What is Ayurveda?

What is Ayurveda?

The word Ayurveda is Sanskrit and may be translated as knowledge of life or knowledge of longevity.  It’s an ancient health system that originated in India, and it views the body holistically, inseparable from the mind, the body, and the soul and the organs within the body holistically.

Based on the reference, Ayurveda arose between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago and the ancient texts.  Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Ayurveda share many commonalities. 

Ayurvedic Texts

The knowledge of Ayurveda was revealed to ancient seers, called rishi, in India, and was passed down orally for centuries until being written down in a number of sacred texts known as the Vedas, of which there are four:

  • Rig Veda (3000-2500 BC)
  • Yajur Veda (1200-1000 BC)
  • Sam Veda (1200-1000 BC)
  • Atharva Veda (1200-1000 BC)

The Vedas cover all aspects of health including health, healthcare techniques, spirituality, human behavior, government, politics, and astrology.  From them, the Ayurvedic medicine texts were written and four major texts are still used today:

  • Charaka Samhita: a major compendium of Ayurvedic medical theory compiled in Sanskrit ~800 BC and still used for training Ayurvedic physicians today
  • Ashtanga Hridaya and Ashtanga Sangraha emphasize the material value of life and define the workings of the water and earth elements in life. These texts were written by an Ayurvedic physician Vagbhata circa 400 BC.
  • Sushruta Samhita is a surgical text dating to ~700 BC with information on the Ayurvedic definition of health and on blood with details about marma points and also about the fire and water elements of the body. This book, written by Sushruta, even describes skin grafting and reconstructive surgery.

And, three minor texts:

  • Sarangadhar Samhita
  • Bhav Prakash
  • Madhava Nidan

Before 2000 BC, Ayurveda was categorized into two schools, one focused on internal medicine and a second focused on surgery.

How does Ayurveda differ from Western medicine?

Rather than focus on a disease or pathology, Ayurveda assumes that for true health, a being must be in balance energetically and Ayurveda seeks the root cause of the disease in order to remove the imbalance from a person’s life so that health (aka balance) can be restored.

In Ayurveda, there are three causes of disease.  Hang with me here because at face value, you might dismiss them:

  • Disrespecting your senses
  • Making choices from a place of ego
  • Living in disharmony with the rhythms of nature

Let’s break these down.

Disrespecting your senses

At its core, this particular pathway to disease causes numbing of your mind to what's going on within your body.  Or, allowing external factors to consume your awareness so that you aren't sufficiently paying attention to what's going on within your body.  Let's break this one down more.

When smell, sight, taste, touch, and sound are overstimulated, this harms your body and your mind, both of which require moderation and balance for healthy function.  Ayurveda being a holistic wellness system attunes you to the subtler aspects of the world, and we’ll talk about that in more detail here in a sec.  When you allow your senses to be overstimulated, the body and the mind become confused.

Imagine, eating something very spicy.  How well are you able to taste for the next 8 to 12 hours?  Your taste buds become damaged by the overstimulation.

Imagine how your sense of hearing is impaired by ringing in your ears after attending a concert. 

Your sense of smell after smelling scents that are too strong.

Your sense of touch… when you receive stimulation that is too strong, this is perceived as pain.  Touching a hot stove, stubbing your toe.

Our five senses originally provided keen awareness of our surroundings, and in today’s world of overstimulation, it’s easy to overstimulate any one of your senses. 

Going deeper, each of your senses is associated with a different element:

  • Space/ether is the element associated with hearing
  • Air/wind is the element associated with touch
  • Fire is the element associated with sight
  • Water is the element associated with taste
  • Earth is the element associated with smell

According to Ayurveda, these five elements compose all things in nature, from the seasons to your body.  And, keeping these five elements in proper balance within your body is the key to wellness.

Revisiting this idea of disrespecting your senses once more, you might think of it as a way to allow too much of some elements into your body, and in Ayurveda, everything that enters your body, whether through your mouth, through your eyes, or through any of your other sense organs has to be processed and digested. 

We’ll circle back around to digestion after covering the other two causes of disease.

Making choices from a place of ego

When’s the last time you ate something you knew would likely cause you pain in the future?  For me, as one example, I don’t tolerate wine well anymore.  Even 2 ounces, a third of a glass, is sometimes enough to trigger a hangover the next day.  I’ve also noticed certain foods that trigger symptoms within my body, some very common foods, like tomatoes, which I love. 

Gluten is another major issue and is one of the foods that almost assuredly will trigger Hashimoto's symptoms for me.  And, these decisions don't stop at food choices.

Anytime you choose to do something that past experience has taught you not to do, whether this is choosing:

  • work over quality time with loved ones
  • making poor food choices for your body
  • choosing to maintain relationships that are detrimental to your mental and emotional wellness
  • hitting snooze for the third time rather than getting out of bed and meditating or exercising
  • staying up until 2 am binge watching Netflix
  • overextending yourself in your work life or personal life so you have no time to care for your basic needs, like sleeping, eating, and taking bio breaks

whatever all the things are that we all know better and somehow cannot consistently do better, that’s where we put our egos ahead of our health.

And, the same thing is true in the opposite direction.  For instance, exercising too much or too vigorously is contraindicated in Ayurveda.  The science focuses heavily on moderation in all things, especially physical things, so as to create an environment where you are better able to connect with the spiritual aspect of your being.  Because Ayurveda seeks health and harmony for both mind and body, it helps dramatically improve your connection to the subtle energies within and around you.

Living in disharmony with nature

Daily rhythm and how this aligns with your circadian rhythm

Shift work and working the night shift is associated with higher risk for heart attacks, heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, obesity, GI conditions like ulcers and IBS, increased problems with fertility and pregnancy, and even cancer.  In 2007, a subcommittee of the WHO actually stated that shift work is “probably carcinogenic”.  Data shows a correlation between night shift work and a 50% increase in the risk of breast cancer.  And, data suggests that there may be a correlation between night shift work and increased risk of colorectal and prostate cancer.

In Ayurveda, day and night are divided into three times:

From 6 am to 10 am and 6 pm to 10 pm is the heavy time of day.  You can think of this as a rooted or grounded times as you’re just waking up in the morning and also preparing for bed in the evening.  It’s encouraged to use these times to build habits as you may be more successful in making those habits stick by performing the activity during this time because the elements of 6 to 10 are earth and water, stable and strengthening. 

One challenge for you:  try exercising during the 6 to 10 window either in the morning or evening and see whether you have more strength and stamina than at your normal time of day if it’s outside this window.  One caution here, if you opt for evening exercise, wrap it up before 8 pm so that you allow time for sleep to enter before bedtime.

From 10 am to 2 pm and 10 pm to 2 am is the efficient, transformative time of day.  This is likely when you’re most productive at work during the day time, and the day time part of this, that 10 am to 2 pm is intended for your mind to use for getting stuff done.  Likewise, from 10 pm to 2 am is the time the body uses for repairing itself.  Ayurveda strongly encourages being in bed with your eyes closed (and more preferably asleep) by 10 pm.

From 2 pm to 6 pm and 2 am to 6 am is the light time of day, the time of day when we’re most creative.  In the morning time, it’s considered the best time for meditation and prayer especially immediately upon rising, before breaking your night time fast as this is a time for your body to be most connected with its highest self.

So, in modern Western terms, what’s your circadian rhythm look like?

Cortisol peaks in the morning.  Some sources say about 30 minutes after you wake up.  Some sources say about 6 to 7 am.

Your basal body temperature takes a nose dive sometime around 10 pm and starts to climb again in the morning peaking in the mid afternoon.  The tendency to fall asleep and stay asleep occurs during the decreasing phase of your body temperature’s circadian rhythm (about 10 pm to around 4 am).

Lastly, melatonin levels drop precipitously by about 7 am and begin picking up around 8 pm peaking sometime between about midnight and 3 am.

So, these ancient seers were definitely onto something.  And, Ayurveda recommends living in flow with the daily rhythm.

Expanding beyond the rhythm of the day, let’s explore seasonal living.

References


https://www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/where-ayurveda-come-from (major and minor texts)

https://www.sandhillsneurologists.com/melatonin-and-sleep/

 

https://fanaticcook.com/2019/02/02/humans-body-temperature-changes-throughout-the-day-but-not-by-much/

https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/healthyliving/shiftwork#your-metabolism-at-night

https://www.integrativepro.com/articles/the-role-of-cortisol

https://louis.oercommons.org/courseware/lesson/115/student/?task=2

https://ayurvedicoils.com/

also https://www.easyayurveda.com/2014/12/11/sandalwood-benefits-how-to-use-side-effects-research/#use_in_celibacy

https://www.takingcharge.csh.umn.edu/where-ayurveda-come-from

https://www.ayurveda.com/2021/08/25/the-ancient-ayurvedic-writings/

https://www.webmd.com/sleep-disorders/features/shift-work

https://www.webmd.com/lung/what-is-a-fever#1 and https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/time-to-redefine-normal-body-temperature-2020031319173  body temps today about a degree lower than in 1860

Brandy Searcy founder Rain Organica

About the Author

Brandy's a formulation scientist and self-proclaimed health geek who loves hiking, gardening, bird-watching, and body boarding. 

Her struggle with acne during her teens and 20s led to a holistic and healthy approach to skincare, embracing skin as an organ to be loved and cared for rather than a canvas to wage war on. 

Since 2008, she's been developing all-in-one products for a simple routine at home, & Rain Organica started when her backpacking friends asked for a portable skincare routine to keep their skin healthy & happy on and off the trails.

You can try Rain Organica for yourself with The Essentials Kit, a complete skincare routine in just 3 steps.

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