The quote above, from a text written in the sixth century BC, exemplifies the holistic vision of Ayurveda. According to this ancient Indian ‘Science of Life’, physical and mental health do not exist independently of one another: both are fundamental for our wellbeing.
In the West we are seeing, on the one hand, increases in mental health conditions such as depression, anxiety and eating disorders; and, on the other hand, increases in stress-related physical conditions, such as irritable bowel syndrome and chronic fatigue syndrome. We may be more affluent than previous generations, but in some ways our quality of life has been compromised. Numerous factors ranging from the fragmentation of society and loss of community, the increase in the use of technology and the relentless focus on materialistic values have led to a much less stable and supportive environment and caused an increase in stress for all of us. The idea of taking proactive steps to increase our mental health and resilience to stress is at the core of both the yogic and the ayurvedic approach.
According to Ayurveda, all ill health results from poor digestion. How can that be true? Poor physical digestion means that nutrients are not well absorbed from the food we consume and instead, toxins are created which clog up the subtle channels in the body reducing nourishment and creating imbalance. But as well as physical indigestion, there can be mental or emotional indigestion, which is created when we cannot process an experience: it may involve repressing emotions which we do not feel able to express; or it may involve conflicts between our belief systems and the reality which life presents us with. For example, someone with a fuller figure may believe they are unattractive, simply because they do not conform to the images promoted in the media.
As body and mind are interdependent, it is no surprise that the blockages created by physical indigestion will also affect the mind and emotions. Working with clients we often see that ayurvedic treatment to clear toxins from the system also produces greater clarity of mind; clients may report feeling as if a fog has lifted.
To understand mental and emotional digestion better we need to explore the three qualities of mind: satva, rajas and tamas. Satva means ‘seeing things as they are’. This clarity of mind, which may be the result of a meditation practice, means that there is no discord between reality and our expectations or projections. For example, my friend is late. I expected her to be here, but, either because I know that she is not punctual by nature, or because she has been delayed by traffic, I see that my expectation was unrealistic. This clarity of vision allows me to let go of my expectation and enjoy the fact that my friend has arrived rather than resenting her lateness.
Rajas is the force of action in our lives, going out into the world and making things happen, as well as stimulating our sex drive. We need rajas to function in life, however when it predominates we will be driven by ambition, competitiveness and self-interest. Excessive rajas can also lead to restlessness and hyperactivity.
Tamas, on the other hand, relates to inertia; we need a little tamas to be able to sleep at night, but too much will lead to laziness, mental confusion and depression. Tamasic food is fermented, processed, microwaved, overcooked, or old and stale. Red meat and in particular pork is highly tamasic, so it is no surprise that several of the world’s religions ban its consumption. Activities that will increase tamas are: lack of exercise and indulging negative emotions by dwelling on the past or harbouring resentments. Anything which disturbs the mind will also increase tamas. This includes stimulants such as alcohol, tobacco and drugs, but also watching or reading about any form of violence.
Rajasic food is highly stimulating: spicy, sour, bitter and salty tastes predominate. Stimulants such as coffee, tea and chocolate are rajasic. So too, are other animal products such as chicken, fish and eggs as well as garlic and onions, which are traditionally avoided in the yogic diet. Any form of activity will increase rajas, so yoga workouts which are more stimulating than relaxing fall into this category.
It is not possible to go directly from tamas to satva; some rajas is needed to make the transition. In the same way we may find yoga practices a good preparation for our daily meditation. We also need to bear in mind that in order to participate fully in this world we require a healthy dose of rajas to prompt us into action. Otherwise we will retreat into our yogic ‘cave’ to live a life of contemplation!
Diet and lifestyle advice are used in Ayurveda to regulate these three qualities. The following are some practices I recommend which can easily be incorporated into everyday life to increase satva and therefore mental and emotional well-being: Meditation or spiritual practice, including gentle yoga and pranayama. Walks in nature help to connect us and give us a sense of our place in the universe. Voluntary work (karma yoga) will also increase satva as it takes the focus away from our own problems, enlarging our perspective as we become more aware of the needs of others. Food to increase satva is freshly cooked, light and easy to digest: fruits, grains, mung beans, ghee and milk: this is the yogic diet. We can also increase satva by cultivating emotions such as gratitude, trust and compassion.
We can experience an increase in satva right now when we bring awareness to the present moment. Become aware of your physical posture and any discomfort or tension in your body and notice the rise and fall of your breathing for a few moments. Listen to the sounds of life around you as you sense your body. If you notice any feelings, allow them to be, just accept yourself as you are right now. This simple contact with ourselves is something we can come back to during the day and, if they are repeated, these moments, however brief, will have an impact on our lives.
* “Susruta Samhita” Bhishagratna 2005.
An edited version of this article was published in OM Yoga Magazine under the title: “Ayurveda: Healthy Body, Healthy Mind.” September 2013