Tis the season to think about dieting. Or is it? Many of us are thinking about New Year’s resolutions that revolve around weight. Thinness is the Holy Grail of our time and there is immense pressure from the medical community, media and our peers to join in the quest. We know that if we don’t try to lose weight we won’t be healthy or beautiful—we’ll be at risk for a myriad of diseases, we won’t be able to wear the cutest styles or have a love life. Our idols are airbrushed to an impossible level of thinness, but we don’t care, we believe the hype. And, if necessary, we’ll nip, we’ll tuck and we’ll starve ourselves because we want to be happy and beautiful.
Ayurveda is often misused in the war on weight. If we just eat the appropriate tastes or the right combination of foods, then, magically, our bodies will transform into that thin, happy version of ourselves that we yearn for. Funny thing though in Ayurveda, weight on its own is not really considered to be a parameter of health.
I talked to Dr. Yashashree Mannur, BAMS, my teacher, about what Ayurveda–the Ayurveda based upon the texts that are thousands of years old—has to say about this. Here’s what she had to say…
The concept of health and beauty have changed significantly in the community as well as in the current stream of medicine. Weight presently plays a huge role—it is believed that being thin is a must in being healthy and essential in being beautiful. Ayurveda, though, does not directly consider weight in relation to health or beauty—we don’t think in terms of BMI or body fat percentage. What is emphasized are the unique parameters of swasthya (health) which are stated in the following sutra:
Samadosah samagnih ca samadhatumalakriyah
(Balanced dosha, agni, and dhatus, well-functioning elimination)
Prasanna atma-dinriya-mana svastha iti abhidhiyate
(Contented Soul, indriyas and mind—this is said to be health)
For parameters of beauty, we can dig into the information provided in the dhatu sarata lakshanas (indications of excellent tissue quality) described in the texts. In the sarata lakshanas, there is not an emphasis on weight at all—this is pretty amazing in light of current standards. In the sarata lakshanas, the function and quality of the tissues has the most importance.
Good quality mamsa (muscle), meda (fat) and asthi (bone) dhatu (tissue) have more influence on physical health and dhatus like rasa (nutritive fluids), rakta (blood) and shukra (reproductive) have more influence on mental health. So we use the sarata lakshanas (indicators of excellent quality) to assess physical and mental health. Beauty is a result of excellent mental health and thus relies on the health of rasa, rakta and shukra dhatus. Additionally, health and beauty can be assessed by one’s physical and mental capacity to do things, and one’s ability to digest food and to enjoy life. Really, it’s all about dhatu nourishment and building good quality dhatus. Good quality dhatus exhibit sarata—best quality—and we can think of this as the Ayurvedic concept of health and beauty.
Maintaining sarata dhatus, especially in respect to mamsa and shukra, really means that we need to maintain optimum Kapha dosha in the body because Kapha has direct affinity for them and exhibits similar qualities.
It’s easy to just look at the twak (skin) and get an idea of the quality of rasa dhatu—but this doesn’t give any idea about the sama (balanced) nature of other dhatus. Mamsa (muscle) and shukra (reproductive) dhatus most closely resemble sama dosha, because they give swastha (healthy) qualities—bala agni (strong digestive fire), ability to enjoy life and healthy mind which is a bridge between a happy body and a content mind, senses and soul.
Another indicator of swastha is the love you have for yourself and the environment around you. Unless you have this, you can’t really absorb what is given you. And, based upon the understanding of like increases like and opposite decrease one another, when you give out good energy you attract good energy and vice a versa.
When we consider health and beauty in our communities, we can divide people in to two groups. The first group is those that are close to the definition of health in Ayurveda, Samadosah samagnih… Those who exhibit these qualities can easily go forward—they are swastha (healthy) and are considered “beautiful” in Ayurvedic terms
Those who are not close to this ideal of balance and contentment can further be divided into a group that is not exhibiting any lakshanas (symptoms) but with hetus (causes of imbalance and disease); these people are a difficult group to tackle because they are unware that they are unhealthy. They may, though, want beauty. Those that exhibit lakshanas (symptoms) are easier to tackle because they see that there are problems
We see in our modern culture a strong emphasis on thinness and over-exercise. Actually, the texts indicate that these things can be a cause of diseases that approach untreatability. So we see that some of us are sacrificing life and health to be thin. Ayurveda only has a concept of well-maintained dhatus, not of a specific “healthy” weight range, and only looks at whether the tissues are well-formed and exhibit sarata—good qualities. So it is really based upon taking responsibility to nourish all of the dhatus and to lovingly accept the qualities you have been born with. Accepting the way you are is a sign of beauty, loving yourself—this is related to the health of shukra dhatu. This all leads to the ultimate goal—Sattwa—which brings the clarity that helps us make the right choices to enhance sama (balance) and swastha (health).