Ayurveda and the Mind


The state of our mind and emotions are considered to be extremely important for our well-being. This is not purely because we will feel better but because the state of mind and emotions will have a direct effect upon our physical well-being.



Generally in ayurveda and yoga we look at the mind in terms of the Tri-Gunas, the three states of mind, not to be confused with the gunas (small 'g'), the attributes of the doshas!



The Tri Gunas are Tamas, Rajas and Sattva.



Ideally we will have a sattvic mind which is a mind possessing both stability and energy and we can work towards this by choosing foods and activities which support us in creating sattva and certainly for those of you practicing yoga, yoga is a system dedicated to increasing sattva!


Whilst most of us will experience times of sattva there are however two other states of mind which we may also recognize. The first is the state of rajas where a rajasic mind has lots of energy but little stability so this is the undisciplined mind, or the busy mind needing stability to become sattvic i.e. balanced. Typically the mind will be agitated and disturbed being unable to be still.



The second is the state of tamas where a tamasic mind has stability but little energy requiring energy to become sattvic i.e. balanced. In this case typically the mind will lack clarity and be somewhat inert.


In the natural order of the day we will all require some tamas to enable us to sleep and rajas can help us get active but problems occur when we are chronically in a state of tamas or rajas.



The rajasic mind


When we possess a rajasic mind this means that the mind is unstable, agitated and fast moving meaning vata dosha and pitta dosha may easily increase.


For example an agitated mind which cannot rest can lead to vata symptoms such as insomnia where the mind is too busy to sleep, or it can disturb our digestion leading to symptoms such as alternate diarrhea and constipation. In the longer term chronic vata derrangement due to a rajasic mind can lead to conditions such as osteoporosis or osteoarthritis, where there is disruption within the formation of necessary tissues, so in the first instance micro-nutrients such as minerals and vitamins are not absorbed through the wall of the colon leading to a lightening of the bones, and in the second instance the joints become dry, lacking lubrication. Conversely in the longer term being rajasic can manifest as being too controlling and competitive and this typically can lead to feeling of impatience or frustration when things do not go well.  These types of emotion can lead to an increase in pitta dosha where bile is increased as the mind and body become unsettled. This can lead to acid indigestion, ulcers and so on and in the longer term we may see conditions such as migraine, gall stones etc. becoming established. These examples are over-simplifications but hopefully you will have got the idea!


In essence a rajasic mind state generally means we can still function in the world and can achieve our goals but we are orientated towards self-satisfaction meaning we will be subject to a roller-coaster of emotions and short sharp shocks when things do not go our way. Energetically there is the possibility we will be unable to manage our levels so energy easily dissipates and we may eventually suffer from a collapse of energy or burn out, leading to a tamasic mind as described below.


It may seem strange to link physical conditions with a rajasic mind state but we must remember that the movement of the mind will necessarily alter the flow of energy within the body disrupting the measured flow of substances, disrupting communications, coordination and so on. Also when emotions are disturbed this will necessarily adversely affect our chemistry, meaning the natural intelligence of the body is always disturbed. 



The tamasic mind


When we possess a tamasic mind the mind lacks focus (fire) and energy (air) preferring to stay still, being attached to its comforts. There is an inertia of body and mind with a sense of being stagnant. The mind is dull and may there may be repressed emotion but we are unaware of what is happening for us as we lack clarity. Our habits may not serve us but there is little motivation to change anything. A tamasic mind often leads to blocked energy and often eventually diseases of a congestive nature may become evident.



Often a major challenge in Ayurveda is that we need to take responsibility for our own health and when the mind is either rajasic or especially tamasic this is something which is difficult to do yet the good news is that we can usually make small changes to diet and lifestyle and when necessary also introduce some simple, helpful yoga techniques, all of which will alter our metabolism and our psychology simultaneously. A good example is how we can add a simple drink to alter our physiology and psychology is when there is an attachment to chocolate and sweets if we start to take a ginger decoction then the bitter taste within the ginger will very quickly alter this attachment meaning our sugar addiction dissolves away!! Another example would be how a series of yogic breaths, performed several times each day can calm the mind and energy of the body so anxiety is reduced and the energies of the body begin to work in the right way.


To help us increase sattva there are many things we can do, so to find out more please take a look at the article on Seeking Sattva.



The Mind Body Relationship


Finally it may be very helpful to spend a little time looking at how the mind and body relate to one another as this can provide very valuable insights into ourself.



Usually we look at the mind and body as being separate aspects of ourselves but if we observe closely we can realize that the two are inextricably linked until it is as if they are the same. This is shown for example by the way in which if we change the food we eat and the way it is eaten there can quickly be profound psychological changes where a person may find they are more focused, less hyperactive, they are no longer so anxious or so easily moved to anger.



"Food nourishes mind and consciousness - matter becomes energy"




Equally this link is shown in the countless ways we can introduce different energetic affects through all of the different ayurvedic treatments which whilst seemingly treat the body actually have great benefits for the mind.


So for instance shirodhara, where warm herbal oil is rhythmically poured over the forehead, can greatly calm a hyperactive mind and reduce anxiety; a calming, soothing massage will bring these same qualities to the mind whereas a stimulating, opening massage will bring awaken the mind. A steady, balanced asana practice can bring calm and focus to the mind whilst a dynamic, balanced asana practice can dispel dullness whilst creating focus. And of course we all know that some herbs have a natural affinity for the mind and so herbs such as brahmi, which soothes and cools the mind, can be introduced either orally, as an oil which is gently dripped into the nasal cavities or applied to the head, whereas an oil such as dhanvantaram when applied to the body will create a new wakefulness and sense of purpose.



So our diet, our activities and the therapies we receive can all introduce different qualities to the mind.


In the same way it also becomes clear that this situation works in reverse so when the mind and emotions become more balanced the functioning of the body also transforms for the better. In ayurveda and yoga however it is generally recognized that it is much harder to first directly work with the mind as it is so subtle and difficult to control. Consequently in both systems therapists usually initially work with the mind via the body i.e. change the quality of the mind through diet, massage, herbs, asana, relaxation etc. And of course in yoga and ayurveda working with the breath is also a wonderful possibility as this will directly affect the functioning of the mind and body.


Then as the mind becomes more stable it becomes possible to start to work with the mind itself, and here tools such as meditation and self-examination pay us dividends, as these can lead us deeper into the sattvic state.



When our mental state has become more balanced we will make better choices for ourself but also the functioning of the body will be harmonized. In general terms this is because when the mind and its close cousins, the emotions, are more balanced this helps us to maintain or recover our health as the intelligence of the body can work unimpeded; yet conversely when they are unbalanced in a very literal sense problems ensue, for example nerve, hormonal and chemical signals begin to dysfunction, cycles are disrupted, an agitated or held breath alters our blood chemistry and we may find our posture, which is so indicative of our mental state, begins to adversely affect the structure and function of the body. The adage 'a healthy mind gives a healthy body' is so true!



Finally to give you a little theoretical knowledge as to how the mind can create imbalance we can examine the srotas, the fourteen channels through which all substances flow. One channel is the rakta vaha srota i.e. the channel carrying blood, and problems occur when there is too much or too little movement, agitated movement within the channel, a blockage in the channel or the blood flows out of the channel. Surprisingly perhaps this also holds true for the mind as one of these fourteen channels is the mano vaha srota or the channel carrying thought where it is interesting to see that the same things apply i.e. there are problems where there is too much or too little movement, or agitated movement, when there is a blockage or when thoughts are divorced from our mind space. In a way then the mind functions just like the body, having its own movement, metabolism and digestion although of course it exists at a much finer vibration being more allied to the elements of space and air. You may recognize some of these states from your experience where for example your mind can be racing i.e. there is too much movement, your mind is quickly moving from one thought to another thought i.e. there is agitation or you cannot think or are stuck on a particular thought i.e. there is too little movement or a blockage. Most of us are less likely to have experienced the flow out of the mind space which can occur in situations such as schizophrenia where the individual's thoughts and identity move out of the usual mind space.


Using this knowledge we can see how when a mind which is moving too quickly or is too agitated i.e. it is rajasic, and when it is moving too slowly or is blocked i.e. it is tamasic, these states when chronic, will lead us to imbalance and possibly to disease. It is always the cultivation of a sattvic mind which brings balance and well-being i.e. we require a smooth balanced movement within this channel.


Eventually as sattva grows within us ideally the mind stays still with thoughts arising spontaneously as needed. In this situation our consciousness moves into another gear where we can maintain a state of awareness, where the mind is still and use the mind when we need to calculate, formulate adn so forth. Much of our yoga practice is aimed at achieving this state where now the mind is our servant rather than our master!


There is one additional area worthy of consideration which is that of the emotions. This is such an important area to explore which is so very often overlooked. To find out more about the emotions and how to work with them please see the article called Metabolizing Emotion.