The union of Ayurveda and Yoga on the pathway to liberation of suffering
We are living through times of upheaval and transformation and it is tempting to be triggered by the lack of freedom and uncertainty that surrounds us. According to certain sages we are witnessing the end of Kali yurga, an age when moral degradation and disconnection from spirituality has lead to karmic consequences. We have externalised our sense of self, humans have become materialistic and ruled by desire. Our “outer trappings are confused with inner religion.” All around us the world seems to reflect a hall of mirrors, a post truth era where our shared human narrative has disintegrated. As we await the transition into Satya Yurga, satya meaning truth, where a cycle of virtue and abundance shall return we should invite this shift of consciousness into our daily lives. To do this we must focus on the teachings of the ancient traditions. Yoga and Ayurveda were created with the acknowledgment that man needs a spiritual practice in order to avoid the lowest conditions of our minds.
Ayurveda and yoga evolved from the same Vedic traditions that formed an integrative path towards healing and self-realization. The ancient ayuvedic texts refer to yoga as a practice that could help to bring about Moksha, one of the four Hindu aims, liberation of suffering. Similarly Ayurveda is a system of medicine whose aim is to prevent disease through balancing our unique constitions and increasing the Saatvic quality, the pure state of consciousness. Yoga is the Vedic science of self-realization that uses breath, posture and focus to bring us to a higher state of awareness.
It is believed that if we are Saatvic, pure of consciousness then we are able to rejuvenate our mind, body and spirit, which both yoga and Ayurveda do not consider as separate entities. Ayurveda is the medical treatment the chikitsa, for the yogic way of life. The Sanskrit word chikitsa means the application of consciousness, which is essentially what Ayurveda aims to bring to its patients by making them aware of their own unique nature, their dosha (Vata, Pitta, kapha) and giving them dietary and lifestyle guidelines.
The key to health according to Ayurveda is a balanced constitution, and a balanced agni or digestion. But both yoga and Ayurveda identify the mind as being an important vehicle for keeping us in a state of good health. The mind has three main states, it can be heavy, lethargic, depressed, and negative, or it can be active, energised, grasping, desirous, or it can be content, peaceful, still, clear and connected. These three states are known as tamas, rajas and Saatva. A mind that is holding the burden of memories, attachments and traumas is one that causes ageing and decay in the body. A tamasic mind and rajasic mind are both ways the ego avoids facing the self. To rejuvenate the mind according to Ayurveda and yoga we must withdraw our senses from the world, and from our attachments and practice sadhanas, spiritual practices that merge us into awareness, and make all our actions sacred.
One of the main causes of disease according to Ayurveda is misuse of the senses, which can be addiction to substances, food, or sex, or even the constant taking in of artificial media based impressions. Pratyahara, one of the eight limbs of ashtanga yoga says that we should withdraw our senses from the outside world, and turn our vital energies within where they can be regenerated. In the same way traditional ayurvedic practices required that the patient withdrew and entered a retreat space, where he was cut off from the outside world. Both systems share the belief that rejuvenation comes in the form of stillness, silence, and space.
To come to this place of stillness asanas are helpful as they allow the body to break up any deep-seated tension, or stagnation. Asanas also bring balance to the metabolism, and the nervous system and reduce stress levels in the body. But movement alone is not the sole goal of yoga. Yoga does not simply mean asana, but it is all eight limbs of yoga, which are more aimed at inner rejuvenation of the mind than outer rejuvenation of the body. This is why concentration, meditation, self study, abstention and breath work also form part of the eight limbs of Ashtanga, and these ideas are echoed in the principles of Ayurveda.
In Ayurveda there are seasonal abstentions, foods that should be avoided in certain seasons, there are also doshic abstentions, foods that are to be avoided depending on your prakurti, your unique constitution. Self- study is at the heart of health, because health or swasthya really means being rooted in the self. Ayurveda helps us to understand the self through the physiological and psychological patterns of our dosha. It also gives us sadhanas that are appropriate to our dosha, like grounding practices for Vata, cooling practices for Pitta and energising practices for Kapha.
The body itself according to both yoga and Ayurveda has its gross form and its subtle form, and to understand the subtle body we have to understand prana, which translates as life force and breath. To work with prana we have to work with the vayus, the five areas of the body where breath/air circulate. The yogis were able to control and cultivate these Vayus by simply bringing their focus and awareness to them. Ayurveda works with the vayus by keeping vata dosha balanced, the dosha responsible for respiration, elimination, conception and menstruation. Yoga also teaches us to cultivate prana through pranayama, which balances all the doshas by slowing down the respiration, oxygenating the organs, cleansing the lungs and bringing a connection between the subtle body and the mind. Breathing practices such as nadi shodhana calm the nervous system and have a cooling effect on the body, which helps to create a more saatvic energy in the mind.
When we practice any type of yoga it is good to consider our dosha, this way we know what kind of approach will be best suited to our needs. Having some knowledge of the principles of Ayurveda will deepen our awareness and connection to our practice. If we are Vata dosha then we need to be careful not to overexert ourselves, and our practice should be grounding and gentle. Inversions are good for Vata because these promote the upward moving energy of udana vata, the energy in the heart and lungs, and they calm the nervous system, which can be an area of weakness for the airy Vata.
Pitta dosha is influenced by the fire element and control and ambition are dominant qualities. Therefore asthtanga yoga with its dynamic asanas, and fast flow is often their preferred yoga practice. But Pitta needs to be careful not to overheat themselves, and they need to learn to slow down, and let go of their need to achieve and acquire. Therefore heart opening asanas, and alternate nostril breathing exercises can be good for cooling their hot, and competitive natures. Kapha dosha needs a practice that is more energising and warming to balance the heavy, cold energy of earth and water that dominates this dosha. Therefore a dynamic practice is good for them, as this will increase heat, and mobility and stimulate the lungs, helping them to avoid lethargy and stagnation.
Ayurveda is both a philosophy of living and a science of healing that prevents and removes disease by eliminating the root cause. Yoga sustains this philosophy by giving us a physical and spiritual practice that enables us to withdraw from the external world and quieten the agitations of the mind. Both practices invite us to merge the physical with the spiritual, the subtle with the gross. Maya Tiwari describes the practice of sadhana as “moving with unchanging rhythms.” It is reassuring to know that whatever changes we go through and whatever experiences we encounter beyond our control we can always deepen our practice.