Ayurveda: the Ancient Indian Art and Science of Creating Pattern-Breaking, Sustainable Change

Six years ago, as a 20-year-old college student in New York City, I asked myself a question that would end up dramatically changing the course of my life forever. I had just been admitted into the Catherine B. Reynolds Scholarship Program in Social Entrepreneurship, which defined social entrepreneurship as “pattern-breaking, sustainable and scalable change related to issues of social importance.” How can I create pattern-breaking change, in a sustainable way, within my own life, and scale those changes into the work I wish to do in the world? I asked myself. Ayurveda, the art and science of life from ancient India, has undoubtedly been the answer to this powerful question. The word “quest” is contained within the word “question,” and this question has, indeed, led me on a profound journey back home, not only to India and my parents, but to my ancestors, who, previously unbeknownst to me, have been practicing Ayurveda for generations, with great renown.

The ailments I have experienced during my short life on earth so far have, for the most part, been psychosomatic illnesses of my own creation, products of the suffering of my mind. At age 13, my mental afflictions, stemming from multiple childhood traumas, manifested themselves in my physical body through my experience of anorexia nervosa, one of the most fatal mental illnesses. For me, anorexia was much deeper than a quest for an ultra-thin body; it was, rather, my soul’s way of expressing its profound existential suffering.

Ayurveda offers sincere seekers holistic healing at four levels: that of the body, mind, soul, and senses, by putting us back in touch with nature’s eternal rhythms. Ayurveda explains the macrocosm (the universe surrounding us) and the microcosm (our individual body/mind containers) in terms of the five great elements (ether, air, fire, water, and earth – called pancha mahabhutas in Sanskrit, the ancient Indian language of Yoga and Ayurveda). The pancha mahabhutas combine to form three bio-psychic forces known as doshas, which are the building blocks of the entire universe, called vata, pitta, and kapha.

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Ayurveda is all about restoring our harmony with Nature and Her all-embracing rhythms.

Air and ether combine to form vata dosha, which is responsible for all movement. When balanced, vata dosha is expressed in the grace of a dancer, the artistry of a painter and the creative, visionary attributes of an entrepreneur. In animals, vata dosha is responsible for the prancing of deers, the pouncing action of lions, and the fluttering of butterflies. Vata dosha can create natural disasters like hurricanes. It is vata dosha that becomes activated anytime we step aboard an automobile, plane, train, or bicycle. Those who enjoy the thrills of high-speed rollercoaster rides at theme parks like Six Flags are really seeking harsha, or the quality of excitement that vata dosha provides, along with chala guna, which is its main quality, of motion. Vata dosha is also what enables all of the body’s natural urges, such as sneezing, passing gas, sleeping, urinating, vomiting, eliminating, crying, burping, eating, drinking, and even breathing to take place. Vata dosha has what is called achintya virya, or the quality of unimaginable power. One of the best expressions of the unimaginable power of vata dosha is the sheer force it provides a woman with to successfully deliver a baby.

When out of balance, vata dosha can create 80 different diseases in the body, and manifests as anxiety, depression, and fear in the mind. Emotional turbulence, irregular lifestyle, staying up late at night, not eating enough, and skipping meals all greatly aggravate vata dosha, which manifested for me as anorexia while I was a teenager and premature aging as a young adult. Creating pattern-breaking change, in a sustainable way, within my own life has largely been a matter of incorporating many vata-balancing foods, herbs, oils, and lifestyle protocols into my daily routine.

Fire and water merge to create pitta dosha, which governs the principle of transformation. A balanced pitta dosha creates a healthy digestion and appetite; it is also expressed by the organizational and leadership abilities of high-powered CEOs, the raw intelligence of nuclear physicists, and the motivation that fuels one’s personal and spiritual evolution. Pitta dosha is responsible for the strategy that goes into a lion’s hunting prowess, as well as the single-pointed focus and precision of an eagle swooping down from the sky to capture its prey.

Just as too much fire leads to burnout, however, so does an imbalanced pitta dosha. Excess pitta causes heartburn, overheating, exhaustion, an insatiable appetite, and acidity, amongst other symptoms. Too much pitta dosha also creates anger, frustration, and overly-ambitious and cutthroat competitive behavior. An imbalanced pitta dosha is responsible for 40 different diseases in the body.

Earth and water coalesce to comprise kapha dosha, which is responsible for stability. Having enough healthy kapha dosha in one’s body is the key not only to stability, but also strength, stamina, lubrication, patience, fertility, calmness, and contentment. Western cultures have, in recent decades, held vata and pitta body types (which are generally thinner, due to the light quality of air, ether, and fire) as the modern standard of beauty. These days, no one wants to be considered “fat.” This is very different from the standard of beauty upheld in India today, as well as ancient Greek, Roman, and other civilizations, which equate the curves on a woman’s body, for example, with beauty, femininity, and fertility. My knowledge of Ayurveda has not only completely destroyed the possibility of my ever becoming anorexic again, but has even made me quite counter-cultural in my new-found quest to gain weight, so I can have more of the wonderful qualities of kapha dosha in my body. In addition to the amazing benefits of kapha dosha inside the body, the quality of water is what provides beauty to the face and a clear, glowing complexion.

When out of balance, of course, even kapha dosha is not desirable. Obesity, diabetes, lethargy, nausea, lack of appetite, and depression are all caused by excess kapha in the body. Compared with imbalanced vata and pitta doshas, which create 80 and 40 diseases, respectively, kapha dosha is, however, only accountable for 20 different diseases.

And while knowledge of the three doshas comprises an integral foundation to the transformational science of Ayurveda, what continues to amaze me even more about Ayurveda is how it can go where vata, pitta, and kapha cannot, into the realm of spiritual healing. The ultimate goal of Ayurveda, just like its sister sciences of Yoga and Vedanta, is Self-realization, or enlightenment. Ayurveda’s psycho-spiritual underpinnings permeate the entire spiritual journey that accompanies the attainment and maintenance of amazing health. Ayurveda, Yoga, and Vedanta together truly provide answers to that all-elusive, ultimate spiritual question of “Who am I?” in a most poetic way.

While we can easily identify ourselves with disease and difficulty (“I am sick,” “I am diabetic,” “I am anorexic,” “I am jobless,” etc.), Ayurveda, Yoga, and Vedanta teach us that we are actually all that exists. These profound, ancient sciences teach us that our own Self is the eternal source of everything we seek outside of ourselves. So rather than looking to work, relationships, achievements, food and other external sources for fulfillment, I have learned to bring my fullness to whatever I do, instead of approaching life feeling empty and broken, and seeking satisfaction from outside.

I have learned from these sciences how to scientifically study my own self, through carefully examining and evaluating each of my thoughts, words, actions, and reactions, to see whether they are leading me closer to Truth, or just reinforcing unnecessary mental delusions. This practice of rigorous self-observation (called “svadhyay” in Sanskrit) has been a key to realizing how much of suffering is really self-created, and to freeing myself from the imprisonment of my own mental patterns.

My favorite shloka (Sanskrit for “hymn” or “poetic verse”) in the Bhagavad Gita (a deep Yogic text) reads:

“सर्व-भूत-स्थम् आत्मानम्́ सर्व-भूतानि चात्मनि

ईक्स्̣अते योग-युक्तात्मा सर्वत्र सम-दर्शनह्̣

sarva-bhūta-stham ātmānaḿ sarva-bhūtāni cātmani

īkṣate yoga-yuktātmā sarvatra sama-darśanaḥ

The one who is firmly established in Yoga, sees his Self in all beings, and all beings in his own Self.”

The more my knowledge of my self (the microcosm) increases, the more I have been able to understand, empathize with, and really see and feel my oneness with the macrocosm of the universe surrounding me.

The Self-definition that Ayurveda, Yoga, and Vedanta provide humanity is so expansive that it not only transcends the body and mind, but is not even limited to our own soul or spirit…rather, the more I love my Self, the more my definition of who “I” am expands into a much larger sense of Self that encompasses all, and excludes no one, because we are all ultimately One.

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11 Comments

  1. Mitch Hall says:

    HI, Ripa,
    Thanks for this clearly written, engaging posting. I would like to ask you to reconsider the premise of the following statement you made: “The ailments I have experienced during my short life on earth so far have, for the most part, been psychosomatic illnesses of my own creation, products of the suffering of my mind.” In the next sentence, you referred to yourself at age 13 as suffering from anorexia nervosa, “stemming from multiple childhood traumas.” Since you did not choose to create and experience those traumas, and since we know from vast epidemiological evidence that adverse childhood experiences can lead to emotional and physical suffering, sometimes for a whole lifetime, I don’t see how you can claim that such conditions as your previous anorexia nervosa were of your own creation. This is tantamount to blaming the victim. No traumatized child has the independence of spirit and agency to choose to create, or avoid, illnesses such a you suffered. I hope that my reasoning is consistent here. Please be kind and compassionate toward yourself, as we each need to be, and spare yourself from self-blame. Whereas in adulthood we can take responsibility for freeing ourselves from conditioned afflictions, this is different from believing we are the cause of our own suffering. I think the Buddhist concept of dependent origination, the intricate linkage of causes and effects, is helpful in illuminating this dynamic that I am trying to express. Peace and blessings,
    Uncle Mitch

    • inspireyoga says:

      Dear Uncle Mitch,

      Thanks so much for your comments. I definitely agree that I didn’t “choose” to create/experience traumas, and don’t blame myself at all for my childhood afflictions (in fact, holding my parents responsible for the part they played in it has been a big part of my healing). Rather, I believe deeply in the principle of karma and that to have experienced what I have, I must have caused it somewhere (not in this lifetime, for sure – I am an old soul :))…I love the way I believe you’ve expressed this belief as “the Buddhist concept of dependent origination, the intricate linkage of causes and effects.”

      I can, however, see how, without knowledge or a teacher, my mental patterns definitely worsened and prolonged the traumas, which is what I meant when I wrote about my mind creating, or manifesting, disease in my body. Hope that makes sense. Perhaps you could suggest an eloquent way I could re-phrase that sentence to more accurately express what I intended to?

      Gratefully,
      Ripa

  2. I really enjoyed this post. I only recently stumbled upon Ayurveda but as a yoga practitioner with an open mind I’m really curious to learn more about it. I periodically suffer from neurosis and I hope I can find some answers through understanding of the doshas.

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