The term AYURVEDA comes from two Indian words: Ayur, or life, and Veda, or knowledge. Ayurvedic medicine is thus described as “knowledge of how to live”, emphasizing that good health is the responsibility of the individual. In Ayurvedic medicine, illness is seen in terms of imbalance, with herbs and dietary controls used to restore equilibrium. The earliest Ayurvedic texts date from about 2500 B.C. with successive invaders adding new herbal traditions: the Persians in 500 B.C.; the Moguls in the 14th century, bringing the medicine of Galen and Avicenna (known as Unani); and the British, who closed down the Ayurvedic schools in 1833 but luckily, did not obliterate the ancient learning altogether. Tibetan medicine has much in common with Ayurveda but can be vastly more complicated, having 15 subdivisions for the humors and placing strong emphasis on the effect of past lives – karma – on present health.
As in Ancient Greek and traditional Chinese medicine, the Ayurvedic model links the microcosm of the individual with the cosmos. At the heart of the system are three primal forces: prana, the breath of life; Agni, the spirit of light or fire; and soma, a manifestation of harmony, cohesiveness, and love. There are also five elements comprising all matter: earth, water, fire, air, and ether (a nebulous nothingness that fills all space and was also known to the Ancient Greeks).
BALANCING THE HUMORS
The five universal elements are converted by Agni, the digestive fire, into three humors, which influence individual health and temperament and are sometimes called waste products of digestion. If digestion were perfect there would be no humeral imbalance, but because it is not, imbalance and ill health can follow. Air and ether yield vata (wind), fire produces the humor pitta (fire or bile), while earth and water combine to give kapha (phlegm).
The dominant humor is seen as controlling the character of the individual: a vata-type roughly conforms to Galen’s
melancholic personality, pitta matches the choleric type, and a kapha person is reminiscent of the phlegmatic.
Food, drink, sensual gratification, light, fresh air, and spiritual activities are used to “feed” the digestive fire and produce the correct mix of humors.
A health problem associated with increase kapha. Herbal remedies excess phlegm, such as mucus, might include hot spices, such as edema, or water retention, for cayenne, pippali, and cinnamon; example, would increase Kapha .Herbal remedies might include hot spices, such as cayenne, pippali, and cinnamon; bitters, such as aloe or
turmeric; pungent tonics, such as saffron; and stimulating, mind-clearing herbs, such as gotu kola, giigguli, or myrrh, all designed to dry excess water or phlegm. In Ayurvedic theory, taste is important: pungent, bitter, and astringent tastes can help reduce kapha, so the diet would favor these over sweet, salty, or sour flavors.
Treatment might also include massage with warm herbal oils, such as eucalyptus; burning pungent incense, such as frankincense; and encouraging the sufferer to wear bright, hot reds and yellows, instead of cold blues or white.
Ayurvedic medicine emphasizes a “holistic” approach, treating the whole person with appropriate remedies for the mind, body, and spirit. This can include meditation, physical exercises, or herbs that are focused at some particular aspect of being. Problems of the heart, for example, are considered as much a spiritual issue as pathology since the heart is the seat of the atman or divine self. Suitable herbs might include Arjuna, used as a heart tonic, with sandalwood oil as a sedating massage oil to calm and uplift the spirits and encourage joy.
The essential energy of the body can be strengthened with tonic herbs, such as ashvsagandha, shatavari, or guduchi. Like the Chinese wei qi, ojas is associated with the immune system, and herbs to strengthen it tend to be immunostimulants.