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An Introduction to Ayurveda

Ayurveda is considered one of the world’s oldest healing sciences, originating in India at least 5,000 years ago. Its name is a Sanskrit word that literally translates as “the wisdom of life” or “the knowledge of longevity” (it is a compound of ãyus, meaning life or longevity, and Veda, meaning deep knowledge or wisdom). In accordance with this definition, Ayurveda views health as much more than the absence of disease.

Health, from an Ayurvedic perspective, is defined as a gracious, tranquil, content, joyous, bright, and clear state of the body, senses, mind, and spirit, including the balanced state of one’s natural constitution, all bodily tissues, the digestive capacities, and waste excretion. What a mouthful! Simply put, health is achieved when you are aligned with your own natural and unique state of balance.

How is Your Health Unique?

The key to Ayurvedic wellness and healing is the knowledge that health is not a “one size fits all” proposition. One must understand the unique nature of each person and situation, taking into account the individual, the season, the geography, and so on.

Each person has a constitution that is specific to him or her, and movement away from that constitution creates health imbalances; if such imbalances are not addressed, the disease may develop. So, the early signs of imbalance serve as a wakeup call to make gentle and natural shifts in behavior to return to balance—such as adjusting diet, modifying daily activities, and taking herbal remedies for a time.

To understand how imbalances occur, and what to do about them, we can look to the following fundamental concepts of Ayurveda.

The Five Elements That Transform Our Understanding of Health

Ayurveda arises from a tradition that describes the entire physical world—including man—in terms of five elements: space, air, fire, water, and earth. These five elements can most accurately be thought of as energetic patterns rather than as purely physical substances, and each has particular qualities. To help make sense of this, consider how these elements manifest in the natural world:

Earth is cold, heavy, solid, stable, and dry. This element is exemplified by dirt.
Water is cold, mobile, heavy, soft, and liquid. Think of the ocean.
Fire is hot, subtle, mobile, dry, and sharp. Its clearest manifestation in nature is the sun, which provides warmth to the earth and sky.
Space, as in the sky, is vast, cold, light, and clear. It enables all other things to have a place to take form and exist.
Air is dry, cold, rough, and full of motion. To understand these qualities, think of what it’s like to be whipped by an aggressive wind.

These five elements clearly manifest individually in the natural world. But even more profoundly, they all exist at all times in all things—including in the body—and each has its particular role to play.