A Western Mind’s Journey into the Eastern Wisdom of Ayurveda
I first bumped into Ayurveda in a tiny mountain village in the Pyrenees, where only three people live all year long. Vio (Spain) is a pretty unexpected place to learn about this 5.000 year old traditional Indian medicine, for sure. But Casa Cuadrau, the meditation and yoga facility where I was volunteering, attracts very interesting people from all over the world.
On that Spring day in May, the sun was already caressing the peak of the majestic mountains surrounding us when three strangers showed up unannounced. They had met one of the volunteers, Silvia, in an underground coffee shop. This young and attractive woman was visiting her family in Barcelona, taking a break from her one year commitment in the mountains. Her English was perfect – she had been living for several years in Dublin (Ireland) before coming back to her motherland – which helped the Americans to connect with her. They showed a great interest in the retreat program Silvia was managing in Vio, since they were thinking about launching their own. Their openness and interest motivated Silvia to invite them into the heaven of nature we were living in. A few days later, they had arranged to rent a car and braved the three hour windy road trip that separated them from us.
Shortly after their arrival, the three Americans had already taken over the kitchen to prepare some coffee alternative of their creation, shaking up the habits of the residents who were not used to such intrepid people. The most talkative was Patrick, a German looking guy in his late 20s, who I am sharing my life with now. The most silent was Jen, who appeared to be married to the third intruder, Victor, an Ayurvedic practitioner. Victor always jokes about the fact he saw me first, so it’s thanks to him that Patrick and I met. Whether he’s right or not, he definitely was the first to put his fingers on me. Give a break to your misplaced mind, we are not breaking up marriages here! But he did put his fingers on my wrist in order to read my pulses.
If you’re trying to picture a white-coat doctor with a stethoscope and a blood pressure cuff, you’re going in the wrong direction. Victor actually was wearing a colorful Indian ‘kurta’ with white pants and a few gold gemstone rings. The art of Ayurvedic pulse reading resides in your capacity to interpret and determine if the pulsations hitting your fingertips are rather ‘froggy’ or ‘snaky’ or similar to some other kind of animal behaviour. It’s not a joke, that’s how the ancient ‘vaidyas’ – term for Ayurvedic doctors in Sanskrit – very seriously categorised the different kinds of pulses.
“From what I can read in your pulse, you are mainly a pitta type,” he concluded, putting an end to three minutes of silence while he was pressing up and down on my wrist very conscientiously.
“What does that mean? I guess you’re not telling me I look like bread,” I asked in a sassy tone.
“Right! Pitta, Vata and Kapha are the three different body types in Ayurveda. Pitta is the most fiery,” he added.
“What else can you tell?”
“Have you ever had kidney or bladder issues?”
“Yes”, I answered, quite intrigued. “How do you know? Did you run a check on me or something?”
“Of course not! I can read the imbalances in your pulse on the first and seventh layers that are connected to those organs.”
“I’m not sure I’m following, but what should I do about it?”
“Well, we don’t have time right now to get into too many details, but if it keeps happening to you, you might consider switching to a less acidic diet, because that’s the main cause for Pitta imbalance. No tomatoes, no onions, no garlic,” he dictated.
“Wow! That’s gonna be tough here in Spain, we eat those products everyday,” I exclaimed before leaving my spot to the next person in line behind me.
Little did I know by then that I would soon move across the Atlantic, marry my husband-to-be and live in a community setting to learn and practice Ayurveda on a daily basis for a year in Northern California. More than a science, Ayurveda is actually a philosophy that teaches us how to live in harmony with nature; the environment as well as our own nature. It’s all about respecting the natural rhythms and preventing the development of disease by searching for the root cause of any imbalance.
I first learned that food is the key to pretty much everything, and how different foods and spices can affect people in different ways according to their body types. That’s why, when people would come for counselling at the clinic, the first thing they were asked was what they were consuming; what they were eating but also everything they were in contact with, such as movies, books, alcohol, drugs, toxic people, etc. The idea was not to put the clients on a diet, but to help them put some balance in their lifestyles by taking as many factors as possible into consideration, instead of giving them ‘magic pills’.
I was already a vegetarian when I met my new friends, but I decided to switch to veganism soon after. Ayurveda doesn’t say: “You shouldn’t eat meat”, because it actually uses meat as medicine in some cases, such as to replenish anaemic people for instance. But if you stick to the logic of the philosophy it carries, you can’t really eat animal products nowadays. At least, not at the frequency people are doing it.
Some studies say that in the US, ninety-nine percent of meat, dairy, and eggs come from factory farms. We’ve all seen how animals are treated in those farms, and it’s definitely not the Ayurvedic way. I’m not going to lie, I love the taste of meat, and I would kill to eat some cheese and butter – I’m French, remember? But when I think about the way milk is produced, I just can’t.
Did you know that cows don’t produce milk just because it is? In order to constantly produce it, they need to have babies. And do you think that their calves get to grow up next to their mamma, in green pastures for the rest of their lives? Hell no! Most of the time they are separated at birth – breaking their moms hearts. All so that we can eat our veal stew. Wait, cows don’t have feelings? Yes, cows do love their babies. Check this out: https://www.animalbehaviorandcognition.org/uploads/journals/17/AB&C_2017_Vol4(4)_Marino_Allen.pdf
To me, animals are not just food commodities, and I wish more people would respect them. According to Ayurveda, respecting animals the same way we (could) respect people and the environment is at the basis of everything, because everything is interconnected.
In Gualala, Northern California, there was not much to do. Only 2,000 people live there. Half of them are retired, and the other half get by waiting for the tourist season to kick in. The coastline over there is breathtaking, and you can see the Milky Way to the naked eye every night (if it’s not cloudy). Peace reigns. It is only disturbed by a symphony of seals, interspersed with noisy 18 wheeler trucks loaded with second growth redwood trees. The “old growths” are long gone. Can you hear my heart shattering?
For several months, Ayurveda then became my main focus. I would wake up at 4am to take classes once a week with my teacher from India, Dr. Nandan. He’s a very open and humble man, devoted father of two adorable boys – who would always come to say hello at the beginning of class – and a committed doctor who runs his clinic with his parents night and day to help as many people as he can. During the pandemic, he often felt helpless. He was faced with the irresponsibility of people who were not wearing masks nor social distancing. Some patients, desperate because of the lack of hospital care, would call him from across the country in order to get help.
The first class was a trip. I couldn’t understand half of the words because of the Sanskrit and all those new baffling concepts. Even the approach of teaching is different in the East. Instead of being linear, going through one topic at a time, it’s more circular. I learned confusingly about this and that, but all of a sudden, it magically started taking shape in front of my eyes.
For instance, why is the heart so important according to this philosophy? Well, there isn’t just one definition of what the heart is. One day I learned one aspect of it as we discussed the liver. Another day, I learned another aspect as we studied its relation to the eyes, and so on. The study of Ayurveda is like an infinite web, there is no beginning and there is no end.
The organs, for instance, are constantly impacting each other because of their countless interrelationships. It’s not just on the physical level. What you eat, when you eat, how you eat, who you spend time with, how you sleep are all encompassed. Ayurveda also includes the mental and spiritual levels – how stressed you are, what happened to you when you were a kid, what are your ‘samskaras’ (karmic inheritance of mental and emotional patterns), what is your dharma or purpose in life, etc.
Well, to answer my question that day, Dr. Nandan pulled up the traditional texts. According to them, the heart is the first organ to be formed in a fetus, and one of the main seats of the life force, ‘Prana’, without which survival is impossible. It’s even considered more important than the brain (which is not even categorised as an organ). “You said what?!” Yes, I probably had the same reaction as yours. And contrary to common belief, the heart, not the brain, would be the seat of the “mind”.
“It’s not the eye that sees the world, but the mind that sees the world with the help of the eyes,” said Dr. Nandan. “The mind needs to travel fast to do all sorts of things, and since the heart is related to the blood, Rakta, and the circulatory action, Vyana vayu, it’s the best actor to help the mind travel fast enough.”
“What about neurons,” I asked.
“The texts don’t mention them. But anyway, the most important reason why the heart is more important than the brain, is that the mind enjoys relationship with the soul. Do you remember where the seat of the soul is?”
“Yes, it’s the heart according to Ayurveda.”
“Indeed, and the soul and the mind always stay together, not only for this life, but also in all reincarnations,” he concluded.
The more I studied Ayurveda, the more I would discover notions that were contradictory to what I had learned so far – the western way of comprehending the world. It was a real struggle for me. Though I loved studying it and discovering this completely different culture.
My teacher was very comprehensive and he would always take time to answer my questions the best he could. One day, I questioned the science behind Ayurveda – which literally means ‘Science of Life’. That’s when he told me that Ayurveda actually was not a medical science, but a philosophy.
Relief! My struggle was finally over! I could leave in peace with that. There was space then for modern medicine and traditional wisdom, both of which seem absolutely complementary to me now. I think they can learn from each other.
Modern medicine can learn to see the bigger picture and how everything is inextricably linked. Traditional wisdom can be complimented by the precision and knowledge of top-notch science.