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Sustainability in Ayurveda: Essential Principles & Guidelines

“You could not remove a single grain of sand from its place without thereby … changing something throughout all parts of the immeasurable whole.”—Fichte, The Vocation of Man (1800)

Dharma is an important principle in philosophy that broadly denotes ‘righteousness,’ which is also a governing principle in Ayurveda and how Ayurveda practitioners approach it in terms of treatment, profitability, advisory, and sourcing material. To put it simply, because Ayurveda revolves around aligning an individual’s rhythm and lifestyle with nature for a harmonious and inclusive living, the goals of Ayurveda and sustainability happen to critically overlap.

It is nearly impossible to practice Ayurveda without simultaneously being conscious of sustainable means and practices. The biggest example of this is how biodegradable the waste generated through Ayurveda is. In a nutshell, the more you go back to natural living, the less you are inclined to pollute, destroy, or deplete nature and the environment. 

Becoming Aware of our Interdependence

You have probably heard of the butterfly effect—the idea that a small change in its initial condition can lead to large changes in a more complex system, like the butterfly flapping its wings somewhere that can influence the path of a tornado. It is this precarious interdependence in nature that Ayurveda acknowledges. If, as a principle, you consider nature as an extension of man and man as one of the components of this precariously balanced ecosystem, then the interdependence underpins a conscious focus on sustainability. For example, the ancient system of wellness, Ayurveda relies on the principle of bringing a balance between the five great elements—air, water, fire, earth, and space that make up matter and life forms. And so, what happens outside, will have an impact on what goes on inside us. If global temperatures are rising, due to climate change, it will have an impact on how our bodies adapt to this new normal as well. 

The World Commission on Environment and Development defines sustainable development as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” 

Waste Generated from Ayurveda is Biodegradable

Why is this fact so important? Take the global healthcare sector for example. Considering just the OECD countries, they spend about 9% of their national income on healthcare. With the rising disease burden, this percentage is only likely to grow. But the carbon emissions from this sector contribute to about 5% of the domestic carbon footprint in some of the world’s largest economies, according to research by a group of European scientists published in Environmental Research Letters. This is a chunk larger than the carbon emissions from the aviation or shipping sector, according to the paper.

How does this play out on the ground? The synthetic residues from pharmaceutical manufacturing plants find their way into water bodies where they stick around for years. But the impact gets more complicated when these chemicals and drugs find their way into bodies of marine species. In the 1990s, for example, the presence of estrogen in sewage effluents was linked to feminization in male fish that grew eggs. Diclofenac residues have also been found in cattle carcasses that drastically reduced the vulture (natural scavengers) population in India and Pakistan. Antidepressants like Prozac were found to thwart development in frog species.

But the pharmaceutical waste generated from holistic Ayurveda centers of wellness is biodegradable, often recycled for use in farms. Ayurveda being an ancient system of wellness has always relied on natural raw materials for use in treatments, be it oral medicines or herbs and wraps for topical applications. For example, for dental and oral cleansing, Ayurveda recommends twigs from the neem plant, or leaves and essences for use in medicated soaps, and different oils for applications on the body and hair. 

Ayurveda is not just a system of medicine—it is a way of life.

Is production cyclical or linear?

We have been overusing our natural resources without replenishing them, enough that their availability for future generations is threatened. This is due to a system of linear production, where you take from the land, produce and then dispose of it, with none of it coming back to the system in a meaningful way while Ayurveda uses a circular system of production, where the emphasis is on renewing, reusing, remaking and sharing of resources.

Ayurveda experts and practitioners are now engaged in preserving and widening the availability of endangered species of herbs and plants that have tremendous healing potential and applications for modern diseases but have been dwindling from the impact of deforestation and shrinking green covers.    

Caring for the Balance

Ayurveda is born out of spiritual roots, and the knowledge system is considered as a sacred service by its practitioners to heal mankind, where social good is given preference over profiteering. A recent article on diaforlife.com states, “Ayurveda is almost—in a positive sense— preoccupied with ‘sustaining life.”  It offers ways to live longer, healthier, more peacefully in harmony with other living beings. Sustainability calls for practices that are compatible with future needs.

So how does one move from thinking of fulfilling one’s growing immediate demands to working on making resources available for future generations? Here the idea of minimalism in Ayurveda comes into play. According to Ayurveda, the goal is to arrive at a state of balance and harmony between the three doshas, between our body and nature, between our needs and ambitions, between activity and rest. It is only when we overdo it—over consume, overindulge, overexert ourselves and the resources at our disposal without thinking about the future—that we move out of balance. Such a lifestyle is inherently unsustainable for us as well as the planet, as it relies on the mass production of goods and services that draw from the existing pool of resources without replenishing it in the same measure.

In other words, what is not favorable in Ayurveda is also not good for the planet. 

Importance of Purity in Ayurveda

The guidelines offered in Ayurvedic sciences are aligned with principles of larger good in Hindu philosophy. According to Ayurveda, the lifestyle we choose must incorporate a healthy, equitable, clean, and pure environment—which basically means it falls upon us to make sure our forests, water, rivers, the air is clean and pure, too. Also, how naturally and organically sourced our food is, has an impact on our health too. In fact, ancient classical Ayurvedic texts have chapters dedicated to how one can naturally cleanse the rivers, forests, and all the other sources of life and means of living. 

But there is a happy problem in the world of Ayurveda today. As more and more people turn to alternative systems of medicine for overall wellness and health, the availability of many of the popular herbs and medicinal plants is in short supply. As a result, they are being sourced from overseas or grown locally.

How can we meet this challenge?

Organic farming. To meet the demand for Ayurvedic herbs and medicines, they should be grown through organic farming methods without using chemicals or genetically modified seeds, to maintain the purity and potency of these herbs. 

Diet and lifestyle adjustments. The pill-popping mentality is neither sustainable nor helpful when it comes to Ayurveda. What helps is to keep going back to the roots of Ayurveda which is one of holistic wellness, of which herbal medicines are just a tiny component. We need to fix our lifestyle and diet first, which can help us deal with the majority of the health concerns. A proper nutritious diet that uses seasonal fruits and vegetables and suits your dosha constitution can go a long way in taking care of the digestive system, where the majority of modern-day illnesses originate from.  

Grow local, buy local. Ask your Ayurveda practitioner for local alternatives for specific herbs and medicinal formulations not found in your country. If this means, you can use elderberry, avocadoes, or blueberries instead of sitopaladi, sandalwood, or jatamansi, so be it. This is an important step because some of these exotic herbs are also on the verge of extinction and need rehabilitative efforts before they are commercially used on a mass scale. The more common and equally powerful herbs and spices like cumin or turmeric are an easy option to source as well. Basil, spinach, celery, and aloe are plants that you can grow right in your own backyard or kitchen!

Ayurveda is not just a system of medicine—it is a way of life. A way of life that looks at the creation as one organism and emphasizes the need for purity and balance in an individual, environment, and society. When this way of thinking and living permeates our economic decisions, sustainability becomes a byproduct. We then begin to demand and value clean air, pure water, protected forest lands, chemical-free farmlands, poultry that has not been injected with hormones, better treatment of farm animals, and non-genetically modified crops.