Yoga Therapy: The Value of Ayurveda as its Foundation

Integral Yoga Teachings   |   May 2, 2014

Yoga therapy, like any other therapy, rests upon a medical system that it is either part of or that it is used along with. A particular therapy by itself, like yoga asanas, is a treatment method, which requires additional supporting factors in order to deal with the patient’s greater health concerns. A treatment method must first follow a diagnosis, which will reflect a certain system of medicine and its theory of disease. A therapy works best if connected with a full treatment package, including diet, herbs, life-style changes and possibly other clinical procedures.

In short, the question of Yoga therapy raises the greater question as to whether we can have a complete yogic approach to health and well-being, a yogic system of medicine, with its own diagnosis and treatment methods that cover the full scope of medical practice and overall well-being and happiness.

Modern Yoga therapy is usually used in the context of modern medicine as an adjunct physical therapy, sometimes as recommended by a doctor, who is the primary care physician. In short, Yoga therapy has often been scaled down into the diagnosis and treatment protocol of modern medicine, which lacks a yogic approach to health and well-being.

There are also efforts to connect Yoga with various alternative or complimentary medical systems. Other groups seem to be trying to make Yoga therapy into its own medical system. In fact, it seems that almost any style of asana practice has become a therapy today, based upon its potential health benefits.

In this regard, it is important to look at the greater Yoga tradition. In older India, Yoga was not originally formulated as a healing practice or a therapy. It was devised as a spiritual practice or sadhana. Classical Yoga, such as occurs in the Yoga Sutras or Bhagavad Gita, aims at Self-realization or union with the Divine, not at health or the treatment of physical disease, which is rarely a topic in any Yoga texts.

However, classical Yoga does recognize the health benefits of many Yoga practices, not only asana but pranayama, mantra and meditation. Yoga aims at the alleviation of spiritual suffering, that owing to ignorance (avidya) of our higher nature in pure consciousness. This is a larger concern than physical or psychological well-being, though to a great extent it includes them. Yet classical Yoga is more a psychological medicine, as it aims more at healing the mind because of its close relationship with our deeper awareness.

Yet, more importantly, in the greater scheme of Vedic knowledge, there was always a medical system for addressing the health and well-being of body and mind. This is Ayurvedic medicine. While Yoga is the main Vedic practice or sadhana approach for Self-realization, Ayurveda is the main Vedic medical system for the overall treatment of diseases of body and mind, as well as for teaching the principles of right living.

In fact, Ayurveda can be said to be the yogic system of healing or the yogic form of medicine. The reason for this is that Ayurveda takes the philosophy and principles of Yoga, which are largely sadhana based, and adds to them the factors that address anatomy, physiology, constitution, the disease process, and the full range of treatment methods from diet, herbs, massage and surgery to yogic methods from asana to meditation.

Classical Yoga is based upon the Samkhya system of  philosophy and its 25 cosmic principles (Tattvas) from the Purusha or pure consciousness down to the five gross elements of earth, water, fire, air and ether. Samkhya itself is a summary of the main teachings that we find in the Upanishads that similarly list various cosmic principles. Yet these 25 principles reflect more the subtle body than the physical body and are often identified with the subtle body itself (called the linga in Samkhya thought).

Ayurveda adds to these 25 subtle principles the corresponding factors that relate to the physical body and to health. Most important are the three doshas or biological humors and their five subtypes, the seven dhatus or tissue elements, and the fourteen srotas or channel systems. In short, Ayurveda completes the health equation inherent in Yoga philosophy. It also follows the principles of Yoga such as the need to increase sattva guna, the promotion of prana, natural living, and the usage of natural foods and herbs. In short, if we want to learn how Yoga philosophy relates to health, the physical body and its workings, we must look to Ayurveda which contains this explanation in great detail.

Ayurveda defines health as the harmony of body, prana, mind, senses and the higher Self or Purusha. This is similar to the definition of classical Yoga that consists of calming the mind to connect with the Purusha as the seer within. If we want to understand how the energies of Yoga like prana affect our health and well-being, this is made clear in the Ayurvedic view of how the body and mind work.

 The advantage of Ayurvedic medicine is that it has been formulated as a complete yogic system of medicine from its very origins. The same rishis and yogis who were instrumental in developing Raja Yoga were also involved in Ayurveda, whether mythical figures like the Ashvins, the Vedic rishis, or even Patanjali himself who was also a famous Ayurvedic doctor and commentator. Ayurveda was devised as the Vedic system for treating diseases of body and mind. Raja Yoga was devised as the Vedic system for removing spiritual suffering and promoting sadhana. There is no other Vedic system of medicine than Ayurveda, and no other sadhana system than Yoga. This means that Yoga therapy as a means of treating physical and psychological disease comes traditionally under Ayurveda.

In other words, a yogic system of medicine already exists, which is Ayurveda. This means that any Yoga practitioners serious about Yoga therapy and Yogic healing should at least study the basics of Ayurveda and learn about the greater system of Vedic healing that both classical Yoga and Ayurveda have been part of.

Ayurveda uses Yoga as part of its life-style recommendations and as a treatment method, particularly for psychological disorders. Even today Ayurvedic practitioners regularly recommend some sort of Yoga therapy, yet they do so according to Ayurvedic principles of individual constitution and natural healing that are in harmony with Yoga and reflect the same principles and approaches.

The classical term for Yoga therapy is Yoga chikitsa. There are hundreds of chikitsa texts coming out of India. Yet these are almost entirely Ayurvedic. Every major Ayurvedic text, like Charak and Sushrut Samhitas, has a chikitsa section, just as it has a diagnosis (nidana), and anatomy and physiology (sharira) section. Yoga texts, on the other hand, as we can see from the Yoga Sutras, emphasize sadhana, as its sadhana pada or section. The other sections of the Yoga Sutras relate to samadhi (higher realization), vibhuti (powers) and kaivalya (liberation). In short, chikitsa is mainly the concern of a medical system, which was traditionally held by Ayurveda, not Yoga.

Some readers may ask, if Ayurveda has been so important for any Yogic healing or Yoga therapy, why haven’t our Yoga teachers told us this? The main reason is that most Yoga approaches came to the West as part of a spiritual practice or sadhana tradition that did not emphasize any medical applications, and that Ayurvedic schools had been closed down by the British in India and were only reopened since India’s independence in 1947.

Most Yoga traditions from India are firmly rooted in Ayurveda, as is also Tibetan Buddhism and its Tibetan medicine, which is predominantly Ayurvedic. In recent years, Ayurveda has been coming back into the Yoga teachings, particularly in India, but also in the West. Maharishi Mahesh Yogi was the main teacher to emphasize the importance of Ayurveda, but today most Yoga ashrams have some Ayurveda, if not Ayurvedic classes or Ayurvedic clinics.

How do we create a meaningful Yoga therapy, not merely for the body but also for the mind and with respect to the deeper divine consciousness or Purusha within us? How do we create, not merely a Yoga therapy, but a complete yogic system of medicine, disease treatment and positive well-being? Such a system already exists as Ayurveda. It does not need to be created but only adapted to our current individual and cultural needs and circumstances. Then we need not merely talk about Yoga therapy but about Yogic medicine, Yogic healing for body, mind and consciousness, and a Yogic doctor or a primary care practitioner rooted in a yogic system of medicine.

Of course, there is a long way to go to develop all this. The current medical establishment is quite powerful, open in some ways but closed in others. The medical establishment often does not mind bringing in complimentary therapies like Yoga if it remains in control of the greater overall diagnosis
and treatment process, but this is more a subordination than adaptation. However, over time the situation can and must be changed.

An Ayurvedic yoga primary care practitioner (doctor if you will), will not simply be someone who can prescribe asanas with regard to Ayurvedic types, though this is a good place to start. They will be someone who can diagnose and treat disease, including dealing with internal medicine factors
of diet and herbs, as well as external factors of exercise and massage, and psychological factors of mantra and meditation, reflecting the philosophy and principles of yoga and Ayurveda and their interconnections.

In our work we aim at this integration of Raja Yoga with mindbody Ayurveda, using all eight limbs of Yoga to help relieve physical, mental and spiritual suffering. This we believe provides the ideal system for optimal well-being. We also bring in related Vedic sciences like Vedic astrology (Jyotish) and Vastu for a complete understanding of the cosmic influences in our lives and how to live in harmony with the greater universe. This view of Vedic healing and inner transformation has a great relevance for everyone. Through it we can create an integral healing system that reflects the essence of Yoga on all levels of our being and all aspects of the universal life.

(by Dr. David Frawley, from the May, 2010 IYTA Newsletter)


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