The worldwide spread and appeal of yoga during the latter part of the 20th century has been, at least, partially spurred by a growing public embrace of the wisdom of preventative medicine. Maintaining good health through basic lifestyle choices is far more preferable to drastic medical interventions after disease has already manifested. The more we learn about this ancient practice, the more we realize that its benefits go far beyond increased flexibility and muscle tone. While the physical practice of yoga does, indeed, emphasize appropriate postural alignment, musculoskeletal strength, and endurance as well as balance, it is increasingly recognized that yoga’s practice modalities also include mindful breathing techniques, focused concentration, meditation and self‐reflection.
Nowhere is yoga’s infiltration of contemporary culture more apparent than in Western medicine. Modern medicine has made enormous progress in controlling communicable diseases over the past century, such that it is now the non‐communicable diseases (NCDs) that have reached epidemic proportions and cause the majority of deaths worldwide. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 80 percent of NCD deaths are due to four main diseases: cardiovascular, cancer, diabetes, and respiratory. Throughout, lifestyle has been identified as the major causative factor in NCDs, whether tobacco use, sedentary lifestyle, lack of regular exercise, unhealthy diets and chronic psychosocial stress, almost invariably in combination. Chronic inflammation and stress is a common factor of many of the NCDs, and an area where yoga has been found to be extremely beneficial.
This enthusiastic acceptance of yoga’s practices, among vital components of lifestyle modification and nervous system toning, particularly within medical research and clinical practice, belies a more obvious candidate for a revisioning of modern medicine: Ayurveda. The term Ayurveda means “knowledge (veda) of longevity (āyus),” but it is often translated as “science of longevity” or “science of life,” denoting an entire empirical system of healing.
Ayurveda has antecedents in medicine found in much earlier periods in India, and in texts as far back as the Atharva-Veda of around 1000 BCE. However, systematic medical theory began to be formulated only around the time of the Buddha (ca. 400 BCE). It is in early Buddhist texts that we first find explicit statements that disease arises from an imbalance of humoral substances, an idea that would become a cornerstone in Indian medical theory.
To best understand how the ancient Indian science of healing relates to the practice yoga, we need look no further than the lore relating the origins of these sibling practices. According to traditional Indic sources, the great sage Patañjali, primarily known beyond India as the author of the Yoga Sutras, is also considered a genius of the grammatical science of Sanskrit in addition to having composed authoritative commentaries on the foundational texts of Ayurveda. Whether such claims are historically accurate (or even verifiable), the very widespread belief provides insight into how these knowledge systems are traditionally understood to be related.
The organism is a product of nature, and the optimal health and balance of that organism, generally, expresses itself in terms of a body and speech, the means by which that body interacts with its environment, mind, and spirit. Traditional assessments delegate the optimal functioning of speech to the science of grammar. Yoga controls body and mind in order to harmonize with spirit. Tantra seeks to bring mind into harmony with body and spirit. And Ayurveda is most concerned with life’s physical bases and bringing body into right relationship with mind and spirit.
According to Ayurveda, the central process necessary for health of the body is digestion, understood as a kind of “cooking.” The Sanskrit words for the processes of digestion (e.g., pacana) all imply cooking or burning. And the digestive force itself is simply called the fire or fire in the belly. An individual organism is a unique coming together of the doshas (literally, “defects”), which bear resemblance to the premodern medical notion of humors. All organisms, especially complex ones like humans, are bound by the limits established by their particular complex of doshas, collectively known as one’s constitution (prakriti).
Ayurveda tells us that we lose our digestive power to digest food, for instance, once our innate predispositions, hankerings, addictions for certain tastes and experiences exceed our ability to properly digest. Indigestion inevitably follows, and attendant toxins occur that allow for opportunistic illness to take hold. As the Ayurveda authority and author Robert Svoboda has written, “Either you can willingly limit yourself or nature will limit you. Disease is nature’s way of forcing you to slow down and rest.”
It will come as no surprise, given the enormous emphasis on maintaining robust digestion in conformity to one’s unique constitution that Ayurveda places great emphasis not only on diet, but also on the environment in general. It is vital to be in tune with the special qualities pertaining to each of the seasons. Through all the classical texts the emphasis is on moderation, whether it be in food, sleep, exercise, sex, or the dosage of medicines, it is vital to stay within the limits of reasonable measure and balance. This is, not incidentally, a fundamentally Buddhist ideal, embodied in the Buddha’s Middle Way teaching.
How does the science of longevity and health correspond to yoga as it is commonly known today? Just as Ayurveda emphasizes the empowerment of immunity and prevention over cure, all fundamentally rooted in the ability of the individual to properly digest, yoga’s principal emphasis might also be said to be the development of one’s powers of psychic digestion. The Bhagavad Gita repeatedly declares that the advanced yogin is the one for whom all experience is taken with equanimity. In other words, an experience, regardless of how challenging, is digestible and may, ultimately, become nutrition for the individual’s spiritual growth.
Pattabhi Jois once mentioned to me that the initial practice of Ashtanga Yoga was basically an Ayurvedic treatment regime (“yoga therapy”). Only after a sustained period of regular practice, during which the individual’s most egregious overindulgences are overcome, is it possible to address the body’s subtle nervous system. The extraordinary stabilization of the body and mind lead toward the direct experience of the divine everywhere in all things. Seen in this light, the traditional Indian system of medicine is every bit the prerequisite, as well as a core component, of the practice we call yoga.
If Ayurveda places an emphasis on prevention over cures, it needs, like its sister science of yoga, to be understood as primarily a way of life and only secondarily as a medical system. To paraphrase the renowned Ayurvedic master physician, Vasant Lad, now based at the Ayurvedic Institute in Albuquerque, NM, Ayurveda is designed for those who are ready to take responsibility for themselves.