Ayurveda: Traditional Indian Medicine—and Envy!

Ayurveda, a 6,000-year-old medical tradition that continues today

Posted Aug 08, 2014

"Cosmic Ocean," oil on canvas, F.J. Ninivaggi

On July 29, 2014, the Institute of Medicine (IOM) released its report on the governance and financing of graduate medical education (GME) [Institute of Medicine, Committee on the Governance and Financing of Graduate Medical Education. Graduate medical education that meets the nation's health needs. Washington, DC: National Academies Press, 2014]. An important incidental finding of the IOM's study was that the evidence base available to inform future directions for the substance, organization, and financing of GME is quite limited. This limited evidence reflects a systematic lack of research investment in an area of health care that does and will require more. Implicit in this finding is that a fundamental goal of modern Western medical training must be the production of a workforce capable of delivering economically sustainable care that will improve the health of patients and populations—in a changing environment.

The aforementioned focuses on concerns of professional health practitioners. The fact that the number of people using complementary interventions (nutritional supplements, herbals, acupunctures, and so forth) is steadily increasing warrants more intelligent attention to these wellness interventions. The changing environment of modern health care, therefore, demands that each individual take greater responsibility for a larger share of his and her well-being. Much of this is in the form of both primary prevention of disease and optimizing resilience.

This series is an attempt to introduce the ideas driving one such approach—Ayurveda. As an age-old tradition to health and well-being, it may be considered not to replace, but to have a place alongside traditional Western systems.

Part I today introduces a broad overview. It is a brief introduction to Ayurveda, the almost 6,000-year-old encapsulated wisdom of the ancient rishis (wise thought leaders) of the Indus and Vedic civilizations. Ayurveda represents one path, among many, that includes a comprehensive worldview and addresses body, mind, and spiritual/consciousness dimensions of human experience. Ayurveda recognizes spirituality as a universal dimension of human experience. It arises within an inner subjective awareness of individuals and groups, especially poignant in matters related to intimacy with self and others. Within Ayurveda’s outlook exists an integrated view of immanence and transcendence, a grasp of self, other, and oftentimes “beyond self and other,” along with considerations of value, meaning, and purpose. For example, Ayurveda espouses the 2,000-year-old guidelines in the Classical Asthanga Yoga virtues of nonviolence, truthfulness, not stealing, moderation, and management of envy, greed, jealousy, and lust. Physical and mental hygiene, study, and a variety of socially responsible behaviors are also considered to be spirituality in action.

Part II (next month) will discuss envy and how it has been positioned in the Ayurvedic and Western systems.

Part III (in the following months) will present a general outline discussing theories and ideas behind wellness interventions that include Eastern and Western perspectives.

The overall vision of Ayurveda is to create conditions whereby the integration of the biopsychospiritual/biomental person becomes a real-time experience. This process begins on an individual basis and by extension affects groups, societies, and cultures.

Although rooted in the ancient history of India, Ayurveda can transcend its cultural framework since its applicability is universal.

Self-development is the primary focus in this worldview. All work begins with personal experience: motivation, intention, and effort. Since individuals make up larger groups, when individuals ardently work on themselves, this inevitably becomes a manifestation of the larger human context. Hence, societies and cultures refine themselves and bring greater balance to the world at large.

The vision of integration has been expounded in the East from a variety of perspectives: in Hinduism as “nonduality”; in Buddhism as “shunyata”; in Zen as “immediacy/now”; and in the spirit of Lao Tse as the “oneness of spirit and matter.” This concept of integration simultaneously embraces the reality of perceptual multiplicity and its overriding cohesion as an integrated unity. Human history is replete with attempts to portray “the one within the many” and “the one transcending perceptual multiplicity,” as illustrated in the accompanying abstract expressionistic painting, the Cosmic Ocean.

All individuals and groups experience varying degrees of stress. The regulation of stress and its experience as “distress,” that is, “stress management,” is central to Ayurveda. "Stress burden" prevents the proper nourishment of body, mind, and spirit. Stress is virulent, induces a loss of fitness over time, and has the ability to cause disease. Stress vitiates the trajectory toward wellness.

Prajna-aparadha is an ancient Vedic concept understood to be the basis of all stress and distress. It is the natural mental default mode.

Prajna-aparadha denotes the mind’s ongoing forgetfulness of the memory of oneness. “Oneness” implies the unity and interrelatedness of all aspects of the body and its being situated in its extension—the world.

When mind (“knowledge about”), body (hardware and software), and consciousness (experiential knowing stripped of habit and conditioning) are riddled by a barrage of disconnects—destructive estrangements on all levels that include unsuitable/incompatible diet, lifestyle, interpersonal relationships, and so forth—then these splits fracture one’s experience of wholeness. Mental dis-equanimity and physical disorders arise.

If one considers that “mind”—how one interprets experience in the form of knowledge—may be the seed cause of virtually all disease progression, then attention must be focused first on the mind in order to identify its less than constructive thoughts and feelings. Identifying how one’s mind works, and then using tools to refine the mind is a fundamental reference point in Ayurveda. As mind becomes more and more refined, the person as a whole can begin to see, hear, feel, touch, and taste in a way that reflects healthy choices and improved living. Attention becomes centered in the “now” so that each moment is experienced as fully as possible.

Emotional and psychological conflicts produce an unending chain of obstruction in the harmonious flow of mental operations that, in health, can guide compatible, that is, wholesome choices. Anxiety, fear, and mental pain are felt when mental obstructions, that is, inordinate conflicts, are present. In addition to feeling an “uncomfortable” mind, speech instantly reflects this unhealthy mental functioning. Awareness of one’s essential consciousness is suppressed.

To reiterate: disorder/stress/disease has a large part of its onset in the mind. Instantly, this mental dysfunction then incarnates in the body, in speech, and more gradually surfaces as physical, bodily disease.

Prana is the term used to denote the bioenergetic force that has a primary role in nourishing, purifying, and maintaining balance in body, mind, and consciousness. In its ultimate form as Qi or the life force, its directional action is fundamental. While there are many strategies that directly aim to maintain an optimal quality and quantity of Prana, this brief discussion will aim at a root prerequisite, that is, attention to the transformative energies (Agni) throughout the entire body, mind, and consciousness. These energies make possible the assimilation of Prana as the life giving energy to the entire person.

Given the aforementioned holistic view (biomental/biopsychospiritual), corrective changes toward compatibility, to be effective, are needed to reconfigure one’s total lifestyle on a moment-to-moment, daily basis. One’s style of living, therefore, must naturally modify the environmental context of everyday life.

Ayurveda embraces the physical body, mental experience, and consciousness-enhancing dimensions of an individual. It does not merely address the mind in isolation.

How a person experiences self, other, and world is central to Ayurveda since this influences one’s material course of action, behavior, and performance. In other words, a more integrated self makes it easier to choose customized diet, lifestyle, and behaviors that are compatible with one’s inborn constitutional makeup.

In Ayurveda, all elements that feed the body, the mind, and consciousness require suitable and proper “digestion” or processing. What is at first “raw” must go through a process of digestion in order to become assimilated and so become harmoniously integrated into the self.

Agni is the transformative energy that drives digestion/processing on all biomental/biopsychospiritual levels. The concept of Agni is ancient, and found in the Vedas (~2,500 B.C.), the sacred writings derived from the prehistoric roots of the Vedic culture—Indus Valley civilization, ~6,000 years ago.

There are many faces of Agni. Agni is often referred to as the “digestive fire.” In the gastrointestinal tract, it transforms raw food into biological elements of the physical body. In the mind, it transforms sensations, perceptions, emotions, and thoughts into nourishing mental food.

Throughout the entire self, Agni transforms the split between body and mind into the consciousness of remembering their unity in order to maintain their ongoing synchronization.

When the functions of Agni are working well, the entire person is suitably nourished. Toxins referred to as Ama, virulent to well-being, do not accumulate.

Part I has introduce the theoretical basis of Ayurveda in its widest scope. Parts II and III will expand on all the aforementioned in increasingly more concrete ways, especially the role of psychological factors such as envy, stress, and the tools Ayurveda uses to identify and manage these. Promoting resilience and optimizing health by maintaining a healthy Agni and a low Ama are values strived for on a daily basis. More complete and detailed elaborations can be found in my books, Ayurveda: A Comprehensive Guide to Traditional Indian Medicine for the West, and Envy Theory: Perspectives on the Psychology of Envy.