What is Ayurveda? It is considered by some scholars to be the oldest healing science in the world. When this broad science is applied to the prevention and treatment of illness, it is referred to as Ayurvedic medicine. The word medicine may be a bit of a misnomer, however, as Ayurveda uses little of it in the conventional sense. Unlike allopathic modalities, Ayurvedic medicine is not centered around symptom management or pharmaceutical treatments like traditional medicine might. Rather, it is built upon three distinct foundational pillars that form the basis of every treatment, lifestyle modification, and herbal curation.
The 5 Elements
According to Ayurvedic medicine, everything is composed of five elements. From a thought to a tree to a human being, the five elements are the building blocks of all matter. To create health and well-being, Ayurvedic physicians and practitioners integrate various treatments that harmonize the following five elements in both body and mind.
1. Space (Akasha)
Space is the formlessness out of which all else arises. It is the container of thought, form, and perception. Space is the absence of things but it is not nothing; it is an invisible energy full of potential. As physicist Arthur Zajonc wrote in his book Catching the Light, “After one has removed all matter and all light from space, an infinite energy still remains.” That energy is space. Space is observable in the mind as the place from which thoughts arise, and within the body as the space between physical cells and structures.
2. Air (Vayu)
As the potential within space is activated, it becomes air. This element is subtle and unseen, yet it drives all movement and activity. Air facilitates movement in the mind as thought, and in the body as circulation.
3. Fire (Agni/Tejas)
Fire transforms and liberates energy. Within the mind, fire governs the digestion of ideas, while in the body it physically empowers the digestion of food. Both ideas and food create energy on their respective levels of influence. As such, it is said that fire creates energy.
4. Water (Jala)
Water provides nourishment. It acts as a medium for movement while offering protection from the drying, heating, and compressing influences of the other elements. Water presents in the mind as love and compassion, and in the body as any liquid substance.
5. Earth (Prithivi)
Earth is solid, stable, and steady. Most of what you see when you look at nature is composed of the earth element. It expresses itself as the solid structures within the body, and a grounded surety in the mind.
The five elements combine in sets of two to form unique bodily constitutions known as doshas. Each person has a primary dosha and will display more of the qualities of that dosha’s constituent elements. Yet the primary dosha’s elements have a tendency to accumulate and create imbalances. In Ayurvedic medicine, balancing the three doshas is a prime mode of creating health and wellness in the physical and mental systems.
Six Stages of Disease
Ayurvedic medicine does not wait until symptoms arise before treating the patient. Rather, it teaches one to pay attention to simple and seemingly insignificant disturbances within the body. By recognizing and reversing early signs of imbalance, full-blown disease may be prevented. Ayurvedic medicine views disease as a continuum of imbalance that systematically moves through the following stages.
In the first stage of the disease, one or more of the five elements begins to accumulate within the body or mind.
When the imbalanced element moves outside of its normal boundaries, it is believed to have entered the second stage of the disease.
The wandering elements move throughout the body, in essence, looking for weak points in which to settle.
The wandering elements settle in a different part of the body.
Recognizable symptoms manifest.
A chronic disease condition arises.
To demonstrate the way in which the stages of disease operate, imagine a pot of water on a stove burner. As the water sits on the burner, it begins to boil (accumulation). If the heat is not turned down, the water may boil over (aggravation). As the water flows over the edge of the pot, it spreads all over the stove (dissemination). The water finds the lowest point on the stove and begins to collect there (localization). If left standing for a long period, the water will begin to rust and erode the stovetop (manifestation). Over time the water may actually render the stovetop inoperable (disruption).
The same process takes place in the human body. A seemingly insignificant symptom left untreated may, in time, wreak havoc in the body. For example, gurgling in stomach after eating (accumulation) may turn into bloating (aggravation). Constipation could then ensue (dissemination) followed by intestinal permeability (localization). If left untreated, undigested food particles may leak through the permeable intestines and flood the bloodstream, creating chronic inflammation, perhaps in the form of arthritis (manifestation). The untreated inflammation could, in turn, cause the body to attack itself and create an autoimmune disease (disruption).
Research in The Journal of Immunology Research tracks the aforementioned process as follows: “Inflammation is a normal physiological defense against pathogen infection and tissue damage and quickly ends under normal circumstances. However, in many chronic conditions, the inflammatory response continues and leads to significant tissue/organ damage. Recently, increasing evidence shows that the abnormal inflammatory response is closely associated with many chronic diseases, especially in autoimmune diseases.”
Nature as Healer
The human body is an incredible network of energy and intelligence. The energetic network that directs the operations of the body is recharged through nature. When ill health is experienced on any level, it is an indication that the energy and intelligence of the body needs to be recharged with nature’s intelligence. This can be done by spending time in nature as well as allowing nature to spend time in you.
Research is showing that people who spend time in green spaces experience less disease, have longer life spans, and feel less stressed. Other studies have found that invisible chemicals (called phytoncides) in some trees can reduce stress hormones, lower anxiety, and improve blood pressure and immunity. Being outdoors provides much-needed vitamin D and natural stabilization of melatonin levels. Japanese researchers even found that people who live near forests have significantly lower rates of lung, breast, uterine, prostate, kidney, and colon cancers. Clearly, the human body is meant to spend time in nature.
Yet spending time outdoors is not the only way to access nature’s recharging influence. Ingesting nature in the form of fresh fruits, vegetables, seeds, and nuts allows the energetic network of the human body to directly recharge with nature’s intelligence. Nature’s foods have been found time and time again to increase health, vitality, and well-being. The converse is also true. According to one researcher, “Regular consumption of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and other plant foods has been negatively correlated with the risk of the development of chronic diseases.” In other words, eating fresh foods decreases disease. Herbs, which are abundantly used in Ayurvedic medicine, contain precise energy and information that can be used to alleviate specific imbalances.
An Ayurvedic health care practitioner is highly trained in the integration of the three principles of Ayurvedic medicine. By appropriately apply these principles, Ayurvedic medicine is able to create health and prevent disease.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health program.
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