What is Ayurveda?
The word „Ayurveda“ comes from Sanskrit and combines „ayus“, the word for life or longevity, and „veda“, knowledge or science.
Ayurveda means Science of Life or Science of Longevity.
Ayurveda is a healing art that is thousands of years old; it is the health system of the advanced Vedic civilisation of ancient India and is considered the oldest health system in the world. The World Health Organization has recognised Ayurveda as a traditional medicine.
According to traditions described in old ayurvedic writings, the basic principles of Ayurveda were perceived long ago and through profound introspection by highly developed human beings. In the beginning, the tradition was therefore passed on only from teacher to student. Only much later, when this vehicle of tradition was no longer reliable, it was written down in the first scriptures and works of Ayurveda.
Ayurveda is part of the „Veda“, a comprehensive teaching system
that considers human beings, nature and the cosmos as one whole.
This wholistic health teaching – Ayurveda – considers life as one whole and combines physical, psychic, mental and spiritual aspects. Its primary goal is to establish harmony of body, mind and soul, and in so doing to prevent disease or, when necessary, to heal. To achieve this, Ayurveda experts and doctors consider a broad spectrum of factors, such as for example consciousness; diet; stress at work or in relationships; too little rest; medications; too much, too little or the wrong kind of exercise; surroundings; the individual’s constitution, likes and dislikes; and much more. The teaching of the three doshas plays a central role.
According to ayurvedic teachings, the myriad factors that influence us and our health can be described with the help of three principles or biological programmes called doshas in Sanskrit, and which are best translated as “basic functional principles”.
These three doshas – vata, pitta and kapha – determine both the natural world surrounding us as well as our own bodies and minds. Conversely, everything that impacts our bodies directly impacts the balance of vata, pitta, and kapha, either disrupting it or contributing to a better dosha balance.
When these three fundamental principles are in harmony in a person, it constitutes the best prerequisite for health and happiness. We feel well, we’re healthy, and we radiate natural beauty.
Restoring the balance of doshas
that have become unbalanced is a core theme of Ayurveda.
The vata dosha is termed the principle of movement, characterised by the elements of ether (space) and air. It enables alertness, movement and communication. Ayurvedic doctors relate it to the nervous system, breath, circulation and the musculoskeletal system.
The pitta dosha is described as the principle of metabolism, characterised by the element of fire. In ayurvedic medicine, it is viewed as closely linked to digestion, energy, metabolism, body temperature, vitality, intellect and emotions.
The kapha dosha is called the principle of structure, involving the elements of earth and water. Kapha gives form, shape, and endurance. In ayurvedic medicine, balanced kapha stands for firmness, stability, and balanced body fluids.
According to ayurvedic understanding, every person is unique, possessing distinct qualities, bodily attributes and talents, all of which indicate a certain dosha profile. Depending on the individual proportions of the three dosha types, Ayurveda distinguishes the different types, referred to as constitution types or dosha types. These expressions of the natural dosha balance accompany us from birth, without any fundamental change over the course of our life. Called „prakriti“ in Ayurveda, this constitution shapes our physical build as well as our skills and preferences. These Ayurveda types are named according to their dominant dosha: vata type, pitta type, etc.
The more we succeed in living in tune with our constitution and maintaining our personal dosha balance, the better we feel. However, when unhealthy habits such as nutrition that does not suit our constitution type, insufficient sleep, or stress in daily life disrupt us, we lose our natural balance". This momentary state, diverging from our basic inherent constitution, is called „vikriti“ by ayurvedic doctors.
To restore our personal balance, in addition to therapeutic treatments, ayurvedic doctors also recommend simple measures such as a good daily routine and nutrition, which everyone can take to heart and apply.
In vata types, vata is the dominant dosha. „The principle of movement“ gives them mobility on both the physical and intellectual levels. Among vata types, we find many creative and eloquent people with a quick mind and great imagination. With their alert and flexible minds, vata types enthusiastically come up with new ideas.
The fiery pitta dosha often gives pitta types an athletic build, a glowing complexion, and radiant eyes. Their powerful charisma, their ambition and their independence pave the way to leadership positions. The energy required for their projects is provided by their usually strong digestive fire (agni, see note) which gives them a healthy appetite and ensures that they can tolerate most foods.
The dominant dosha in kapha types is also reflected on the physical and mental level. While, on the physical level, the solidity of the kapha dosha generally creates a powerful build and relatively slow movement, on the mental level, kapha types enjoy serenity, composure, and endurance. Even in hectic situations, kapha types tend to keep a cool head and provide calm and stability, remaining solid as a rock.
Very few people are pure vata, pitta or kapha types but rather mixed types. Two doshas are frequently more pronounced, while the third dosha is weaker. The name of a constitution type for mixed types is formed by the two predominate doshas, starting with the more dominant dosha, for example vata/pitta type (vata dominates, with a strong pitta and weak kapha). It is fairly rare to find all three doshas in a balanced relationship (tri-dosha).
Every person has her or his individual proportion of the three doshas. When you know yours, you will be able, even as an amateur, to better understand your body’s characteristics, your behaviour, your moods and your idiosyncrasies.
Ayurveda offers a variety of methods and procedures to improve our dosha balance
in order to prevent illness or treat it.
In a traditional ayurvedic pulse diagnosis, three fingers are applied to the pulse. Systematic analysis of the pulse gives an ayurvedic doctor valuable indications of possible disturbances and imbalances in the way the doshas interact. An experienced pulse diagnostician immediately detects the totality of the person they are examining. Within certain limits, self-diagnosis of the pulse can also provide insights into one’s own current dosha balance.
If a pulse diagnosis reveals dosha imbalance, Ayurveda offers innumerable balancing steps one can take to restore a natural balance.
Ayurveda encompasses many different forms of massage that differ in both their application and effect.
Particularly well-known and popular is Abhyanga, a gentle ayurvedic full-body oil massage that is usually done simultaneously by two practitioners. Anyone can apply a self-abhyanga at home with a gentle dosha-balancing oil massage -- a truly pampering experience that simultaneously purifies and relaxes. The dosha-balancing effect can be enhanced by special massage oils that contain essential oils and essences of select herbs suited to the individual’s dosha type.
Vishesh is an especially intensive form of oil massage involving synchronous deep massage of the entire body. The vishesh massage itself is considerably more vigorous than abhyanga. Both synchronous massages can be part of a panchakarma treatment.
Also well-known is Garshan, a stimulating dry massage that is done entirely without oil, using silk gloves to massage the entire body.
Udvartana is a full-body peeling massage; similar to Garshan, it has a kapha-reducing effect.
Pinda sweda applies warmth by massaging the body with heated packs of rice that has been cooked with select healing herbs.
Ayurveda uses a variety of treatments for inner cleansing, all of which free the body of harmful metabolic residues and toxins and counteracts excessive accumulation of ama (see notes). The most well-known ayurvedic cleansing treatment, without a doubt, is panchakarma.
Panchakarma, which basically means „five treatments,“ is an intensive and yet gentle inner cleansing treatment practiced by ayurvedic doctors. Among the methods applied in Maharishi Ayurveda are synchronous full-body massages, dhara treatments (pouring oil, lassi or buttermilk onto the forehead), herbal steam baths, enemas, and the treatment of eyes and nasal mucus membranes.
These procedures help to gently free the organism from toxins and metabolic residues and return it to its harmonious balance. Panchakarma is employed both as a treatment for illness and as prevention and to enhance general wellbeing.
Ayurvedic nutritional science is equally applicable to maintaining health and to healing. Along with general nutritional guidelines, the primary aim is to tune nutrition to optimally meet the individual needs of each person. When making nutrition recommendations, the individual’s Ayurveda type is considered as well as other factors, such as the person’s age, their digestive power, time of day and season, and their overall health, for example.
What we eat is not the only factor that determines optimal nutrition for body and mind; how well we absorb our food is equally important. To do this optimally, we need sufficiently powerful digestive fire (agni, see notes), which influences our digestion and the entire metabolic process. Good digestion also ensures the formation of ojas, which is closely connected to our vital energy.
Along with the power of our digestion, our dosha balance also plays an important role in ayurvedic nutrition. In Ayurveda, certain properties are attributed to every food, every drink, herbs, etc. Depending on the foods, spices, preparation and flavours they include, our meals will have different effects on the three doshas and can thus improve our dosha balance in a targeted manner. In tway, our nutrition can contribute significantly towards preventing illness and slowing down the aging process.
What matters most is:
- What we eat,
- How much we eat,
- When we eat, and
- How we eat.
Transcendental Meditation naturally creates a unique state of deep physical relaxation and calm, while the mind remains wide awake. Consciousness rests in itself, stress and tension dissolve. Mind and body come to rest and tap into valuable energy. This technique is so simple that, after the right training, it can be practiced independently anywhere and at any time.
Pranayama is a simple breathing technique that lets the mind come to rest and the body achieve a relaxed state. That is why it is especially useful before meditation. Pranayama promotes coordination between the left and right spheres of the brain, while simultaneously activating energy reserves so that our bodies feel light and our minds clear.
Yoga asanas are certain body postures that are taken in a defined sequence. A relaxed posture is very important throughout – asana means essentially “comfortable position” – and there should be no strain during the practice. The goal is to balance and bring into harmony the various forces in the body that often work against each other.
Each individual posture invigorates specific forces within the mind-body system. When we effortlessly direct our attention there, energy flows into that region. We sense the free flow of energy and the dissolution of blockages, and we become more aware of our bodies.
Asanas have a positive effect on movement, breathing, digestion and the hormonal and cardiovascular and nervous systems. Our internal organs are also massaged. Greater mobility and endurance are particularly pleasant effects of yoga, without exhaustion after the practice. And on the spiritual level as well, these exercises balance out mood fluctuations and calm the mind.
Ayurveda has long integrated plants in its therapies. Over thousands of years, valuable knowledge has been accumulated about releasing the medicinal powers of plants. This includes not only the selection and combination of plants but the proper time to harvest, their cleaning, synergistic combination with minerals, and complex preparation processes that can last years. This is an art form that requires a great deal of experience.
Along with specific formulas, which for example can act on certain organ functions, doshas or dhatus, ayurvedic herbal medicine knows formulas to which Ayurveda ascribes holistically health—supporting and strengthening or rejuvenating properties. These include rasayanas, produced according to traditional formulas that maintain the original order of the system and make it more resistant to harmful influences. Some of them are now available as supplements.
Aromas, sounds, colours & more
Vedic sound and music therapy, colour and light therapy, aroma therapy, Vedic astrology (Jyotish) and even Vedic architecture (Sthapatya Veda) are also part of the repertoire of methods used in Maharishi Ayurveda.