Natural versus artificial health
Ayurveda, the traditional Indian system of healing and health, delivers multidimensional health. Ayurveda is designed to facilitate deep healing for body, mind and soul, and its science is well-equipped to deliver both preventative as well as palliative care.
In Ayurveda, unlike the modern bio-medicine, disease prevention is not a lesser goal, an add-on, or an afterthought. In Ayurveda, preventative health care is the priority and of paramount importance, since there is nothing quite like natural God-given, wholesome health that is scientifically and consciously “protected” from birth onwards. In Ayurveda, the Sanskrit term “swasthasya swastharakshanam” refers to the Ayurvedic concept of “protection of health of the healthy” and this is no less important than the goal of disease reversal “aturasya vikara prashamana cha.”
The well being of body, mind, senses and soul that organic health exudes is quite different from the so-called “health” of modern medicine. The modern medical concept of health is no more than a fraction of relief, achieved occasionally, from uncomfortable symptoms through use of synthetic or chemical drugs.
Lessons from history
History reveals that several ancient cultures (especially the ones that have survived the ravages of time, such as India and China), made the prevention of disease and enhancement of life quality their pivotal medical focus. In fact, they developed an entire cultural technology; an art and science of living geared towards positive health optimization and disease prevention.
In these cultures, disease prevention was never ignored or minimized, even as the indigenous scientists continued to research and develop advanced methods to tackle full-blown disease (which sets in mainly due to lapse of preventative health routine). Modern nations have something to learn here and recognize the gap in health care that is growing every day.
The gaps in new medicine
Bio-medicine, which has held sway for almost a century now, has brought great relief to the suffering. Yet there is still a wall that cannot be navigated in spite of developments in bio- technology – the wall of not knowing why disease occurs in the first place. Lacking this fundamental knowledge, the gap is filled predominately with symptom management, prolonged sickness, and the naming of multiple, complex disorders that defy cure.
A paradigm shift
Our world is ready for a new vision in health and healing. New leaders, new concepts, and a new review of our global requirements are the needs of the hour. Must we continue to blindly spend natural, financial and human resources in fighting disease when we can prevent it? Is humanity ready to navigate a different path – the path of embracing health versus fighting disease?
If we are open-minded enough to examine our collective human wisdom heritage, we will recognize the wealth of teachings and practices that an ancient and matured science of healing like Ayurveda can offer us in the much-needed dimension of disease prevention and health promotion.
Ayurveda’s focus on the root cause of disease
Fortunately, Ayurveda is focused on the question of why we manifest disease in the first place. Ayurveda begins with understanding the similarity between living creatures and the universe and points out the endogenous and exogenous imbalances that cause disease. Ayurveda also lays down in exquisite detail, methods to prevent imbalance (science of disease prevention) or restore health (science of disease resolution).
In synch with natural laws
All along, from prevention to restoration to the final step of rejuvenation, it is only within the fold of natural laws that health is conceived in Ayurveda, never outside of nature.
Ayurveda is never at war with nature to deliver health; rather, it works with nature. Ayurveda uses nature’s own laws, tool box, and abundant medicine chest filled with naturally available medicines and remedies to restore health and vitality in a short time with practically no side effects.
Swasthavrtta – a path to health
Preventative health recommendations in Ayurveda are encapsulated in an entire branch of this medicine called “Swasthavrtta” which literally means “the regimens followed to keep one healthy.”
Individual health protection
Swasthavrtta is an entire subset of teachings, recommendations and practices that ensure good appetite and elimination, strength of the body, enhanced flexibility, virility, and immunity. At the individual level, Swasthavrtta resets our biorhythms to be in sync with nature. Due to additionally accrued psychological, social and spiritual benefits, the follower of Ayurveda’s preventative protocol experiences non-tangible well-being, inner flow and happiness. While these parameters cannot be accounted for statistically, they make all the difference in the quality of our lives.
Community health protection
It is worth noting that this Ayurvedic concept of disease prevention does not begin and end with the individual. Ayurvedic sages had the foresight to recognize the community as a living organism with its own unique concerns such as vulnerability to epidemics. Therefore, specialized principles intended to be followed by the community for maintenance of health of the whole society were recorded under Samaajika Swasthavrtta. This shastra includes methods to purify air, water, soil, and proper excreta and dead body disposal, prevention of infectious and epidemic diseases, immunity measures inside community, and many other public health measures.
Crafting health at home
The science of Ayurveda has been focusing upon disease prevention in an exhaustive manner for over 5000 years. This preventative focus is just now being entertained in the current era as more and more world governments (including in the U.S.) are promoting the need to actively craft a paradigm shift in health care. This shift is from focusing only on battling disease (with all its related expenses and scale of intervention required) to promoting viable means to prevent disease at the grass root level through healthy choices and timely prevention check-ups etc.
Ayurveda takes it a step further, even beyond the preventive health check up at the local physician’s office, back into the patient’s home. It is only in the personal life, where scientifically made changes in food, lifestyle, exercise, and the use of simple herbs grown in the garden will make a recognizable difference. These comprehensive food and lifestyle changes can drastically reduce the expense and number of doctor visits.
Ayurveda’s sustaining ideology gives hope to humanity that we all have the right to natural, wholesome good health. We can all learn to do what it takes in our homes, gardens and kitchens to remain ahead of the disease-drug-surgery game.
No one left behind
Preventative Ayurvedic healthcare is not only economical, but also empowers the individual. No one needs to be left behind – period. Each individual has the right to both traditional and current knowledge, and to health-promoting, disease- preventing skills. This knowledge is as or more important than the extensive spotlight on disease battling, immunizations and associated biotechnology interventions that marks the focus of modern medicine.
Incorporating Swasthavrtta wisdom in daily life
An intelligently designed lifestyle – Dinacharya
Ayurveda’s science of Swasthavrtta describes in detail how day and night should flow with respect to activity and food intake. This flow is designed to keep the solar and lunar rhythms in mind and to understand their effects on the living systems. So for example, Ayurveda Dinacharya (day routine) recommends having the largest meal at lunch since the abundant solar energy lends a helping hand to our own metabolism and for the same reason, keeping dinner very light. This light dinner is also due to the fact that when we fall asleep shortly after eating, our metabolic rate slows down, often resulting in inadequately digested food which gives heaviness, heartburn or constipation and, over the long term, compromises our immunity.
Similarly at night, if we can massage our feet, head and ears with warmed sesame oil, nervous energy (Vata) is combated and we get sound sleep. Drinking a glass of hot water the first thing in the morning gives a jump-start to our elimination process and naturally aids bowel clearance. If the readers experiment with these simple suggestions, they will quickly find how health improves without extra expense, side effects, or dependency on drugs.
Seasonally customized protection and purification – ritucharya and ritushodhana
Ayurveda sages had the insight to guide us humans. They understood that just like seasons affect the plants and trees, in the same manner we humans are under the purview of seasonal changes. In Ayurveda, the individual is not insensitive to the flux of seasons, nor can he/she stand apart from its attributes (in spite of the air-conditioned environment).
Different seasons necessarily flood the local region with the qualities of hot, cold or dry and this affects plants and animals and of course, us humans. The concept of having the same diet or the same level of exercise throughout the year does not appear rational in light of this flux of seasonal attributes. Hence, Ayurveda recommends specific protocols for spring, summer, rain, fall, early winter, and late winter. Very detailed guidance on food groups, tastes and activities should be practiced daily to prevent seasonal infections and to protect from diseases, such as heat stroke in summer or allergies in spring. An example would be to incorporate more bitter- tasting food in spring and more sweet tastes in summer to counteract building Kapha and Pitta respectively.
Ayurveda’s Swasthavrtta recommends undergoing bio- purification measures as per the different seasons, since different doshas (bio-energies) peak in different seasons. This protocol is called Ritushodhana. Kapha peaks in spring, Vata in summer and Pitta in autumn. Thus, Kapha dosha which accumulates due to the cold in early and late winter, should be expelled via emesis (vamana) in spring. Vata which accumulates in summer due to dryness should be expelled in the rainy season via oil enemas (asthapan basti); Pitta accumulated in the rainy season should be expelled in autumn by purgation (virechana) and blood-letting (raktamokshana).
This concept of purifying the body from time to time of seasonally accumulated energies (the bio-forces called doshas) is a remarkable treatment method in Swasthavrtta. The Ritushodhana purification procedures (also known as Panchakarma) act to prevent doshas from building up to the point of causing disease. These procedures should be performed under the eye of a qualified Ayurveda practitioner.
Three pillars of health – Ahara-Nidra- Brahmacharya
The three pillars of health – ahara (food), nidra (sleep) and brahmacharya (regulated sex drive) are extensively studied and interrelated. When all three are in balance, they make for a rightly nourished (not over or under), adequately rested (not more or less), and sexually active (but balanced) human being. Lacking this critical balance, the individual will suffer from a myriad of disorders ranging from headaches to infertility.
In the preventative protocol, Ayurveda will not recommend an “herbal pill” to sleep well. Instead, the focus is on education about types of sleep, methods to sleep better (night time rituals), when to fall asleep and when to wake up, and also developing knowledge of foods that promote sleep.
In the sexual arena, Ayurveda defines healthy sexual activity; signs of healthy semen; how to preserve semen; and how to regulate this all-important urge which, in excess or suppression, not only generates physical but also psychological disorders.
In the area of food, I personally have never encountered another system with more information and comprehensive dietary recommendations than Ayurveda. These guidelines have been tried and tested over millennium in India and neighboring nations.
Food is the best way to prevent disease and optimize health, and Ayurveda has complete recommendations – from rules about taking food, to avoiding unwholesome foods (apathya) and recognizing wholesome foods (pathya). There are guidelines for how to steer clear of incompatible combinations that generate toxins in the system called viruddha ahar (such as mixing fruits and dairy, or fish and milk, or salt and milk). The ancient Ayurvedic texts teach us how to understand the way these food toxins act upon the body, and how those same toxins can be digested or metabolized by special diet protocols called Aam pachana.
There are classifications of foods including the relevance of foods and recipes in common disorders such as digestive complaints, colds, coughs, parasites, etc. The list is exhaustive and includes many more facets of food, including special regimens for pregnant or lactating woman, geriatric needs, foods to nourish children from day one till adulthood, fertility protocols, convalescence diets, and much more.
Once an individual understands the fundamentals of the science of Ayurveda and comprehends the science of food in Ayurveda, life is transformed. Ayurveda tradition furnishes a customized list of pathya and apathya which are the wholesome or unwholesome foods and behaviors. It is now the individual’s personal responsibility to make choices that are beneficial to his or her condition, that do not promote disease, and in fact endow the body with strength, immunity and longevity.
Ayurveda provides an extensive general list of categories and the specific details of what are wholesome and unwholesome changes as per prakriti (natural constitution), vikriti (disturbed constitution), agni (metabolic capacity), ritu (season) and vyadhi (specific disease), kala (age) and bala (strength) of the individual. With the all-important concept of pathya/apathya, Ayurvedic medicine takes on a radically different approach from the contemporary western medicine. In the new bio-medicine, you are required to mostly pop a pill or undergo surgery and eat foods that are prepared for one-size-fits-all scenarios. More often than not, disease management in modern bio-medicine incorporates minimal or no dietary modifications. I am personally aware of asthma and bronchitis patients walking into the ER and being provided upon thirst with a glass full of ice and icy water to sip. In Ayurveda, this cold icy water is apathya or unwholesome, as it increases the doshas – Vata (cold) as well as Kapha (wet) in the case of bronchial asthma.
Instead, Ayurvedic medicine recommends sipping hot water or ushna jala to provide soothing relief and to counteract the cold and wet that the patient is experiencing in the lungs. I recommend hot water to individuals who suffer from chronic allergies, bronchitis, sinusitis or other types of phlegm related conditions. They come back amazed as if I have provided them with some guru mantra or magic self-heal ‘hot’ potion. When something as simple as ushna jala or hot water can do the trick, do we really need more complex solutions?
Healthy conduct and science of positive behavior – Sadvrtta and Achara Rasayana
Socio-moral healthy behavioral recommendations in Ayurveda fall under the heading of Sadvrtta (noble code of conduct incorporating health attitudes and behaviors). Sadvrtta conceptualizes health gained and nurtured from a larger life that is lived in balance, with due respect to the immediate environment and natural laws, and with the ability to live with psychological health and interact in a socially healthy manner. This prevents mental and psychosomatic disorders since Ayurveda tradition is aware that abnormal interpersonal relationships produce psychological stress which in turn causes psychosomatic disorders.
Sadvrtta rules ensure proper sensitization and socialization of the individual. Sadvrtta teachings include general injunctions such as: happiness is best amongst nourishing things; detachment is best amongst enhancers of nourishment; greed is the main culprit causing sorrow; the wicked must be shunned; and teachers with words of wisdom must be faithfully followed (sadvachanam).
Sadvrtta includes detailed guidelines on the control of senses and mental faculties (perform actions only after thoughtful analysis, etc.); rules related with personal hygiene (bathe daily, cut nails, hair, beard regularly, etc.); rules in speech (speak less, speak in a timely and conducive manner, etc.); dos and don’ts in religious practices (one should not offer ritualistic offering to fire or God when impure); rules regarding partaking of food (take food only after bathing, after chanting mantras, avoid stale food, etc.); injunctions on what natural urges to suppress (greed, excess grief, anger, etc.) and what not to suppress (urine, stool, hunger, flatus, etc.); rules regarding study (don’t study under incorrect lighting, don’t chant incomplete mantras, etc.); rules regarding social interactions (incorporate non-sexual relationships, detachment, peace, friendship, wisdom, etc.), and much more.
Achara Rasayana is a special teaching to all human beings – a timely message from the sages of Ayurveda. Under the heading of Achara Rasayana, Ayurveda lays down ethical rules and teaches consequences of self-destructive actions and thought processes. Personal transgressions, sinful acts, avoidance of responsibilities and duties are all root causes of psychic self-afflicted misery – such as anxiety, worry, anger, regret, etc. Thus, for optimum health, good conduct and proper personal behavior in every sphere of life, Achara Rasayana was advocated by the Ayurvedic sages. Achara Rasayana recommendations include always speaking the truth, refraining from anger, alcohol, sexual acts and violence (of thought, speech and actions).
From the above it is clear that Ayurveda conceives of health as a large holistic canvas where the dimensions of human existence – physical, mental, sensorial, social and spiritual, contribute towards an interconnected whole. Only by aiding all the parts of the human being to experience well-being, can disease be really prevented and health protected. A far cry from what modern bio-medicine considers prevention, often consisting of little more than the controversial immunization or routine mammograms. Too often, these sorts of “preventative treatments” come at the cost of serious side effects and expense to the individual and community.
Thus, Swasthavrtta practices not only impact physiological rhythms but are imbued with insights on how to promote well-being in the individual’s psychological, social and spiritual realms for all rounded wellness. Health does not necessarily create well-being, but well-being definitely does create health.
A co-creative process
In Ayurvedic medicine, patients actively participate in their own healing. The patient cooperates with the natural laws, understanding how to work and flow with the rhythms of the living system and its bio-forces called doshas. The individual, thus informed of the knowledge of wholesome and unwholesome by the science of Ayurveda, can soon begin to implement the practical application of this knowledge in their day-to-day life. The choices that the individuals ultimately make, allow for the individuals to get in touch with and consequently deal with perhaps an inner mental world of resistance, patterns of destructive behavior, habits of laziness, addiction to taste buds, etc.
When patients begin to work at this level of awareness around their health, they embrace knowledge and life skills that actively prevent disease by positively promoting health and well-being. This is yet another and deeper level of healing that Ayurveda can offer. The net result is a society made up of healthy individuals, now in charge of their own health and taking ownership of any disease they manifest. They are actively sculpting a life around optimum lifestyle, foods, behaviors, thoughts and practices that gift the being with happiness, balance, vigor and enthusiasm for living life to its fullest potential.
In light of the limitations of allopathic bio-medicine and its inability to fully heal the multidimensional human being by preventing disease and related suffering, the Vedic model of healing represented by Ayurveda has again become important in the 21st century.
Global health seekers who want true health, and who are no longer satisfied with mere symptom suppression at great costs to self, society and the environment, will benefit from Ayurveda’s strength. Ayurveda’s in-depth understanding of the fundamental causes of why we fall sick in the first place, and its teachings on avoiding or reversing those causes, are paramount and constitute the elaborate science of disease prevention or Swasthavrtta.
This is a great thing because it teaches us how not to fall sick, which is the need of the hour. More and more people are turning to the comforting refuge of Ayurveda with its warm, nourishing and heartening teachings to prevent disease and promote health. These choices and practices can be adapted inside our homes, kitchens and hearts to restore some critically needed power to self-determine the course of our health.
Shunya’ Pratichi Mathur is the founder of Vedika Global, Inc., a Berkeley, California based not-for-profit foundation dedicated to promoting conscious education in Ayurveda, rooted in Vedic spiritual tradition. As Vedika’s leader, Pratichi heads Vedika Gurukula, a back-to-tradition college of Ayurveda for international seekers; spearheads community welfare initiatives; and directs the establishment and operation of low cost Ayurveda wellness clinics.