributes are oily, cold, soft, dense, slimy, heavy static and slow. These people have a steady temperament but once excited, are complete bulls in a China shop.
Having said this, Ayurveda considers body to be made of seven basic vital tissues or dhatus (elements). Rasa (plasma), rakta(blood), mamsa (muscle), meda (fat), asthi (bone), majja(marrow), shukra (nerves) and artac (reproductive tissue).
This list is in relation to their depth in the human body; accordingly, each element nourishes the next. For instance, a disease of the blood is much easier to treat than of the, say, bone marrow. There is a parallel for this in western medicine too.
Another important thing is the strotras or the channels, within the body. These do not correspond to the veins or arteries or even nerve channels; they are in fact, energy channels. They are stronger than any energy carrying channels and many diseases arise from blockage of these strotras. A healthy balance between these seven elements is what a person has to strive for.
The third basic concept is that of ama (waste) in the body. Accumulation of ama in the body, or its blockage can wreak havoc in he human system. It does not include only digestive waste but also the toxins that we absorb because of digestion or our environment. In today’s terms, the chemicals and radiations that our body is subject to, can be termed ama in the sense of the term.
By these principles, good health is maintained by a two pronged strategy:
1. Maintaining a proper diet to replenish and maintain the elements.
2. Keeping the energy channels open for free flow of the life giving force (tatva). For this the ama and the strotras must be cleaned regularly.
In Ayurveda, observation is the basis of diagnosis. A good Ayurvedic physician will feel the patient’s pulse; observe their smell, look at overall appearance, quality of voice and their thoughts in words. It needs long years of work and experience to bestow this kind of observation. Western medicine does not recognize these things as a part of a science, but Ayurveda has survived the test of time, and proved itself. In fact, ancient Chinese and some other traditional healing systems function in similar ways. The best Ayurvedic vaidya (doctor) depends on his senses and intuition, both of which have, of course, been trained to observe and ascertain.
Treatment under this science is largely commonsensical. Of course, having a large body of basic information and specialized knowledge helps. For instance a skin rash call on the body for cooling foods would need cooling, or moistening, drying or warming. The doctor will prescribe what your body needs, not immediate symptomatic relief from current discomfort. So the patient may be advised some lifestyle change, some foods to be avoided, some things to be added to the daily diet. In Ayurveda, what goes inside affects the body outside.
These are basically the principles on which Ayurveda, one of the oldest medical sciences in the history of mankind, operates.