Āyurveda is an Indian medical science of ancient origin. In Sanskrit, the word āyus means life or longevity, and veda means science or knowledge. Āyurveda, the science of life and longevity, is able to address myriad health concerns through the use of diet, lifestyle, and herbal recommendations.
Āyurveda developed sophisticated anatomies to understand the human system and explain how it functions. These principles of Āyurveda are contained in a huge body of texts and largely use the 5 element theory as their base.
The Great Texts of Āyurveda
The three main texts in Āyurveda, called the bṛhat treyī, provide the basis for Āyurvedic medicine in terms of theories, pathologies, symptomatologies, and treatments. The Caraka Saṁhitā was composed prior to the 2nd century CE and provides the theoretical and practical foundations for Āyurveda. The Suśruta Saṁhitā was composed before the Common Era and is primarily known as the world’s first text on surgical procedures. And lastly, the 6th century CE Aṣṭāṅgaga Hridaya systemized the ideas in a poetic meter that eases memorization and use. These three texts are seen as the most important texts in Āyurveda.
The Foundations of Āyurveda
Āyurvedic Medicine is based on the theory of the Five Great Elements, known as the pañca mahābhūtas. They are space (ākāśa), wind (vāyu), fire (tejas), water (āpas) and earth (pṛthivī). These five elements exist outside of humans as well as inside.
1. Space / Ākāśa
Space is subtle and immeasurable. It provides the container for all other elements to exist, move, and take shape. Space is the vast container of the universe as well as the subtle porosity of our bones and all the cavities within our bodies.
2. Wind / Vāyu
Wind is responsible for all movement in the body and mind; everything from blinking an eye to reaching with a hand to taking a breath and thinking happens only because of wind. It is mobile, cold, dry, and subtle. The action of wind is seen blowing through the trees and in all the movements in our bodies.
3. Fire – Tejas
All heat in the body as well as every transformation results from fire. Fire is hot, sharp, penetrating, and oily. It converts food into nourishment and thoughts into action. The action of fire is felt in the warmth of the sun and the temperatures of our bodies as well as our ability to digest foods and experiences.
4. Water – Āpas
Water creates stickiness and adhesiveness in the body and is cool, liquid, and dull in nature. Water in the right quantity is necessary for digestion but in excess can impede proper digestion. Water is in the ocean as well as giving fluidity to our bodies.
5. Earth – Pṛthivī
Earth gives us structure and supports us to be embodied in our energy. We are standing up due to our earth element. Earth is heavy, hard, and static and provides stability and groundedness. Earth is the stability beneath our feet as well as the stability of the structures of our body.
From our communication and movements to our digestion of food and information, to the lubrication in our joints, and even to our capacity to stand up straight, the 5 elements of Āyurveda influence the functioning of our body and mind. They form the foundation of how Āyurveda views everything in the world. One of Āyurveda’s primary goals is to bring each of these elements into proper balance within us so that our bodies and minds function well and remain in harmony with nature.
True Nature / Prakṛti vs Current State / Vikṛti
According to Āyurveda, proper balance is unique for each individual and is based on that person’s constitution. Their constitution is a sort of blueprint for the functioning of the person’s body and mind. It is thought to be set at the time of conception and is known as prakṛti in Sanskrit. Each person’s prakṛti is their own combination of different proportions of elements, which means that each person’s ideal functioning will also be slightly unique.
Due to diet, lifestyle, emotions, and external factors in our life and environment, we can upset the balance of the elements within our body. This imbalance is expressed in the word vikṛti, which means the current state, or the imbalanced state. A person’s vikṛti is a reflection of the ways that they are currently out of balance. One of the definitions of health in Āyurveda is returning to and maintaining the original balance of the proportions of the person’s constitution.
The Goal of Āyurveda
The goal of Āyurveda is to bring us from an out of balance state back into a balanced state. Āyurveda does this by having us link to opposing qualities. For example, if a person spends a lot of time in the sun or frequently eats chili peppers, those habits will likely increase the heat in their system and may cause them to feel hot. To balance that, Āyurveda will recommend small amounts of the opposite qualities: for example, sitting in the shade or sipping on coconut water. What is particularly amazing about Āyurveda is its ability to support each and every individual to move back towards their unique balanced state.