Ayurveda is a complex yet in its foundation easy to understand medical system based on a holistic and universal philosophy. The separate disciplines are based on fundamental aspects of perception and examination of man as an individual unity of body, mind and soul.
Health and disease
The Ayurvedic definitions of health and disease are remarkable:
Health in Ayurveda is more than just the absence of disease. The Ayurvedic term for a healthy state is svastha, meaning "to dwell on oneself"
As long as we are in contact with our true self, our innermost nature (prakriti), we are in a balanced and strong state on all levels of our personality. To realize and to live one's own nature is premise and goal for a long, healthy and fulfilled life.
According to Ayurvedic definition there are different prerequisites for health:
- balance of the functional principles in the body (dosas)
- normal state of the tissues (dhatus)
- excretions (malas ) and metabolic processes (agni)
- normal funktion of the senses and motor activity
- clarity and wellbeing of the mind
- "happy soul" (state of complete happines, unaffected by success or disappointment
Of course this definition states an ideal state which is hard to fulfill. The holistic recommendations of Ayurveda take us nearer to this goal step by step.
Disease in Ayurveda is defined as disharmony of the inner balance. This starts whenever our natural healthy state (prakriti) comes into contact with a pathogenic factor, disturbing this balance. The constitution is changed (vikriti) and therefore we suffer from resulting diseases on a physical or psychological level.
Pathogenic factors are:
- excessive, not enough or unfitting usage of our senses and accordingly aktions
- wrong diet, unhealthy work conditions and lifestyle habits
- too much stress
- abnormal occurrences of the seasons
All these factors reaching a certain level lead to excessive demands on the organism which inevitably cause disturbances in structural or functional parts of the body.
At an early stage the disturbances can be balanced and rectified with simple measures because dhatus, malas and srotas were not yet damaged. If the disease is manifest in the body, further therapeutic measures are necessar.
Anatomy and Physiology
Ayurvedic anatomy and physiology are based on the doctrine that micro- and macrokosm are one: The universe, all manifestations of nature, man, the senses, our psychological tendencies, medication, diet and so on are put together out of the same components: the five elements (mahabhutas). Everything that we can perceive in our world, is put together from earth, water, fire, air and ether. The different characteristics of the elements determine if we perceive their manifestation more on a material (physically manifest) level or on a subtle (mental/emotional) level.
The five elements form the functional and structural parts of the body. Structural parts are the seven tissues (dhatu), the excretions (mala) and the body channels (srota). Functional parts of the body are metabolism (agni) and functional principles (doshas).
All elements manifest in their distinct properties and functional forms on a phyiscal and psychological level:
Space / ether (Akasha)
The space principle of ether is characterized by lack of resistance and it's soft, light, smooth, smooth, penetrative and translucent properties. We need space to live, to move, to grow and to communicate. The associated sense organs is hearing and the physical manifestations are cavities such as mouth, nose, lungs, gastrointestinal tract and the chest. Psychologically space renders freedom and pease, opens our consciousness and is responsible for love and compassion, at the same time for the feeling of being disconnected, of isolation, emptiness, not being grounded, insecurity, angst and fear.
Air represents the element of movement, finding its expression in the human body in the movements of the muscles, heartbeat, breath in the lungs, movement of the stomach as well as the intestines and impulses of the nervous system. The same holds true for the current of our thoughts, desires and will. The properties of vayu are mobile, light, cold, rough, subtle, dry and penetrative. Sense organ is the sense of touch. The air principles renders happiness, freshness, joy and excitement. Together with space air is responsible for fear, angst, insecurity and nervousness.
Fire is hot, dry, sharp, penetrative and luminous. Fire is active and changeable. The physical effect of tejas is the incineration, digestion, absorption of nutrients and assimliation, maintenance of the body heat. Fire is associated with light and seeing. Fire is intelligence. It is necessary for transformation, attention, comprehension, recognition and understanding. At the same time fire is the source of anger, hatred, envy, criticism, ambition and the attempt to be in competition with others.
Water is flowing, heavy, soft, tough, cold, dense and connected. It has a binding function. Water is associated with taste, because without moisture our tongue cannot taste anything. In the human body it is manifest in excretes of the intestines and salivary glands, in mucous membranes, blood and cytoplasm, lymphe, fat, urine and sweat. It is indespensable for our nutrition and the conservation of life. Water is contentment, love and compassion. It causes thirst, edema and obesity.
The earth element is characterized by the properties heavy, slow, stable, solid, dense, rough and immobile, rendering the body strength, structure and endurance. All solid parts of the body are derived from the earth element. It is associated with the sense of smell. It fosters forgiveness, support and growth, but also adherence to things and people as well as greed and depression. Its absence causes a feeling of lacking stability.
In a healthy organism all elements are in harmonic balance. A disharmonic distribution or accumulation leads to disturbances and disease.
Ayurveda differentiates the structural parts of the human body into seven tissues called Dhatus. Dhatus means "constructive element". The Dhatus play an important role in Ayurvedic healing as all bodily illnesses are a result of disturbances in the tissues.
The seven main types of Dhatus are:
- Blood plasm (Rasa)
- (red) bloodcells (Rakta)
- Muscle tissue (Mamsa)
- Fat tissue (Meda)
- Bone tissue (Asthi)
- Bone marrow and brain substance (Majja)
- Reproductive substances (Shukra)
The Dhatus are build by comples cell renewal. Every tissue is created in a unique metabolic process from the preceding one and nourishing the following. This constant process of renewal is very important for the health of the body. If this chain of cell renewal is disrupted in one tissue, the following tissues will be formed less or not at all. E. g. if we have a bad Rakta-Dhatu, manifesting in a light hyperacidity and impurities of the skin, we can assume, that the following tissues - muscle, fat, bone etc. - will sooner or later develop disturbances, too.
There are further tissues forming the material basis of the body. As these tissus are not able to transform into other tissues, these tissues are called side-tissues (Upadhatus):
- Mother's milk and their producing tissues (Stanya)
- female reproductive substances (Artava)
- Bloodvessels (Sira)
- Tendons (Kandara)
- Skin (Tvak)
- Muscle fat (Vasa)
- Ligaments and nerves (Snayu)
But it's not only lack of nutrients or environmental pollution that disturb a healthy composition of tissues or metabolism. It is also our mind that has a big impact on physical substance. Our own view of the world, positive and negative thoughts, experiences that we have not yet come to terms with are saved in our tissues, waiting for salvation. This happens automatically when the tissues are renewed. Thus a cleansing cure, a purging diet or a deeptissue massage can free accumulated and suppressed feelings.
The final product of a healthy tissue renewal is Ojas - the essential life energy. This subtle metabolic produt is significantly responsable für charisma and mood. A certain amount of Ojas is already founded in us but can be lost in severe diseases. That's why it is important to strengthen Ojas through certain nutrients, massages and herbs but also through positive feelings like love. For this purpose we have rejuvenation therapies in Ayurveda called Rasayana.
Waste products (Malas)
Mala is the term for all waste products of the natural digestion process. These include coarse excrements like
- defecation (Purisha)
- urine (Mutra)
- sweat (Sveda)
- but also subtle waste products that are excreted via the skin, eyes, nose, mouth, ears and the reproductive organs
In Ayurvedic healing and diagnostics the coarse malas get a lot of attention because the health of a person depends on the right excretion of the waste products. That is why an Ayurvedic doctor asks his patients in detail about their digestion and the composition of the excretions (colour, smell, frequency).
Ama – poison for the body
Another waste product is Ama. Ama literally means "not cooked", signifying that parts of the nutrition are not digested enough. Thus the body is polluted with toxic molecules which cannot be transformed further. Ama is formed when the metabolism is too weak to fully digest the nutrients or when we eat things which cannot be utilized. Due to its consistency Ama binds to other substances and therefore is the cause of all diseases such as typical ama diseases: rheumatism, akne or fungal infections of the intestine.
Body channels (Srotas)
The spaces where substances are transported or exchanged within the body are called Srotas. These can be very large, very small or changable in form. The number of Srotas is immense, 13 are pointed out in Ayurvedic practice:
- 3 channels for breath, water and nutrition
- 7 channels which provide supply for the seven tissues
- 3 channels for the excretion of waste products
In a healthy body the body humours can flow freely through the srotas and disseminate evenly. If the srotas are blocked - by wrong diet or toxic deposits (Ama) - manifold disturbances can occur, e. g. edema, blockage of lymph or constipation. Therefore the opening and liberation of the srotas is an important part of Ayurvedic therapy. Massage techniques and sweat treatments serve the purpose of opening the srotas and freeing them from blockages.
Agni can be translated in "fire of digestion" or "fire of life" as it is essential for all life functions. The main seat of Agni is in the upper part of the abdomen, but it is also existent in every cell. Agni is the most important active principle in the body, converting nutrients into structural parts of the body.
Agni is effective on three levels. Therefore it is divided into three kinds:
- 1 digestive fire (Jatharagni): operates the initial digestion, regulates the split-up of food into usable nutrients and non-usable waste products.
- 5 element fires (Bhutagni): split the food into the separate elements.
- 7 tissue fires (Dhatvagni): transform nutrients during the process of tissue conversion.
Every human has an Agni with a very unique, individual metabolism. According to one's constitution and lifestyle the properties of Agni can be formed differently. These not only control his appetite and eating habits but also problems of digetion, lack of enery, overweight or diseases of the intestines.
Four states of Agni are defined:
- Sam Agni (sama = balanced): working normally or balanced, that is not too strong and not too weak. Food, which is healthy, fitting one's constitution and taken following the rules will be digested in due time without any problem
- Manda Agni – the weak Agni: mostly when Kapha is dominant, leading to constipation. Food stays cold, is not split up and cannot be digested.
- Vishma Agni - the changing Agni: Vata is dominant which leads to irregular digestion. A person is prone to flatulence and fluctuates permanently between constipation and diarrhoea.
- Tikshna Agni - the sharp Agni: Pitta is dominant, leading to diarrhoea. Food is virtually burned and liquefied. Thus nutrients cannot be explointed any more.
In all cases of Agni-disturbances nutrients cannot be used optimally and therefore get lost. Thus the building of the tissues is impaired and partially digested food leads to the accumulation of toxic metabolites (Ama) which are deposited everywhere in the body leading to further diseases. In that sense every diseases is connected with a disharmony of our digestive system. The regulation of Agni according to the constitution is a central element of every holistic Ayurvedic treatment.
Three doshas: Vata, Pitta, Kapha
The concept of Tridoshas renders an understanding of one's own constitution and thus offers a key to one's health.
The five big elements coalesce to form the three basic energies or functional principles that are omnipresent in various measure. Space and Air together form VATA, Fire and water unite to form PITTA. Water and Earth make Kapha.
Doshas are not physical substances but highly dynamic powers, regulating all biological and psychological processes in the body, of our mind and our consciousness.
All human beings posses all three doshas. But every person has his unique combination of the three doshas, forming his or her individual constitution and personality (Prakriti). The doshas shape his physical appearance, his behaviour and proneness to disease. Health is dependend on keeping these three forces in balance. When the balance of the doshas is disturbed, they cause disease.
The Tridosha also mediate between the coarse body and the subtle mind. The connection between anatomy, physiology and psychology, which is hardly discernible in the West, is established in Ayurveda through the Doshas.
Due to its properties every Dosha is responsible for different functions within the body. Although every dosha can be found in the whole body there are regions where their activities show prominently and where they are most prone for disturbances.
Vata – the moving principle
- properties: dry, cold, light, subtle, mobile, non slimy, coarse
- Functions: Vata regulates all mental and physiological activities in the body: movement, breathing, circular flows, excretion, development of the embryo, sensory perception, speech, impulses of the nervous system
- Seat in the body: colon, loins, area of the sacrum, thighs, sensory organs, bones
- Dysfunction: An excess of Vata leads to typical disturbances like dry skin, sleeping disorders, nervousness, constipation or disorders of the musculosceletal system.
When Vata is in balance creativiy and flexibility thrive, easyness and joy. A disturbed Vata leads to fear and nervousness.
Pitta – the transforming principle
- properties: liquid, sharp, sour, hot, penetrating, moving like a fluid, a little oily
- Functions: Pitta is responsable for all transformational processes in the body: split-up of food, katabolic metabolism, production of energy, regulation of temperature, vision, hunger, thirst.
- Seat within the body: Stomack, small, intestines and the region around the navel.
- Disturbances: A disturbed Pitta leads to problems with the skin, gastritis and migraine.
Pitta fosters intelligence, charisma and bravery. In a dysbalanced situation fiery emotions such as anger, hatred, criticism and envy develop.
Kapha – the principle of stability
- properties: heavy, cold, soft, oily, sweet, stable, slimy and sticky
- Functions: Kapha renders strength and structure. It is responsible for immunity, anabolism, virility, stability, oiling (of the body tissues), lubrication of the joints.
- Seat with in the body: Chest, throat, head, joints, upper abdomen.
- Disurbances: an excess of Kapha leads to severe diseases like diabetes or tumors, in light cases it causes overweight, listlessness and mucous obstruction of head and chest.
In a balanced state Kapha brings love, calmness and serenity. In dysbalance it is responsible for attachment to things and people, greed and envy.
The terms subtle and coarse are used quite often when human nature is described from an Ayurvedic point of view. Also treatment concepts work either on a coarse or subtle level.
In Ayurveda it is the assumption, that the body is not only made up of coarse or visible cells and tissues but also made of subtle, energetic, invisible energy centres (Marmas, Chakras), energy channels (Meridians, Nadis), energy bodies (Auro, Kosha). These govern the energy levels and are the starting point for most of the massage- and treatmentconcepts.
Koshas – the body sheaths
In Ayurveda five sheaths are discerned. Out of these five two are coarse, representing the anatomy and physiology of the human body. The subtle body represents the mind, emotions, thoughts and divine consciousness of man. It is a big part of our personalty and provides for life energy, happiness and love. The three subtle bodies are based on the properties of the three gunas.
Three Gunas: Sattva, Rajas, Tamas
Due to their properties and functions the Doshas are found in both: the coarse and the subtle body. Apart from them there are further three subtle principles which play an important role in Ayurvedic anatomie: Sattva, Rajas and Tamas - the three Gunas, elemental forces of nature.
In vedic philosophy it is described that in the beginning of the cycle of creation Rajas, Tamas and Sattva are in a balanced state of power which increasingly falls into dysbalance. As a result of this disharmony infinite combinations of these forces form the universe. In endless variety all visibile and invisible materials of this world are manifested. The three gunas form all subtle, organic and anorganic matter - stones, plants, animals and humans.
In human nature Sattva, Rajas and Tamas describe spiritual moods and mental qualities and thus the mental constitution of a person:
- Sattva - embodies the principle of purity, balance and harmony
- Rajas - represents activity, restlessness and unsteadiness
- Tamas - is the principle of dullness, darkness and passivity
For a happy and fulfilled life it is necessary that Sattva predominates as the prinicple of harmony and purity.
Marmas are vital points of the body. If injured, a person can die, if treated, healing can occur. In Ayurvedic medicine there are more than 300 Marmas, spread all over the body. They are very important for the medical treatment of all illnesses connected with the musculoskeletal system. Marma-vital points are storage centres for physical and emotional information. By the treatment of Marmas psychological trauma can be transformed. The so-called Marma-Chikitsa Theray is part of the most intense forms of treatment in Ayurveda, put to use on both levels, subtle and coarse.
Also the chakras - seven main energy centers alongside of the spine - are big Marmas. They are subtle organs, responsible for spiritual and energetic processes in body and consciousness. All spiritual therapy forms of Ayurveda work with the Chakras, producing big change and growth processes.
Like the Srotas form the coarse guidance system of the body, the nadis form the subtle energy channels of the body. Prana - life energy flows in the Nadis. Therefore they are responsible for the energetic supply of the organism. All forms of Ayurvedic massage with their techniques, stroke directions etc are based on the Nadis, supporting them in their function.
Prakriti - Individual constitution
In Ayurveda every human being is seen as a unique individual, composed of innumerable properties of the three doshas combined with the qualities of the gunas. There is a differentiation between the physical constitution Deha Prakriti (described by Vata, Pitta and Kapha) and the mental constitution Manasa Prakriti (described by Sattva, Rajas and Tamas).
The knowledge about the individual constitution leads every person to a deep self-awareness and conscious lifestyle. Prakriti is the key to healing as all forms of therapy are based on the knowledge of the individual nature of a person.
The basic constitution of a person plays a very important role in Ayurveda as it is the starting point of our life. Prakriti means "nature" and denotes the primary proportion of the Doshas at birth. One of the most important aims of Ayurvedic philosophy is to become aware of one's primordial nature and to live in harmony with it.
Unfortunately it is not easy to determine the personal constitution as it is dependent on innumerable factors. The basic constitution cannot be changed, however, it can be overshadowed by disturbances. These can be so distinct that the basic constitution is hardly discernible. Also the constitution is affected by numerous factors such as age, seasons or time of day, nutrition, habits, job and environmental influences.
The physical constitution is described through the three doshas Vata, Pitta and Kaphe. It encorporates the physical as well as psychological properties. The basic constitution can be coined by one, two or all of the three doshas.
In classical literature a Vata-Pitta-Kapha constitution (Tridosha) is described as ideal, as here all biological forces are represented evenly. A one-sided constitution is more prone to disease as it can get off-balance more easily. Being healthy in Ayurveda means to be in balance with one's own dosha-constitution. Our task is to strengthen and harmonize our basic constitution through balancing measures.
Ayurveda describes seven distinct constitution types, which differ in the emphasis of one or more Doshas. If one Dosha is predominant the properties can be seen clearly. If two or three Doshas coin the constitution, the properties and physical characteristics are mixed.
Vata-persons can easily be recognized by their light body structure - they are slim, tall or more seldom extremely small. Further typical characteristics are long, slender hands and prominant facial features. Their hair is rather brittel and often very curly. They are prone to dry skin. Vata-persons are highly sensible, talkative people with quick powers of comprehension and big enthusiasm. They are always in movement physically as well as mentally. It is hard for them to calm down. Vata-people love change, the enjoy travelling and pursue several projects at the same time. Unfortunately they lack endurance - also in relationships there is frequent change. They have a strong antipathy towards coldness and prefer to stay in the warm sun. The nervous system is quite sensitive and resistance to disease rather weak.
This constitution stands between Vata and Kapha. Due to their good digestion and good metabolism, the body is often built strong. Extremities, facial features and other characteristics are in balanced proportion. The skin is moist, warm and has a good blood supply. Pitta-people sweat a lot and are prone to skin diseases, early graying and balding. Pitta people cannot stand heat or glaring sunlight. They are critical, dedicated, with a strong will and big ambitions. They are often dominant and assertive. They do not shy aways from conflict situations and challenges. Their sense of responsibility makes them good leaders. Pittas tend to be intolerant and impatient. In relationships also they tend to criticise willingly, yet hardly stand criticism themselves.
Kapha-people are strongly built; the body is developed in a good way, with round contours. They have broad shoulders and big hands. They have a nice skin, big eyes and strong hair, regular teeth and a good voice. The have a strong immune system and are not easily disconcerted. They are patient with an attractive cordiality. Kapha people are tolerant, content and reliable. They convey security, trust and emotional stability. In relationships they are faithful souls and hardly engage in adventures. Kaphas are prone to convenience; their driving force is rather small.
Vata and Pitta
If you use a a pair of bellows on fire, the fire will burn faster and more intense. This is exactly what happens with this constitution. Here we have very intensive, intelligent and active people who tend to use themselves up and to sacrifice themselves. They are attractive, fun-loving and lively, have a quick mind and can communicate very well. Kreative ideas of the vata mind come into conflict with the pitta part, which wants to implement everything in a perfect and successful way. This inevitably leads to stress.
Vata and Kapha
Here the two extremes come together in one homogenous constitution. The Vata part renders lightness, creativity and irregularity where as the Kapha part renders heaviness and stability. People with a Vata-Kapha constitution are very companionable, popular and communicative. Due to the lack of the fire element they are often freezing, so they need stimulating heat for their metabolism, for digestion and for their psychological-mental wellbeing.
Pitta and Kapha
Kapha-Pitta-people are very robust and strongly built, the immune system is stable and their endurance and perseverance in every activity is outstanding. They are fiery, social and full of joie de vivre. Because of the lack of the Vata element it can happen that they follow their goals too stubborn or persist in their position. Due to their "constitution of a horse" the often lack tactfulness in the contact with themselves or with others. Generally speaking they are however loving partners and parents. One get's along with them easily. Their cordiality brings them many friends
In rare cases we find the characteristics of all three types evenly distributed in a person. By nature this people are very balanced and possess maximum immunity against health-related disturbances. A balanced Tridosha constitution can be recognized by the fact that there are no extreme constitutional characteristics. Tridosha people don't like one-sidedness as this puts them off balance.
The mental constitution in Ayurveda describes the mental stage of development and the emotional mood of a person. Psychological characteristics of the constitution are affected by the Goshas and the gunas as well. The mental constitution is of great importance especially in spiritual and psychological therapy forms.
According to Vedic philosophy every human being is born with a consciousness anchored inside. This consciousness is the basis for e.g. our deepest ethical and philosophical beliefs and mental assets.
The Sattvic constitution has the following properties: friendly, generous, forgiving, sincere, intelligent, good memory, wisdom, patience, not attached.
The Rajasic constitution has the following properties: active, impatient, proud, ambitious, insincere, passionate, irritable, hypocritical, jealous.
The Tamasic constitution has the following properties: anxious, unreligious, lazy, lack of intelligence and knowledge, indifferent.
Spiritual evolution is seen as one of the highest goals in human existence. Most spiritual practices and meditation techniques therefor serve the purpose of purifying the mind and clarification of the soul. The aim is to overcome a tamasic or rajasic or mind in order to develop a sattvic mind.
Vikriti: Disorders of the constitution
If the Doshas of a person get out of balance the constitution changes. The arrangement of the Doshas does not fit the basic constitution (Prakriti) any more. This state is called Vikriti. An Ayurvedic diagnosis of the constitution starts always with an identification of the presently dominant Dosha state, Vikriti. Balancing nutritional and lifestyle recommendations and therapeutic treatments aim at bringing back the client to his primary nature.
Trigger factors for Dosha disorders:
- external influences: unhealthy lifestyle and diet, climate, job-related and private stress.
- inner stagnation: According to one's individual nature every constitutional type needs certain ways of expression and behaviour. If these needs are supressen, a sickening balance will develop.
Many Dosha disorders manifest in the beginning on an energetic or emotional level. The body shows symptoms of disease at a later stage. In our western world more than 80% of all disorders are caused by Vata or aggravated by it. Pollution, Stress and certain life situations are very Vata aggravating. That's why for us Vata recuding measures such as oil massage, warm food, relaxation exercises are especially important.
Too much Vata is caused by excessive pressure ona physical or mental level, a imbalanced lifestyle and loss of energy.
Connected with this are typical symptoms like
- Any kind of looseness of joints, ligaments or muscles
- Flatulence, constipation, sleep disorders, insomnia
- Frequent pain, numbness, stiffness and cramps
- Emaciation, loss of weight, trembling, convulsions, dizziness
- Tinnitus, mental instability, lack of physical strength
- Tendency towards worries, fears, inner restlessness, depression
Typical Vata-diseases are anemia, amyotrophia, bone atrophy, palsy, loss of memory, joint problems, arthritis and neurological disorders.
Aggravated Pitta arises due to too much heat in the body, which can be further boosted by too much responsibility, pressure to succeed, competition or excessive consumption of sour food (citrus food, dairy products, meat, alcohol).
Associated with this are typical symptoms such as
- Inflammation and pus
- Tendency for elevated temperature, fever and excessive sweating
- Acid regurgitation, pyrosis, stomach problems and diarrhea
- Headache and / or migraine
- Impairment of vision
- Impure skin, reddening of the skin, eczema
- Loss of hair
- Inner tension, anger, aggression and impatience
Typical Pitta-diseases are fever, inflammation, migraine, pus accumulations, inflammatory arthritis and inflammatory diseases of the liver and the intestines.
Kapha-disorders usually arise from a lack of movement or lust for life or excess of sweet and fatty diet.
Connected with that are typical complaints like:
- Feeling of heaviness in the body, high body weight
- Thickening of the vessels, fluid retention, odema, obesity
- Immobility, drowsiness, excessive sleep, laziness
- Feeling of coldness, excess mucus in the bronchia, respiratory passages, frontal sinuses and paranasal sinuses
- dullness, listlessness and melancholia
Typical Kapha-diseases are: obesity, high levels of cholesterol, wetting eczema, zystes, diabetes and tumours.