Most people today practice Yoga, particularly asana and pranayama, for health benefits, extending to meditation for its ability to improve our psychological wellbeing.
What we may not know is that the healing aspect of Yoga is traditionally based upon Ayurveda, India's ancient natural healing tradition, which developed out of the philosophy of Yoga as its medical application.
Today, Yoga has spread worldwide and Ayurveda is following in its footsteps as part of Yoga's healing practices. Ayurveda also remains one of the main medical systems licensed and widely practiced in India today. The Yoga-Ayurveda connection is becoming prominent once again as people learn how these two Vedic disciplines rest upon one another.
Yoga was originally designed as the Vedic sadhana tradition to promote Self-realisation through control of the mind, as in teachings of Patanjali's Yoga Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita. Ayurveda was designed as the Vedic tradition of healing for body and mind as in the Charaka Samhita and Sushruta Samhita, the two oldest Ayurvedic texts.
Yoga and Ayurveda overlap as part of a Vedic wisdom approach to the whole of life. Yet, over time both systems have undergone their own developments and diversifications, so that many people, including Yoga teachers, may not understand their connections, or how to use them together.
Ayurveda's relevance to Yoga
Ayurveda, like traditional Yoga, views the universe in terms of the two factors of Purusha - the consciousness principle or higher Self, and Prakriti, the force of nature that governs all organic processes. Ayurvedic thought extends the principles of Yoga philosophy into how the body and mind work in order to bring them to optimal function and harmony. Both Yoga and Ayurveda share the Vedic sciences of the five elements, the pranas and the gunas (qualities of nature) and many other related factors.
Each one of us has a unique mind-body constitution, just as we have our own personal karmas to face in life. No two people are entirely alike and so we must treat each individual differently. We cannot simply follow mass prescriptions but must address the needs of each person that may be different from another.
In approaching the physical body, Ayurveda tells us that we must first understand how the three doshas of Vata (air and ether), Pitta (fire) and Kapha (water and earth) work within us. These make up our doshic prakriti or individual "mind-body type", which determines our particular needs in food, herbs, exercise and lifestyle.
In approaching the mind we must understand how the three gunas of sattva (balance), rajas (aggression) and tamas (inertia) affect how the mind works. According to Ayurveda, the gunas of rajas and tamas, breeding agitation or dullness, are the disease causing factors at the level of the mind that must be removed for emotional happiness and peace of mind. Yoga similarly emphasizes the development of sattva guna in the mind for mental acuity and as the foundation for meditation.
We can benefit greatly from an understanding of our individual constitution according to Ayurveda in order to help guide our Yoga practice. Ayurveda helps put our Yoga practice on a firm footing, making sure that we know how to properly take care our unique constitution through the three doshas and their variations within and around us. This can help us determine the Yoga practices best for us, from asana to meditation.
In addition, Ayurveda helps us understand the state of Agni or our biological fires, starting with the digestive fire (jatharagni) but extending to the pranic fire or fire of the breath, to the fire of the mind and ultimately to the fire of consciousness that arises in deep meditation. Higher Yoga practices involve balancing and developing the different levels of Agni within us that afford enhanced levels of perception and awareness.
Ayurveda notably has a detailed understanding than Prana and its five subtypes that govern the movement of energy in body and mind. Even Yoga asanas are manifestations of the five pranas as Udana or ascending movement, Apana or descending movement, Vyana or expansive movement and Samana or contracting moving, with Prana overall as increased energy.
Ayurveda as a complete system of Yogic medicine
Ayurveda constitutes a full system of yogic medicine in terms of its understanding of the body and mind, its determination of constitution, its disease theory and methods of diagnosis, and in its methods of treatment that include diet, herbs, massage and Pancha karma. It embraces all aspects of Yoga and meditation, particularly as part of its psychological therapies.
Ayurveda recommends specific health regimens at an individual level, including daily, monthly and seasonal practices, and practices relative to stage of life from infancy to old age.
Yogic healing works best in the context of a full yogic system of medicine that Ayurveda provides. Using Ayurveda along with Yoga helps us gain complete harmony and balance in body and mind so that we can discover our true Self that is one with all. All Yoga teachers should learn the fundamentals of Ayurveda and all Yoga students should seek Ayurvedic guidance to enhance their Yoga practice.
(Dr David Frawley, or Pandit Vamadeva Shastri, is a Western-born Vedacharya, who teaches an integral approach to Yoga, Vedanta, Ayurveda and Vedic studies. He is the author of 50 books published in 20 languages, and is a recipient of the Padma Bhushan from the Government of India. He is the director of the American Institute of Vedic Studies.)
(Disclaimer: The opinions expressed above are the personal views of the author and do not reflect the views of ZMCL.)