advanced yoga teacher training

What is Ayurveda?

In my mind, there are two distinct, though connected, ways of understanding Ayurveda. The first way is to look at it in its historical and cultural context and the second is to see its broader universal aspect. I believe both of these are important for truly understanding Ayurveda and in the end they feed and nourish each other.


Historical Background


Understanding the historical and cultural place of Ayurveda allows us to see how it has germinated and flourished in our actual physical world as a distinct school of thought and practice. It is especially important for us Westerners who are approaching Ayurveda to respect that it did not appear in a vacuum. There is a prevalent tendency in the West to appropriate elements of other cultures and divorce them from their origin. This not only prevents us from understanding deeper significances, but it is also a direct insult to cultures that have developed and preserved these traditions. It doesn’t help that often, as is the case with India, they are cultures that have been historically oppressed and manipulated by Western countries. This does not mean we all have to go become Indians or even that we have to wholesale accept all elements of Indian culture, it just means that we have an obligation to come to Ayurveda and other such traditions with an attitude of respect and with a sincere desire to learn and not just project our pre-existing ideas.


With that out of the way, most simply Ayurveda is an ancient Indian medical and healing tradition. It has evolved over thousands of years in India and is considered to be the oldest continually practiced medical system. Ayurveda has informed many other healing disciplines throughout the ages. Elements of Ayurveda show that the system was in conversation with neighboring Chinese medicine, with information likely travelling back and forth between them. Many modern Western medicines have been developed by isolating components from herbs used in Ayurveda. The modern discipline of plastic surgery is even said to have originated from the discovery of a description of a nasal reconstruction surgery in an Ayurvedic text. Though it has different strengths than modern medicine, it is important to note that even on the grounds of straightforward clinical descriptions, Ayurveda was in many places more advanced than Western medicine up until a hundred or so years ago.


But Ayurveda is a fundamentally different kind of medical science than modern medicine. It is, at its base, a qualitative system as opposed to a quantitative system. It relies on a system of principles and concepts, many of which are common to other Indian traditions. These are often very simple ideas which are overlaid one another to produce a vast and quite nuanced network.


The Five Great Elements


The easiest place to start with these is with the concept of the Five Elements: Space, Air, Fire, Water, and Earth. It is probably unnecessary, but I want to point out that the Five Elements weren’t some primitive precursor to the periodic table. The Indians (or the Ancients in the West) were not under the impression that all things literally contained Fire or Water. However, they saw certain qualities present in all things and labeled these with common examples which were emblematic of them. In the Indian system, these elements are seen as an evolving manifestation, and so the elements are not even considered precisely separate. Space represents the expanse and potentiality of existence; Air is the beginning of the movement in that expanse; that movement creates friction which makes heat and allows for transformation of state, which is Fire; Water is the downward flow of precipitation which comes from the changed state; and Earth is the solidification of that substance into a stable form. All of these elements are, at least to some extent, in all things. Even the physical “fire” that we know of requires space to exist in, oxygen (Air), has some flow to it (Water), and requires physical fuel and leaves a physical residue of ash (Earth).


Techniques & Application


Perhaps you can already intuit that even though we can say all things are made of all five elements, they do not necessarily have them to the same extent. So, to use our earlier example, even though fire may actually contain all the elements, it is still more “fiery” than a rock. This rock is in turn more “earthy” than a lake. To take this further, a melon is more watery than a peanut and the fire element of a food will be increased if it is cooked.


This forms the basis for the Ayurvedic analysis of everything from foods to people’s individual constitution to the applications of various medicines. It becomes further refined in the system of gunas (qualities), doshas (similar to the often misunderstood Hippocratic concept of humors), and dhatus (the bodily tissues). I’ll go into these in a later blog, but for now suffice it to say that Ayurveda uses these principles to organize a diverse and comprehensive array of possible therapeutic interventions. These include diet and lifestyle, external therapies such as bodywork, and one of the most extensive pharmacologies in the world, employing herbs, minerals, and other substances. India has an incredible abundance of medicinal plants, but the real beauty is that the Ayurvedic method for classifying herbs can be applied to plants anywhere in the world.


The Universal


Strangely enough, for an understanding of the universal side of Ayurveda it is useful to delve deeper into some specifics. First and foremost, the word “Ayurveda” is a combination of “Ayuh”, the Sanskrit word for Life and “Veda”, which means a system of knowledge. So, Ayurveda is translated as “Knowledge of Life” or even “the Science of Life”. Basically, this means the system is defining itself as being concerned with the workings of “life” in all its forms. This means that it is not just a medical system, but an Ecology. The sutras even define the scope of Ayurveda as being the study of the various things which can promote and preserve life as well as the things which are destructive to life. It is a science of cause and effect, specifically the effect on the life process.


This is, in and of itself, a neutral process, but once causes and their effect on life is known, they can be properly employed. Those causes which are helpful to the promotion of the life we wish to preserve can be utilized and those which are detrimental to it can be avoided or at least mitigated. This process can go quite deep and it transcends any specific context or set of teachings. It is a continuously unfolding and attuning of our awareness towards subtler and subtler connections. Whether or not a person ever even hears the word “Ayurveda”, they can tap into this timeless wisdom with the power of their own awareness and inquiry.


In this sense Ayurveda is not truly a “human-based” medicine, it is an attempt to commune directly with the underlying laws of Nature.


In Indian traditions, these types of attunements are called “Vidyas”, eternal wisdom systems which can be revealed through direct perception to the devoted student. The Vidyas are even personified as Goddesses, so the learning of Ayurveda is not merely studying texts, learning from teachers, or practicing, it is the worship and the development of a relationship with the Ayur-Vidya, the living Goddess of Ayurveda. From this perspective, what is learned through student’s own awareness is being taught directly by the Goddess herself. Of course, in practice, study and guidance are usually necessary for a proper unfolding of this knowledge.

Even as a specific cultural phemomenon, Ayurveda is a constantly evolving system, which is flexible enough to adapt to new knowledge and situations. Within the confluence of history and opportunity, its ancient wisdom is just as relevant and essential today as when its classic works were composed.


सम – Sama

Yogathaḥ Kuru Karmāṇi Saṅgaṃ Tyaktvā Dhanaṃjaya |

Siddhyasiddhyoḥ Samo Bhūtvā Samatvaṃ Yoga Ucyate || II:48

“Fixed in Yoga, perform your actions having abandoned attachment and being indifferent to either success or failure. It is said that evenness of mind is Yoga.”

Generally, if you ask someone who knows a thing or two what Yoga is, they will usually refer to Patañjali and say, “Yoga is the stopping of the fluctuations of the mind.” This is a very good definition and there are good reasons why it is the standard. However, there are other possible classical definitions to which we can also refer. Definitions of Yoga as “union” of microcosm and macrocosm abound and can be another excellent way to frame the process or state. The Bhagavad Gītā has a few of its own definitions. One is the line quoted above, that Yoga is “samatvam” the quality of being “sama.” The word “sama” comes from the same root as our English word “same” and so we could define this to indicate that Yoga means “sameness” or “evenness” in a particular sense. The word can be more distinctly defined as “balance.”

Sama” is a word that also makes a notable appearance in Āyurveda, particularly in Suśruta’s definition of Health:

Sama Doṣāḥ Samāgniśca Samadhātu Mala Kriyāḥ |

“Balanced physiological processes (doshas), balanced digestion (agni – fire), balanced tissues (dhatus), balanced action of elimination (mala kriya).”

Here the word is repeated enough to indicate that Suśruta regards balance as the key to health of the individual.

Proper balance is important for health and probably useful in any context, but in the above verse from the Gītā, Lord Kṛṣṇa specifies that the balance of Yoga is an attitude of sameness towards the successes and failures of one’s own actions. Can we do what is right without a need for external validation? Can we take a success or even a compliment without letting it inflate our ego? Can we learn from a failure or even an insult with deflating into defensiveness? Are we afraid to act because we are too worried that we might fail? Can we begin to see clearly without our perceptions being muddled by our attachments and aversions?

The Yogi aims to retain balance in all things, not merely to be thrown about by the varying circumstances that are encountered. The guidance for our actions should be our internal sense of what is truly right at that moment, rather than merely what is popular, easy, or will give us what we want. So, practicing balance and equipoise is essential.

We even see this in the physical practice of Yogāsana, where balance in a physical sense is required in almost any posture. We practice balance directly when we stand on one leg in Vṛkṣāsana, or tree pose, and we can even see balance in the simple but poised posture of someone sitting tall in their meditation seat.

Mahendranath in the first of his Twilight Yoga trilogy wrote that Sama is one of the key words that “express the essence” the Nath Yogi’s approach to life. The other three are Samarasa – Equanimity, Sahaja – Naturalness, and Svecchacara – the Path of one’s True Will.

Cultivating Positive Attitudes towards Others

Cultivating Positive Attitudes towards Others

Near the end of the first chapter of the Yoga Sūtras of Patañjali, there are descriptions of different techniques for starting to calm the mind and overcome difficult mental states.

One of the things that Patañjali says is helpful is to cultivate positive attitudes towards others. He explains four different kinds of positive feelings that we can learn to cultivate in ourselves and which types of people that it would be most beneficial to have those feelings towards.

Karma & Kleśas

Karma & Kleśas

Karma & Kleśas
By Sandhyanath

“Yoga requires a revaluation of confused patterns of our thinking;
Relaxed mind without inhibitions, restraints and over-activity;
One-pointed projection on the chosen image symbol of attention;
Counting, holding the breath, helps for soft relaxed concentration.
Meditation becomes the calm continuity of retrospective think,
Keep the mind awake for trance and sleep yield you nothing.
Then you will become ready for real Yogic contemplation.”

– Mahendranath, The Magnum Opus of Twilight Yoga

Yoga & Alchemy

Yoga & Alchemy

In verses 5-9 of Chapter 1 of the Haṭha Pradīpikā, the author Svātmārāma lists the lineage of hatha yoga up through his time. The lineage begins with Śiva Himself teaching Matsyendranāth, whose many disciples including Gorakṣanāth are mentioned next. In total 30 different masters are named. There are some variations between different manuscripts,but they are mostly the same.In the Lonavla Yoga Institute Critical Edition, they are: