Spiritual Dimensions of Ayurvedic Practice
By Dr. Martina Ziska
Practice of Ayurveda is a term that can be defined in many ways. When we cook with love and knowledge of food rasa, when we touch painful belly of a sick child, or when we grind spices and herbs to make tea or food more palatable for the whole family, are we practicing Ayurveda? In a certain view, yes, we are.
As traditionally defined, Ayurveda represents knowledge of life. Channels through which this knowledge is funnelled come in many shapes and forms. The form of ayurvedic practice to which we are most accustomed is on in which a person, such a doctor or therapist addresses problems of others. This person may be called vaidya, doctor, therapist, practitioner, consultant, or advisor, depending on education and custom. I will call this person physician, and the people he assists patients for consistency issue.
Charaka speaks in the first chapter called Quest for Longevity about qualities that make a good physician (ref). They can all be summed up into one word – knowledge. As defined by Charaka, this knowledge comes not only from study, but also from practice (ref). It is practice of Ayurveda, the actual application of learnt information that makes ayurvedic physician.
Looking further into Charaka, we find interesting slokas describing role, place, and qualifications of physician. Chapters XV. and XVI. titled Requirements of a physician and Duties of physician discuss within the context of vamana and virechana what experience physician must poses to guide patients through the clinical art of cleansing (ref). However, in chapter XXIX on Ten resorts of life, Charaka further defines how to recognize a good physician from a bad one (ref). Interestingly, here next to knowledge, he adds further requirements such as wisdom and personal and professional approach to life deeply rooted in understanding of the nature of human existence (ref).
It is in this context, that I would like to share my thoughts, observations, and experiences made during a decade of practice in the field of clinical Ayurveda.
II. Prana and its Reflection
One way to view ayurvedic practice is in terms of prana. Prana is the life substance or energy that underlies changes in the human body, mind, and psyche. In traditional ayurvedic practice, most emphasis is given to the balancing of Tridosha, cleansing of nadis and shrotamis for the purpose of free flowing abundant prana. It is this very prana that brings about healing. So as we work towards health and balance, we are cultivating prana. We need prana not only to bring about changes, but also to sustain them.
Another way we can view prana is as the most refined energy of the nervous system. Vata is the leading dosha, having the most subtle and variable energy that bridges the physical existence with the non-physical one. As such, prana is a repository of experiences and patterns that we create in life. We live life that is equivalent to the quality of our prana. In other words, our life experiences are coloured in every moment by the status of our nervous system or prana. So if our vata is in a state of emergency, prana will circulate in the body in a chaotic way and our life experience in that moment will be an experience of stress. One can therefore justifiably say that we create our own reality. That reality is reflected in the state of prana.
As we bring this to practice of ayurveda, we can draw interesting parallels. We will create practice that is reflective of our state of being/thinking/approach to life. While this might sound like an abstract statement, the implications are quite concrete. Let me give you a few examples, some from my own experience and from observation of others.
There was a time in my practice when I had a fear of administering bastis. Most patients were unfamiliar with Ayurveda. My assumption was that they would view basti as a fringe, perhaps radical therapy that could bring legal complications. I did not feel confident to offer this therapy. I have offered it several times, but each times patients responded exactly in the same way as I assumed they would. It was until a patient came that needed bastis as the most effective therapy that the situation changed. As she was in acute pain, I offered an intensive basti regimen. She chose it and had dramatic positive therapeutic response to it. I lost my reservations and since then I use basti therapy whenever I feel it is clinically indicated.
I have seen a similar “reflection” of physician’s prana in other situations. When physician has a deep rooted belief, that for example the only way he can succeed in practice of Ayurveda is in combination with other therapeutic modalities, he will create practice reflective of that belief. In other words, we reflect the status of our prana and in that way create our “own reality” of ayurvedic practice.
In finding where our reflections stand, we may ask ourselves following questions:
1. If the practice that I have or am creating is a reflection of me, what have I created? What patients, patterns of behaviour, and situations of conflict or comfort am I attracting?
2. What are the parts of my practice that don’t resonate with me? Why don’t they resonate? Do they represent objective blockages or are they manifestations of my mental patterns? Can I change them by approaching them with different thoughts or energy?
3. What parts of practice are bringing me more energy back than I have invested in? How are my approach/core beliefs in these areas different from the ones that I have identified as “problem” areas? 4.What is an overall goal for my practice? How does it resonate with the overall goal for my life? What kinds of motives govern my practice? Do I generate more prana then I use prana? If not, how can I change this situation so I end up with pranic surplus?
The purpose of examining these questions is to help us understand our position as ayurvedic physicians, our motives as energies that shape how we approach practice, patients and potential problems. Once we understand how we use prana, we can use it in a more focused and sattvic way. Then we are ready to consciously enter the world of meeting patients, to encounter their prana on the level of soul.
III. Meeting of Pranas
In the practice of Ayurveda, we interact with others. Patients, clients, fellow sufferers, in short people come to us for help. Many things were said and written about doctor-patient relationship, a professional conduct and factors that influence positive outcome. But what still remains mystery is the fact that interactions with some patients are undeniably more enjoyable than interactions with other. And this seems to happen for no apparent reason. Also for no apparent reason therapeutic interventions are more successful with some patients than with others. Some patients are difficult to work with and improvement or cure comes not too often in these situations. What took me years to discern was that the outcome of therapy is not successful or unsuccessful because of me, but because of other factors. So no matter what I do as a physician, and my efforts are always the same, some patients improve and some don’t. I can perhaps ascertain that the lack of improvement or cure is not reflective of my failure as a therapist, because my efforts were similar to those situations that resulted to therapeutic success. One by similar extrapolation patients who improved did not improve due to my personal skills or power. How is this to be?
One can find some answers by looking at prana again. When we work with patients, it is our prana that meets the pranic field of the patient. Depending on the type of interaction – do we let the interaction happen spontaneously so that the two pranas can meet in the field of unlocalized prana? or do we work within the field of localized prana, something like this one is mine and the other is yours. The therapeutic intervention can have more impact on the situation of the patient or less or none. A sensitive practitioner who uses her intuitive skills is able to determine on what level the prana is blocked and direct the flow to that area to bring the most positive change. When the patient sees all of his problems happening on the physical level, and then asking him to work on the emotions or thoughts will not be helpful. On the other hand, when the patient opens himself to the possibility and understanding of the underlying causes of his problems stemming from non-physical areas, a practitioner can guide him to a faster resolution of his imbalances. In the ideal scenario, there is openness on both sides, from the practitioner and patient at the same time, prana can freely meet in the nonlocalized field and bring back its own expression and guidance of therapeutic process. Such therapeutic process is mutually most satisfying, given the patient has openness, trust, and understanding, and the physician is knowledgeable of the healing process and is non-attached to the process itself or the outcome. I have notices that the most remarkable changes happened in patients who I consulted on a “visiting” basis. There was no attachment from me – I have given advice and guidance freely without burden of attachment and expectation. The most remarkable changes occurred. When the patient keeps coming back and problems persist, identifying the outcome with our own ability to help is the most unhelpful thing we as physicians can do. It creates blockages of the natural flow of prana and the natural process of healing is thus impeded. Within this process, we need to question our own intentions. These are places within our own energetic system from which prana comes. To help us we can ask following questions:
1. How do I feel is my own energetic status when meeting or working with this patient? Do I feel more energized or energetically depleted after working with this patient? Do I feel irritated, fearful, or sad when working with this patient?
2. When experiencing these negative energetic states, can I identify their source? What of my own feelings can I identify – perhaps feelings of powerlessness or helplessness? My feelings of misuse or being used? My feelings of incompetence or insecurity?
3. When feeling energetically positive, what is the source of these feelings? How my thoughts and approach differ in this situation from the negative energetic situation?
4. What are my intentions for working with this person or situation? Can I bring the highest best intention for both of us without attachment? Can I stay objective, witnessing the situation and myself while being fully present?
Remember, that according to the ancient wisdom, the ayurvedic physician does not have any other duty than to touch the soul of the patient. When this happens, when the pure source of prana is touched from the pure place in us, the karmic interaction is put in motion. Out of that interaction comes direction determined by universal consciousness.We can just sit and watch and deepen our understanding and continue to carry on our part with the words of praise on our lips.
IV. Prana Heals
One may still ask “How come some physicians are more successful than others?” And it is a right question to ask. Looking to how much education and theoretical knowledge one may
have answers to this question only partially.
As Charaka eluded, it is the personal excellence of a physician that makes him the most skilful doctor.
If we look from the standpoint of prana, we come to a term of healing prana. Healing prana is the prana that exists in the universe in its pure form. It is available everywhere where life is in its concentrated form. We are perhaps familiar with a feeling we have while in the nature, mountains, woods, by the lakes, rives, springs, and other special geographical places. They seem to radiate more energy due to a high concentration of prana. This high octane prana can be used for healing. We tend to use it automatically by being attracted to places, people, and experiences that carry this type of prana. As physicians, we need to cultivate healing prana and use it in a directed and focused way in our work. Physicians generate healing prana by their way of living. It is our lifestyle that is prana-abundant or prana-deprived. Sattvic way of living on the physical level that includes season and constitution appropriate fresh, balanced, vegetarian based diet combined with daily and exercise routine and rest necessary for the individual is a good foundation. Approaching work with joy and benefit of the universe in mind is equally important. Attending to one’s emotional state and psychological understanding is just as necessary as regular spiritual practices. In fact, this is living yoga, cultivation of joy and peace and balance in all aspects of one’s life. Such living generates prana and ojas and tejas necessary for the work as ayurvedic physician.
If we don’t attend to these aspects, if we become a centre of our work, we use the lower-grade individual prana. This prana is not only limited in amount and scope, but is also bound by all our human conditionings.
Such prana, when used for healing, not only results in inadequate results, but is in essence harmful not only to the patient, but also to the physician. As physician depletes his own energetic resources, he ends up burnt up. This state is in true contradiction to the goal of Ayurveda.
All what we need to do is perhaps, simply said and difficult to do, get out of our own way and allow ourselves to become conduits to the universal healing prana that brings about balance and understanding.
Physicians need to be embodied example of ayurvedic lifestyle and wisdom. This includes all practical aspects of the physical body care, emotional balance, positive mental patterns, and spiritual groundedness. When striving for this state, perhaps we can consider some of the following guidelines:
1. How do I approach my work? What is my concept of healing? Who does the work?
2. How do I feel the presence of prana in my own body? Where do I generate prana from? What is my pranic balance?
3. What areas of my existence – physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual, contribute most to the generation of prana? What areas are lacking in prana? How can I remedy these?
4. In the process of healing, where do I see my position? How do I use trust, intuition, and silence in this process and in my life in general?
Perhaps when we answer some of these questions, we get closer to the energetic state in which we become channels of universal energy, pure conduits to healing prana that is available to us and all living creatures.
Practice of Ayurveda goes beyond theoretical knowledge. Healing is based on cultivation, presence, and usage of high octane prana. This prana is available in the universe and ayurvedic physicians can utilize it for the benefit of patients and their own benefit. When healing comes from the non-personal place and is done without attachment to result and identification with the process, we allow for the natural process to take place. Such interaction benefits everybody involved as well as universe at large and is foundation of Ayurvedic practice. This article hopes to inspire Ayurvedic practitioners to approach their practice from the place of pure consciousness and allowance of natural processes. For this, trust, openness, and gratitude must be present. May be all benefit from the knowledge, wisdom, and abundance of universal consciousness! May we be conduits of pure consciousness and express the beauty, radiance, and perfection of the universal creation and us, human beings in it! Namaste.
Charaka Samhita. Sharma R. K., Dash V. B. (edit). Chowkhamba Sanskrit Series Office, Varanasi, 1983. Vol. I., chap. 1, verses 126-133, 135; chap. 15, 16, 29, verses 6-13. Vol. II., chap 6, verse 19.