Guest post graciously contributed by Nicole Taylor.
“Sama dosha samagnis ca sama dhatu mala kriya prasannatmendriya manah svastha ityabhidiyate.”
“One who is established in Self, who has balanced doshas, balanced agni, properly formed dhatus, proper elimination of malas, well functioning bodily processes and whose mind, soul and senses are full of bliss, is called a healthy person.”
What does health mean to you? As I continue to study Ayurveda I’ve become more conscious of the images we receive regarding health. It’s a constantly moving target. The media will tell you it’s this body type or that one, this clothing size, or that activity that can get you there, and whatever way you slice it, these messages are mostly about the external. When images aren’t trying to influence your idea of health, articles you read will tell you it’s this body mass index, or that blood pressure reading, or a host of other measurable targets you can hit if only you stop eating wheat, or drink red wine daily, or eat like a cave person, or juice diet, etcetera, etcetera.
Whew! I felt overwhelmed just writing that. The Sushruta Samhita is one of the core texts of Ayurveda, and in that text we find the definition of a healthy person. “One who is established in Self, who has balanced doshas, balanced agni, properly formed dhatus, proper elimination of malas, well functioning bodily processes and whose mind, soul and senses are full of bliss, is called a healthy person.”
The Sanskrit word for health is “swastha.” When I learned that word and its meaning, I fell more deeply in love with Ayurveda than I already was. Swastha can be translated as “One who is established in Self.” Note the capital S. What does it mean to be established in Self? Can a lab value or a clothing size help you to get there? Although some of these things may end up being landmarks along the path, they are not to be mistaken for the path itself. And in fact, many of us have found that the message we receive about what it means to be healthy actually create a sense of inner criticism that is pretty much the clear opposite of resting in the Self.
Resting in the Self requires stillness. It is through the practice of meditation that we begin to calm our minds and nervous systems enough to be able to get still. Through that stillness, coupled with our chosen practice, for example, mantra meditation, we begin to get a glimpse of our true Self. Whether you call it Soul, Atman, or Purusha, you have likely at some point in your life gotten still enough to feel the light of your Self, your true nature that is not your personality or your thoughts or your habits or your sensory experiences. A person who is established in that light, in pure being, is one who is healthy. It’s really hard to become established in the Self if your body and mind are out of balance. The Ayurvedic definition of health goes on to expand in the forms of balance that can lead us to be able to rest in our Self.
Balanced doshas is another characteristic of a healthy person. The study of Ayurveda teaches us that we are a microcosm of the macrocosm that is the universe, and that the elements of earth, water, fire, air, and ether are the building blocks of all matter. In our bodies, these building blocks are represented by kapha, the mixture of earth and water that provides the structure for our bodies, pitta, the mixture of water and fire that provides our heat and ability to metabolize and transform substances and sensory impressions, and vata, the mixture of air and ether, which governs all movement. Our prakriti is the composition of the doshas that we came into this life with, and our vikruti is our current imbalance. Ayurveda teaches us how to balance these elements in our bodies, and the more balanced we are, the better we feel and therefore the easier it is to do the practices that help us to rest in our true Self. When we understand the qualities associated with each dosha, and if we gain an understanding of the qualities found in our food, lifestyle choices, and asana, pranayama, and meditation practices, we can make choices that can help bring us back into balance.
Agni is our digestive fire, and Ayurveda teaches us that having a balanced digestive fire is a hallmark of health. Eating healthy food comprised of the six tastes (sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, and astringent) at the right time in the right amount in a calm environment is one practice that can help our agni stay strong. Giving our digestive fire a break during seasonal changes by doing a Spring cleanse and a Fall Rejuvenation is also supportive, as are many of the practices discussed in the preceding paragraph on balanced doshas. No one is perfect, and we don’t always make the healthiest choice, but having strong digestive fire can assist us in those moments when we don’t make the optimal choice.
The dhatus are the tissues of the body. Rasa dhatu is plasma and lymph, rakta dhatu is blood, mamsa dhatu is muscle, meda dhatu is adipose tissue, asthi dhatu is bone, majja dhatu is marrow and nerve tissue, shukra dhatu is male reproductive tissue, and arthava dhatu is female reproductive tissue. These tissues are properly formed when our agni is strong, and when the fuel we are giving our bodies is optimal. Ayurveda teaches us that we literally are what we eat, because our food becomes our tissues. When we eat food that is closer to nature, that is as unprocessed as possible, we offer the highest possible nutrients to our digestive fire, which results in well formed tissues. Each tissue takes nutrients it needs during the digestive process, so if we are eating a diet balanced across the six tastes, we are eating a diet balanced across all of the elements, which is a part of supporting properly formed tissues described above.
Proper eliminations of malas, or wastes, is another hallmark of healthiness. If you’ve ever met someone who practiced Ayurveda, you know we have absolutely no problem talking about poop. Feces, urine, and sweat are the three main ways the body eliminates waste. At an even deeper level, during the digestive processes at the tissue level, important by-products are formed. So when your elimination is regular, in appropriate amounts, and when you allow your body to eliminate when the urge arises rather than holding it until it’s convenient for you (yes, I know you’re in an important meeting but it is better to excuse yourself and go rather than hold in your natural urges), that’s an aspect of health. You probably won’t see an ad in a magazine of a person smiling with the caption “amazing elimination” under it. Maybe one day! It’s actually quite possible that to achieve the body type of the person smiling at you in most magazines, you would go on some sort of diet that is food withholding and not balanced in the six tastes, that would adversely affect your digestion, which in turn would contribute to the production of ama, or toxins comprised of undigested food and the body’s response to that undigested food, which in turn would affect your elimination and your sense of well-being. So put down the magazine and start a wave of people eating warm unctuous balanced meals that will support their digestion and proper elimination.
Well functioning bodily processes are another hallmark of a healthy person. I’m reminded of the definition of purusha or soul, which is “that which is at rest in the city of the body.” It gives us great pause to think of our body as a city, organized by countless processes that keep us functioning well and able to thrive in the world so that we can achieve our dharma (our purpose for being here). Think of all of the things that happen in the body that we don’t have to think about, functions performed by the autonomic nervous system. Our hearts beat. Our breath moves in and out. We reach for a glass of water and don’t even think about all of the systems inside that have to coordinate in order to reach for that water. All of these processes working well together generates an experience of health.
The last section of Ayurveda’s description of health is “whose mind, soul and senses are full of bliss.” Just take a minute and reflect on the last hour of your life. What thoughts did you have? What things did you read? What did you hear? What did you see? What did you taste? What did you smell? What did you touch? As you experienced your five senses and the thoughts in your mind, did you identify them as changeable while you rested in something that was changeless? Or did you identify with the changing quality of your mind and what you took in through your senses? Were the things around you supportive of a mind that was sattvic, which is characterized by clarity, peace, and harmony, or were they of more of a rajasic nature, marked by a sense of excitability and intensity, like a hamster running nowhere on a wheel, or were they tamasic, characterized by a sense of darkness, heaviness, and inertia? These three qualities, sattwa, rajas, and tamas are qualities found in nature and in us. Our thoughts and sensory impressions are constantly moving, incrementally leading us either toward the light and bliss of sattwa or toward the inertia of tamas. Ayurveda teaches us how to make choices that support building sattwa in a way that allows us to do our work here in the world. We can learn about sattvitc foods, practice a daily ritual that imbues our life with a sense of inner harmony, and choose activities that keep our light bright.
This science of life, Ayurveda, provides time tested practices to help us heal ourselves so that we achieve health. The Ayurvedic definition of health–One who is established in Self, who has balanced doshas, balanced agni, properly formed dhatus, proper elimination of malas, well functioning bodily processes and whose mind, soul and senses are full of bliss—is a holistic one that takes into account the beauty and fullness of being human. From this practice we learn that what health is for us might not look like someone else’s version of health, because we each come into this world with a particular constitution, the balance of the elements that our soul needed in order to find freedom and fulfillment. We each have our purpose, and everything we are given is there to help us achieve that purpose. The more time we spend getting to know and love our own body, our own mind, our own heart, the more glimpses we get of our true Self. Once we get a glimpse of that inner light, it’s enough to keep us returning to these practices that become a beacon, calling us home to ourselves, guiding us toward a healthy body and mind so we make decisions that support fulfilling our life’s purpose and sharing joy with others along the way.