The Doshas and Yoga / by Maré Hieronimus


cycles of life and death, photo by Maré Hieronimus

Yoga and Ayurveda are two sister sciences that spring from the same root. Yoga is the science of self-realization, and Ayurveda is the science of healing.  They both stem from the great stream of Ancient Vedic teachings, that are over 5000 years old. There are several main branches of Vedic Philosophy and knowledge. One of the main branches is Samkhya Philosophy, which was given to us by the sage Kapila (2000 years ago).

This Vedic Philosophy and Cosmology can be said to be one of the mothers, if not the mother of Hatha Yoga and Ayurveda. Samkhya Philosophy is one of the most ancient of Indian philosophies, drawing directly from the Vedas, the Upanishads, and the Bhagavad Gita. Samkhya describes 24 Cosmic Principles (Tattvas) that form the foundations of Yoga and Ayurveda.

These 24 Cosmic Principles describe the process of manifestation from subtle to dense in the world, as we know it. I am not going to go into all of these principles, but I want to mention the first four (and the zero principle), and then the last five, because they have a direct relationship to the material that I have been working with, and provide a framework for understanding how intertwined the practices of Yoga and Ayurveda actually are.

The first cosmic principle is Prakriti, which is primordial nature. This has yet to be manifest in any form, and is the universal substance of all that we know in the world.

The second cosmic principle is Mahat, or cosmic intelligence. This stipulates that there is an intuitive intelligence at work, a higher mind or knowledge that is operating underneath and through this Prakriti, or primordial nature.   It also stipulates that each of us at any point can connect to this cosmic intelligence, which is the superior mind.

The third cosmic principle is the Ahamkara, or the ego.  This is not just the ego as we know and understand it today. Ahamkara is the principle of differentiation and division. All life differentiates, and from a Vedic perspective, it differentiates in order to integrate back into the whole. So therefore from a Vedic standpoint, this process of division, which we know in our lives as the ego that separates one person from the next, is a necessary process in the course of life and evolution.

From this division comes the fourth cosmic principle, which is Manas, or inferior mind. Manas is the mind that we know and experience within ourselves on a day-to-day basis. It is the basis for logical thinking, and operates through reasoning, memory and rationalization.  It is the daughter of the ego.  In order to be in touch with what is greater than ourselves, we would need to connect to the superior mind, which from a Vedic perspective is intuitive.

Outside of these 24 Cosmic Principles is the 0 principle, which is the Purusha, or the spirit, or pure consciousness. In Yoga we call this the Witness Mind (which you may have heard mentioned in Yoga class), that is to say, that part of ourselves that exists beyond the Three Gunas (creation, preservation, and destruction), and beyond karma, (cause and effect). The Purusha operates through the Prakriti (primordial nature), and they are intertwined, as Siva and Shakti are intertwined. So, while incarnated, the Purusha begins to forget it’s actual nature, and true connection to the Atman, which is our connection back to divine nature.  The path back to this nature is the path of Yoga (self-realization), or union, which is spelled out in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras that form the foundation of Hatha Yoga.

So from these first cosmic principles, Samkhya Philosophy in essence gives us the blueprint for the human being, and the journey that we are on.

The last five principles that I want to mention are The Pancha Manhabhutas (The Five Great Elements). These Five Great Elements are the last of the principles to manifest and to be described.  It is said that if we could meditate upon these Five Great Elements, then we could begin to truly know the secrets of the universe, and the mysteries of the cosmos.

The Five Great Elements are: Ether, Air, Water, Fire and Earth

 Ether- Akash Boundless space, abundant, smooth, clear, the secret element- mother of the other four elements

Air- Vayu Mobile, active, mind, unstable, changeable, cold, dry

Fire- Tejas Transformative, transmutation, hot, dry

Water- Apa Fluidity, formless form, mobile, wet, cool

Earth- Prthvi Solid, form, dry, cold, stable

The Five Great Elements move and manifest from subtle to dense, as all matter manifests from energy. These five elements can be thought of both energetically, and then physically as well. They can be perceived as the subtle currents of the world around us, and the qualities that they give us, as well as the matter that we come into contact with. We should perceive and interact with them through both their dense form, and their more subtle form (their qualities and characteristics).

Working with The Five Great Elements is the primary means by which Ayurveda, or “the science of life”, operates to heal the individual.  Both Ayurveda and Yoga view each human being as a unique combination of all of these five elements, with elements that predominate over others. Learning what ones energetic makeup is through these five elements is to begin to work in harmony with these forces. So Ayurveda is essentially an ancient energy science that assists the individual to move into Yoga, or union and self-realization (or at least create a greater sense of health and well-being).

To work with these forces directly or indirectly, The Five Great Elements form The Three Biological Humors, or The Three Doshas of Ayurveda.

Each Dosha is a combination of two of these five elements. Each human being can be classified as one, two, or sometimes a balance of three of these biological humors.

The Doshas are:

Vata (air/ether), Pitta (fire/water), Kapha (water/earth).

So, in order to work with these Doshic forces, and to harness these forces within our yoga practice, it is necessary to fundamentally understand what the five elements are, and specifically what qualities they give us.  Working from this point, we can begin to engage the active and inactive forces within the body, moving into increasingly more aware and subtle states, and shift the focus and outcome of our practice.