Health according to Ayurveda, is a state of balance of the functional humours (doshas) and the tissues of the body, as well as a state of wellbeing of the sense organs, mind and spirit, says Ayurveda practitioner and psychiatrist, DR ANITA DUGGAL
How to stay healthy? Is it an impossibility? It certainly feels like it is. Disease is part of the human experience and condition and is often a learning experience. There may be no one literally who has never suffered from ill health.
To be able to stay as healthy as possible, we must first understand the basis of health and the causes of ill health and be aware of what governs health and what precipitates disease. Even with an understanding of these factors, it is not so easy to follow the discipline required for a wholesome regimen for body, mind and spirit.
There are many factors over which we have no control such as our genetic make-up, the effects of ageing and seasonal changes. We can, however, try to anticipate and mitigate the effects of these influences to some extent. Even conditions that may be inherited or due to past life karmas, may not be curable but the effects may still be mitigated. There are, however, factors within our control that we can modify. Let us look at these factors more closely.
So, what is health? According to Ayurveda, it is a state of balance of the functional humours (doshas) and the tissues of the body, as well as a state of wellbeing of the sense organs, mind and spirit. So how to understand disturbance and what pushes us away from a state of balance? A multitude of factors is usually the cause.
Everyone has his own genetic make-up or constitution which cannot be changed. The inherited constitution or prakriti is our natural balanced state. Everyone has his own doshic balance which governs his physico-psychological nature. This natural state is distinct and depends on the balance of the doshas present which give a certain predisposition or threshold. For example, someone with a pitta predominant prakriti will have a lower threshold for pitta conditions such as hyperacidity, stomach ulcers and other pitta conditions. Likewise, for the other doshas. It does not follow however that pitta individuals will develop only pitta disorders. It is just a matter of threshold or vulnerability and if we are aware of this, we can take measures with factors we know easily push us out of balance.
What else do we inherit? We may inherit a weakness in a particular system of the body, known as a khavaigunya. This is a defect in a particular system to which the doshas, when disturbed, gravitate and, therefore, can cause disease at this site. For example, a child with asthma has an inherited weakness in the respiratory system which means that the respiratory system is vulnerable. Wherever a weakness in the body lies, this is where illness is most likely to manifest when the conditions are ripe. So, we must also be aware of our specific areas of weakness and take special measures to protect against the particular condition, as far as we can.
In the case of asthma, it would be to control factors we know aggravate asthma in terms of diet and environment. A khavaigunya is not just an inherited weakness but can be an acquired weakness or defect too. For example, someone who smokes will damage his lungs and this area then becomes vulnerable to disease at any stage such as chronic obstructive airways disease or cancer.
We must look at the important interplay of external and internal factors in health and disease. There is usually a dynamic between the two, it is not one factor in isolation. Even when we look at simple infections like the common cold, the presence of the virus is not sufficient to explain disease, otherwise everyone exposed would become ill and this does not happen.
The field (kshetra) and the immunity (bala) are equally important. The field must be damp for the seed to germinate. Likewise, for the common cold or any respiratory infection to take hold, the lungs must have a degree of congestion. Other factors such as exposure to cold environment are important as this also increases congestion through effect on the doshas.
Psychological factors play an important role in health and disease A balanced mind is important for a good immune response. Stress, we know, can precipitate a multitude of conditions. Raga or the passions are mentioned in the first shloka in the Ayurvedic text Astanga Hrdaya denoting the prime importance of mind in the generation of disease (As. Hr Su 1.1). The passions when experienced disturb mental equilibrium. We know that when we feel stressed, angry or emotional, the body’s defences are lowered, and we fall ill more easily. Negative emotions weaken the natural defences of the body and allow illness to take hold. Just through observing ourselves, we can become aware of the connection between our mental state and the development of ill health.
Other important factors are diet and lifestyle which should be wholesome, balanced and compatible with our particular nature or prakriti. We are often drawn to things that are not good for us because of our desires and this is sometimes very difficult to control. We may be aware that certain foods are not good for us to take in excess, but because we find it difficulty to control the mind, we are drawn inexorably to these patterns and habits which ultimately can create disease through disturbing our doshic balance.
There is nothing harder than to control the demands of the mind and senses. For our health, we have to learn to negotiate this and for theneed to exercise a certain discipline. In the Bhagavad Gita, Lord Krishna says that which in the beginning appears like nectar, may, in the end becomes like poison; and that which appears like poison at first, becomes like nectar. Discipline is that which at first feels unpleasant, but which ultimately like nectar, is good for us. Sensory indulgence is that which tastes like nectar but becomes poison in that it creates disease. We can see how habitually comfort eating can lead to obesity, then to Type 2 diabetes and further complications.
A balanced mind is key to maintaining health and, therefore, practices that help to keep the mind clear and stable are helpful for the health of the whole being. Illness depends on numerous factors and it is impossible to control all these factors, but we can do our best in managing that which is within our capacity to manage.
We lead stressful lives, and this impacts our mind and bodies. It is difficult to be free from stress and we all know how dangerous are the effects of stress. But we don’t realise that nourishing the soul is as important as nourishing the body.
And how does one nourish the soul? It is through spiritual practices that help stabilise the mind and expand consciousness, the practices that help us to connect with our inner joy and give us experience of the peace hidden within. These include practices such as meditation, mindfulness, prayer, chanting, singing spiritual songs, scriptural study, selfless service in the name of God and so on. Nourishing the soul is important for a healthy, balanced mind and a healthy mind is important for the health of the body.
Dr Anita Duggal is a retired psychiatrist resident in the UK. She studied Social Anthropology at the London School of Economics and Political Science and was awarded an MSc with distinction in 1992. She has also studied Ayurveda in the UK as well as in India and was awarded an MSc in Ayurvedic Medicine from Middlesex University in the UK in 2007. Although she has worked mainly within mainstream Mental Health Services, she has always maintained a strong interest in Ayurveda and its approach to mental health.
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