Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Smashing Four Common Myths About Ayurveda

by Anjali Sunita

Many people shy away from Ayurveda because it classifies substances and people into basic categories or bio-energies called the doshas; classification of people in general bares warranted suspicion. As we have seen in Westernized Yoga communities, half-baked information can lead to stereotyping and a diluted understanding of rich indigenous wisdom, which remarks on natural patterns. Like yoga, when filtered through white supremacist capitalism, Ayurveda falls into the trap of many common misconceptions, a few of which I would like to smash through this post.

There is an Ayurvedic diet

While you may find South Asian Ayurvedic cookbooks out there, did you know there are many “Ayurvedas”? Yes, these traditions are as varied and vast as the people. Did you know that there are twenty-two official languages in India? Imagine then, how much diversity there would be in home remedies and recipes passed orally in the kitchen.

Ayurveda is not a fad diet, prescribed for losing weight or getting a better “insert body part here.” In fact, traditional images of beauty are vastly different. Kapha, the most heavy and substantial of the three doshas, comprised of elements earth and water primarily, is the least celebrated in Western media next to less substantial body frames. Yet because of the oily quality of Kapha, Kapha types frequently have the most lustrous, well-formed skin and hair.

The concept of diet in Ayurveda is not cookie-cutter. Ayurveda says that every person and thing is made of a composition of the five elements: ether, air, fire, water, and earth. These are organized roughly into three categories: Vata, which is ether and air; Pitta, which is fire and water; and Kapha, which is water and earth. My first Ayurvedic practitioner explained it to me as follows: if you are naturally a flower, we aim for healthy flower; if you are naturally a willow tree, a healthy willow tree; if you are a naturally an oak tree, the healthiest oak tree. Ayurveda does not use diet to make ourselves thinner physically and sicker mentally but to make ourselves well and balanced versions of ourselves.

Some of my favorite Ayurvedic Cookbooks take Western food choices and palettes but explain in Ayurvedic terms. Check out Eat Taste Heal as a great example. I also love the more Indian-inspired books such as Ayurvedic Cooking for Self-Healing by Dr. Vasant Lad and Usha Lad, or even Amadea Morningstar, who recently published one just on drinks of Ayurveda titled Easy Healing Drinks. My favorite way is to adapt any meal into an easy-to-digest version with recommendable food combining.

Ayurveda is separate from Yoga

I’ve heard even leaders in the “Yoga Industry” say, “Ayurveda is a whole other thing.” And while yes, it is a whole other line of study, have you heard of four sister sciences? There is Yoga, Ayurveda (which translates to life-knowledge and relates to health), Jyotish (study of astrology), and Vastu (like the Indian version of Fung Shui, relating to environment), each of which relies on understanding of the five basic elements: ether, air, fire, water, and earth. Never heard of this in a yogic context?

Did you know that the closest philosophy to Classical Yoga is called Samkhya (truth realization) philosophy and that Ayurveda, too, has fully absorbed this philosophy? This profound philosophy describes the origins of life, like the big bang theory, how nothing became something. It maps out the journey from Consciousness to Matter, from the most subtle Awareness (Purusha), to the gross material world experienced through our senses. This journey from the subtle to the gross in reverse, from gross to the subtle, is a pathway to meditation. Yoga and Ayurveda share philosophy. They come from peoples closer to nature and the elements. To learn and reflect on Samkhya philosophy is to better understand Patanjali's Yoga Sutras as well as the Ayurvedic concepts of the Pancha Maha Bhutas (five great elements).

You might not realize that some therapeutic Yoga schools already integrate Ayurvedic knowledge. For years, I annually attended Life Force Yoga for Depression and Anxiety weekend intensives that embraced a view and asana, pranayama, and mudra sequencing related both to depression and anxiety and aligned with the teachings of Ayurveda. I found the same with the Yoga for Arthritis School. I am sure there are many other examples.

Beyond that, in Ayurveda School at The Ayurvedic Institute and Vasant Institute of Ayurveda we learned yoga through the lens of Ayurveda, changing routines by season or symptoms. Having a basic understanding of the physical and mental symptoms of illnesses through the qualitative lens of Ayurveda can be extraordinarily helpful when working with individuals and making Yoga accessible to all. This does not make the Yoga curative, but it does personalize the process and guide the teacher toward movement qualities and choices that better serve each person.

Your constitution is determined by your race or skin color

When I heard from one of my friends that in his Yoga teacher training, all brown and black people were categorized as a single constitution or prakruti, I was irritated but not surprised. This speaks volumes as to how just a little information can be more dangerous than no information in the hands of bias. In Ayurveda, it is understood that everyone is a combination of all three doshas (Vāta, Pitta, and Kapha) in different proportions. There are some references to color words like blue, “Anila,” is synonymous with the word Vāta; Vāta is associated with the color blue, and with the color of cloudy skies, grey. The colors red and yellow are often associated with Pitta (fire and water elements); and white with Kapha (earth and water), this understanding gets warped when taking the ever common dosha quiz which labels skin color under these categories.

Anyone, no matter how much or little melanin in the skin, can have a pallor from a tendency toward anemia, a bluish look from lack of blood circulation, or grey ashy dryness to the skin, as can be associated with increased Vāta dosha. Anyone, no matter how much or little melanin in the skin, can have a rosy undertone associated with heat and red blood cells closer to the surface of the skin; and that oily quality associated with Kapha can create a porcelain-like shine on any skin color. An Ayurvedic doctor is called a Vaidya, a person who views or sees more deeply. The dosha quizzes that many rely on for information are flawed.

Further, all assessment based on form has to keep in mind one’s ethnic background and compare within ethnicities. Ayurvedic practitioners and doctors also do not assess based on one single factor. They use the Ashta Vidya Parikshznam (eight ways of seeing), analyzing Nadi (pulse), Mutra (urine), Mala (waste), Jihva (tongue), Shabda (sound of voice and words), Sparsha (touch/ palpation), Drig (eyes), and lastly Akruti (form)––of which colorations is just a minor part.

It must be acknowledged that a result of colonization has left India with colorist leanings toward “fair” skin; industry marketing and products for skin lightening exist in service of whiteness. This is a separate issue from determining constitution which warrants a separate and longer post given this historical context.

Ayurvedic Herbs are not accessible for “Western Bodies”

I hear this one a lot: Should Westerners only take Western herbs, Indians–– Indian herbs? First let me back up and say that I find this concept of there being a Western body or Eastern body, Western mind or Eastern mind, grossly offensive. It erases the incredible diversity of bodies and minds across all geographies and ethnicities and as a biracial woman, for me this whole concept stinks of racial science and white supremacy. What is different is land, and what grows on that land.

However, Ayurveda views any substance as potentially medicinal or poisonous depending upon the individual’s needs and constitution. Substance, or dravya, is defined as that which has quality and action––meaning all herbs can be interpreted through the lens of Ayurveda, whether grown on Western national lands or lands in the East. Ayurveda understands that everything, organic and inorganic, is made of the five great elements.

A great book I recommend to herbalists often is called Dravyaguna for Westerners by Atreya Smith. (While I don’t love the title, I understand why it is necessary.) Dravyaguna means substance quality or pharmacology. The book takes herbs and plants found in mostly in North America, Turtle Island, and puts them into Ayurvedic terms. A true lover of herbs is interested in the substance of life which one can find throughout the globe, often growing in the form of weeds.

In conclusion, my teacher Dr. Vasant Lad always said “a doctor is a good teacher.” And that he is. Teachers who love their subject aspire to reach the people in front of them; this communication is at the core of teaching. Ayurveda is not for one kind of person. That is antithetical to its nature. It is for everyone and easily applied to everyone; so long as the teacher or doctor has clear vision, open ears, and ability to connect with others it can be easily applicable to all.

Anjali Sunita
is the founder of Village Life Wellness, and offers Ayurvedic wellness consultations, and courses in yoga and pranayama from an Ayurvedic perspective. As a biracial Desi woman, she shares with a deep respect for traditional roots of the practices with a focus on accessibility and equity. To learn more about Anjali or contact her, see and follow @villagelifewellness on Instagram and Facebook.

This post was edited by Patrice Priya Wagner, Managing Editor of Accessible Yoga blog and member of the Board of Directors.

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