Ayurveda recognizes the individuality of body and mind. According to classical texts from Ayurveda–a 5000-year-old body of knowledge–the combined state of body, mind, senses, and soul is what makes life. It is intriguing how these ancient Ayurvedic texts make distinctive mention of mental disorders, their symptoms, and treatments that bear similarities with the lines of treatment offered in modern medicine including psychotherapy, diet, and medication.
The Spiritual Tools for Mental Health
The struggle for good food, housing, money, and health comes with an underlying aim to be happy. And while happiness is the very nature of human life, it seems elusive despite all the material prosperity. Spiritual emptiness combined with society’s inability to effectively treat mental health disorders and the current high-stress work culture has created a mental health crisis of epic proportions. Over the last decade, there has been a steep rise in the number of people suffering from mental illnesses—psychosomatic disorders are being identified as early as the age of 14 and a recent study revealed that more students are reaching out to experts seeking relief from depression, anxiety, and chronic stress.
The relationship between body and mind gives rise to an interesting debate—does the body run the mind or is it the mind running the body? There are different schools of thought supporting each side, but some follow the middle path and believe that the health of both body and mind are interdependent.
Global spiritual teacher, humanitarian, and Art of Living founder, Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, says, “A strong mind can take care of a weak body. But a weak mind cannot take care of even a strong body.”
There is a significant body of research available today to show the positive correlation between spiritual practices like meditation, deep breathing, and yoga and alleviating the symptoms of general anxiety disorder, depression, and chronic stress. Spiritual tools enable the understanding of one’s true nature. Every child is born with innate spiritual virtues like happiness, enthusiasm, caring, sharing, and peace. But along the way, we meet challenges—hectic and poor lifestyle choices, pressures at work, goal-driven anxiety, social isolation, relationship problems, and inundation from the media—that become the seeds for lifestyle related psychological and physical disorders to manifest in our mind-body complex.
Healing through Ayurveda
The understanding of Mind in Ayurveda
Ayurveda mentions certain important concepts in the understanding of the mind, or manas. The mind is identified by its actions:
- Sensory and motor perceptions—indriyabhigraha
There are several mentions in classical Ayurvedic treatises that establish the relationship between mind and body, or the psychosomatic relationship. These include
- The mention of the fact that the mind manifests in a fetus during the fifth month of pregnancy. The state of mind affects functions of the body. I.e., an angry or grieving state of mind affects milk secretion in lactating mothers.
- Food not eaten mindfully weakens the digestion, affecting health.
- A strong mind is important when treating drug addiction.
The ancient Ayurvedic scholars of ancient times explained that the body is composed of three doshas: vata, pitta, and kapha. Of these, vata is the controller of the mind. An increase in this element may cause depression, fear, or anxiety. In addition to depression and anxiety, Ayurveda also considers negative emotions such as fear, jealousy, hatred as symptoms of mental illness.
Ayurveda also makes a mention of some signs of good mental health:
- Strong memory
- Right diet and inclination towards right eating habits
- Sense of discrimination between the real and the unreal, between the self and the non-self, between the permanent and the impermanent
Sharp intellectual curiosity
- Value system
Ayurvedic Treatments for Mental Health Disorders
Ayurveda recommends three-pronged treatment for mental illnesses:
- Spiritual therapy, or daivavyapasraya chikitsa. Practices such as mantra chanting, Ausadhi or wearing herbs and gems, auspicious rites, fasts, prostrations and surrender of the mind to a higher power.
- Logical therapy, or yuktivyapasraya chikitsa. This includes diet and drugs or medicines. In terms of diet or ahara, the following foods are recommended in Ayurveda for mental health:
- Raw or organic and non-homogenized Milk
- Clarified butter
- Ash gourd
The drug therapy involves purification of the toxins and elimination of the dosha imbalances. After shodhana or purification step which includes panchakarma, palliative care and rasayana or tonics are recommended to maintain good health, positive mental state and vitality achieved by the treatment.
- Ayurvedic Psychotherapy or satwavajaya chikitsa. This includes treating the condition by using tools like self-control and abstinence. It aims to save the mind from unhealthy stressors including improper food and lifestyle that aggravate mental illnesses. A form of satwavajaya chikitsa can be Ashtanga Yoga, or the eight limbs of yoga that aim at bringing the mind back to the center and under one’s say.
Panchakarma: Five Purifying Actions
Panchakarma is a total detoxification and body cleanse that includes five purifying actions of the body and mind, along with many sub-actions. Some of the benefits of Panchakarma include
- Detoxification from the cellular level that brings clarity of mind, calm and relaxed state of being
- Better mood
- Positive state of mind
- Removal of ama or toxins that cause lethargy, sluggishness in the body and mind, mood swings and persistent feelings of low
- Improved digestion and respiration
- Rejuvenated and strengthened body and mind
- Slowed ageing process and increased vitality
- Increased immunity
The five main karmas, or purifying actions, for total physical and mental cleanse include
- Virechana, a controlled process that uses laxatives to gather ama (toxins) from many pitta locations in the body, concentrates them in the small intestine, and then discharges them.
- Anuvasana basti, an oil (generally sesame oil) enema that cleanses and detoxifies the colon by removing vata-driven dryness in the body and nourishing and strengthening the colon.
- Nasya or nasal therapy. Medicated oil is administered through nasal channels.
- Asthapana vasti, an enema of oil, honey, herbal formulations and salt for expelling the toxins and morbidity in the body
- Vamana, induced vomiting to clear the respiratory system (not typically practiced in the US).
How Panchakarma Works
Panchakarma’s three main steps are
- Poorvakarma. This preparatory first stage includes snehan (oleation) and swedan (induced sweating) to loosen the toxins in the body.
- Pradhankarma. This refers to the five main karmas, or purifying actions, as previously mentioned.
- Paschaat Karma. This involves dietary inputs, gradually bringing the body’s digestive system back to normalcy, so you may begin having regular food.
Therapies for Cure and Prevention of Mental Health Diseases
Ayurvedic treatment for mental illness begins with self restraint. Ayurveda requires the patient to be mindful of thoughts, strengths, capacity, relationships and family, and seasonal regime, or dincharya. Awareness of these brings a balance in the mind, opening the gateway to good mental health.
Abhyanga. This deep herbal oil massage is a well known relaxation therapy that increases blood circulation in the body and to the brain. Specialized points or energy channels are activated which release stress and relax the mind. Herbal oil application is an effective antidote to vata imbalances, mentioned to be the main cause for mental illness.
Shirodhara. This unique gift from the ancient healing system of Ayurveda is one of the most calming relaxation therapies. It comes from a combination of Shir, or head, and Dhara or stream. In this deeply soothing process, the scalp and forehead receive a gentle, steady stream of lukewarm medicated herbal oil poured in an ancient pattern stimulating points covering the whole of the forehead. Shirodhara rejuvenates and enlivens the central nervous system that gets clogged with residual stress, worries, erroneous eating and lifestyle habits, and work pressure. It treats various conditions related to the nervous system, and/or conditions rising from a vitiated vata dosha.
Nasya. The nose is the door to consciousness and nasal therapy helps to clear and lubricate the sinus passageways. This process of administering herb-infused oils into the nasal cavity also helps to relieve headaches, sinus related migraines, reduces anxiety, clears and strengthens the mind, and stimulates the nervous system. It is important that you take nasal therapy under the supervision of an expert Ayurveda therapist to ensure the correct nasya oils are used, it is administered properly, and you receive the appropriate kind of precautionary information.
Herbs. Below are some of the herbs administered to manage mental illness. Each person is unique and has a unique constitution, therefore, these powerful herbs should only be administered under the care of an Ayurveda practitioner or doctor. Please do not try to take these without being seen by a professional, as they could create adverse effects.
- Kshirbala Oil
- Manasamitra Vataka
- Dhanavanatari oil
- Asanabilvadi oil