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Ayurveda is a comprehensive and holistic medical system rooted in the observations of the great rishis, or seers, of India some five thousand years ago.

Ayurveda tradition was completely oral until circa 1000 B.C. when the best-known treatise first appeared. The Charaka Sambita, comprised of Sanskrit sutras, or small verses, concentrated on internal medicine. Students would use the verses as mnemonics, memorizing the entire text, which was further expounded upon by their teacher, or guru.

The Sanskrit foundation of Ayurveda dictates that the system remain elusive to the Western mind, for Sanskrit contains many words that do not translate well, bound as they are in the concept of extra-consciousness, or ideas beyond "knowing." Thus, a true and meaningful study of this efficacious medical art demands both outer knowledge, gained from teachers and books, and inner knowledge, or intuition, which can only be obtained through experience and informed observation of the self and others.

This is an enormously complicated idea, embodying as it does millennia of religious and philosophical thought yoked with physical observation and trial and error. At its most rudimentary, Ayurveda depends on the concept of creation or manifestation, which means that behind Creation there is a state of pure existence or awareness that is beyond time and space, has no beginning or end, and has no observable nature.

Within this pure existence there arises a desire to experience, to know one might say, using the western idea of the Tree of Knowledge in the Garden of Eden as a parallel. This desire--as always in Eastern Thought--is where Everything starts. A disequilibrium results, and causes a manifestation of physical energy, which is imponderable and cannot be described in words. This most subtle of all energies is modified over time and space until our familiar observable mental and physical world is manifested.

To simplify even further, if such a thing is possible, or even desirable: The energy of the dance of creation arises out of pure awareness, the boundless energy of the universe, and we call this energy love.

So it is awareness that we cultivate in Ayurveda, inner wisdom, the part of ourselves that cannot be changed by daily life, or by others, or even by something outside of our true self which is our very "idea" of ourself. This is why meditation continues to be such an important part of the process of Ayurvedic health.

Sanskrit uses the word Ahamkara to describe another concept difficult to Westerners. Ahamkara can be thought of as that part of creation which defines "me." We are all part of creation, all One, it can be said, yet each of us resonates at a different frequency, and it is the perfection and protection of this resonance that is at the heart of Ayurvedic medicine.

The trick, simply, is to find out who you are and how to stay that way. This self-knowledge, and by extension, self-healing, is rooted in the concept of the doshas, or three vital energies. Another ancient text, used daily by modern practitioners of the art puts it thus:

"vayu (vata), pitta, and kapha are the three doshas, in brief; they destroy and support (sustain, maintain) the body when they are abnormal and normal respectively."
Astanga Hrdayam, Chapter 1:6.
Once again, the doshas don't translate well from Sanskrit. It is a gross over-simplification in this forum, but each of us is naturally vata, pitta, or kapha, rarely exclusively so, as the doshas do not work in isolation from each other. With practice, we can observe what our natural tendancy is, and take steps to support what is our "true" self through diet, exercise, and above all awareness. An imbalance in the doshas, Ayurvedics believe, is the cause of illness. When you can recognize the qualities of the doshas in your everyday life, and how they change in relationship to each other in consideration of your lifestyle, environment, and even time of day and season of the year, you can utilize the complex principles of Ayurveda to maintain "perfect health" (as Deepak Chopra might put it).

The qualities of the three doshas are as follows, and it should be noted that any text on Ayurveda, particularly those written with the Westerner in mind, will include a sort of "examination," a test you can give yourself, in order to determine the dynamic forces within your unique mind and body.

  • PITTA--primarily the fire element, with water as the secondary element. The key qualities of a pitta constitution are:Light, Hot, Oily, Sharp, Liquid, Sour, and Pungent.

  • VATA--a combination of the air and ether elements, with air predominating. Vata qualities include Light, Cold, Dry, Rough, Subtle, Mobile, Clear, Dispersing, Erratic, Astringent.

  • KAPHA--water and earth elements, with water predominating. Kapha qualities are Heavy, Cold, Oily, Slow, Slimy, Dense, Soft, Static, and Sweet.

Each of the doshas has food, seasons, activities, remedies, and even times of day that are intrinsic. For example, watching too much television increases vata because of the overstimulation of the eyes and ears. It also increases kapha, due to the passive nature of watching. Habitual late-night news programs will increase vata as well, eventually resulting in an imbalance of the doshas.

There are occupational doshas: Vata people are dancers, actors, designers, teachers, writers, photographers. Pittas work in management, politics, surgery, law, and finance. Kapha personalities excel as nurses, administrators, cooks, builders, counselors, and in manual labor.

There are thousands of books written about Ayurveda medicine. The best of them steer away from New Age mumbo-jumbo-quick-fixes, and the idea that you can buy good health. The idea, it seems to me, is to gradually become aware, however you do it, that great thinkers over thousands of years have considered ALL aspects of humanity and its ills and have systematically provided a means for us to, basically, heal ourselves.

It's a fascinating concept and, speaking from personal experience, it works.

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