Can Ayurveda improve mental health?
Updated: Oct 24, 2022
Ayurveda is a holistic science of medicine that addresses health at the level of body, mind and spirit. It looks at each human being as a complex, multi-faceted being that cannot be merely divided into separate parts. Each aspect of a person affects the others, and all systems within that body and mind work together to contribute to the functioning of an individual.
So whether Ayurveda can help improve mental health is a question that is borderline ludicrous because the answer is so obviously YES. But the capacity to which Ayurveda addresses mental health is as vast as it is deep, and many may not be aware of how or why Ayurveda regards mental health with as much importance as physical health. Rather than attempt to provide you with a list of suggested practices for how to improve your mental health, I would like to discuss why mental health is essential for the Ayurvedic practitioner to address and the various possible ways that one may go about providing mental health support to Ayurvedic patients.
I first heard about Ayurveda during a mental health crisis of my own. I had burnt out of several struggling careers and was creating a world of misery in my personal relationships. I was having trouble getting out of bed and could not go for one week without having a crying spell. I was contemplating going back to school or counseling, but there was always something about the mainstream system of mental healthcare that had me hesitate. I "discovered" Ayurveda in my search for alternative mental healthcare and education through none other than social media algorithms. But when I clicked through that link, I realized that this system of medicine that I had never heard of was what I had always been looking for. Suffice it to say that through my journey through Ayurveda and yoga, I have made long strides towards better mental health.
The Inseparable Mind-body connection
Ayurveda and Yoga are both steeped in ancient Vedic philosophy, and outline the principles that guide an individual to have health and peace of mind. Swastha is the Sanskrit word for health, and literally translates to "established in Self." When we are truly at ease in our bodies and minds, we are more able to deal with the challenges that life brings us. Stress has long been established as a silent killer, so we also know that a distressed state of mind can also wreak havoc on our ability to fight disease.
There was a period of time in my life when I suffered from deep anxiety. I had panic attacks when attending social gatherings, trouble sleeping, and felt a sense of dread whenever I felt pressured to show up to evening activities I enjoyed, like capoeira class. During that period of time, I also developed musculoskeletal injuries, suffered joint pains, and even hair loss. From an Ayurvedic perspective, these symptoms are all tied to a systemic vata dosha imbalance. What affects the mind affects the body, and vice versa.
Sattva Avajaiya: One of the Three Approaches to Treatment
Because Ayurveda understands that mental health is inseparable from physical health, psychological counseling, or sattva avajaiya, is considered one of the three major approaches to treating a patient. The other two are yukti vyaprashaya, what would be considered the bulk of Ayurvedic medicine including herbal medicine, treatments, physical diagnostics, diet, etc., and daiva vyaprashaya, which is spiritual counseling. When seeking Ayurvedic treatment, your clinician will incorporate these three approaches in a way that is appropriate to your unique situation.
Understanding life in the context of Dharma-Artha-Kama-Moksha
Why be healthy in the first place? Is it to look better? Live longer? Live free of pain? Perhaps it is all of these, but Ayurveda keeps its eye on the bigger picture. It is said that Ayurveda was created so that humans could pursue their life purposes or duties (dharma), accumulate wealth to thrive (artha), enjoy life and the fruits of their labor (kama), and ultimately focus on achieving self-realization or liberation (moksha). World leaders cannot rule if they are constantly in the hospital. Pop singers can't perform show after show if they don't maintain their stamina and strength. Mothers cannot nourish their babies if their nutrition is poor. Being healthy provides us so much more than just temporary pain relief, it opens the door for us to live our best lives.
The Ayurveda-Yoga Connection
The world we live in is full of injustice, and it is easy to fall into despair and anger. Ayurveda draws upon the wisdom of yoga to help us find equanimity in the face of the harshest realities. Without the ability to stabilize the mind and find clarity, our minds can be overtaken by our turbulent emotions. There are three psycho-spiritual states, or gunas, of the mind: sattva (clarity), rajas (turbulence) and tamas (ignorance/darkness). Tamas is repressing energy that in excess causes us to withdraw, engage in self-destructive behaviors or even senseless violence. Rajas is agitating energy that can inspire action but in excess can cause turbulent emotions such as hostility, anxiety, and self-righteous anger. Sattva is clarity - what allows us to see beyond the drama of everyday life and approach challenges with a stable mind. In Ayurveda, it is our goal to cultivate sattva, the only guna that does not cause disease. One of the most cliche things a martial arts master says to his/her student is "control your emotions." Think Yoda vs. Anakin Skywalker!
Dinacharya sets the foundation for stability
Our habits are what make us. In Ayurveda, we work with patients to create a healthy daily routine, or dinacharya. When we make the effort to get up early, eat healthy food, engage in healthy practices like exercise, meditation, and self-study, we provide ourselves with a stable foundation in which to live life. Challenges are much easier to handle when we make efforts to make sure our basic needs are met. Not only that, it is much easier to help others when you yourself are taken care of. However, know that changing habits takes time and effort. Rather than beating yourself up for not being perfect, make an effort to show up for yourself every day and do one thing a little bit better. Remember, your Ayurvedic Practitioner is here to be your guide and support.
Thank you for reading! I would love to hear your thoughts and questions about this article. Please leave a like or comment below. Be well!