Ayurveda: Beyond the Basics


WHAT IS AYURVEDA*/HISTORY

*This is an in-depth analysis. For a short and sweet explanation, read this one instead.

Ayurveda is an ancient healing science which grew up in India alongside her sister Yoga. The two were never meant to be separated, as Yoga has everything to do with Self-Realization, and Ayurveda of Self-Healing. One was always meant to support the other, but like a circle, not like stacked blocks with one suffering the burden of the other. No, self-healing supports self-realization and realizing the Self, that is, the inner self, creates a desire for deeper healing.

It is told that Ayurveda was given to humankind through the deity Danvantri, who is her Avatar. It is said that great sages would go into deep meditative states high in the Himalayas and receive the knowledge directly from Danvantri. They would then take it back down to the people but it remained, over hundreds of years, largely an oral tradition. No one owned it, no one sold it, it was just the knowledge of the way things are and it was shared freely.

During this time, the people lived by the earth and her rhythms. They were in tune to the cycles of the moon, the seasons, and their bodies. They honored and cared for the elders, the animals, the plants, the trees. They were encouraged to listen to the wisdom inherent in their bodies and minds and the elements that created and sustains us all. There was no separation between the Earth and us, God and us, the other and us. We were all one, individual manifestations of the Divine, of All That Is.

One day the magic was forgotten, people lost their way, and sages went back up to the Mountain to listen to Danvantari once again. This time when they came back down, they began to write down this ancient knowledge which can be found today in the Vedic texts. But the earlier knowledge is only accessible anymore through our own hearts and souls, it is not on paper or in any book. And probably, it was never meant to be. Some things may not belong in books.

Ayurveda is made up of two words: “Ayur” and “veda”. Ayur means life, and veda, means knowledge or wisdom. Ayurveda, therefore, is the knowledge of life, of how to live our life reverently, of how to live fully for our entire life, of how to live wide awake. Ayurveda sees the sacred in all things, in stages of life including death. There is no good and bad, right and wrong, and no need to judge, separate or put down. There is simply that which is good for you, right now, today, in this moment.

AYURVEDA IS ABOUT HEALING – NOT CURING

If we choose to live this way, Ayurveda helps us follow a life-long path of healing, called “Svastha”. Svastha is not simply the absence of diseases or symptoms so we can continue on doing what our society, our friends, our ego, decides we should be doing. It is not a “fixing” of what ails us. No, Svastha is an essential and wholehearted return to the Oneness from which we all came. It is peace. It is Love. It is beauty. It is sacred. It is a wholeness of body, mind and spirit that goes way beyond today’s New Age packaged concepts of body mind spirit connection. It is a return to the essence of us, the Source of all things. Whether you call that God, Spirit, The Divine, the Unknown, the Universe, it doesn’t matter.

And this healing, this Svastha, is far different from the idea of a cure.  Seeking a cure is about making symptoms disappear, while curing is about using the symptoms to guide us back to wholeness. In our world, often a cure happens without healing, and sometimes healing happens without a cure. In the first example, a cure without healing, someone finds a medication that temporarily covers up the presence of a bodily symptom. This needs to be repeated over and over again, since we are only temporarily suppressing the symptom. We do not examine the symptom, we do not talk with it, we do not seek to understand it. And we certainly do not change our lifestyle. We ignore, we cover up. This is a masculine approach; rigid, unbending, hard.

And then there is healing without curing. Take for instance the patient with cancer, who embarks on an inward spiritual journey, heals relationships with parents, friends, loved ones. Comes to terms with his or her relationship with God or Spirit, and finds peace and comfort inside, but does not cure the cancer. This is a feminine approach, gentleness, letting go, surrender.

And of course, there are the wonderful experiences of the two together, healing and curing, the perfect balance of the yin and yang, masculine and feminine.

PHILOSOPHY OF AYURVEDA

The cornerstone of Ayurvedic wisdom and healing is founded on the principles of the five elements: fire, water, earth, air, and ether, and the characteristics of each of them. It is known and understood that the world is made up of these five elements and SO IS OUR BODY. And just like we see in our world the elements sometimes getting out of balance, a forest fire, an earthquake, a tornado, a flood, the same things happen in our own bodies. We are, in fact, a microcosm of the macrocosm – what is here is elsewhere and what is not here is nowhere. As above, so below, as within, so without, these great Tantric sayings that point to the interconnectedness of all of life.

Just take a moment and think about that. Think on the profoundess of this recognition, and think about what this can mean for our healing, for the planet’s healing. This is knowledge we all carry inside us. We all know that to contain fire, we need water. We know that to contain water we need earth. We know that air is necessary to fuel fire but too much can spin it out of control or put it out. And we know that we are mostly space, ether, that space is the container which holds our planets, our solar system, our bodies. And we know that none of these elements are better than any of the others. They are all critical components in the dance, each with a role, each with a supporting and balancing effect for another.

Healing in Ayurveda begins with nothing more than understanding how the elements work, what is their language, and how do we balance them, for us? How do we balance THIS microcosm? What is the right mix of the five elements, or what is known as our Prakriti, that defined us from the moment of our conception, and within which holds the key to Svastha, or healing, as I refer to it today. Our Prakriti, that unique combination, is our set point, and it never changes. Our point of balance, our place of well-being. Now, what’s going on in our body right now, that’s our Vikruti, and it changes in every moment. With everything you do, say, think, eat, experience. To find healing, we find natural ways to move the Vikruti closer and closer to the Prakriti. That’s the journey.

And what works for one does not work for another. It cannot! Of course! We are each unique! Raw food is a beautiful thing for some, while others benefit much more from cooked, warm food. And it can change! It’s OK! We are changing all the time! So of course, what we eat, what we do, how live, must also change. Do not seek to pin yourself down to one way of being, or eating. This is a static, dry, stagnant way of living. Give yourself permission to move, change, shift, unfold, re-emerge, try, fail, experiment time, and time again.

It is also important to note that while there are over 12000 documented diseases in the Western model, Ayurveda does not use this concept. Ayurveda simply recognizes symptoms in the body that are expressions of the elements being out of balance. Many of us know how it feels to have a variety of symptoms that has not yet been recognized as a disease in the Western model, yet it affects us each day. And the lack of having a name for it makes us believe that its not real or that it’s not valid. And so we keep looking, another doctor, another web search, someone must know what this is that I have.

So allow me to give an example of how healing can look in Ayurveda. Take for instance the Pitta dosha, largely made of fire, which exists within each of us, in varying amounts. It is necessary for digesting our food, for digesting our thoughts, and it is responsible for discernment, metabolizing knowledge, igniting our passions and seeing clearly, both physically and metaphorically. But when it goes out of balance in our body, we experience symptoms of excess heat. Acne, rashes, fevers, psoriasis, heartburn, migraine headache, blood infections, acid reflux, hives, anger, Premenstrual symptoms, jealously, etcetera.

Now if we saw a fire out of balance in our backyard, we would probably not take the time to name the particular shape and structure the imbalance takes on. We would not spend our time categorizing and labeling the various types of out-of-balance fire. No! We would get to work reducing the fire, using water and earth to bring it back into harmony. No need to label, no need to separate, no need to judge. Out of balance Pitta fire is just that, out of balance pitta fire. How it manifests for you is simply a unique expression, one that is guaranteed to get your attention. One that wakes you up to the knowledge of the imbalance. Nothing more. Standing around labeling the imbalance wastes valuable time! Get to the healing! Bring it into balance! In this case, eat cooler foods like celery, mint, cilantro and cucumber. Drink more water, practice compassion which has a balancing effect on fire, take in the scent of flowers, wear a cooling, watery color like blue, use cool compresses with essential oils of lavender and chamomile. Easy, everyday, natural remedies that honor the nature of the imbalance. That honor and accept its existence.

But through the lens of Ayurveda, your symptoms are your symptoms, and they are quite real. They tell us a story of how the elements are working together. Whether that unique grouping of symptoms has a name in the western model or not does not matter, we simply get on with what matters most, the healing. The return to wholeness. The balance. I have a client who has had a list of symptoms for a dozen or so years. Doctors were never able to find out what was wrong. They kept sending her home, or to another doctor, without results, without a diagnosis. Finally within the last year, she was diagnosed with lupus. On some level, this made her feel better, that it had a name. But on another level, it didn’t change anything.

So with the Ayurvedic feminine traits of patience, compassion and understanding at the Core, we begin to heal, we return to wholeness. We do not Make Healing Happen. We do not Battle and Fight against disease, demonizing the messenger and the body. These are the destructive traits of an overly masculine approach! Fix it, make it go away, cover it up, hide it, smash it, destroy it.

BENEFITS

Someone asked me once, if Ayurveda is so old, how can it have relevance in our current society? Where does the benefit lie, for me? After all, haven’t we learned a whole lot since then that can serve us so much better?

And to that I answer, there is no more critical time than now to bring Ayurveda into the fold of our healing journey!! It is without question, I believe, critical that these feminine energies and healing systems make their way back into our lives. It is essential that we return to the essence of who we are, explore our common humanity, and put more focus on holding and supporting each other instead of beating each other, our bodies, our minds, and winning at all costs, including the cost of our soul.

Healing is not a journey of winning and it cannot be done alone, in isolation. Healing is a journey of acceptance, of openness, of community, of connection, of joy and peace. There is no one right answer, there is no perfect diet, one best detox, Ayurvedic or otherwise, one perfect lifestyle, perfect meditation practice. There is no point at which it will be achieved and you can mark it off the list!! It’s a day by day recognition of and living within the mystery.

So alongside the tests and diagnosis and blood work, we seek a deeper understanding of why we have symptoms in the first place. We look for the messages inherent in our symptoms. The body is not the enemy to be vanquished, subdued, shut down, but instead is the quiet persistent partner nudging us along our spiritual journey, awakening to the truth of Who we Are, reminding us of our sacred contracts and duties. Helping us to live a lifestyle that is in harmony with Nature and our Nature. And this work is undertaken in the womb of self-compassion and trust from which we can rebirth ourselves regularly back into the world!  And then move into in our world with the word Namaste on our lips, which means the Divine in me sees and honors the Divine in you, Instead of concentrating on where we differ, let us focus on how we are the same, and hold each other in compassion, patience, gentleness and unconditional love.

I invite you, as I did, to open your heart to the wisdom of Ayurveda. Read of her in the books, learn of her through teachers, but listen to her in the quiet space in your own heart. Honor her, let her in, do not attempt to change her. If you do, she will hide from you the best of who she is. Feed her, and she will feed you back. She will remind you, like Dorothy was reminded in the W of OZ that she never did need that wizard after all. The power resides within us, it always has, to return home to the timeless wisdom that is our fundamental ground of being.  And this journey that Ayurveda invites us on.

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