Dr. Suhas Kshirsagar, a classically trained Ayurvedic physician and gold medalist from Pune, India, and a beloved teacher of mine, once described Ayurveda and Yoga in a way that stuck with me. He described “Ayurveda as a philosophically based medical science and Yoga as a medically sound philosophy for day-to-day living.” These ancient sister sciences come from the same root – the Vedas. Ayurveda is a science that offers the knowledge of life – the information one needs to live life to its fullest potential. Yoga is a way of life and a primary tool for spiritual growth and liberation!
Dr. Jayarajan Kodikannath, another classically trained Ayurvedic physician from Kerala, India, and a beloved mentor and teacher that I have been fortunate to have, had once described Ayurveda and Yoga beautifully and succinctly as follows. He said that, “Generally speaking, Ayurveda deals more with the health of the body, while yoga deals more with purification of the mind and consciousness.”
Both these viewpoints have stayed with me ever since, so I thought I’d start this post by sharing this first with you.
Over time, here are the key points of similarities and differences that I’ve noticed and imbibed during the course of my study and practice of these 2 sciences.
Effect of Food:
Diet or food is a very important aspect in both yoga and ayurveda. However, each of these sciences views the effects of food in slightly different ways. Yoga focuses on the effect of food on the mind – does the food consumed excite the mind (rajasic), dull the mind (tamasic) or rejuvenate and harmonize (sattvic) the mind? The focus is on the mind more than the body. Yoga as a science mainly aims at balancing the mind for increasing awareness, with the ultimate goal being self-realization. Ayurveda’s focus is on the effect of food on the doshas i.e. the mind-body energies – is this food suitable for the person’s intrinsic mind-body constitution/prakriti (find out what your prakriti is here) and/or his current mind-body imbalance/vikriti (considered the start of disease in Ayurveda). That is not to say that Ayurveda doesn’t focus on the effects of food on the mind – it absolutely does, but the key focus is on how the food should be tailored to keep the doshic balance intact.
What is Good Food:
What is the definition of good food? Again, although not radically different, the focus is different in both these sciences. Yoga thinks of sattvic, simple, easy-to-digest foods as good. In Ayurveda, there are many aspects – tastes, doshas, season etc. In some sense, all types of food are considered as “medicinal” in Ayurveda, as long as it is used in the appropriate quantity, for the appropriate purpose at the appropriate time for the appropriate person. So, Ayurveda has a more detailed definition for “good food” and although it values the same aspects that are valuable in Yoga, there is more to it, in some sense.
Both Yoga and Ayurveda aim at bringing about balance and harmony within the individual. Yoga aims at balancing the mind, which as a by-product balances the body as well. Ayurveda aims at balancing the body and its energies/doshas, which as a by-product also balances the mind.
Emphasis on Prana/Lifeforce:
Both sister sciences lay great emphasis on increasing prana or vital life force in the body. Their methods of achieving it are slightly different. Yoga uses breath as a key tool to infuse the body with prana. Pranayama techniques, even simple focus on the breath while doing asanas/poses, and meditation – all aim at regularizing the breath and energizing the body by using breathing as a tool to achieve cellular level oxygenation. In Ayurveda, there are many ways or routes to increase prana or life force – diet (fresh, organic food), lifestyle (moderate exercise, good sleep, dinacharya/daily routines, ritucharya/seasonal routines), herbs, water (fresh, clean), perceptions (positive and non-toxic), air (fresh, clean) etc. Again, irrespective of the means to achieving the end, there is a high emphasis for increasing prana or vital lifeforce in both Yoga and Ayurveda.
Removing Blocks in the Subtle Channels (Nadis):
There are a large number of subtle channels for the flow of consciousness (nadis) in the body that get blocked ever so often due to improper diet, irregular lifestyles, exposure to stress etc. These blocks are precursors to many physical, mental and emotional diseases. Cleansing the body and removing these blocks is essential to bring about harmony in our lives and restore complete health. Yoga achieves this through specific postures/poses/asanas, breathing techniques/pranayama, mudras (spiritual gestures or energetic seals), bandhas (energy locks), that not only work on the musculature of the body, but also stimulate the flow of prana through the nadis and activate the chakras (7 energy centers in the body). Ayurveda achieves this through recommending a diet/lifestyle suitable to one’s constitution, body work detoxing techniques like panchakarma, detoxing herbs, daily and seasonal routines in sync with nature etc. But both strive to achieve the same effect.
Ashtanga Yoga and Aachara Rasayana:
According to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, yoga entails an 8-fold path of living – ashtanga yoga (8 limbs of yoga). These are yama (ethics, integrity), niyama (self discipline, spiritual observances), asana (bodily postures), pranayama (breath control), pratyahara (withdrawal from the senses, self observance), dharana (concentration on a single mental object), dhyana (meditation, uninterrupted flow of concentration, being keenly aware without focus), and samadhi (enlightenment, merging of the individual consciousness to the Universal consciousness). There is an equivalent Ashtanga Ayurveda – the 8 branches of Ayurveda – Kaya Chikitsa (Internal medicine), Shalya Chikitsa (Surgery), Shalakya Chikitsa (ENT, Ophthalmology), Bala Chikitsa (Pediatrics), Rasayana Chikitsa (Rejuvenation therapy), Vajikarana (Aphrodisiacs), Bhootha Vidya (Psychiatry), Visha Chikitsa or Agadha tantra (Toxicology). But, one of Rasayana Chikitsa’s sub-branches called Achara Rasayana is actually more equivalent in its import to Ashtanga Yoga than Ashtanga Ayurveda is. Achara Rasayana focuses on similar aspects such as personal behavior, social behavior, living truthfully and in harmony with nature and fellow living beings, purifying and balancing the body by doing good deeds, helping people in need etc. So, both Ashtanga Yoga and Achara Rasayana profess the same ideals for living life.
Summarily, Yoga and Ayurveda are multidimensional sciences that support each other and are definitely not independent of each other. Although their focus points are different, they inherently strive to achieve the same end result. The mind and body are not separate from each other – they form an integral unit!
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