Pestle and mortar with herbs

How can we understand Ayurveda?

In Health and Nutrition, Metaphysics, Philosophy and Traditional Wisdom by LivingNowLeave a Comment

Ayurveda defines health as balance and ill health as imbalance, in all aspects of existence but particularly in the context of the Three Doshas. When they are balanced the Three Doshas ensure that the organism functions well. Disease-causing imbalance patterns may result whenever an organism fails to adapt properly to a change in its internal or external environment. The need to adapt is universal, but the ways in which people adapt differ from person to person. Though many of these adaptation patterns are learned behaviour others are innate properties of the organism itself. Everyone has physical, psychological, pranic, and emotional strengths and weaknesses; taken together these form a set of ‘reaction prints’ which are as characteristic of their owners as are fingerprints or footprints. The aggregate of these innate properties forms the individual’s ‘nature’ or ‘personal constitution’ (in Sanskrit, prakriti), a temperament which profoundly influences predisposition to health, general and specific sensitivity to illness, and responsiveness to various forms of therapy.

The Ayurvedic approach to healing concentrates first on making simple changes to diet and behaviour, for simple alterations are sometimes sufficient to produce big results. Ayurveda escalates into surgery and other intensively invasive therapies only when mild interventions fail to produce results. Modern researchers continue to rediscover truths that Ayurvedic researchers learned many centuries ago.

For example, since 1935 modern science has known that when mice and rats are fed a very low calorie diet (30 – 50% of their normal intake) in the laboratory they live about 30% longer than do well-fed rodents, so long as they receive sufficient nutrition. Though the mechanism of this effect remains in doubt (it may be due to decreased production of free radicals) the effect itself is clear.

Americans not only eat too much food, but too much of that food is fat. Dr. Dean Ornish has shown how a judicious program of exercise and dietary change can not only control but, in some cases, reverse the course of obstructive coronary artery disease.

Recall that the two most common diagnoses requiring transplantation in African-Americans are hypertension and diabetes. High blood pressure afflicts one-third of all Americans in their 50s, half of those in their 60s, and more than two-thirds of those over 70. But hypertension is not inevitable; it is a disease of civilisation. Preindustrial people rarely get increases in blood pressure as they age, whether they live in China, Africa, Alaska, or the Amazon, mainly because they do not eat processed foods.

Dr. Paul Whelton of Tulane University’s School of Public Health has spent the past decade tracking 15,000 indigenous Yi people in southwest China. As long as they eat a traditional diet – rice, a little meat, and lots of fresh fruits and vegetables – almost none of them suffers from hypertension. But when they migrate to nearby towns their blood pressure starts to rise with age.

Our ancestors subsisted mainly on fresh plant foods for about seven million years, and anyone who lives on such a diet ingests about ten times more potassium than sodium. Modern people consume far more sodium; for instance, while a 100g tomato contains 9mg sodium, 100g of bottled tomato sauce has nearly 700mg. Modern humans are the only mammals that consume more sodium than potassium, and we are the only ones that suffer from hypertension. Dietary changes can reduce blood pressure as markedly as drug treatment, and in as little as two months.

Dietary change is potentiated by exercise, which in judicious amounts can help everyone, even the frail. Dr. Maria Fiatarone of Tufts University recently got ten chronically-ill nursing home residents to lift weights three times a week for two months. At the end of this period their average walking speed had nearly tripled, and their balance improved by half. Two went so far as to throw away their canes.

A positive attitude is also a big plus in regaining and preserving health. Most people who live to be a hundred maintain a social network of support through their lives, keep their minds active, manage stress well, and never give up. It has been said that “patients suffer illnesses and physicians diagnose and treat diseases”. The two may have little in common. For example, in a seven-year study of 3,500 older people who were asked to evaluate their own health, those who rated their health as poor were three times as likely to die as were those who believed their health to be good. However, those who were clinically in poor health but who rated themselves as being healthy, were less likely to die than those who believed themselves to be unwell.

We are what we eat, what we do, and what we think. Observers can affect their observations; Larry Dossey, M.D. comments: “It appears that double-blind studies can sometimes be steered in directions that correspond to the thoughts and attitudes of the experimenters. This might shed light on why skeptical experimenters appear unable to replicate the findings of believers, and why ‘true believers’ seem more able to produce positive results. The validity of decades of experimental findings in medical research would need to be reevaluated if it is proved that the mind can ‘shove the data around’.

Ayurveda seeks to find positive ways for each of us to ‘shove our data around’.

By examining metapatterns in an organism it can help that organism’s owner decide what kind of food, exercise, meditation, and other healthful habits will be health-promotive to the greatest degree. When it is too late for prevention, early detection becomes the key. In all cases, removal of the causative factors is the first step: the patient’s diet, lifestyle, and way of thinking must all change. Thereafter, one must carefully consider all the factors affecting the case, including the patient’s constitution and age, the season of the year, and most importantly the strength of the patient versus the strength of the disease. Finally when therapeutic intervention is called for we generally focus on plant materials, at least initially and in choosing herbs for a patient, we focus primarily on the pattern that the disease has generated rather than the specific symptom alone.


Dr Robert E Svoboda is an internationally renowned author, dynamic speaker, practitioner, and lecturer on Ayurveda, yoga, jyotisha, and tantra. He is the first Westerner ever to graduate from a college of Ayurveda and be licensed to practice Ayurveda in India. 

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