Why Every Asana Practitioner Should Study Ayurveda
Ayurveda takes the philosophical outline of Sankhya and applies it to the art of living, stretching its reaches beyond the confines of ascetic practice to the real world of relationship, career, conflict and even technology. The gunas (tamas, rajas and sattwa) and the five gross elements (earth, water, fire, air, ether) converge to explain doshas, or individual constitutions. This provides a basic categorization process to everything from body type to spiritual practice, disease, human cravings and proclivities. One of the most revered teachers of Ayurveda, David Frawley, writes,
“We now recognize that our health cannot be separated from what we eat, what we do, and what we think. Ayurveda provides us with a system for understanding the energies and qualities that are set in motion by our daily living practices, so that we can use them to counteract or prevent the imbalances that cause disease.”
Based on doshic theory, each human has both their prakriti: the raw stuff of the cosmos combined into their unique constitution, or dosha, and vikruti: a circumstantial imbalance, which is what Ayurvedic treatment addresses. While we cannot change our constitution, we can affect change at the level of current imbalance and move toward homeostasis. This profound practice of acknowledging the person as a unique and intentional set of inclinations and probabilities is often overlooked by asana-dominated yogis, especially in one-size-fits-all approach to practice. The standardization of beauty, success, intelligence, and even fitness has cemented into our western psyche the need to change or fix anything considered a deviation from the socially approved norm. In this persistent looking outward and trying to keep up with a man-made construct of freedom or happiness, we often lose ourselves. We lose our health. We are making ourselves sick through homogenization. It is easy to see why Ayurveda has only really taken a seat amongst the fad cleanses and spa treatments for most practitioners.
Ayurveda gets slightly more prescriptive than yoga in its approach to daily living. There are best practices outlined for us to follow, often moving with the rhythm of nature: rising and resting early, eating simply and seasonally and keeping the physical body strong and supple. Here’s where yoga comes in: asana, pranayama, and meditation applied intentionally each day for psycho-somatic well-being. This is usually where most people close the Ayurveda book or end the workshop. For many of us, the addition of addressing the spiritual body is the hardest to grasp, because it has no form and much more intricate terms of engagement. Spiritual practice is far more personal than gastrointestinal distress or insomnia, which we can all relate to in clear cut language.
In other words, spiritual practice requires us to go beyond the concrete to the abstract, from the gross to the subtle, from the manifestations of imbalance to the source of said imbalance. Connecting to source is an inextricable piece of the healing pie in Ayurveda based on the Sankhya system. This philosophy asserts that until the body is occupied as the container of that subtler Self, our routines and regimens and “best intentions” are guided by the never ending stream of citta vrittis, aka, distractions of the changing material world. Our unwillingness to be with our changing bodies reflects the larger refusal to be with the changing face of our culture, our planet, the turning tides of politics. Our refusal to give time to spiritual practice (which is not the same as obediently attending a service and donating money) reflects our resistance to acknowledging ourselves as part of the larger, wide-reaching web of karma and consequence, or Purusha, source.
Yoga and Ayurveda are not simple solutions or magic bullets. So many people are depressed because, well, modern life is depressing. So many people are anxious because the internal impetus of desire flies in the face of what the modern world reflects back to us. It requires effort to make our way back to a sense of “normal,” which is in no way a static or fixed state. Cultural conditioning and technological advancement have given us the subtle impression that “out there are all the solutions to my problems, and if I take that pill it will all be better. If I vote for that candidate it will all be better. If I learn to handstand it will all be better.” The Sankhya system asserts that “out there” are all the reflections of the internal problems and that, in order to heal, we must look within and move toward that which settles the waves. Yogas-citta-vritti-nirodah.
When I realized that my relationship to alcohol was creating chaos in my life, I chose to address it using Ayurveda. My prescription while getting sober was not “avoid alcohol,” it was “track your thought process, notice the sensations in your body, and before you take that drink, drink this lemon juice-turmeric concoction. Get ten minutes of sunshine every day and practice alternate nostril breathing.” In other words, “change your relationship to the behavior.” My prescription in this post-election manic-depressive state has not been, “take this herb and get another massage, then chant to Ganesha for twelve minutes,” it’s “call your dad and apologize for what you said and stay off social media for two days.” I create my world. I want more tolerance, I have to be more tolerant. I want to stop flaring up, I have to stop feeding myself things that make me inflamed (or that dampen and aggravate my fire.) My constitution is such that I am prone to hyper-critical mind, over-exertion and excessive appetite. The times when I have been most sick and upset in my life were in environments that aggravated those tendencies: ninety minute commute to and from work, emotionally empty relationship, micro-managing my diet. All opportunities for over-effort and excessive self-critique, I found myself lying, binge-drinking, making up excuses and blaming others. And I have been studying/teaching this stuff for years! And still I expect others to be so enlightened and set a better example for the world. As teachers of Yoga, it is essential that we practice and not merely give lip service to this component of the philosophy: like increases like. Opposites cure each other. Everything in Ayurveda is considered medicinal or toxic depending on its application and the alchemy with the imbalance at hand.
Yoga can take us to a certain point in the private quarters of our mind, but when we open our eyes and roll up our mats, it’s the interactive and intuitive practice of Ayurveda that will get us to meeting ourselves in the very sweet, but often awkward, center of our being.
Unfortunately, intuition is cited more often as an excuse for getting out of things we didn’t want to do in the first place rather than deferred to as the highest source of wisdom. The human connection to higher wisdom is feared, restricted, even poisoned by ineffective or inappropriate food, work, habitation and partnership choices, but it is, arguably, the keystone between our effort and our liberation. Yogis without a spiritual focus are like the basketball team coached to win rather than to be a team; anger, ego, resentment, competitiveness, and staying on top pour from the non-spiritual yogi like water from a water fountain. Through a deep study of Ayurveda and the cosmology behind it, practitioners can no longer hide behind their biomechanical magic tricks, but are forced to contend with their own role in the agitation they face, the drama cropping up (again!), the chaotic students around/in front of them, the persistent constipation. We are creating our planet on a daily basis through our relationship to our body, mind and spirit. The medicine of Ayurveda is not in the mystical herbal concoctions and cleanses, but in the awareness that every relationship is contributing to our healing or our toxicity. If the physical body is not a safe, celebrated space, the emotional body will experience more agitation, the mental body will exert dominance, the spiritual body will atrophy, and connection will not be possible. If we are to heal through Yoga, we have to apply the teachings not only diligently, but with a humility that acknowledges not our failings, but our potential. Yoga karmasu kausalam: Yoga is skill in action, and Ayurveda is the nourishment to sustain the effort.