Thursday, July 22, 2010
We are constantly asking ourselves the perennial questions in Life. Why are we here? What are we here for? What is the meaning of life? Short of answering these questions there is one thing that becomes abundantly clear as you walk through your experience in life. We have the ability to become better, healthier and happier human beings. We are built with the capacity to develop ourselves psychologically, emotionally, physically and spiritually. Once you discover this truth it almost becomes a responsibility to help and develop yourself. So the questions remains – how do I do it. What are the steps that I need to take to become a better, happier and healthier human being.
Ayurveda is the most ancient and comprehensive healing system in the world. Dating back almost 4 to 5 thousand years ago, Ayurveda blossomed as a natural healing system and still remains a holistic healing system that can bring many benefits to our lives. The beauty of Ayurveda can be found in its understanding of the human being as a mind, body, spirit complex. It would seem obvious that we are not just bodies but are actually a combination of mind, body, and spirit but in our health care system we treat ourselves as if we were only a body. We prescribe pharmaceuticals to treat our bodily diseases and we leave it at that. We recommend exercise and a healthy diet – that is where we typically end the health recommendations. In Ayurveda, health goes far beyond that. To begin with, the human being is treated as an individual who is composed of a unique body constitution. This body constitution is determined by what elements are present within the body or to what degree these elements are present within us. Depending on these factors you begin to balance these components to bring harmony and wellness. It is of no surprise then when we remember the words of the western father of medicine: Hippocrates:
“The natural forces within us and the true healers of disease”
From this perspective Ayurveda looks to heal the individual completely. It utilizes a very thorough understanding of Nutrition which determines the optimal foods to eat, the right times to consume food for proper digestion, and the right state of mind to develop when consuming our foods. Furthermore, Ayurveda also heals by incorporating natural herbs and natural herb combinations. A comprehensive understanding of herbs is presented give the ways of consumption, the combination of herbs, the preparation of herbal formula and the times to consume along with the mental framework as well. You learn to work with natural oils. A full spectrum of natural oils is presented through Ayurveda and how to apply these oils in different ways to Marma points which are very similar to meridian points in acupuncture. Ayurveda also has a recommendation in terms of the mental aspects of the human being. The comprehension of mental patterns becomes important, developing presence and consciousness of the moment or of the present moment becomes an important aspect of life for Ayurveda. The capacity to develop the power of attention which is the basis for meditative practices and other spiritual practices that we see run through many traditions. There are no secrets here. We know that many different cultural and religious traditions use rosaries, malas, repetitive prayers, chanting, meditation or dancing to harness the power of attention or to concentrate the being on one single point. This concentration and emptying of thought patterns allows you to concentrate on the present moment of being. This state helps to develop inner peace, tranquility an objective perspective on life and many other benefits. Ayurveda also incorporates training in meditation for well-being and health. Even further, Ayurveda incorporates Pranayama or the science of breath which teaches you how many different techniques to harness the power of breathing more completely. Current studies show that the average American only uses about 26 percent of their lung capacity. Through Ayurvedic principles you are taught how to breathe better and fuller breaths and how to nourish your organs through breathing among many other benefits. Ayurveda also looks to incorporate the science of Yoga which is a complementary science and even has postures designated for each particular body constitution.
In essence, Ayurveda offers a system of natural healing that is very complete both in terms of its treatments and also in its understanding of the human being. It offers a vision of healing for curing disease, for preventative health and ultimately for spiritual liberation. Ayurveda offers timeless principles for healing and well being.
Tuesday, July 20, 2010
In accordance with Ayurvedic teachings, upkeep of the skin is an important aspect of maintaining health. While the aura represents our body’s first level of protection from disease, and the immune system represents the third level of protection, the skin, along with the digestive system, composes the body’s second level of protection. This is due to the fact that both come in contact with foreign objects and represent the physical barriers separating the internal from the external. Bodily wastes are excreted both through the skin and through the gut. Sweating is one of the body’s ways of excreting Mala. If the amount of waste in the body surpasses the ability of the excretory organs to remove them, then excess waste is directed outward through the skin. Therefore, the skin and the digestive tract are closely related. The state of the skin improves when the state of the digestive tract improves and vice versa. (Svoboda, 95)
It is important that the skin is kept healthy and strong in order to keep the body balanced and disease free. The skin is an organ that absorbs anything applied topically. Therefore, it is very important never to apply anything to the skin that contains chemicals. By taking into account each individual person’s unique body constitution, Ayurveda provides clear recommendations and routines regarding how to best care for the skin and promote health.
II. Anatomy of the Skin
Color, texture, temperature and other qualities of the skin vary depending on an individual’s Prakriti or unique body constitution. Each individual’s Prakriti is made up of varying levels of the three Doshas: Vata, Pitta and Kapha. Those whose constitution is dominated by Vata Dosha (air and ether) tend to have skin that is darker (darker than those of the same racial/ethnic group), or tan easily and rarely burn. Their skin is generally cold, dry and may have a grayish cast to it. They may suffer from eczema, dry skin or psoriasis. Individuals with predominant Pitta Dosha (fire and water) in their constitution may have reddish, pink or coppery colored skin. Their skin is usually warm to the touch and delicate. Pitta predominant skin is often irritable and prone to rashes and acne. Their skin may wrinkle early. They have a high volume of blood beneath the skin and usually blush quite easily. The hair on their skin is usually very fine and pale. Kapha Dosha (water and earth) predominant people have a tendency towards pale, smooth skin than may be oily. Their skin tends to be cooler, thick and have a moderate amount of hair on the skin. The coolness of Kapha allows them to easily withstand moderate amounts of sun exposure. (Svoboda, 34)
The skin is associated with the sense of touch. The sense of touch is associated with the air element. Therefore, the skin is closely related to Vata and is prone to Vata. Pitta is also closely related to the skin. Bhrajaka Pitta is the subdosha that is associated with the skin. Bhrajaka Pitta is situated within the skin (Murthy, Pandey, 32) and presides over the color and luster of the skin, linking it closely to the western concept of melanin. Bhrajaka Pitta controls the absorption of sunlight into the body as well as the sweat glands (however actual sweat itself is a Mala of Meda Dhatu). It serves as a barrier between the external and internal world and also maintains blood flow and body temperature. The skin itself is an Upadhatu of Mamsa Dhatu, therefore, Mamsa Dhatu is also associated with the skin as it is responsible for keeping the skin smooth. Rakta Dhatu, associated with the blood, is also closely related to the skin, as many skin disorders are caused by vitiated blood. Healthy, glowing and lustrous skin is usually a sign of healthy Dhatus in general. (KAA 102)
There are seven layers or levles of skin according to Ayurveda and each layer is associated with a specific Dhatu. For example, the surface layer of the skin is connected to Rasa Dhatu. The second layer is associated with Rakta Dhatu. The third layer, which is also the subcutaneous tissue, is directly connected to Mamsa Dhatu. Each subsequent layer is connected to each Dhatu in the same sequence of Dhatus that digested food travels through (from grossest to subtlest) in the process of subtle digestion. However, all layers of skin (except for the topmost layer) can be grouped together as the Upadhatu of Mamsa Dhatu. (Lad, “Textbook of Ayurveda” 125).
On a subtle level, the skin is also related to the functions of the mind. The skin is associated with the Anahata Chakra or the heart chakra. The literal translation for Anahata is unstruck sound. Ahahata Chakra is the heart center Chakra and it rules the sense organ of touch and the skin, which is the organ of action associated with touch, along with the hands. (KAA 103, 33) Skin is connected to the emotions through Prana as the skin breathes Prana (Lad, “Textbook of Ayurveda” 65). A person’s emotions are displayed through the skin; for example the skin may become flushed when angry, pale when anxious, etc.
III. Ayurvedic Skin Care and Prevention
Ayurveda focuses a great deal on prevention, which is the easiest, most painless and cost effective way to health. Through proper diet, exercise (both physical and mental) and daily and seasonal routines, a person can effectively prevent the vast majority of disorders. Depending upon the individual Prakriti, age and mental state, different types of diet, exercise and routine are recommended. For example, a person with Vata dominant Prakriti should emphasize salty, sour and sweet foods that are warm, moist, stable and smooth. They should focus on consistency when it comes to eating, sleeping and exercise. Due to the fact that Vata is comprised of Ether and Air, a person with high Vata must strive to incorporate foods, thoughts, actions, etc. that are grounding, warm and stabilizing into their life. People with high Kapha need action, variability, lightness and heat, while those with Pitta dominance need cooling, dullness and sweetness. Time of year, stage in life and time of day should also be taken into consideration, as the seasons, phases of the life cycle and hours of the day are dominated by the Doshas as well. Through a comprehensive understanding of Prakriti, a healthy diet and routine may be established for an individual to maintain health and keep the body disease free. This section examines some simple practices to incorporate into the daily routine to prevent disease and promote skin health while taking into consideration individual Prakriti. Section VI introduces some Ayurvedic herbs that are particularly helpful to the skin.
Abhyanga is a daily skin treatment to strengthen, nourish and moisturize not just the skin, but all of the Dhatus. The skin is highly prone to Vata conditions, so performing a daily routine of Abhyanga can help to reduce Vata and is especially helpful under Vata-aggravating conditions. Abhyanga strengthens the body and muscles, smoothes the skin, and improves the sense of touch. Abhyanga also helps the body become more resistant to injuries and strenuous physical activity, and reduces the effects of old age on the body (Verma, 86). Abhyanga involves massaging the skin with warm oil 15-30 minutes before bathing. As the oil soaks through each layer of skin, the corresponding Dhatu is nourished and lubricated by the oil. Oil should be applied in the direction of the hair growth and massaged into the skin towards the heart. Special attention should be paid to massaging the joints, scalp, and soles of the feet. Massaging the head with oil helps to strengthen the hair follicles as well as the bones in the skull. It helps to sharpen the sense organs and memory and promotes sound sleep. Massaging the soles of the feet improves vision and increases stamina. (KAA 105, 16) If time does not allow for a full body oil massage, a mini-massage is better than no massage, concentrating on the head and soles of the feet (Chopra, 209).
Different oils are recommended to help balance different body constitutions. For example, coconut oil is recommended for Pitta Dosha predominant people, because of it’s cooling nature. Sesame oil is helpful for people with high levels of Vata because it is lubricating and warming. The use of mustard seed oil for Abhyanga is encouraged for those with Kapha dominance because of its inherent heating quality. It is important to take into account the season and life stage of a person as well. A Kapha dominant person in the Kapha period of their life (infancy to puberty) and in the Kapha season (late winter to early spring), may not benefit as much from Abhyanga, if they already have too much oil, liquid and heaviness (Kapha is aggravated). A good alternative for this individual would be an herbal powder rub that is drying as opposed to lubricating.
Herbal Skin Rub
Applying an herbal powder to the skin has some of the same effects of Abhyanga such as pacifying Vata Dosha and cleansing the body. In addition, this practice helps to reduce both Kapha Dosha and Meda Dhatu, reduces body odor and prevents blemishes. A dry herbal rub will stimulate circulation. Herbal powder application to the skin improves stamina and the function of Bhrajaka Pitta. Sandalwood powder is an excellent powder to use for herbal skin rubs. (KAA 105, 17)
Cleansing the Skin
Another reason to perform Abhyanga daily is to counteract the drying effects of soap. Soap can alternatively be lathered between the palms and mixed with oil before applying to the body while bathing. As an alternative to soap, milk may be used to cleanse the skin and will not cause dryness. Another option is to use clay, barley flour or chickpea flour to cleanse the skin and soak up any oils or sweat. If Abhyanga has not been performed before bathing, oil can be mixed with chickpea or barley flour along with a pinch of tumeric and enough water to make a paste. This mixture can be applied to the skin. It serves as something like a full body mask if the mixture is left to dry and then washed off with water. Warm or cool water may be used to bathe, but not water that is overly hot or cold. It is also important to never use hot water on the head or face. The body can withstand a higher temperature of water than the head. Hot water applied to the head weakens the sense organs and loosens the hair follicles (Svoboda, 102). Also, the heating quality is intrinsic to the Sahasrara Chakra (the crown chakra), so hot water is not necessary. The best time to bathe is in the morning because morning is the best time to remove all of the Dhatu Malas in the body that have formed over night. (KAA 105, 17)
According to Dr. Vasant Lad, “The face is the mirror of the mind. The lines and wrinkles in your face are revealing. If disorder and disease are present, they will be indicated on the face” (“Ayurveda: The Science of Self Healing,” 62). The health of the body’s organs is reflected in the face, lips, tongue and eyes (Lad, “Ayurveda: The Science of Self Healing,” 64). Also, the face is home to the Panchagyanendriyas or 5 sense organs (ears, skin, eyes, tongue and nose). Therefore, proper care of the face is and important aspect of maintaining ones health. This paper will focus on skin care, and proper care of the facial skin as well. A healthy complexion is the sign of balanced Dhatus and Doshas. Listed below are some ayurvedic facial recipes.
? Milk-skin (the creamy layer of fresh milk that forms after it has been boiled) may be mixed with almond powder for an effective facial mask (Verma, 86). This is a good way to cleanse the face and avoid the drying properties of soap.
? In order to improve the complexion, an Ayurvedic facial pack may be applied. Mix equal proportions of Amalaki, Manjishtha and Sandalwood. Add this mixture to milk for dry skin or to water for oily skin. Make a paste out of the mixture and apply to the face. Leave the paste on for 10-15 minutes before washing off (Anjali, Herbology Lecture).
IV. Exposure to the Sun and Skin Care
The sun effects each person’s skin differently depending on the body constitution as well as the complexion. The complexion is based on genetics from a particular racial or ethnic group, as well as the three Doshas. Individuals who are Vata predominant can best withstand sun exposure. They tend to tan easily and rarely burn. In fact, those with high Vata need more heat to help balance their bodies, and they usually enjoy sunshine a great deal. Those with Pitta dominant constitutions naturally are hot, and therefore, they are not able to withstand much sun exposure. They tend to burn easily, may suffer from sun allergy, and may acquire freckles or moles from sun exposure. Kapha predominant people will tan evenly from being exposed to moderate amounts of sun. They are naturally cold but do not require as much sun as those with Vata predominant Prakriti. (Svoboda, 34)
Complexion also plays a major role in an individual’s need and ability for sun exposure. It takes a person with darker skin longer to absorb Vitamin D from the sun compared to a person with fair skin. People with very fair skin should avoid extensive sun exposure, particularly during times of day when the sun is strong (typically around noon depending upon proximity to the Earth’s Equator). It is best for those who burn easily to cover up with loose white cotton clothing and a hat or umbrella when exposed to bright sun. Shea Butter and Cocoa Butter also provide some natural protection from the sun. Sunscreen is not recommended because of the harmful chemicals it contains. These chemicals are absorbed through the skin and enter the bloodstream, affecting the Dhatus. (Dr. Suhas Kshirsagar, Ayurvedic Foundations Lecture)
V. Treatment of Common Skin Conditions
Many skin problems are most commonly associated with aggravated Pitta. Herpes, jaundice and inflammation are a few conditions listed as part of the forty innumerable disorders of Pitta by Caraka (Verma, 47). This section of this paper provides some ayurvedic herbal remedies to common skin problems.
Acne is oftentimes a sign of aggravated Pitta, specifically Bhrajaka Pitta. However, aggravated Kapha may cause acne as well. During puberty, acne is common due to the fact that the individual is changing from the Kapha stage of life (birth to puberty) to the Pitta stage of life (puberty to menopause). Young people who have Pitta predominant Prakriti may suffer from acne more than those who have higher levels of Kapha or Vata. Depending on the diagnosis, a Dosha balancing diet along with Panchakarma may likely be all that is necessary to treat acne. A half-cup of aloe vera juice can be consumed twice a day to help clear up acne. Although aloe vera is cooling, it does not aggravate Kapha due to the fact that it acts as an expectorant. Aloe vera is balancing to all the Doshas. (Lad, “Ayurveda: The Science of Self-Healing” 130) It is important to find out if the acne is related to menstruation. If not, blood-purifying herbs that are bitter and astringent may be used both internally and externally (Dr. Manisha Krishangar, Conference Call). Also, anti-inflammatory herbs are helpful. Following is an herbal topical treatment for acne.
? Combine equal parts turmeric and sandalwood powder. Add water to make a paste and apply to the effected areas externally. (Lad, “Ayurveda: The Science of Self-Healing,” 157)
Eczema and Dry Skin
Dry skin and eczema are typically problems related to Vata aggravation. Performing Abhyanga daily will greatly reduce these issues. Also, eating a Vata pacifying diet with plenty of natural oils such as ghee will greatly reduce problems of this nature. Taking a bath with licorice tea water is helpful with soothing eczema.
? Apply fresh aloe vera gel directly to the burn, a pinch of turmeric may be added. (Lad, “Ayurveda: The Science of Self-Healing,” 158)
? Apply Manjishtha ghee directly to the burn (KAA 106, 29).
Insect Bites and Stings
? Drink cilantro juice and apply sandalwood paste directly to the bite or sting (Lad, “Ayurveda: The Science of Self-Healing,” 160)
? Drink a coriander tea made of one teaspoon of coriander seeds to 1 cup of water. It is also helpful to apply the pulp of cilantro leaves directly to the rash. (Lad, “Ayurveda: The Science of Self-Healing,” 161)
? Make a paste of Nagarmotha powder and apply to rash (KAA 106, 29).
? Apply cooked onions made into a paste directly to the boil. This will bring the boil to a head. Alternatively, one can combine equal parts of ginger powder and turmeric and apply directly to the affected area. ((Lad, “Ayurveda: The Science of Self-Healing,” 157)
VI. Ayurvedic Herbs Promoting Skin Health (KAA 106, 22-30)
Amla: Amla is especially pacifying to Pitta by has the ability to pacify all Doshas. It is helpful for many skin problems including blemishes and acne. Amla improves the complexion overall.
Ginger: Ginger is helpful for treating skin diseases caused by an aggravation of Kapha. Ginger also purifies the blood, which is a major component of clearing up many types of skin disorders. Because of its heating quality, it should not be used or only used very carefully for skin issues related to Pitta.
Guggulu: Guggulu is an anti-inflammatory, antibacterial and disinfectant among other qualities. These qualities make it helpful for skin conditions caused by Vata or Kapha aggravation. Guggulu increases Pitta, so it should not be used for skin conditions caused by Pitta exacerbation.
Haritaki: This herb helps with elimination and is mainly astringent. It helps with alleviating swelling and prevents the accumulation of pus in the skin.
Manjishtha: Manjishtha effectively decreases Vata, Pitta and Kapha. It is one of the best blood purifiers, and is especially useful for treating acne, blemishes, blisters and skin infections.
Neem: Neem is a blood purifier and an anti-bacterial. To clear up skin infections, neem leaves may be added to bathwater. Neem can help treat itching, dermatitis, eczema and scabies.
Prevention through proper diet, daily routine, along with physical and mental exercise such as yoga and meditation is the path to health. Taking good care of the skin is an important preventative measure, contributing to increased health for the entire body. It represents just one aspect of preventative care that has immeasurable positive effects on the body. Healthy, glowing skin and a good complexion also has a healthy effect on the mind, as it increases confidence and self-assurance. As one of the body’s major natural layers of defense from the external world, taking proper care of the skin essential to health.
Saturday, July 17, 2010
"The body is a mandala. If you look into it you see a source of endless revelation. Without embodiment there is no foundation for enlightenment"
-Dr. Tsampa Ngawang
Health is a state of complete harmony of the body, mind and spirit. When one is free from physical disabilities and mental distractions, the gates of the soul open -B.K.S. Iyengar
Mountain pose teaches us, literally, how to stand on our own two feet.... teaching us to root ourselves into the earth.... Our bodies become a connection between heaven and earth. ~Carol Krucoff
Yoga is a spiritual practice. Of course, you can practice yoga strictly for its physical benefits, but that's a bit like traveling to a foreign country known for its native cuisine and eating at the nearest McDonald's the whole time. A yoga practice fully nourishes by aligning our bodies, minds, and spirits, and to foc...us solely on the physical practice is to miss a profound opportunity." R.Pacheco
We do not see things as they are. You see them as you are. When you look, you see reflections of your being. When you listen, you hear echoes of yourself. If you don't like something about what you see and hear, no point in smashing the mirror, change who you are becoming. -Anonymous
If we are to go forward, we must go back and rediscover those precious values - that all reality hinges on moral foundations and that all reality has spiritual control.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
To know even one life has breathed easier because you have lived. This is to have succeeded.
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Everytime you smile at someone, it is an action of love, a gift to that person, a beautiful thing.
-Mother Teresa :)
Sometimes one creates a dynamic impression by saying something, and sometimes one creates as significant an impression by remaining silent.
He who is not everyday conquering some fear has not learned the secret of life. -Ralph Waldo Emerson
All my life I have tried to pluck a thistle and plant a flower wherever the flower would grow in thought and mind.
To conquer fear is the beginning of wisdom.
It isn't until you come to a spiritual understanding of who you are - not necessarily a religious feeling, but deep down, the spirit within - that you can begin to take control.
Within each of us lies the power of our consent to health and to sickness,
to riches and to poverty, to freedom and to slavery.
It is we who control these things and not another.
The first step in the acquisition of wisdom is silence, the second listening, the third memory, the fourth practice, the fifth teaching others.
-Solomon Ibn Gabriol
The point is not to pay back kindness but to pass it on. – Julia Alvarez
We can live without religion and meditation, but we cannot survive without human affection -Dalai Lama
Peace begins with a smile.
“The goal of
mankind is knowledge ... Now this knowledge is inherent in man. No
knowledge comes from outside: it is all inside. What we say a man
'knows', should, in strict psychological language, be what he
'discovers' or 'unveils'; what man 'learns' is really what he discovers
...by taking the cover off his own soul, which is a mine of infinite
knowledge.” Swami Vivekananda
Friday, July 16, 2010
Wednesday, July 14, 2010
I’ve been told that my first breath came with a scream as the doctor held me by the ankles and slapped my bottom. From that moment forward breathing seemed such an easy and ordinary thing I have hardly even thought about it.
The most simple of truths seem to always be the most profound and life altering. Breathing, though a simple act we will continue doing whether we think about it or not and will continue doing even when we try not to do it, when we pay attention to it and elevate it to a sincere practice and even an art form, brings us the richness, purity, depth and breadth of life’s experiences. We can say that how we breathe actually defines the quality of our lives. All cultures have recognized this in different ways. The opera singer, the aboriginal didgeridoo, the philharmonic orchestra, pearl divers, and the list can go on…
Through the breath the laboring mother feels the rhythm that allows for the infant to ease into the world. Through the breath the hunter steadies his aim to meet his mark. Through the breath the flutist expresses his soul to the enjoyment of others with his music. Through the breath we can bring about balance within our body and mind which allows for optimal health. Through the diligent practice of working with the breath the Yogi realizes enlightenment.
How we breathe determines our quality of life, and according to some, how long we live as well . The act of breathing could be likened to the churning of the Celestial Ocean of Consciousness. Purusha and Prakriti churn together allowing us to maintain a physical form to experience life as we know it. The evidence for this is that when we stop breathing Purusha and Prakriti again separate and we perish. Our first breath and our last breath determine our lifespan and one can find the dates documented for posterity on our tombstone.
So with the humble experience of breathing for over forty eight years I will hopefully be able to bring you a little insight as to how we can balance our lives and maybe even bring us to a greater realization of our place in the scheme of things or at least learn to breathe a little bit easier.
What Is Prana?
Prana can be considered the life force, life energy, or chi. This is the stuff that energizes our cells and receptors beyond just oxygen and a few other gaseous elements. Prana is difficult to describe since the English language is not designed to consider, let alone articulate such concepts. Maybe “God activated air” or “electrified ions of universal love”, or “no prana, no life”?
Imagine standing on a busy city street corner with buses going by and high rises all around, flashing lights, signs, many loud noises and afflicting smells all of this dominating your senses, now take in a big deep full breath… …do you even want too? Just the thought of it makes you want to keep your chest drawn in tight or have a fit of coughing! Now imagine sitting on a big rock covered in moss in the forest next to a gently babbling brook, you can feel the green speckled sun shining on your face, your eyes are closed as a warm breeze caresses your cheeks, now take in a big deep full breath… …feel the difference? This is Prana.
It seems a bit odd to attempt to recount the history of the breath but here goes. It is all about rhythm. Back to the churning of the Celestial Ocean of Consciousness, back and forth, the action of churning is the rhythm of respiration; the simplest single celled forms of life are recognized because of this simple rhythmical act. In with the new and out with the old. And most critically in with the Prana and out with the mala .
We can’t rightly speak of “history” when the breath brings us unequivocally to the moment as every exhalation and inhalation in the Now is a death and rebirth, when the space between each breath brings us squarely facing the place/space of No Time which has not ever changed, which knows nothing, and certainly knows nothing of history. The macro holographic experience of time as a chronological sequence simply does not exist within the context of conscious breathing (pranayama). So we can speak of the “history” of breath within the development of breathing styles or formulated thoughts about it throughout time.
Patanjali was a great sage who lived around 200 BCE and is attributed to having compiled the Yoga Sutras which is a foundational text of what we now speak of as RajaYoga. Though brief, the Yoga Sutras are an enormously influential work on yoga philosophy and practice. Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras contain four chapters or books (Sanskrit pada), with 196 sutras (threads or aphorisms). Pranayama is discussed within the second chapter as one of the eight limbs of ashtanga yoga. Following is a fairly literal translation of the last 10 sutras of the second book which describes the importance of pranayama:
46. Right poise must be firm and without strain.
47. Right poise is to be gained by steady and temperate effort, and by setting the heart upon the everlasting.
48 The fruit of right poise is the strength to resist the shocks of infatuation or sorrow.
49. When this is gained, there follows the right guidance of the life-currents, the control of the incoming and outgoing breath.
50. The life-current is either outward, or inward, or balanced; it is regulated according to place, time, number; it is prolonged and subtle.
51. The fourth degree transcends external and internal objects.
52. Thereby is worn away the veil which covers up the light.
53. Thence comes the mind's power to hold itself in the light.
54. The right Withdrawal is the disengaging of the powers from entanglement in outer things, as the psychic nature has been withdrawn and stilled.
55. Thereupon follows perfect mastery over the powers .
I believe that all of the ancient lessons were in the form of sutras for the convenience of memorization by the student. As these began to be preserved through the written word, there have become inumerable interpretations, treatices, and expounding upons. It may be possible that Patanjali has received the credit souly due to his insight in writing down what had been passed from generation to generation for eons. So we can’t say how far back in time this science has been practiced.
Pranayama is life force energy control (prana=life energy, yama=control). Breathing is the medium used to achieve this goal. The mind and life force are correlated to the breath. Through regulating the breathing and practicing awareness on it, one learns to control prana. There are many different kinds of pranayama, each with specific goals. All pranayama ultimately works towards the awakening of the kundalini shakti at the muladhara chakra . The awakening of kundalini energy and its ascent to the crown chakra is the final goal of Raja Yoga. This is a path to liberation of atachment of the material world also refered to as moksha.
Pranayama should not be considered simply as breathing exercises. Pranayama influences the flow of energy and nervous system balance in the body and mind. Pranayama provides methods where the life force is activated and regulated to attain a higher state of energy and awareness.
The mystic practices pranayama in the context of an ascetic lifestyle, which frees nervous energy for intuitive purposes.
Sankara Saranam, Ontology and Pranayama
Many different methods or exercises are described differently by many different teachers. Before we describe a few of the breaths most practiced today lets look at the fundamental physiology and function of the pranic and respiratory systems.
Chakras and Nadis
This is an image depicting the seven primary Chakras and the three most essential Nadis.
Chakras are centers of spiritual energy. They are located in the astral body, but they also have corresponding centers in the physical body. They can be seen by clairvoyant eyes. They loosely correspond to certain plexuses in the physical body. These important Chakras (from bottom to top) are: Muladhara at the anus; Svadhishthana at the genital organ; Manipura at navel; Anahata at the heart; Visudha at the throat and Ajna at the space between the two eyebrows. The seventh Chakra is known as Sahasrara, located at the top of the head.
Nadis are astral tubes made up of astral matter that carry the Pranic currents. They also can only be seen by the astral eyes. They are not the nerves. They are 72,000 in number. Ida, Pingala and Sushumna are the most vital ones. Sushumna is the most important of all.
Ida is the left channel, is white, feminine, cold and represents the moon. It originates in Muladhara and ends up at the left nostril. Pingala is the right channel is red, masculie, hot and represents the sun. It also originates in Muladhara but it runs up to the right nostril. Sushumna is the central channel and runs up the body from just below Muladhara chakra to Sahasrara chakra at the crown of the head. These channels carry prana to the entire body, activating the life force of our entire living system.
The respiratory system allows for our breath and the assimilation of the air element. It draws oxygen and other gases in as well as prana with the diaphragm into the lungs.
The diaphragm is the strong wall of muscle that separates the chest cavity from the abdominal cavity. By moving downward, it creates suction to draw in air and expand the lungs. It has been found that in general most people do not use this muscle properly and thus are starving themselves of air and prana. Pranayama focuses on learning to fully utilize this muscle and through stillness of the mind learn to control the breath.
Preparing the spine through yoga for pranayama is very important and allows for air and prana to flow freely to all aspects of our being. It also assists in our ability to comfortably sit still without distractions. The primary purpose of the postures (asanas) is to lengthen, flex, extend, bend, twist and compress the spine. This increases the flexibility of the spine and the capacity for us to receive air and prana.
All pranayama begins with breathing properly by fully engaging the diaphragm. When the diaphragm muscle contracts, it pulls the bottom of the lungs downward, causing them to fill, while the ribs flare outward to the sides. The chest and abdominal muscles are not used in diaphragmatic breathing. Conscious diaphragmatic breathing is extremely relaxing to the autonomic nervous system. The chest should not be moving perceptibly or the belly. The expansion should be more lateral in the ribcage. The breath should not be noisy or unsteady. This practice should be done sitting cross legged or upright in a firm chair, with spine erect, back, neck and head aligned, and the shoulders relaxed. Most usually the hands will be palms up resting on the knees or in the lap.
The length of the inhalation, the pause and the exhalation is now to be considered. This will strengthen the diaphragm and steady the breath which in turn steadies the mind. The time ratio of inhalation, retention and then exhalation is that of 1: 4: 2. So if the duration of the inbreath is 2 seconds the retention of that breath should be 8 seconds and then the outbreath will be of 4 seconds. Then one expands the time span as they gain strength and mastery. The precautions for the practice is to stay within your own level of comfort. Once this breath is mastered then one can work with the other forms of breathing.
Like I said before there are many styles or forms of breathing exercises. Even ones with the same names are practiced differently by different teachers. Following are a few of the most widely practiced breaths.
Anuloma Viloma or Nadi Shodhanam
Ones natural breathing cycle constitutes the air flowing freely through the left nostril for about an hour and then it flows freely through the right nostril for about an hour. This cycling occurs without effort in a balanced individual. The ida and pingala are activated equally. The nadi shodhanam breathing sequence reinforces this natural cycling and brings balance.
To begin with sit comfortably as described before and with the right hand up by your face place the thumb against the right nostril to gently hold it closed. The forefinger can rest on the forehead between the brows and the other fingers prepared to close the left nostril. We then breathe in a deep, slow and steady breath through the left nostril, open the right nostril and close the left and then exhale through the right nostril. Now we breath in through the right nostril, open the left, close the right and exhale again but this time through the left nostril. This is considered one cycle. Dr. Lad recommends ten cycles with a rest and then ten more cycles.
Bhastrika or Bellows Breath
This breath is described as like a bellows you inhale and exhale with equal volume and force. This is a very active breath and can produce a lot of heat. When practicing this breath you should begin with just twenty breaths, rest and then 20 more. Work up to one hundred at a time but rest before continuing if there is any dizziness. According to Sri Swami Sivananda this breath should end with the deepest possible inhalation, suspended breath for as long as is comfortable and then a complete, slow and steady exhalation. In this manner one should only do ten to twenty breaths for each round or cycle and do as many as three cycles in one sitting. Again never allow yourself to get dizzy. This is a powerful breath and should not be overdone. He goes on to say that the practitioner will never suffer from any disease and will always be healthy .
Bhramari or Bumble Bee Breath
This breath is done sitting upright with the eyes closed, the thumbs up against the ears gently pressing them closed, the rest of the fingers spread across the face above the eyes, over the cheekbones, with the pinkies resting on the jaw bones. Take in a long deep breath and exhale slowly while humming. When done correctly you will only be able to hear the humming in your head and feel a refreshing buzzing all around your sinuses and brain. My experience of this breath is that it clears the sinuses and the mind.
There are a multitude of breathing exercises within the practice of pranayama that allow for many amazing results. Reports of being able to live on only prana for an indefinite period of time have been given. Once the Kundalini is awakened and rises up sushumi then all sorts of seemingly supernatural feats can be accomplished.
Levitation and many psychic powers can be attained. These all become mere parlor tricks compared to the peace and liberation experienced by the yogi who masters pranayama. The gift of the adept is their presence, the level at which they vibrate raises the consciousness of everyone else in which they come into contact.
Anyone wanting to practice pranayama should do so with pure intentions. This practice amplifies the primary law of Ayurveda, in which like increases like. Practicing each step and not proceeding until the first step is mastered and working directly with a teacher is the safest. Always listening to and following your body, mind and spirits greatest good.
Monday, July 12, 2010
What do we mean when we say “You should be more open minded”? Do we in fact mean that we should not instantly judge something from our own perspective but instead take some time to evaluate, test, and contemplate what it is that we are judging? I believe that this is exactly what we mean. We should not instantly reject something because it seems religious or mystical. We should approach all cultural systems with as much objectivity as we possibly can. We should also not avoid or discredit things that we simply do not understand. Having an open mind is a virtue and it can allow us to learn from many different cultures that have spent centuries defining themselves and their healing systems. They have learned throughout history of what will work and what does not work. It is not enough to discredit these healing systems because they are old or ancient. They have withstood the test of time and they have also proved to be invaluable to some individuals in terms of healing and nurturing. Our best approach is to learn about these holistic systems and find out for ourselves if they are sciences that actually work.
The Holistic Healing system of Ayurveda is historically the most ancient and the most comprehensive. Dating back at least four thousand years, this healing system was developed by spiritually developed individuals. The Vedic civilization is also responsible for the system of Yoga with all of its branches of wisdom. Both Yoga and Ayurveda are complete holistic systems that bring nature to the forefront when curing and preventing disease. Ayurveda looks at the uniqueness of each individual and treats the person according to many factors including the mental, physical and spiritual components of each. The person is treated according to his or her body constitution or to the degree that the elements are present in that individual patient. Ayurveda holds that everything in the Universe is composed of combinations or degrees of each major element (Air, Water, Fire, Ether). These elements translate into their combinations which are interpreted as the three biological humors or Doshas (Kapha, Pitta, Vatta). Further, each person is treated according to the presence and degrees of these elements in their body relative to balancing these humors in the body. Moreover, the individual is looked at in his or her unique lifestyle and psychological situation. Important aspects of the life of the individual like Nutrition, Digestion, Herbs, Natural Oils, Meditation, Yoga and Massage become paramount to the treatment of patients in Ayurveda. These aspects of life are treated directly with the patient. The patient is asked to evaluate their health from all aspects ranging from the mental and the spiritual to the physical. These important aspects in an individuals’ health are very important and should be taken into account when trying to heal a person. A doctor cannot merely suggest some herbs and send the patient to heal or get better. Instead, an Ayurvedic Doctor is trained to look at the complete multi-faceted life of the individual and make recommendations on their health in terms of Nutrition, Exercises, Herbal recommendations, Yoga Therapy, and lifestyle changes. For each category Ayurveda has detailed recommendations according to each persons’ body constitution and necessity. The full wisdom of Ayurveda includes a different understanding of Anatomy and Physiology along with their corresponding methods of treatment.
We are all prone to discredit things that we do not understand. It is quite simply much easier to judge something before fully understanding it. For most of us, this is our usual reaction. We use all of the conditioning which we have in our education and choose it as the only perspective on life. After all – it is ours and we identify completely with our opinions for the most part. To be wise, to have an open mind requires us to move beyond these opinions and to at least keep in mind that others have experienced life in a different way than we have and their experience may contribute to our overall understanding of the same. That is to say, not only is it important to try to understand other cultures to have a more universal understanding of ourselves but it is also important to at least give some of these systems a fair shake. We can look at the science of Yoga and how it has literally transformed lives and healed individuals in the United States. The art of Yoga has taken some time to be understood and accepted in the world. Today, we see more than ten million practicing Yogis worldwide who have been able to incorporate some of these holistic practices. You may begin by trying Yoga or by learning the art of Ayurveda. Beginning in this path or any other one with sincerity and resolve will make your path much easier to walk. What do you have to lose? These systems work within nature and nothing they prescribe is processed or artificial. We now know how much damage we have done to ourselves with these synthetic and conventional methods of healing. So keep an open mind and you will see how life can smile at you.
Tuesday, July 6, 2010
The term Ayurveda is usually interpreted as the science of life. Indeed it is. But it may be better understood as the science for life. You know that the term Ayurveda is a compound word consisting of two Sanskrit words Ayus and Veda, the former means life and the latter means knowledge or science. The word Veda is from the root vid which has four meanings. The first meaning is ‘knowledge’. Another meaning is ‘to get’. Yet another meaning is ‘to be’. The fourth meaning is ‘to find’ or ‘discover’. Accordingly there are four meanings for the term Ayurveda. They are
1. The knowledge or science of life.
2. That which provides life – or from which you can get life.
3. That which has life – or where life is present.
4. That which discovers life.
All these meanings are relevant in the case of Ayurveda. It is the knowledge of life, it provides us life, it contains life or information about life and it discloses the intricacies of life. Of them the first meaning is the most appropriate.
When we say that Ayurveda is the science of life, it is equivalent to biology because biology also means the same. (Bios = life; logos = knowledge). But anyone with a primary knowledge of Ayurveda will vouch that Ayurveda is not biology. Biology is a descriptive science whereas Ayurveda is both descriptive and normative. It dictates the norms of proper life. It teaches us how to live. All medical sciences teach us about life and how to live. Essentially any medical science is part of biology. Medical science is an applied science whereas biology is a pure science.
Under the popular concept of today we cannot equate Ayurveda to Medicine though Ayurveda also is a system of medicine. There are many other medical systems too. Hence for all practical purposes the term Ayurveda has a limited meaning today and it is only one among the various medical systems.
The purpose of Ayurveda is to preserve and augment the health of the healthy and attempt the cure of the diseases of the sick. Thus Ayurveda is a science which fights against diseases. Why should we fight against diseases? We have to do so to preserve life because diseases tamper life and deprive life off its quality. They even destroy life. There is a constant war going on between life and disease and in this war Ayurveda is at the side of life and is warring for life. Hence Ayurveda is the science for life.
If Ayurveda is for life, for what type of life it is? Oh! All lives are not the same. There is happy life and unhappy life. There is benevolent life and malevolent life. Which type of life should we aspire to? Surely we should aspire to have a happy and benevolent life. Such a life will satisfy us and others.
Ayurveda is not only for the doctors. It is advised for those who desire to live. It has nothing to do with those who want to die. Hence euthanasia is not in the agenda of Ayurveda. Till the last breath of the patient, the attempt of Ayurveda will be to save life and in this task Ayurveda will never leave any stone unturned. Surely, Ayurveda is a science for life.
Ayurveda fights for life with all of the natural healing components. In Ayurveda, we see healing in terms of mind, body, and spirit. The Science uses every possible method in terms of healing the body as in the practice of Yoga, recommendations on exercise, the use of natural herbs, and the applications of natural oils. In terms of healing the mind Ayurveda recommends meditation, chanting, and its own philosophy as to what comprises the mind and how we can better be in control of our mental processes. In terms of the spirit Ayurveda has lengthy recommendations on how to heal your spirit. Essentially, the recommendations come from four main paths to spiritual development as seen in yoga: action (karma), intellect (Jnana), devotion (Bhakti), and (Raja) the science of physical and mental control. One must always be aware of doing the right action. Selfless acts of compassion are the perfect example for the exercise of action in spiritual development. Doing a good act and not expecting anything in return is the key for this type of spiritual development. Furthermore, the spirit is also expected to be developed in the intellectual contemplation of ourselves. This exercise allows you to contemplate within your reasoning all of the principles of the philosophy of the Vedas and find your place within the Universe and existence. Even further there is devotion or the emotional commitment of worship. This science allows for emotional devotion to the Unifying principle of existence through practices like prayer and chant. Finally there is the full science of physical and mental control. This last part is a complete training on how to control your mental and physical processes. Yoga becomes paramount for this physical development and discipline becomes a key in the exercise of mental control.
In summary, we can see that Ayurveda and Yoga have so much to offer us in terms of healing. One can appreciate how much healing Yoga is bringing to the West and how much Ayurveda can also bring in the future. Once you try Ayurveda you will see how your life will benefit with these natural healing principles. There is no good reason not to try these principles and apply them to your life experience. What do you have to lose? Absolutely nothing. The use of natural herbs and oils in Ayurveda does not cause side effects or any negative effects in your body. So what are you waiting for? Begin to apply the principles of Ayurveda into your life today. You will thank yourself for this in the short term and in the long term.
Thursday, July 1, 2010
Wisdom from the Ancients
Vyaadhiksamatvam vyaadhibalavirodhitvam vyadyutpadapratibandhakatvamiti yavat. (Charaka samhita, Sutrasthana, 28:7)
Immunity is the ability of the body to overcome and resist disease.
-Charaka: 600 BCE
The ancient science of life, “Ayurveda”, addresses the art of healing in a holistic manner. The concept of immunity in Ayurveda is explained as Vyaadhikshamatva, literally translated ‘forgiveness to disease” which arises out of robust health.
Ayurveda firmly believes that for man to lead a healthy life, his lifestyle has to be in perfect harmony with Nature. The equilibrium or homeostasis of the supporting elements of human body and mind is Dhaatusaamya which is immunity. Diseases occur due to disruption of this delicate balance of the individuals Doshas (bio-energies) and Dhatus (tissues).
Western medicine uses pro-host therapy to bolster immunity through administration of vaccines such as Polio vaccine and BCG vaccine etc. There are several limitations to this type of medication which also includes side effects.
Nutrition and digestive capacity play a major role in building immunity. Improper diet and unhealthy lifestyle leads to improperly metabolized foods that accumulate in the body due to poor agni (digestive fire) and result in the accumulation of ama (toxins). This detrimental ama becomes the foundation for infection by krimi (pathogens). These toxins provide a favorable condition for pathogens to infect and proliferate. Hence, a simple remedial measure will be to eliminate such conditions that provide a congenial environment for infestation.
Ayurveda analogies this reasoning to that of a seed dependent on soil. Unless a seed (infection) is sown in a fertile soil (body containing toxin), it will never propagate, just like the fire fails to ignite in the absence of air.
Another essential quality for a healthy life is Ojas - the optimal functioning of all tissues in the body. Thus, by definition, Ojas is health and the lack of it, illness.
Several factors including improper food, accumulation of ama, stress, life-style cause the depletion of Ojas. This is manifested by the imbalance of Doshas and thereby proclivity to disease. Immunity is the process of restoring this equilibrium. Ayurveda, however, attributes the source of immunity to a person’s Sahaja (genetic inheritance), Kalaja (seasons, time and age) and Yuktikruta (acquired immunity).
Rectifying the Yuktikruta where immunity that can be acquired or strengthened follows the precepts of Vyayama, Satmya and Rasayana.
1. Vyayama – Exercise - It enhances digestion, tissue metabolism and immunity.
2. Satmya - Adaptability - The concept of Satmya involves the drug, diet or conduct which, owing to habitual use develops adaptability and loses its initial stress value. Ref: Encyclopedia of Indian Medicine, Clinical Examination and Diagnostic Methods, Vol. 3, Prf. S K Ramachandra Rao,Popular Prakashan Pvt. Ltd., Mumbai, 2005
3. Rasayanas – Elixir - Brahmi, Guduchi, Amlaki, Ashwagandha, among others, are used in Ayurveda as tonic ingredients to promote good health. These ingredients are either given singly or in their combination and are safe for long use. Besides strengthening immunity, these preparation help in combating many common aliments from seasonal flu to chronic diseases such as diabetics, arthritis and others!
The ancient texts of Ayurveda, Charaka Samhita, Sarngadhara Samhita and such list several recipes to improve immunity. The rationale behind these recipes revolve around the elimination of ama, improvement of digestion to curtail further production of ama, and ingredients that enhance the resistive strength of the body or balavarthanam.
While herbs such as Triphala and Trikatu contribute to the elimination of ama and enhance digestive capabilities, Guduchi Tinospora cordifolia and Aswagandha - Withania somnifera improve immune resistance to infections
The texts prescribe several recipes such as Amrutottaram Kashayam, Indukantham Kashayam, Sudarshana choornam, Pipalyasavam, Dasamoolarishtam, Dasamooladhi kwath etc, that may be administered as a preventive and curative treatments to infections including viral outbreaks.
It is only fair to trust the wisdom of our ancients who have carefully compiled routines and practices that preserve health. It is this wisdom that provides remedies to restore health in times of infectious outbreaks such as the Swine Flu pandemic that threatens us today.