8 Principles of Ayurveda

Ayurveda is a system of health and wellness that comes from what is today India. The Ayurveda of today is a synthesis of several regional traditions built around what naturally-occurring medicines and knowledge were available in ancient times. These included plant medicines, earth (ie: mud, clay), minerals, local foods, etc.

Despite the great variety of regional practices, a common set of foundational principles emerged out of these traditions. These principles have resulted in the five elements (earth, water, fire, air, ether/space), the three doshas (vata, pitta, kapha), the three subtle doshas (prana, tejas, ojas), the two aspects of the brain (mind or manas & intellect or buddhi), and the 20 great qualities (maha gunas) that are used to describe all of the phenomena in the natural world.

With respect to considering health and wellness, Ayurveda looks to see that the following markers are in place:

  • a state of balance occurring in the three doshas within in one’s constitution
  • properly formed and well-functioning bodily tissues
  • proper elimination of wastes
  • optimally functioning digestive fire (metabolism)
  • a peaceful and content mental-emotional state
  • being established in the self (ie: knowing who you are, having self-confidence)

In support of these markers, there are eight aspects of principles that guide an individual’s program in support of improving health and wellness:

  • optimizing prana
  • building ojas
  • refining tejas (discernment)
  • cleansing and detoxifying
  • restoring and maintaining balance
  • supporting metabolism, digestion, and healthy tissues
  • strengthening a connection with the divine
  • aligning with the rhythms and cycles of nature

1. Optimizing Prana

Prana is life-force energy, oxygen, breath, invigoration, the air we breathe, and the information that we take in through the five senses. Prana is also interpreted through the movement of thoughts in the mind. We want the best quality prana that we can get, and yet we don’t want too much of it since this is where excessive thoughts turn into over-thinking and its handmaiden, anxiety.

Practices that support healthy prana include: appropriate exercise, yoga and movement work, massage and bodywork, meditation, and pranayama.

2. Building Ojas

Ojas is the sum-total of our reserves of heartiness, resilience, and immunity. It is a reservoir or savings account that gives us a little grace when we stay up late, attending a concert and still have to perform a normal day’s set of tasks the next day. You can always use more ojas, and it is a definite problem when there is not enough ojas. Imbalance, sickness, and disease result.

Practices that support building ojas include: eating appropriate foods, avoiding distractions while eating, resting and sleeping adequately, and finding ways to be nourished (ie: by your family and friends, by doing activities that you deeply enjoy, and by getting out in nature regularly).

3. Refining Tejas

Tejas is the capacity for discernment. When you can see a thing for what it truly is rather than what you want it to be, that is tejas. When you take the action that a situation requires, even if you don’t want to, that is also tejas. When you do the thing that you don’t want to, but do it with love and compassion and peace in your heart, that is a very high level of tejas.

Practices that support tejas include: meditation, candle gazing (trataka), compassion and gratitude, netra basti eye treatment, and eye washing.

4. Cleansing and Detoxing

Ayurveda knows that we need to regularly clean out whatever metabolic wastes and toxins (the things that don’t actively promote health and wellness — ie: toxins don’t have to be literally toxic) have built up within us. Some of this, of course, happens daily with urinating and eliminating. However, some of it doesn’t. We tend to build up excess dosha with each season: summer’s heat needs to be cooled off in autumn, and winter’s heavy sluggishness needs to be shaken off in spring. Also, man has influenced an alarming amount of toxic material in the world, and it is to our advantage to mitigate that as much as possible.

Ayurveda is the only health and wellness system on the planet that includes an intelligent, non-depleting program for restoring balance to the system while also resetting the digestive system, cleansing out whatever is excess toxins, and effectively detoxing the tissues: Pancha Karma.

5. Restoring and Maintaining Balance

Ayurveda understands that maintaining and restoring balance is the key everything else. Once balance is set, it is a fairly simple matter of refining practices and choices to continue on and bring in slight course-corrections as needed. If, however, things go off the rails, it takes a fair amount of time, energy, and money to get back on track. It is worth every penny and expenditure of effort to restore balance, and Ayurveda has many tools to help us do just that.

Practices that support balance include: dietary choices, herbs and spices, yoga, meditation, bodywork, appropriate exercise, pranayama, engaging in enjoyable activities, spending time with loved ones, pancha karma, resting, and a myriad of self-care practices.

6. Supporting Metabolism, Digestion, and Healthy Tissues

Without a strong digestive fire (agni) (and cellular metabolism), we wouldn’t get much done or have healthy bodies. Taking culinary herbs and spices with our foods is one easy (and delicious!) way to keep a just-right-strong (not too strong!) digestive fire so that we get all of the nutrition out of our foods. A healthy metabolism also ensures that wastes are processed out of our cells and out of our bodies.

Practices that support a strong agni include: culinary herbs and spices, appropriate foods and food combinations, eating meals in a calm environment, getting regular exercise, and items that support a healthy gut microbiome.

7. Strengthening a Connection with the Divine

Most people think of Ayurveda as purely a system oriented around physical health and wellness, but it is just interested in developing a healthy spiritual orientation. The happy mind in a happy body is good for the soul. Living a good quality life for a good long time is also good for the soul. Once a person orients their eating and self-care habits to a nature-aligned model, they naturally see and appreciate the divine in all things and feel a strengthened connection to their higher self.

Practices that support a strong connection with the divine: yoga, meditation, pranayama, spending time in nature, treating yourself / your body with reverence and love, feeling and expressing gratitude and compassion, acknowledging and honoring where your food comes from, and helping others.

8. Aligning with the Rhythms and Cycles of Nature

Aligning to the rhythms and cycles of nature is surprisingly easy to do (buy the produce that is available at the farmer’s market) and yields unexpected rewards (fresh, local, ripe strawberries taste absolutely amazing). Despite our fancy technological advancements, we humans are just as much a part of nature as the trees and rivers around us. We have forgotten that and think that each day is much the same as all the others. When we re-connect to the length and warmth of a summer, as distinct from the shortness and crispness of a winter day, we relearn what it is to breathe fully and to savor the gifts of each hour. We remember how to be present.

Practices that support aligning with nature include: spending time in nature, eating seasonally, going to bed at sunset and rising at sunrise, and getting away from technology.