Life has four characteristics: it exists, evolves, expresses and extinguishes. And for these, it depends on five elements: the earth, water, air, ether and fire. These correspond to the five senses: sight, smell, taste, sound and touch.
Ayurveda is the study of life — Veda means to know and Ayur is life. According to Ayurveda, life or existence is not rigid compartments — it is a harmonious flow. Even the five elements are not tight compartments of defined objects — they flow into one another. Each one of the elements contains the other four. So, the approach of Ayurveda towards life is holistic.
The subtlest element in us is space, which the mind is made up of, and the grossest element is the earth, which our bones, skin and body structure are made up of. To understand the physiology, its characteristics and its reflection on the mind, the human system is divided into three Doshas or imbalances: Vata, Pitta and Kapha.
When an illness arises, it manifests first in the thought form, which is the subtlest aspect, and then in the sound form. Thereafter it manifests in the light form, that is, in the aura. It is only then that the illness manifests itself in the body. To begin with, simple symptoms arise in the fluid form, which can be eradicated, and then only they manifest in the grossest form, where they need medication. In aromatherapy, an illness can be cured just through fragrance. It is mostly focussed on the preventive aspect.
The holistic approach of Ayurveda includes exercising, breathing and meditation. Breath is synonymous to life. For all practical purposes, if someone is not breathing, that’s the sign that there is no life there.
It is very interesting to notice the relationship between breath and the three Doshas in the body. These Doshas affect certain parts of the body more than the others. For example, Vata Dosha is predominant in the lower part of the body — stomach, intestine etc. Diseases like gastric problems and joint aches are caused due to this. Kapha Dosha is predominant in the middle part of the body. Cough is mainly a result of Kapha imbalance. Pitta affects the upper part of the body i.e., the head — short temper is a sign of Pitta.
In the breathing techniques, the three-stage pranayama has effect on these three Doshas. Among different breathing techniques, there are specific breathing exercises for lower, middle and upper parts of the body. After the three-stage pranayama, you would feel that the Doshas in your body have altered. Something in the body changes; you no longer feel the same, you feel more balanced. The pranayama brings that balance in the system. Once you get in the rhythm of the pranayama, you will find the balance setting in. Making it a habit is difficult, but not the practice itself. Definite rhythms or breathing patterns correct these Doshas and bring the balance to the connected parts of the body. You can also find the three Doshas in our fingers and the nerve endings. For example, the index finger is Kapha; the middle finger is Vata, and the ring finger, Pitta. You can discern the Doshas running in the body by the shape of someone’s fingers. Practice of Mudra pranayamas, i.e., gently pressing the nerve endings in the fingertips in a subtle way and breathing with the Ujjayi breath, also balances the Doshas in the body.
How to bring good health to a system? First, attend to the ether element that is the mind element. If your mind is clogged with too many impressions and thoughts, it is draining you of your resistance power and is preparing your body for some illness. If the mind is clear, calm, meditative and pleasant, the resistance in the body increases. It would not allow an illness to come into the body. Thus, the first remedy is to calm down the mind, provided by the ether. Then come to the air element, the breathing. Aromatherapy depends on this element. And then light — the colour therapy. You can see an illness in the aura of a person before it manifests in the body. Some physicians have done research on the aura photography, especially in cases of ulcers, cancer and diabetes. They took photographs six months before these diseases could manifest in the body and found some spots. By energising our system with the prana — life energy or breath — you can clear the aura and prevent the illness before it comes. That is what yoga does. Patanjali, in the Yoga Sutras, says that the purpose of yoga is, “Stopping the sorrow before it arises.”
And then, come to the water element. Fasting with water, purifying the system with water can bring a balance in the system. And final recourse, of course, is different medicinal herbs, medicines and surgery. All these come when everything else fails or when we neglect these other steps; then it becomes inevitable.
Our breath has a lot of secrets to offer to us, because for every emotion in the mind, there is corresponding rhythm in the breath. And each rhythm affects certain part of the body physically. Observing the great correlation between these sensations, the level of body and moods of the mind is meditation.
Have you observed the sensation you experience when someone praises you? Or, when you feel happy looking at a sunset or are meeting someone very close and dear to you? You feel a sense of expansion of mind, of consciousness. Though we do feel that happiness and the sensation is happening, we fail to notice the connection. It is because our attention is on that object, not on the sensation. And when you are miserable, there is a sensation of contraction. Somewhere you feel tight and tense inside; there is a contraction of the consciousness — that’s misery, sorrow. Knowledge is, knowing that which expands. What is this something in this body which is expanding and contracting, which is feeling happy or feeling miserable, which is expressing and which is experiencing, which is evolving and which is moving through the events? This knowledge, this enquiry is the study of consciousness, of life, of prana, of Ayurveda.
Breathing is the first act of life and this is also the last act of life. In between, though we are breathing in and out forever, we do not attend to the breath. If you attend to the breath, you’ll find that in one minute we breathe nearly sixteen to seventeen times. If you are upset you may go up to twenty; if you are extremely tense and angry, maybe twenty-five breaths per minute. But if you are calm, pleasant and happy, you will breathe ten times; and if you are in deep meditation, then only two breaths or three.
If you observe an infant and its breathing pattern, you will be amazed how balanced it breathes. Infants breathe from all the three sections of the body. Their breath goes very deep, and as they breathe in, their belly comes out; as they breathe out their belly moves in. But more nervous and tense you are, you will do the reverse. You don’t have to go to a school or learn these things from anybody. If your mind is very keen and observant, then you learn a lot just observing people, children and the nature around. But our mind is preoccupied with so many things, judgements, opinions and impressions that we are unable to observe and perceive the refined things in nature.