The Science of Life
Ayur - Life // Veda - Science
Isn’t it strange how it is often easier to remember all the lyrics to our favorite songs than it is to recite a speech? When words are set to a rhythm and intonation, it makes them impossible to forget.
5,000 years ago in the mountains of the Himalayas, rishis or sages, were using music to teach a holistic system of well-being -- this system was called Ayurveda. They passed this information down orally with Sanskrit chants called mantras.
If you were a student of Ayurveda in India thousands of years ago, you would have spent countless hours listening to mantras chanted by your guru in a melodic, rhythmic fashion. You would have likely sat at your guru’s feet for hours a day meditating and and listening to the sound of the Sanskrit words, feeling their energetic vibration and internalizing the ancient wisdom. After dedicating your life to studying Ayurveda, you would later pass the knowledge down to your students or children in the same manner.
The wisdom that was chanted by sages five thousand years ago was eventually written down into four texts now referred to as the “Vedas”. They are a guidebook of very specific recommendations for diet, lifestyle, daily routine, skincare, and even entire medicine and surgical specialities. These guidelines are still relevant and useful even five thousand years after Ayurveda’s conception because they are based on the five elements and their properties. The elements that make up our world and the cycles of nature are the same today as they were thousands of years ago, so these concepts can still be applied to our modern day lives.
Today, we are able to study and learn the wisdom of Ayurveda thanks to the individuals who passed along this invaluable information from generation to generation.
Ayurveda & Wellness
Ayurveda is a holistic medicine that focuses on bringing the patient back into balance with their personal constitution or dosha which is a specific balance of the five elements in the body (earth, water, fire, air, and space). Health is viewed as not just the absence of disease, but of vibrant wellness.
A healthy person in Ayurveda has these qualities:
- Wakes up feeling rested, refreshed & ready to jump out of bed
- Energetic and enthusiastic
- Full of joy and laughter
- Has a strong digestive system & immune system
- Falls asleep quickly & sleeps through the night without waking
- Is free from pain or ailments
Ayurveda: The Sister Science of Yoga
Ayurveda goes hand in hand with your yoga practice. If you have begun a dedicated asana and meditation practice & have experienced the benefits, you may soon notice that you are naturally gravitating towards more healthy choices in all the aspects of your life. You may be drawn to organic, plant based foods or natural skincare products. You may find yourself adjusting your schedule -- such as going to bed early, so that you can get up early for your morning yoga class. These habits of a healthy diet, skincare, and lifestyle routine are all described in detail by ancient Ayurvedic texts. You may be already practicing aspects of Ayurveda intuitively!
Ayurveda: The Originator of All Wellness
Ayurveda has influenced medical systems throughout history and continues to influence wellness trends today including plant based diets, intermittent fasting, circadian rhythm, integrative medicine, and farm to table meals.
Ayurveda & Traditional Chinese Medicine
Both Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine stimulate specific energetic points of the body to treat disease. In Ayurveda, this practice is called marma therapy. In TCM, practitioners use acupressure and acupuncture. There is also evidence that Greek and Roman physicians traveled to India to study Ayurvedic medicine at Indian hospitals, bringing Ayurvedic influences into the origins of Western medicine.
Ayurveda & Western Medicine
Ayurveda is also making an impact Western medicine today, as many Ayurvedic herbs and adaptogens have been studied by researchers and proven to have medicinal properties. One such example is turmeric, which has powerful anti-inflammatory properties. One of the active ingredients in turmeric, curcumin, has been isolated and sold as supplements across the US. However, from the Ayurvedic perspective, turmeric is most effective when left in its whole form and cooked into food with a high quality oil. [A word of caution: turmeric is a powerful herb with warming properties and should be used in moderation - I recommend ¼ tsp per person for a meal].
Ayurveda & Plant-Based Diets
Ayurveda generally recommends a primarily plant-based diet. Grains, legumes, nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables are light, nourishing, and easy to digest. The specific types of food recommended depend on each person’s constitution or dosha, the season, and the environment in which that person lives.
For example, someone with more fire in their constitution would likely have a more intense personality and very strong digestion. If they also lived in a very warm environment and it was summertime, it would be especially important for them to eat balancing, cooling foods. Some examples of cooling foods include cucumber, cilantro, fennel, and zucchini.
Although many yogis choose to be entirely plant based for moral and ethical reasons, Ayurveda does not prescribe a completely vegan diet to everyone. Ghee, or clarified butter, is considered to be very medicinal and the preferred cooking oil of Ayurveda. In India where Ayurveda originated, the cow is revered. The cow is considered to be a very sacred being, the mother of all, and cows are treated with love and great respect. Ayurveda recommends dairy products in the form of ghee, warmed spiced milk, and freshly made yogurt and paneer cheese. Meat is also used as medicine for those who are very weak and emaciated. Ayurveda recommends that meat is cooked into a soup and consumed as a broth.
Ayurveda & Intermittent Fasting
You may have heard of intermittent fasting as a way to optimize health. There are some very interesting studies that show that fasting may slow the aging process. One common way to practice intermittent fasting involves eating for an 8 hour window of the day and fasting for a 16 hour window leads to healthy weight maintenance. The 16 hour fasting period includes the time you are sleeping. For instance, a person may eat their meals between the hours of 9 am and 5 pm, and then fast from 5 pm until the next morning.
Ayurveda also encourages patients to eat an early, light dinner and fast for several hours before bed to allow the meal to completely digest before going to sleep. The timing and size of your breakfast depends on the personal balance of elements in your body or dosha. Some individuals need a larger, more grounding breakfast and others can have a light fruit breakfast or no breakfast at all. Ayurveda also encourages fasting for 3-6 hours between meals in order to let your food completely digest before eating again.
Ayurveda & Circadian Rhythm
The 2017 Nobel Prize in Physiology was awarded to Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young for their research on cellular mechanisms & circadian rhythm. These three researchers discovered a gene that controls our biological inner clock. That inner clock influences our sleep patterns, digestion, and hormones.
These scientists proved what Ayurveda has recognized for a long time -- that even at a cellular level we have natural cycles that are in alignment with our environments, and that our physiology is best served when we live in accordance with these natural cycles. In general, this means going to bed early (before 10 pm) and getting up with the sunrise. It also means eating our largest meal midday when the sun is highest in the sky and our digestive fire or agni is the strongest.
Ayurveda & Integrative Medicine
Ayurveda focuses on maintaining the health of the physical body, but also the emotional & spiritual health of each patient. Ayurvedic practitioners aim to prevent disease by eliminating the cause of symptoms, rather than just treating the symptoms.
Western medicine is beginning to train doctors in integrative and functional medicine. Integrative medicine combines conventional medicine with alternative medicine. According to Dr. Andrew Weil, Integrative Medicine (IM) “is healing-oriented medicine that takes account of the whole person, including all aspects of lifestyle.” Functional medicine looks to identify the root cause of disease, and individualizes treatments based on the patient’s genetics and epigenetics. Both aim to prevent disease using nutrition and lifestyle, which are the foundations of Ayurvedic medicine.
Ayurveda & Farm to Table Restaurants
The “farm to table” approach has become very popular over the recent years as people experience that local food is delicious and leaves them feeling more nourished. Ayurveda also promotes seasonal eating -- eating what is grown in your area and what has been recently harvested by local farmers. Ayurveda teaches that the foods available in each season are usually the most balancing foods to be eating at that time. For example, in the spring time when we need to slough off the heaviness of winter, nature gives us bitter greens such as dandelion greens that have natural detoxifying properties.
Ayurveda & Modern Life
In the same way that yoga has impacted millions of peoples’ lives over the past several decades, we at Köppen believe that Ayurveda will improve the lives of many.
About the author: Katerina Martin is an Ayurvedic chef, culinary instructor, and postpartum doula. Katerina previously worked in psychiatry research at Penn State studying the impact of diet on mental health. When she began studying yoga and Ayurveda, she immediately connected with the wisdom in both modalities and decided to change career paths. Over the past five years, she has completed more than 1,000 hours of training in Ayurveda, yoga, and women’s health. Prior to moving to New York, Katerina was the chef and kitchen manager at an Ayurvedic retreat center on Kauai. She moved to New York in 2018 to train with Divya Alter and work at Divya's Kitchen, an Ayurvedic restaurant in East Village. Katerina also teaches at Bhagavat Life, an Ayurvedic culinary school.