January - March 2011
 

Ayurveda: The Formation of Disease through Dosha Vitiation, Weakened Agni, and Increased Ama

Ayurveda

Ayurveda looks at the formation of disease in the body as the function of two primary factors:

  • A vitiated or unbalanced dosha (Vatta, Pitta, and Kapha)
  • The formation of Ama, which can loosely be translated as toxic material

When doshas are unbalanced they collect in the digestive tract, just as a stranger enters a house through the front door and waits in an ante-room. The unbalanced dosha will affect the digested and poorly digested nutrients waiting to nourish the tissues, and also the waste products themselves. Over time, as the vitiated dosha accumulates, it spreads to the tissues associated with that particular dosha, and also to any tissues (dhatus) or channels (srotas) that are already weakened or damaged.

How do the doshas become vitiated? The doshas become vitiated through indiscretions of diet and activity, or lifestyle. This is why it is so important to have a clear understanding of your particular dosha pattern, which is never just a single dosha. No one is a Pitta or a Vatta. Everyone is at least a Pitta-Vatta, or Vatta-Kapha, and the degree and unique manner of the mix is critical to understand.

The degree of dosha disturbance is a function of both time and severity of causes. You may have a diet matched to your dosha with a regular occasional indiscretion that only catches up to you after many years, or you can have a diet and lifestyle that assaults your body-mind. Here we have a veritable home invasion in which an army of strangers collects quickly in our ante-room before proceeding to invade every room and closet and cupboard in the house, turning everything upside down and creating a very strong disease.

How much any one thing disturbs your dosha depends on how closely it matches the dosha. Vatta is aggravated by substances and experiences that are cold, dry, and light. So an iced beverage in Summer will aggravate a bit, but an iced beverage with dry crackers and raw kale (which is light and also bitter) for dinner will aggravate even more.
Have that meal while camping in the desert on a cold dry windy Autumn night, and you have a perfect scenario. Now have all this while living in the desert, driving two hours a day, watching lots of horror movies, and constantly multi-tasking with high-tech devices, and you are guaranteed some good solid disease.

Keeping your doshas balanced also involves cultivating strong Agni or Digestive Fire.

In Ayurveda almost all disease originates with weakness of physical or mental digestive fire. Weakness of Agni and accumulation of Ama have an inverse relationship. Everything that strengthens Agni prevents Ama accumulating. Everything that weakens Agni leads to Ama accumulating. The beginning of health is to protect and engender Agni.

According to Charaka, one of the fathers of Ayurveda, "...the balance and aggravation of the doshas is at all times due to the relative strength or weakness of the digestive fire/Agni. Therefore one must always protect the digestive fire and prohibit all activities that might weaken it."

Unfortunately, the standard American diet and lifestyle is probably the most weakening to the digestive fire in human history. The following are some examples:

  • Lots of gigantic iced beverages
  • Lots of cold foods
  • A lack of spices
  • Lots of sweet, bland, and heavy foods
  • Lack of variety
  • An overabundance of damp-producing wheat and meat in the diet
  • A lack of vegetables (especially green ones)
  • Eating old foods, such as week-old prepared foods and frozen foods
  • Eating without regards to the seasons (for example, drinking Coconut water in Winter or cold rainy weather)
  • Rushed eating
  • Eating at the computer or television
  • Not going to the bathroom when there is urge
  • Over exercising like running marathons
  • Lack of exercise
  • Excessive speed and stimulation with lack of deep relaxation

Digestive fire/Agni is seen to be normal when there is the following:

  • Normal hunger
  • No discomfort after eating
  • No belching with the meal
  • A light feeling after eating
  • A feeling of satisfaction and well being after meals
  • Regular excretion of wastes
  • Normal consistency of wastes (like a ripe banana)
  • Wastes have a mild odor

Digestive fire is weakened by overuse of cold and liquid substances. This is really critical. I have seen many, many patients who have damaged their Agni by force-feeding water because of the misinformation about drinking eight glasses of water a day. There is absolutely no science and no tradition behind this idea.

In the 1920s an American scientist did research on how much fluid an average adult male American consumes in a day. That included the water in steak, in green beans, in espresso, even in a dried apricot. He concluded the average was 8 ounces. Somehow chiropractors and naturopaths grabbed onto this tidbit and began prescribing 64 ounces of water a day.

Trying to drink that much is not easy. It completely cools and dilutes your digestive fire. Water is inherently cool. That is why in the desert when you come upon moist soil it is cooler than dry soil. Sometimes in their zeal to combat the ravages of the industrial revolution on workers in England, naturopathic-minded physicians went to the opposite radical extreme. We also see that in the heavy use of purgative laxatives.

Ayurveda believes in paying attention to your thirst and drinking when thirsty. The problem is that many people get busy and ignore their thirst. The remedy is to pay attention, not to force-feed cold fluid.

So Agni/digestive fire is weakened by the following:

  • Over consumption of liquids and cold foods
  • Over consumption of raw food, especially for Vatta dominants and especially by iced beverages, particularly in cold weather and in winter
  • Overeating
  • Overconsumption of heavy foods such as wheat and meat, especially if cooked without spices or eaten without condiments of pickles, which stimulate Agni
  • Eating before the previous meal is digested
  • Improper food combining
  • A lack of fermented foods
  • Bread made with baker's yeast
  • Consumption of food at the wrong time, meaning not matched to the season, climate, your age, or your health condition
  • Sexual over activity
  • Overwork
  • Lack of exercise (a quick way to stimulate Agni is to go for a 45 minute walk)
  • Mental causes, such as excessive amounts of loneliness, fear, anger, sadness, worry, greed, envy

How does weak Agni lead to disease? When Agni is weak, Ama forms. Ama literally means "raw, unripened, uncooked." Sadly, it refers to food that is absorbed into the body without having been completely digested first. (This is akin to what Chinese medicine describes as a failure of the Spleen's transformation and transportation mechanism, which leads to accumulation of dampness and stagnant Qi in the Triple Burner.)

This undigested material cannot be processed. It is like sending incorrect input into your computer and causing it to crash. In our bodies this undigested material, Ama, is toxic; it clogs our channels of communication and disrupts normal physiological functions. Instead of our body getting the pure essence of foods rasa as its essential nutritive substance, instead it gets a foul, sticky substance that clogs the channels (srotas), and impairs the tissues (dhatus). Ama is the substance then that nourishes disease. And mental Ama arises when the mind is unable to digest experience, leaving it stuck and sticky.

Even in the case of infectious diseases, the exposure to disease-causing micro-organisms can only cause disease in those folk who are vulnerable and weakened due to accumulation of Ama and weakened Agni.

The following is a quick summary of ways to engender Agni and prevent Ama:

  • Eating while relaxed in an appetizing setting
  • Chewing well
  • Starting with a little soup, ending with a little tea
  • Avoiding iced or chilled foods and beverages
  • Avoiding excessive raw food depending on your dosha
  • Eating according to your dosha and age
  • Eating with the seasons
  • Stopping when you are less than full
  • Not overdrinking with the meal
  • Including all six tastes in a meal (The six tastes are sweet, sour, salty, bitter pungent, and astringent.)
  • Eating food that is freshly prepared or less than 24 hours old if cooked
  • Sipping some tea after a meal
  • Going for a brief stroll after a meal
  • Using spices and herbs in cooking
  • Using digestive herbs and spices as medicine
  • Starting the day with some ginger root or fennel tea
  • Getting appropriate physical activity (but away from meal time)

Agni is weakened and Ama formed by the following:

  • Eating foods inappropriate to your dosha, season, or current health state
  • Eating the same foods all the time
  • Drinking too much fluid with meals
  • Overeating
  • Resisting the urge to eat
  • Eating old or frozen food
  • Eating too much rich foods
  • Consuming poisonous food such as pesticides and drugs
  • Eating too much of any one taste
  • Staying up late
  • Eating late at night
  • Getting insufficient exercise
  • Not processing feelings and conflicts

Ama is removed from the body-mind by the following:

  • Pranayam (deep breathing)
  • Meditative practice and "personal growth" type work
  • Moderate sweating through exercise appropriate to your dosha (for example, Pitta types must not run under the hot sun)
  • Dietary practices such as a Mono Diet fast
  • Fasting that does not damage Agni, which is appropriate to your dosha
  • Herbs like Triphala, Guggul, and Neem
  • Panchakarma treatment involving warm oil massage, special diets, silence, followed by appropriate expurgation therapy

So prevention of disease in Ayurveda begins with Agni/digestive fire. It is strong physical and mental Agni that enables our Body-Mind to absorb nutrients and burn off waste products. When this fails, our body creates toxic sludge, called Ama, that lodges deep in our physical and mental beings, leading to physical and mental diseases, from depression and anxiety to ulcers and migraines. 

The end result of the transformation by strong Agni is called Ojas in Ayurveda. A Sanskit term that can mean "power" or "vigor," this is, like "Jing" in Chinese Medicine, the  pure essence of completely digested foods and experiences. Ojas circulates throughout the Body-Mind, nourishing at the deepest levels. It is what you notice in superbly healthy people whose eyes shine, whose skin and hair are lustrous, and who have plenty of energy for physical and psychological accomplishment. It is what you see in people of great happiness.

The above lists show us ways to promote Agni and prevent Ama. One facet is the actual food we take in. Another facet is how ready we are to actually digest even the most Sattvic or pure diet. A pure diet does not guarantee healthy Agni, because the way in which we eat and our mentality around food is so important. Food obsession and tension around self-nourishment can undo even the most healthy diet. I see that all the time. Also, half the Agni equation is purely mental and has nothing to do with food at all.

So have a healthy diet that is light and easily digestible, suitable to your Body-Mind type (dosha), and respectful of your food culture of origin. But at the same time, please pay attention to what Buddhism calls "mental culture" or how you process feeling and thoughts and how you intereact with other living beings.

Having a daily meditation practice, and a fundamentally healthy philosophy of living are as important as what you eat. Yes, you are what you eat. To which I would add, "You are how you eat and digest. You are what you think and feel."


Eyton J. Shalom, M.S., L.Ac., has been in private practice in San Diego since 1992. A Magna Cum Laude graduate of UCSD, he began his study of Yoga in 1972 with Kriya Yogi S. A. Ramaiah. The next 12 years involved intensive Yogic practice, including three years in India and Sri Lanka, where he also began his study of Ayurveda. Eyton became licensed in the practice of Chinese Medicine in 1992, and has been the owner of the BodyMind Wellness Center in San Diego since 1997. Eyton offers individual and group instruction in both meditation and progressive relaxation. He can be reached by email or at 619.296.7591.

Also, be sure to visit his website and blog and read his past articles.

© Eyton Shalom, San Diego, CA.

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