Ancient Ayurvedic Basics

Find balance by understanding the five elements, doshas, and how they correlate to form a healthy body.

| March 2018

  • The link between the mind and overall health is clear — imbalance in one will lead to imbalance in the other.
    Photo by Cara Brostrom
  • The classical text the Charaka Samhita describes Ayur, or “life,” as being made up of four parts: the physical body, the mind, the soul, and the senses (sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste).
    Photo by Cara Brostrom
  • Ayurveda is a lifelong exploration and a path to self-realization.
    Photo by Cara Brostrom
  • The body and mind are interdependent systems affected by parallel influences: the physical world of the five elements, and the energetic world of stillness, movement, and change.
    Photo by Cara Brostrom
  • Cara Brostrom is a lifestyle, editorial, and fine art photographer. Brostrom put down roots in Boston, where she met Kate O'Donnell and nurtured an ardent interest in yoga and Ayurveda.
    Photo by Cara Brostrom
  • Author, Kate O'Donnell is the director of an Ashtanga yoga program in Boston, co-director of the Boston Ayurveda School, and a contributor to many publications.
    Photo by Cara Brostrom
  • “Everyday Ayurveda Cooking for a Calm, Clear Mind” by Kate O’Donnell is an introduction to Ayurveda and the doshas, along with an explanation of their impact on the mind.
    Cover courtesy Shambhala Publications

Eat your way to increased energy, balanced emotions, and an overall state of calm and relaxation. In Ayurveda, India’s ancient healing system, food plays a central role in physical and mental well-being. Everyday Ayurveda Cooking for a Calm, Clear Mind: 100 Simple Sattvic Recipes (Shambhala, 2018) by Kate O’Donnell, a national certified Ayurvedic practitioner, lays out in tasty detail how a healthy diet can promote lucidity and how unwise food choices can compromise mental awareness. Profound experiences of Ashtanga yoga and Ayurveda, as well as an avid interest in the healing powers of food, have inspired O’Donnell’s study and practice of the ancient arts for the past twenty years.

While Ayurveda, India’s indigenous health system, is a vast and ancient subject, much of its common-sense wisdom is applicable today. My favorite thing about Ayurveda is the central role that food plays in well-being. Whether you like to cook or not, food is medicine for the mind, and a little intention in your diet can truly change your perspective on life. Harmonizing the energies of the mind can relieve stress, increase joy, and foster spiritual connection. What’s not to love?

To ensure success, we’ll be keeping our discussion simple in both theory and practice. This brief introduction will set the stage for our exploration of the mind, how food affects the mind, and how you can apply Ayurveda in your own life to create mental balance.

The Origins of Ayurveda

Ayurveda (pronounced “EYE-yer-VAY-da”) may be the oldest continually practiced health system in the world, dating from two thousand to five thousand years ago. The earliest information on Ayurveda is contained in the Rig Veda, one of four bodies of ancient scripture that were orally transmitted in lyrical phrases called sutras (threads). The Vedas are believed to originate from the rishis, sages in deep states of meditation. 

Ayurveda can be loosely translated as the “science of life.” The classical text the Charaka Samhita describes Ayur, or “life,” as being made up of four parts: the physical body, the mind, the soul, and the senses (sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste). Contrary to Western models, which have traditionally focused mostly on the physical body, Ayurveda has always given attention to the health of all four of the fundamental aspects of life. The system looks at the whole person — using diet, biorhythms, herbal medicine, psychology, wholesome lifestyle, surgery, and therapeutic bodywork to address the root cause of disease. Ayurvedic hospitals and clinics abound in India, where Western medicine is often used in conjunction with the traditional methods. Whereas Western medicine excels at resolving acute situations, Ayurveda stands out as a preventive medicine — seeking to halt the pro­gression from imbalance to disease by addressing the underlying causes early on.

Thousands of Years of Trial and Error

I will occasionally quote from classic texts to remind us that this information comes from thousands of years ago and was collected over millennia by both scientists and sages. Most commonly, I use the Charaka Samhita, a seven-volume set that describes pathology and treatment for thousands of ailments, as well as a philosophical background for Ayurveda. Information on the texts quoted — the Charaka Samhita, the Ashtanga Hrdayam (a compilation of teachings from the Charaka and Sushruta Samhitas), and the Bhagavad Gita.

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