Illness does not suddenly appear. There is a direct causal link between the factors that influence us and the effects they produce. The cause is the concealed effect, and the effect is the revealed cause. The cause is like a seed, in which the as-yet-unmanifested tree is concealed. The tree is the expressed value of the seed. Health is the effect of a healthy lifestyle and healthy habits; disease is the “tree” sprouted from unhealthy habits.
According to the Charaka Samhita,
Both the patient and the patient’s environment need to be examined in order to arrive at an understanding of the disease and the causes of disease. It is important to know where the patient was born and raised, and the time of onset of the imbalance. It is also important to know the climate, customs, common local diseases, diet, habits, likes and dislikes, strength, mental condition, etc.
This enumeration opens the door to the wide variety of factors constantly influencing our health. Let us consider some of them.
LIKE INCREASES LIKE
The first important principle in considering the potential causes of disease is “Like increases like.” A dosha is increased by experiences and influences (such as food, weather, and seasons) with qualities similar to it. Dry foods, dry fruit, running, jogging, jumping, always being in a rush, and working too hard are all factors that aggravate vata in the system. Pittagenic factors, such as hot spicy food, citrus fruit, fermented food, and hot humid weather, provoke excess pitta. Cold, cloudy, damp weather, eating dairy products, wheat, and meat, and sitting and doing nothing increase kapha.
The antidote to “like increases like” is “opposite qualities decrease or balance.” This is the key to healing.
NOTE: In general, one’s prakruti indicates one’s disease proneness. Individuals of pitta constitution, for example, tend to have pitta diseases. But this is not inevitable. A person of vata constitution who eats a lot of hot spicy food, drinks alcohol, lies in the sun, smokes cigarettes, and represses anger will definitely get a pitta disease. If he or she eats candy, cookies, ice cream, and other dairy products and is exposed to cold weather, there will be a susceptibility to congestive kapha disorders.
FOOD AND DIET
We have already touched on the effects of food on the doshas. The principle is simply that eating the right kinds of food for your prakruti maintains vitality and balance, while eating the wrong kinds creates imbalance in the doshas, the first step in the genesis of disease.
Eating spicy food or sour or citrus fruit and drinking alcohol all increase heat and acidity in the body, something a pitta person cannot afford. For a vata individual, dried fruits, beans (including garbanzo, pinto, and aduki) are hard to digest and will provoke vata. Raw salads, which are cold and astringent, will likewise increase vata. For a kapha individual, dairy products, cold drinks, and fatty fried foods definitely add to kapha. So a vata person eating a vatagenic diet, a pitta person eating a pitta-provoking diet, and a kapha person eating kapha-aggravating food are definitely creating imbalance and sowing the seeds for ill health.
Wrong food combinations, stale food, food with chemical additives, and wrong eating habits, such as eating too much late at night or eating in a rush, also contribute to imbalance and lead to poor digestion and poor health. Diet is thus one of the main potential causes of ill health—but by understanding these principles and eating according to the guidelines for our constitutional type, it is also one of the major ways we can take control of our lives and maintain healthy balance.
Ayurveda classifies the seasons according to their predominant dosha. The windy, cool, dry weather of autumn is largely vata, followed by the dark, heavy, damp, cloudy kapha qualities of winter. Early spring is still primarily kapha, but as late spring arrives, the increased warmth, light, and brightness express pitta qualities, which blossom in their full intensity in the summer.
Each of these seasons brings its own challenges to health. The predominant dosha of the season will tend to build up at that time and can cause aggravation especially in someone of the same prakruti. If we act intelligently, we can avoid this accumulation and aggravation.
For example, because autumn and early winter tend to increase vata, individuals with a vata-predominant constitution need to eat warm foods, dress warmly, avoid cold food and drinks, and stay out of nasty weather. Otherwise they will fall prey to vata illnesses and discomforts, such as constipation, insomnia, and lower back pain. If pitta individuals want to remain free of anger, as well as hives, rash, and diarrhea, they need to keep cool in the summer, avoiding spicy foods, overexertion, and overexposure to the hot sun. Kaphas need care in the heart of winter and early spring if they are going to avoid colds, coughs, allergies, and sinus congestion in the damp, cool, heavy weather.
We will look further at the seasons, their effects, and how we can best live in harmony with their rhythms and changes in other posts, where we discuss the ideal Ayurvedic lifestyle, including daily and seasonal routines.
Exercise is another factor that can profoundly influence your health for better or worse. Regular exercise improves circulation and increases strength, stamina, and immunity. It helps one to relax and to sleep peacefully. It benefits the heart and lungs, is vital for effective digestion and elimination, and helps the body purify itself of toxins through sweating and deep breathing. Exercise increases the rate of combustion of calories, so it is good for maintaining body weight and for weight loss. It also makes the mind alert and sharp and develops keen perception.
On the other hand, insufficient exercise, overexertion, or exercise that is inappropriate for one’s constitution can lead to ill health.
Lack of exercise eventually brings a loss of flexibility and strength and puts one at greater risk for many diseases, such as diabetes, hypertension, osteoporosis, and heart disease.
Some amount of sweating helps to eliminate toxins, reduces fat, and makes you feel good. But overexertion may cause dehydration, breathlessness, chest pain, or muscle aches, ultimately leading to arthritis, sciatica, or a heart condition.
Yoga stretching and some aerobic exercise are valuable for all body types, but the amount and intensity of your exercise should be based upon your constitution. Kaphas can do the most strenuous exercise, pittas can handle a moderate amount, and vatas require the gentlest exercise. Even though fast-moving vatas are attracted to active sports, quieter exercises such as walking and yoga stretching are better for them. They should leave jogging, fast bicycling, aerobic dancing, and fast walking to pitta and kapha types. Kaphas are the most reluctant exercisers, preferring to do little or nothing, but it is important for them, or they will tend to put on weight and feel emotionally heavy and dull.
So here again, self-knowledge—knowledge of your constitution—plus a few pieces of vital information give you the opportunity and the challenge to maintain good health or fall into imbalance and illness.
You will find additional information about exercise in other posts, where we discuss the Ayurvedic daily routine.
As briefly mentioned in earlier, Ayurveda divides the human life span into three stages. At each stage, certain diseases and types of disease are more common. Childhood is the age of kapha. Children’s bodies are growing and building up their structure, so kapha dosha is more predominant. Their bodies are soft and gentle (qualities of kapha), they require more sleep than adults, and they are susceptible to kapha illnesses such as colds and congestion.
Adulthood exhibits more characteristics of pitta. Adults are more competitive, aggressive, and ambitious than children; they work hard, they require less sleep, and they fall prey to pitta-type disorders such as gastritis, colitis, and peptic ulcers.
Old age is the age of vata. Elderly people sleep quite a bit less, and their sleep is broken. They tend to get constipation, cracking and popping of joints, degenerative diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis and Alzheimer’s disease, and suffer from forgetfulness, all characteristic of vata dosha.
This shows that our age and stage of life are factors that have to be considered in the choices we make to keep our doshas in balance and remain healthy. Elderly people, for example, should not engage in strenuous exercise, and if possible they should minimize travel, among many factors that increase vata. They should favor a vata-balancing diet, with more warm, moist foods, more oil, and less salad and dried fruit.
MENTAL AND EMOTIONAL FACTORS
Our life is a whole, consisting of body, mind, and pure consciousness. Both health and disease have psychological as well as physical origins. Illness may begin in the mind and emotions and then affect the body; mental imbalance creates physical imbalance. Equally, physical disorders and imbalances can generate mental disorders. Because of this, mind and body are never considered separately in Ayurveda.
Every perception, thought, feeling, and emotion, whether positive or negative, is a biochemical event that influences the doshas and affects the cells, tissues, and organs of the body. Fear, anger, grief, hatred, envy, possessiveness, and other negative emotions disturb our doshic balance; likewise, when the doshas are already out of balance, they may give rise to these same negative emotions.
• Increased vata is associated with anxiety, insecurity, fear, nervousness, restlessness, confusion, grief, and sadness.
• Increased pitta is associated with anger, envy, hate, ambition, competitiveness, criticism, judgmental attitude, sharp speech, perfectionism, and the need to be in control.
• Increased kapha is associated with greed, attachment, possessiveness, boredom, laziness, and lethargy.
Emotions have an affinity with certain organs: grief and sadness with the lungs, anger with the liver, and hatred with the gall bladder. The kidneys may become the seat of fear, and the heart (as well as the lungs) the abode of grief and sadness. Nervousness is associated with the colon, while the stomach is the home of agitation and temptation, and the spleen may be related to attachment.
As we have discussed, emotions have a physical as well as a psychological aspect. Emotions are reactions to situations. If we do not understand and maintain clear awareness of the total movement of an emotion, from its arising to its dissolution, it will tend to adversely affect a particular organ, causing stress and weakness and creating what is known as a “defective space” (khavaigunya), where a future disease may manifest.
Modern medicine often views stress as the result of a particular lifestyle, or of overwork, emotional trauma, and so on. Ayurveda considers stress less as a result or condition than as a causal factor in disease. A regular daily routine, nourishing diet, positive emotions, and loving relationships result in strength and health. But keeping late hours, eating food that is aggravating to one’s constitution, traveling a lot, using the mind or stimulating the senses too much, repressing negative emotions such as anger or fear, and maintaining problematic relationships all put stress on the body and mind. In addition, toxins in food, water, air pollution, excessive noise, and many other environmental factors are also stressful.
Stress is a major factor in many diseases. It may trigger allergies, asthma, and herpes, and it may even lead to heart conditions.
Stress disturbs the doshas and can create disequilibrium of vata, pitta, or kapha, depending on the individual’s constitution. Vata individuals may develop vata conditions such as anxiety or fearfulness. Pitta individuals may react to stress in the form of anger, or they may suffer from hypertension, peptic ulcer, ulcerative colitis, and other pitta disorders. Kapha individuals under stress tend to eat and eat and eat. Elsewhere in the website you will find many suggestions to minimize the impact of stress on your life, and to relieve symptoms caused by stress if they develop.
OVERUSE, UNDERUSE, AND WRONG USE OF THE SENSES
Our senses give us great pleasure as well as vital information. Through ordinary experience our senses of taste, touch, smell, sight, and hearing can nourish us, and we can also find healing through sense therapies such as aromatherapy, color therapy, mantras and other healing sounds, massage, and the tastes in herbs and foods.
But because all our perceptions, as well as our thoughts and feelings, are biochemical events as well as experiences in consciousness, improper use of the senses can create imbalance or damage in the body and result in illness.
Overuse of the senses strains and stresses our nervous system. To use a simple example, repeated exposure to bright light hurts the retina and strains the optic nerve, which triggers pitta, and sooner or later a person’s eyesight will be affected or neuritis-like symptoms will arise. If we listen to loud music or hear loud sounds, the eardrum and the rest of our hearing apparatus are hurt and weakened; if it occurs often, the person can become deaf. Loud sounds also affect systemic vata dosha, giving rise to vata symptoms such as arthritis or degenerative changes in the bones. Lying in the sun strains the sense of touch, aggravates pitta, and may lead to skin cancer.
Misuse of the senses means using them in a wrong way, such as trying to read very small letters, or looking through a microscope or telescope (which creates a strain on the eyes), or reading while lying down (which changes the angle of focus and builds up stress on the muscles of the eyeball), which will eventually result in pitta or vata disorders. Eating a large quantity of wrong food, such as hot, spicy, stimulating food containing cayenne pepper, is a misuse of the taste organ. Listening to loud sounds over the telephone, and long phone conversations, both aggravate vata. Exposing the senses to wrong inputs, such as watching violent movies on television, is also a misuse of the senses.
Underuse of the senses means not perceiving with total attention, ignoring what we perceive, or not making full use of our wonderful sensory equipment. This can lead, for example, to accidents. SAD (seasonal affective disorder) is a form of depression that affects people who don’t get enough sunlight during the winter—a kind of underuse of the sense of sight. “Cabin fever,” the discomfort and restlessness born of staying indoors for a long time, is at least partly the result of sensory deprivation. Prolonged fasting—underuse of the sense of taste—aggravates vata.
Very often we get sick because we disregard our own knowledge or wisdom. Understanding our prakruti, our psychobiological constitution, is self-knowledge; understanding how certain foods, for instance, can disturb the balance of our mind-body system and lead to illness, while other food is balancing and strengthening for us, is knowledge we can use to remain healthy. And yet often we follow the impulses of the moment and choose foods that will cause us problems.
If a person who knows that her constitution is largely pitta decides to eat hot spicy food for lunch and then spends the rest of the summer afternoon working in the garden, she is disregarding her intelligence and understanding and asking for trouble.
As individuals, we are all part of the Cosmic Consciousness, the universal intelligence that so beautifully organizes all of nature. That intelligence is within us, and by following the time-tested principles of Ayurveda and paying attention to our own intuition and inner wisdom about what is right for us, we can regulate our lives in harmony with it.
Our life is relationship. We are related to the earth, the moon, the sun, the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat. You are related to your friends, your parents and children, your spouse, and your co-workers, as well as to your own body, your thoughts and feelings, your job, and your bank account. In our daily life, relationships are most important.
Often we use our personal relationships as a sort of power game, to control others. Then relationships become a battlefield rather than a field of love. When a negative emotion comes up in a relationship, such as resentment of a past hurt or insult, anger, fear, anxiety, or criticism, pay attention to the feeling. Don’t judge the other person or yourself. When your spouse says something and you feel hurt or angry, look inside to see what your thoughts and feelings are saying to you. Be honest. Out of honesty, clarity comes.
When clarity is lacking, feelings are repressed, or communication is absent at times of crisis in our relationships, stress builds up, and this is one of the causes of illness. Stress disrupts our inner biochemistry, the doshas are thrown out of balance, and the seeds of disease are sown.
Husband and wife, brother and sister, parent and child—all our relationships must be absolutely clear. Clarity in relationships develops compassion, and compassion is love. Therefore love is clarity. And as we all know, love is the key to successful relationships.
If you look back over the ten factors presented in this section, you will see that you have a great deal of choice and control over whether they will create a potentially disease-producing imbalance in the doshas. This is true even of such apparently uncontrollable factors as the seasons and the weather: if it is cold, you can dress warmly; if it is hot, you can take it easy and stay out of the sun.
The Complete Book of Ayurvedic – Vasant Lad, M.A.Sc, Published by Harmony Books, 1998