Ayurvedic Phytotherapy - Part I

Ayurveda, the traditional Indian medical system, offers many advantages in its approach to phytotherapy. Medical historians consider Ayurveda to be the oldest medical system in the world. More than 80% of the standard medicines used in Ayurveda today are of plant origin. With a history of continuous use for more than 5000 years Ayurveda must have some points of interest for the Western herbalist - what are the possible points of interest?

First, Ayurveda, ’the science of life’, offers a systematic methodology to adjust herb usage to the individual. Second, there is a clear distinction between the person and illness. There are two different treatment protocols for the individual and the disease symptoms that are predominate in that person. Thirdly, it is not in conflict with the modern biochemical classifications of herbs. Actually, it offers at least three further classifications for each herb thereby increasing the effectiveness of the treatment. The fourth important point is how to combine the chosen herbs to achieve the most efficient therapeutic response while avoiding possible unpleasant secondary effects. The first point will be covered in this article and the other points in forthcoming articles.

Ayurveda is based on the observation of nature and the interaction that occurs in creation. The basis of these observations is that of matter itself which can be classified into five primary categories. The five primary categories of matter (Panchamahabhuta) form the basis of traditional Indian medicine. All of matter can be classified into one of the five following groups -

State of Matter Attribute Element
Field Space Ether
Gaseous Movement Wind(Air)
Heat Transformation Fire
Liquid Cohesive Water
Solid Density Earth

In modern language the five primary states of matter are usually translated as the ’five elements’. This translation fails to convey the Sanskrit term, pancha maha bhuta, which clearly means ’the five primary states of substances’. Each category contains numerous sub-divisions of matter.

Ayurveda uses these five states to classify herbs and their interaction with the human body. It also uses this same system to understand the individuality of each person. The methodology used to determine a person’s individual nature or Prakriti is by observing the function of their metabolism. This requires an understanding of both the person and disease that is afflicting the person. According to Ayurveda one can treat the person, the disease, or both. However, all treatment protocols are first based on understanding the constitutional metabolism of the individual. This often requires a series of questions to determine the life long functions the digestive system, the water metabolism, the heating system and the ability of the body to discharge waste materials.

Ayurveda firmly recognizes the basic principle of intelligence in nature, and therefore in the human body. Tradition states that the ancient sages were able to observe the intelligence of the creation in action - both in the world and in the body. They have many different names for this intelligent principle depending on what role it plays in the creation. One of the most common names is Prana or the ’life-force’. According to Ayurveda this intelligent life force, or prana, divides itself in three forms to control the five main categories of matter. These three principles of intelligent energy are called in Sanskrit, Vata, Pitta and Kapha. Their functions can be seen below in the table.

Intelligent Principle (Humor or Dosha) Meaning in Sanskrit States of Matter Controlled
Vata That which blows (i.e., which moves) Ether - Space
Wind (Air) - Movement
Pitta That which burns (i.e., which transforms) Fire – Transformation Water – Cohesion
Kapha That which binds (i.e., which supports) Water – Cohesion Earth – Density

Ayurveda uses the three Humors or Doshas to understand an individual’s birth, or natal constitution. This is observable through metabolic function and through the form and structure of the person’s body. Ancient Greek medicine borrowed and adapted this concept of constitutional medicine and the humoral theory. However, Ayurveda has been continually practicing and refining the constitutional approach while the ancient Greek system evolved into modern bio-chemical medicine.

A concrete example on the advantage of using the constitutional model is the effect that different herbs have on each constitutional type. A common herb like dandelion root (Taraxacum officinalis) is classified as being diuretic, bitter tonic, liver stimulant and mild laxative. Constitutionally this herb works well for Fire and Water types but cannot be given to the Wind or Air type of person (Vata) unless it is balanced with other plants. This is due to its strong bitter taste, which will increase the elements of ether and air.

Another example is the use of Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis) which is a diaphoretic, stimulant, carminative and emmenagogue. This herbs works very well to stimulate the digestive metabolism of the Air and Water types (Vata and Kapha) but is too heating for most Fire types. All pungent, heating herbs will tend to aggravate Fire types unless balanced by other herbs in a formula.

The primary difference in Ayurvedic and Western phytotherapy is that of the intelligent principal of nature. Western medicine as a whole uses a mechanical model of the universe while Ayurveda recognizes a vision of wholeness and unity that is supported by a conscious intelligence. Ayurveda understands and uses the mechanical approach to a small extent, however, it finds it a limited way to understand the universe.

Ayurveda views life as a complex interrelationship of forces - not a static structure of individual building blocks (such as cells, atoms, DNA, etc.). Trying to go through individual parts as the mechanical system does will not help you to understand the totality of health because health is not limited to the parts. According to Ayurveda each part cannot be seen outside of the system to which it belongs and supports.

For example, each form of matter is dependent on another. The four main states of matter, solid, liquid, transformative and gaseous all exist in a field of space. They are in constant interaction with each other and form the universe through this continuous dynamic interaction. The three humors direct and control this dynamic action to promote health or cause disease.

Hence in Ayurveda we can promote a dynamic state of health by supporting the dominant humor of the body with herbs that correspond to that humor. Our choice of herbs for any aliment becomes far more precise when we understand the constitution of the person we treat and the interrelationship that those herbs will have with the intelligence of the body. The five states of matter provide us the key to using herbs in this manner. Finally, this leads us to examine our concept of health itself. The definition of health in Ayurveda is dynamic and evolving - not simply an absence of disease. Due to the inherent intelligence dormant in plants they are extremely effective in promoting a true state of health when used according to the constitution of the person.

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