Ayurveda: Yoga's Sister Science
I have a younger sister, Kate. She came into my life when I was seventeen and already away at college. So we're not the sort of siblings who fought over who got the front seat of the car or who could use the bathroom first. We're also half-sisters. I don't think of her that way, but when asked by someone curious to understand my family structure I explain that my parents are divorced, and my Dad is remarried, and I have a little brother and sister. We have a fairly typical American not-exactly-nuclear family.
My relationship with Kate strikes me as salient to the relationship between Yoga and Ayurveda in the United States. On the Indian subcontinent, these sister sciences arose together; their histories are inextricably linked and many people have grown up learning their stories at family meals and their teachings through the rituals and experiences of daily life. In the West, however, the relationship looks a bit different. Many American yogis come to these ancient practices feeling as if we've been called home, yet we're largely unaware that there are family members that we haven't really gotten to know yet. Like many Western yoga practitioners, I practiced Yoga for a number of years without fully appreciating its meditative aspects, and it was still later in my practice that I came to realize the richness of integrating Yoga and Ayurveda into a holistic daily practice.
Yoga and Ayurveda are sister sciences, with Yoga as a spiritual science and Ayurveda as the "science of life" or, put another way, a system of medicine and healing. While distinct in key respects, Yoga and Ayurveda share many essential elements, including emphases on purification of the physical body and movement of prana, or the life force, for health and spiritual growth. The ultimate goal of Yoga is self-realization or Samadhi; union or Oneness. Viewed from this perspective, a wide variety of yoga practices (from asanas to breathwork to chanting) are performed with the intentions of purifying the mind and body so that the life force can flow freely. Yogis seek to yoke or align mind/body/spirit so that one's inner radiance, or divine light, can shine through. These intentions are in keeping with key goals of Ayurveda, purification and natural balance. The two systems complement one another in terms of informing the particular needs of individuals as we seek purity, vitality, and spiritual growth.
The Ayurvedic tradition emphasizes a life of balance, achieved through understanding of natural elements and rhythms and one's unique constitutional nature. Disease results from imbalance and healing is a process of remembering our wholeness. Ayurveda gives us many tools for learning about who we are and tuning in to our own wisdom. According to Ayurveda, there are five elements in nature: ether, air, fire, water, and earth. Combinations of these elements give rise to three main constitutional types, or doshas, and each person exhibits these types in a particular way. Knowledge of one's constitutional type, and of characteristics of each dosha, can help one to find and sustain healthy homeostasis and to notice when physical, mental, or emotional aspects of our nature are becoming out of balance.
The three doshas uniquely combine the five elements and include: vata (ether/air), pitta (fire/water), and kapha (water/earth). While each of us is comprised of all five elements, and thus has aspects of each dosha within our constitution, one or two doshas tend to be predominant. So, one person may be primarily a "kapha" type, while another's constitution reflects a combination of two types, such as a "kapha-vata." Few people are tri-doshic, although this combination is possible. Vata constitutions are characterized by movement and tend to be thinner and finer boned body types with fast-paced, talkative, creative personalities. When vata is out of balance this is exhibited through emotional states such as worry, anxiety, and distractedness. Pitta types tend to be of medium build and in terms of personality are characterized by intensity, discipline, enthusiasm, and a bright, sharp intellect. When out of balance, pitta results in anger and irritability, impatience, judgmentalism and competitiveness. Kapha is characterized as "that which sticks." These body types are of larger build with good stamina and temperaments that are calm and loyal and patient. When out of balance, kapha results in sluggishness, procrastination, and lethargy. Specific physical ailments and diseases are also linked to particular doshic imbalances.
Both Ayurveda and Yoga offer a wealth of practices that target particular doshas in order to "pacify" them and keep them in balance. Ayurveda complements a holistic yoga lifestyle with attention to seasonal and daily cycles and the energetic properties of foods and herbs, as well as ways to focus or adapt asana, pranayama, and meditation techniques for optimal personal well being. For example, as a pitta-vata type I have learned strategies for cooling the heat of pitta during the summer months by drinking water with fresh mint, eating cucumbers and avoiding spicy foods, practicing more cooling forward bends than heating inversions, and spending time swimming in fresh water lakes (preferably in the shade!). In the fall, I pacify the dry and cool tendencies of vata by drinking more hot tea, sometimes with the heating and stimulating properties of fresh ginger, eating soups that are warming and easy to digest, and oiling my skin a few times a week with blended herbal oils (a practice called abhyanga). At this stage in my journey, Ayurveda and Yoga are part and parcel of my sadhana, or daily spiritual routine. I don't often think about which one I'm practicing, rather simply draw upon the resources that each tradition offers me as I seek peace and wholeness.
Now that we're adults, my sister Kate and I continue to build a relationship that, while over twenty years old, still feels new and sometimes unfamiliar. I love her dearly. I have also grown to recognize Ayurveda's hold on my heart, and to appreciate its place in Yoga's family tree. These are two sisters that I look forward to getting to know more deeply.