What is health? What is disease? Are sickness and health just a matter of luck, or of which bacteria you happen to encounter in your daily life? What can we do to maintain a positive state of health and avoid getting sick?
These are questions that the five-thousand-year-old tradition of Ayurvedic medicine has considered in depth. The answers, drawn from deep insight and generations of practical experience, can help us prevent illness from developing and heal it if it arises.
Let’s begin by examining the Ayurvedic understanding of health. Then we will look at ten potential causes of illness and how you can counteract them. Once you are aware of the factors that can either maintain health or disturb your body’s equilibrium and set the disease process in motion, you can organize your life for health and balance. Finally, we will consider the Ayurvedic understanding of how illness develops, from its earliest, invisible stages until it is fully grown.
The Definition of Health
According to Ayurveda, health is not simply the absence of disease. It is rather a state of balance among body, mind, and consciousness.
Health consists of a balanced state of the three humors (doshas), the seven tissues (dhatus), the three wastes (malas), and the gastric fire (agni), together with the clarity and balance of the senses, mind, and spirit.
Although you will not need to master all these terms and considerations in order to effectively use the remedies detailed in other posts, an acquaintance with them will give you a bigger picture of the depth and practicality of this science.
You are already familiar with the three doshas, the biological humors or principles that govern all activity in the body: vata, the energy or principle of movement; pitta, the energy of digestion and metabolism; and kapha, the principle of lubrication and structure. Balance of the three doshas maintains health; imbalance leads to disease.
The dhatus are the basic bodily tissues. They are responsible for the entire structure of the body and the functioning of the different organs and systems. Crucial to the development and nourishment of the body, the dhatus unfold successively as follows, starting with the nourishment derived from the product of digestion:
- Rasa (plasma or cytoplasm) contains nutrients from digested food and subsequently nourishes all tissues, organs, and systems.
- Rakta (blood) governs oxygenation in all tissues and vital organs and thus maintains life-function.
- Mamsa (muscle) covers the delicate vital organs, performs the movements of the joints, and maintains the physical strength of the body.
- Meda (fat) maintains the lubrication of the tissues and serves as insulating material to protect the body’s heat.
- Asthi (bone and cartilage) gives support to the body’s structure.
- Majja (bone marrow and nerves) fills up the bony spaces, carries motor and sensory impulses, and facilitates communication among the body’s cells and organs.
- Shukra and artava (male and female reproductive tissues) contain the pure essence of all bodily tissues and can create a new life.
Each dhatu is dependent on the previous one. If the raw materials of digestion are inadequate, or if there is a problem in any stage, each successive dhatu will not receive the nourishment it needs and the respective tissues or organ systems will suffer. So for good health, all seven dhatus must develop and function properly.
The three waste products (malas) are feces, urine, and sweat. The body must be able to produce these in appropriate amounts, and to eliminate them through their respective channels.
Agni is the biological fire or heat energy that governs metabolism. It can be equated with the digestive enzymes and metabolic processes involved in breaking down, digesting, absorbing, and assimilating our food. Agni maintains the nutrition of the tissues and the strength of the immune system. It destroys microorganisms, foreign bacteria, and toxins in the stomach and intestines. It is an extremely vital factor in maintaining good health.
Agni sustains life and vitality. An individual endowed with adequate agni lives long and has excellent health. But when agni becomes impaired because of an imbalance in the doshas, metabolism is adversely affected. The body’s resistance and immunity are impaired, and the person begins to feel unwell. When this vital fire is extinguished, death soon follows.
In addition to these bodily factors, the senses, mind, and spirit also play a vital role in maintaining good health, as we will discuss in the next section. When all these factors are balanced, it produces a state called swastha, which means “totally happy within oneself.”
There is a saying in Ayurveda that a person is as old as his or her agni. According to the Charaka Samhita, one of the great classics of Ayurvedic medicine:
“The span of life, health, immunity, energy, metabolism, complexion, strength, enthusiasm, luster, and the vital breath are all dependent on agni (bodily fire). One lives a long healthy life if it is functioning properly, becomes sick if it is deranged, or dies if this fire is extinguished. Proper nourishment of the body, dhatus, ojas, etc., depends upon the proper functioning of agni in digestion.
“The five types of agni, corresponding to ether, air, fire, water, and earth, digest the respective components of the food.… In this way, balanced agni cooks the appropriately chosen and timely consumed food, and leads to promotion of health.…
“Agni is necessary for the normal process of digestion, and the subtle energy of agni transforms the lifeless molecules of food, water, and air into the consciousness of the cell.”
This state of happiness and balance can be created and sustained by maintaining a healthy lifestyle in accordance with nature and the requirements of your own constitution. Proper nutrition, proper exercise, healthy relationships, positive emotions, and a regulated daily routine all contribute to a healthy life. On the other hand, wrong diet, inadequate exercise, troubled relationships, negative or repressed emotions, and an erratic schedule are at the root of disease. These causative factors upset the balance of the doshas, weaken agni and the dhatus, and lead to poor health.
The Complete Book of Ayurvedic – Vasant Lad, M.A.Sc, Published by Harmony Books, 1998