Ayurveda Celebration - Essay #1

Posted to Subscribers on 13 November 2009


Dear Subscribers,

To mark the official opening of the new Ayurvedic Bazaar, I would like to offer a series of essays on some of the main principles of Ayurveda, hopefully enough of a mixture of Ayurveda 101 for those who are new to the philosophy behind India's ancient system of medicine and Ayurveda 10,001 for those who are tired of reading the same old stuff on doshas and digestive fire.

However, we have to start with digestion because Charaka, one of the great physicians of bygone days, taught extensively on this subject. You might say that Charaka is to Ayurveda what Hippocrates has been to Greek medicine and its permutations through the centuries in the West. Charaka may be a legend as well as an historic personage. He who was born around 300 B.C. It would obviously be impossible to summarize all the contributions Charaka made to the proper understanding of medicine and healing, but suffice it to say that he put the emphasis on prevention, on seeking the cause of disease, and on treating the underlying causes, including environmental and seasonal factors, ahead of the disease itself. He did not believe that illness is fated, rather that adjustments in life style could add healthy years to life. He was light years ahead of his times in that he recognized both genetics and germs, but did not believe they were what many had assumed. For instance, deformities were attributed to damage to the sperm and ovum, not to karma or the parents, and germs were regarded as less important than the internal workings of the body and its harmonization with the environment and seasons.

Every student of Ayurveda has been influenced to some extent by the legacies of Charaka but I want to pick up on the emphasis placed on digestion and metabolism rather than the details of what Charaka wrote.

Metabolism, as we know, consists of an anabolic force and a catabolic one. In Ayurveda, the anabolic force is related to assimilation of nutrients and their ability to supply what is needed for proper functioning of the water element in the body. This element works predominantly through the second or reproductive chakra. The water element is supposed to be smooth, malleable or pliant, a little on the viscous side, as well as nourishing. When there is ample water in the body, a person grows properly, develops normal secondary sexual characteristics, has a balanced libido, adequate fertility, and good longevity. It is quite easy to recognize water types by their "fullness" and emphasis on family and bonding. However, there are some unique qualities that you can observe if you are applying these ideas to your life.

For instance, the voice of the water person is usually rich and melodious but the speech is often unpunctuated. The words flow like a river and do not stop because of rocks or other interruptions. The stronger the water element, the more pronounced these traits.

Sometime in our ancient history, not human history because animals on this Planet have the same anatomy in this regard, the properties of masculine and feminine separated. There are many esoteric teachings about this and some mythology about androgynous beings, but our evolutionary history is recapitulated in utero and a moment comes when half of our biological sexuality is lost and we become either male or female, often longing for the lost other. The degree of the longing, I believe, is measured in the second chakra and the water element. Thus, the underlying clue to why the water type needs to bond is that he or she needs to feel whole and repair the damage suffered by the loss of half of our sexuality. You hear the lament in the speech of water types. They refer to others in their lives by roles. For instance, a woman says, "my husband" instead of calling him by his name. Water needs to feel relationship through roles so sons, daughters, partners, and even friends are rarely named in speech but rather mentioned in terms of their relationship to the person who is talking or writing. This tendency is a clear sign that the person is watery.

Personally, I believe water types are the most heterosexual of all the types, again, largely due to the impact on the psyche and physiology of the ancient loss.

Now, to be really clear and not do my usual number of forcing quantum leaps by irritating your brain patterns with gaps, let me go over this one more time. If the water element is functioning normally, the fetus will develop properly in the womb, the child who is born will grow normally, the onset of puberty will precipitate the usual physiological changes and interest in the opposite sex, girls will become more curvaceous and boys will become more hairy and, of course, their voices will descend an octave. However, if there is a problem, the gender of the child at birth may be difficult to determine, in which case, usually, the default gender is female. All manner of problems could result depending on the extent of the derangement of the water element. Moreover, if the water element is weak, the child may develop slowly or less completely, and the sexual organs may or may not mature to the point where parenthood is probable.

In fact, we have a crisis at the moment because so many people are infertile. Some doctors are speculating that the species is unsustainable with the present fertility issues, and, of course, if you want go there, it is possible that some of these complications are intentional, not random or coincidental. In any event, the correction will involve proper attention to building the water element. Water is not only about sexuality and procreation because two-thirds of our body and even a larger percentage of our brains are watery so the water element is also related to memory. This ought not surprise anyone who has familiarized himself or herself with the work of Dr. Emoto or others who have taken an interest in "external" water. However, we have internal water as well.

Besides what I have mentioned, water is used to cushion or buffer. For instance, if there is not enough water between the nerves, people have trouble relaxing and they become exhausted. Unfortunately, they will also tend to age prematurely, lose their memories, and perhaps not enjoy the blessings of maturity and long life. It ought now to be clear that water is necessary both to create and sustain life so it cannot now be a surprise that most Ayurvedic fertility therapies are quite similar to longevity therapies except there is one more piece of this magical puzzle and it is the utterly untranslatable word "ojas." This substance is unknown in the West so there are no words for it. However, according to Ayurveda, a person who is eating wholesome and nutritious food and not exhausting his or her sexual energy in either procreation or recreational expression will have a tiny amount of this ojas, a teaspoonful or perhaps a little bit more. If one has this ojas, one can regenerate damaged organs and even rejuvenate completely. The science or yoga of regeneration and rejuvenation might be considered an advanced part of ojas management and is called kayakalpa in Ayurveda. The word "kaya" means body and "kalpa" means regeneration, but the practices of kayakalpa are a mixture of spiritual and dietary/herbal because life itself is the incarnation of spirit in a form.

Ayurveda has elaborate protocols for enhancing libido and fertility and prolonging life. These generally depend on very specific tonic herbs, mainly shatavari for women and ashwagandha for men, but no food or herb works without assimilation so this brings me to the other half of metabolism, the catabolic force that depends on what in Ayurveda is called agni or fire.

Fire resides predominantly in the third chakra which governs the digestive center of the body, including the production and secretion of gastric juices, the stomach, liver, gall bladder, and small intestines. Fire is essentially opposite in nature to water so fire and water rarely feel good together but they are dependent upon each other so it's wise to overcome the issues we have about one or the other element. Water is languid and peaceful, fire is stimulating and exciting. Water is moist; fire is dry. Water is heavy and descends; fire is light and ascends. Water is cold; fire is hot. It goes on and on like this. Water is conservative; fire is progressive. Water likes to talk about the past; fire likes to think about the future. It ought to be clear by now why the Buddha preached the Middle Way and why all ancient systems of healing relied upon balance.

In the food department, Ayurveda does not have a system that resembles our pyramidal food groups, but if you go deeply enough, the division into proteins, fats, and carbohydrates is not too foreign. However, the Ayurvedic system is based on taste and taste is not regarded as a coincidence but rather the clue to the pharmacology of the food. Foods that are sweet nourish the water element. These foods have the same energetics as water: moist, heavy, cooling. Spices have the same energetics as fire: dry, light, and heating. Now, if you think about it, we eat mostly things that are sweet, not sugars, but all the various carbohydrates, including cereals and grains, nuts, and even dairy products. We eat very little that is spicy, but we need the spices to stimulate the flow of saliva and gastric juices and to break down the food so that it can be assimilated. Without the harsh gastric secretions and drastic action of the fire, food will clog and result in water derangements rather than nutrition.

Let me give you an example. A health care professional came to me for advice countless years ago. She wanted to have a baby and not to waste a lot of time talking about how to achieve this. Basically, she confronted me, commanding me to keep it short and simple and give her one thing to do to get pregnant. If she had been a client, I would probably have refused to continue, but back against the wall, I suggested cayenne because I figured her problem was not exactly infertility but blockage. She became pregnant six days later but she had quite a bit to say about the first few days on cayenne.

Obviously, cayenne is not a fertility herb, but it is hugely stimulating and it opened the pathways that were clogged with metabolic residuals. These are the consequences of ingesting foods that either cannot be digested or were not digested. Some food cannot be digested because it is unsuitable for consumption or the person is allergic to it or it was prepared in a manner that rendered it indigestible. I would include quite a bit under this label. GMO foods or components in foods, microwaved food, frozen food that has lost prana, food that is very old and lacking energy, food that is too heavy given the amount of appetite and availability of digestive juices, etc., etc. are indigestible. Some food is not digested because the person consumed too much. The body stores this food for future use, but if the storage depots are full, clogging occurs. That's perhaps a bit too simplistic but it paints a vivid picture of why some food isn't actually utilized.

Let me try to be quite specific. A watery person who eats ice cream may become sleepy or even congested. Children who say "huh" are classic examples of this type of blockage occurring because of poor food choices. The congestion can affect hearing, the sinus passages, the lungs, and so on and so forth. Now, let's say that the same person eats ginger ice cream or my favorite which is made with ginger and cardamom and fresh carrot juice, the odds are that the ice cream would be metabolized much better and the "huh" would not happen. If the person had a green drink with some bitter herbs, it would, of course, be a healthier choice yet.

Now, let's say the fire type ate the ice cream. It would be relaxing, not stupefying. Water tends towards high blood sugar; fire produces much more insulin and the sugar levels can dive so understanding food pharmacology is the first step towards health.

Lastly for this short introductory essay, I would like to say that it is probably no accident that so many people are in distress over the water element. We have an epidemic of diabetes. We have obesity in part of the world and emaciation in other parts. We have endless issues over our sexuality and even our sexual identity, not to mention fertility, parenting, and aging. We also have institutions full of people with Alzheimer's disease. Ayurveda actually has answers for all these problems. When I talk to other herbalists about their product lines, they always tell me that the herbs for the reproductive system are the mainstay of their practices. Countless others are looking at the baby boomers as a lucrative market for antiaging practices. My motivations as well as expertise are perhaps a bit different.

I started Kitchen Doctor.com because going back forty years, I realized that people in the West are not aging as gracefully as people in the East. As a culture, we put emphasis on youth and productivity rather than wisdom and health. We have paid dearly for this bias. So many people lose their coherence and memories and with this goes their joy and capacity to enjoy the harvests of life. When I lived in Japan, I saw how elderly people found the leisure to explore intense interests or hobbies. In India, I met people who had marched with Gandhi and were still fit in their 80's, but when I went back to the West, I saw people who could not remember the names of their own children. I knew it was not necessary to decline to this extent but recovery does not occur through wishful thinking, only through attention to what is needed to remain healthy.

In the 90s, I was consulting for a retirement home where practically no one was coherent. I could not recommend any herbs at all, just menu changes. Within a few weeks, many people changed for the better, remembering me by name and not gawking at me as we met on a pleasure cruise 50 years earlier. I was totally astonished by the speed of the improvement and all we had really done was put some seaweed and spices in the soup since the owner of the place said most the residents were clueless about what they were eating.

In short, there is every reason not only for optimism but for making the changes that promote deeper ability to live free of the problems associated with declining health.

Hang in there. This is a series of essay.

Many blessings,


Copyright by Ingrid Naiman 2009

See Essay #2


Ayurvedic Herbs





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Copyright by Ingrid Naiman 2010

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