Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Ayurveda: The Science of Life

Book Review: Ayurveda: The Science of Self-Healing by D. Vasant Lad  (Lotus Press 1984)

This is likely the best introduction to the ancient Indian holistic medical system known as Ayurveda – (the Science of Life). Dr. Lad runs the Ayurvedic Institute in New Mexico which is the main place in the US to be trained in Ayurveda.

Ayurveda stems from the Samkhya Philosophy. Purusha (Pure unmanifest energy – or Spirit) and Prakruti (manifestation of form – or roughly Matter) through the force of Mahad or Buddhi – the cosmic intelligence - leads to Ahamkar – the ego or the sense of -I am- and from this arise the three gunas or principles of material nature – Satva – the principle that reveals, Rajas – the principle of dynamic movement, and Tamas – the principle of inertia. It is said that all matter contains varying proportions of these three principles. Inert matter contains mostly Tamas and so is veiled. The more matter is imbued with movement the more Rajas it has. The more matter is imbued with consciousness the more Satva is has. Ayurveda is closely related to yoga and to tantra as well. It is based on the three doshas – Vata, Pitta, and Kapha which are manifestations of the five elements in the human body. Vata is composed of the elements air and space and relates to bodily movement, urges, sensory and motor functions, secretions and excretions, fear and anxiety. Pitta is composed of the elements fire and water and relates to bodily heat, digestion, perception, hunger/thirst, intelligence, anger, and jealousy. Kapha is composed of the elements water and earth and relates to stabilty, energy, lubrication, forgiveness, greed, attachment, and possessiveness. Pitta and Kapha have oiliness in common. Pitta and Vata have lightness in common. Vata and Kapha have cold in common. The book contains a chart or questionaire that allows one to estimate one’s particular constitution which can be a single dosha or a combination.

Agni – the digestive fire – is considered the key to health. Agni is the fire that breaks down food into energy. When the doshas are out of balance the agni function slows or is impaired and food components remain undigested and unabsorbed which becomes a sort of sticky, clogging stuff called ama which is considered the root of all disease. Repressed emotions can cause imbalances resulting in ama accumulation. Imbalance in the body’s waste systems can also cause imbalance and disease. The three malas – or body waste systems are – feces which are solid, and urine and sweat which are liquid. Proper production and elimination of these is considered essential for health.

Some clinical methods in Ayurveda are: the examination of urine which is fairly elaborate, the pulse diagnosis which is also elaborate, tongue diagnosis, facial diagnosis, lip diagnosis, and diagnosis of the nails.

Treatments can consist of the pancha karma – or five actions. They are therapeutic vomiting, purgation therapy which includes medicated enemas, nasal administration which includes blowing herbs and oils into the nose and nasal massage, blood-letting which is used sparingly and only in certain disorders, and palliation which refers to neutralizing toxins through fasting.

Foods and herbs are considered to have different qualities based on the three gunas and to be balancing or unbalancing for those of various dosha constituents. Taste is considered to have three aspects: rasa – which occurs when the substance is on the tongue being tasted , virya – which occurs when the substance enters the stomach and begins to be digested, and vipak – which is the post-digestive effect. There are said to be six tastes and they are: sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, and astringent. Each taste has either a hot or cold virya and three have a changing vipak: salty changes to sweet, and both bitter and astringent change to pungent.

Lifestyle and Routine are considered very important. Diet, exercise, and mental hygiene are emphasized. Yoga asana and pranayama are prescribed as is getting up early – usually before dawn. Sun gazing at dawn when one can is said to be useful. Tritaka – or gazing at a candle flame for a few minutes often is said to be good for the eyes. Rubbing the soles of the feet (with sesame oil) is said to be good prep for sleep. During the full moon kapha is aggravated in the body and during the new moon pitta is aggravated. Childhood is said to be the time of kapha, adulthood the time of pitta, and old age the time of vata. Astrologically, various organs of the bodily are said to be affected by various planets.

There are also the subtle essences of the three doshas: Prana is the subtle essence of vata. Ojas is the subtle essence of kapha. Tejas is the subtle essence of pitta. Prana kindles agni. Prana enters the blood in the heart and governs oxygenation. It also governs the functions of ojas and tejas. Ojas contains all five elements and is lost in bodily secretions. Tejas is the essence of the very subtle fire of agni.

A few other methods in Ayurveda are color therapy and the use of metals and gemstones. The ingestion of minute amounts of gems and minerals is considered controversial as some are known toxins. Every aspect of Ayurveda may not be for everyone and some therapies are questionable. However, Ayurveda along with Traditional Chinese Medicine is probably the most well-established, long-practiced, tried and true holistic medical system known in the world. Some of the latest frontiers have to do with assessing the qualities of herb, foods, and therapies not native to India and assessing the body’s reaction to various environmental toxins and technological stresses.

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