Mind-Body Medicine: The Essence of Ayurveda
Virender Sodhi, ND, MD (Ayurved)
Ayurveda – The Ancient Medicine
Mind-body medicine is a relatively modern medical approach in the United States and Western medicine traditions. Starting in the Renaissance and Enlightenment ages, philosophers (who were often doctors and/or preachers of religion) separated the mind from the body, and our medicine has been largely built around that construct. Traditional Asian medicines have not followed the same path toward separation; the connection of mind to body is still a central belief in both religion and healthcare. Ayurveda, the ancient medicine of India, is rooted in the connection of mind and body and has evolved into a complex healthcare system which continues to retain this belief at its core.
At the center of mind-body medicine is connection. At birth, we are a body, made of sensing organs, with genetic predispositions and patterns already forming. This body consumes not only food, but also experiences of emotion and the environment. The body takes in experience and feeds it to the brain, which stores the knowledge and further ingrains or changes the patterns of behavior and belief for later use – for example, a hot stove is painful, ice is cold, a smile feels good. The information guides us through life, helping us to adjust to circumstances as they arise. Life happens and we make decisions with guidance derived from these experiences.
Understanding & Identifying Doshas
In practice, the mind-body medicine of Ayurveda begins with a basic assessment and placement of a patient into 1 of 3 body “types,” a practice that has been utilized for some 5000+ years. These body types, or doshas, are the main rulers of our bodies.
There are 3 doshas: Vata, Pitta, and Kapha; they can be used as a system of classification when examining microbiology or meta-social constructs. For example, the cell membrane is oily and therefore has Kapha qualities, or – at the person-level – someone who tends to have sluggish energy, tends to gain weight, and has an active mind, is Kapha-dominant. Every system in the body can be described as having Vata, Pitta, or Kapha qualities.
- Vata is described as being composed of Ether and Air. People with this dominant trait tend to be creative and quick learners. When out of balance, Vata types are likely to have anxiety, insomnia, dry skin, constipation, and mental fogginess.
- Pitta is described as being a combination of Fire and Water. In balance, Pitta types are friendly, disciplined, and good leaders and speakers. Out of balance, Pitta looks like compulsivity, irritability, indigestion, and inflammation.
- Kapha is described as a blend of Water and Earth. These people are kind, nourishing, and stable, but when the system is out of balance, Kapha lacks motivation, is sluggish, gains weight, and may be congested.
All people have a combination of the 3 doshas which is unique to them, from birth (prakriti). Environment and lifestyle choices further shape the expression of these qualities, nudging a person toward balance or disease (vikruti).
These concepts are supported by modern scientific studies. Genomics looks at predispositions acquired at conception and is beginning to prove these concepts of the dosha and prakriti through genotypic influences on metabolic pathways and chronic diseases.1 For example, while one’s genetics might predispose a person to being more Pitta – or more intense and fiery – so too do their actions. Goal-driven, feisty, and passionate, the Pitta personality is more predisposed than others to being stressed-out, having high blood pressure, and acid regurgitation. However, if that person fuels the stress with a high-pressure job, for example, she can become more pitta in thinking, and more heat builds in the body. Pitta-predominant types have a high basal metabolic rate (BMR) and energy consumption that can lead to tissue destruction and premature aging, and foster an average life span, whereas Kapha-predominant prakriti types have a tendency toward a delayed manifestation of aging and a longer life span.”2
This cyclical system of thinking and being is mind-body medicine playing itself out. As Ayurvedic practitioners, we help patients see how they can either help or harm their bodies with their actions, personalizing treatment all the while, rather than following a “one-size-fits-all” treatment plan. We tell the Pitta-dominant patient that he must eat cooling foods and avoid chili peppers. We tell the parents of Kapha-dominant children to encourage sports participation so that they are raised with good exercise habits and can avoid Kapha-prone diseases such as type 2 diabetes mellitus.3
A Tradition of Personalized Balance
In the Charaka Samhita, written in approximately 400 BCE, it is stated in verses 1-55, “The body and the mind are the abodes of diseases as well as health. Proper body-mind interaction is the cause for happiness.”4 If only it were so easy to maintain proper interactions and keep balanced. As feeling, sentient beings, humans are prone to emotional upset, which compromises digestion. When stressed, many people become anorexic, while others tend to overeat. Our bodies, still working on “digesting” the upsetting situation, cannot digest the food we eat; as a result, ama is created – the storage of toxins in our tissues. As ama builds in tissues (dhatus), it blocks the flow of the systems, bogging down the organs, interfering with the endocrine system, and stressing the entire system even further, or – the body overheats, damaging the tissues.
We correct the imbalances according to the unique prakriti and vikruti of each patient. We often start treatment plans through complex and thorough detox programs to stop inflammatory processes and hypersensitivities. Through yoga, diet, breathing exercises, and mindfulness practices, we teach patients to be self-aware and careful with decisions. Patients become witnesses of their own bodies, thereby becoming more aware of what is happening to them and learning the beautiful science of balance. Life is not a linear path and we must experience bumps on the road to grow; however, through balance and mindfulness we learn to simply witness the bump without attaching to it.
Life is a river. Although it looks stagnant, every second it is changing between raging high and milder flow. In Ayurveda, we believe the purpose of life is to achieve Nirvana, or bliss, through recognizing the “Brahman” in us. Union of mind and body helps us to realize that “Brahman” is us, and this Brahman is not different from Brahma, the creator.
This is the crux of the mind-body connection of Ayurveda. If we ignore the mind, the patterns of thought that arise from our constitution, then the body will play out the consequences of that pattern. If instead we work to balance the thoughts, we can achieve balance in the body. Balance must necessarily include the physical, mental, and spiritual paths to good health.
- Dey S, Pahwa P. Prakriti and its associations with metabolism, chronic diseases, and genotypes: Possibilities of new born screening and a lifetime of personalized prevention. J Ayurveda Integr Med. 2014;5(1):15-24.
- Purvya MC, Meena MS. A review on role of Prakriti in aging.AYU. 2011;32(1):20-24.
- Tripathi JS, Singh RH. Concept of deha prakriti vis-à-vis human constitution in Ayurveda.Anc Sci Life. 1994;13(3-4):314-325.
- Ramachandra Rao SK. Mental Health inAyurveda: Source Book of Charaka and Sushruta Samhita. Bangalore, India: NIMHANS Publications; 1990.
Virender Sodhi, ND, MD (Ayurveda), received his ND degree from Bastyr University in 1988 and went on to became one of the first to integrate the medical sciences of Ayurveda and Naturopathy. He has continued to integrate the best of both sciences in his practice for over 26 years. Having completed a fellowship in Integrative Oncology in 2012, oncology has become an important part of his primary-care practice. Dr Sodhi is the CEO of Ayush herbs, Inc, and Medical Director at the Ayurvedic Naturopathic Medical Clinic in Bellevue, WA. He has recently published his first book: Ayurvedic Herbs: Comprehensive Guide to Ayurvedic Healing Solutions.