Ayurveda and Mental Health

The article below has been written by Brown Therapist Member Kavita Sekhsaria. She is a clinical psychologist based in Maryland.

Visit her site to read more of her blog here.

Ayurveda is a complex branch of Hindu healing that has drawn a lot of attention of late. Though “golden milk” and the properties of turmeric are pretty exciting, I want to take a moment to talk about how Ayurveda sees mental health, and how understanding its principles can also lead to healing. 

Ayurvedic Constitutional Types. Ayurveda is based on the idea that every person is different in how they’re made up, that we have to understand an individual’s constitution in order to understand their health. Essentially, treatment of any distress must be individualized to be meaningful. 

There are three major constitutional types (doshas), and each person has a different ratio of them. The constitutional types are based on the biological humors, which are the root forces of physical life. They are Vata, based on air, Pitta, based on fire, and Kapha, based on water. These doshas are the basis of all that is organic in nature and, in humans, are responsible for every process in the body and mind. Of course, the mind itself isn’t organic, however Ayurveda =sees the mind as being moved by the elements, and imbalances in constitution can move the mind in ways that can be seen as sources of distress. 

Vata. This is “what blows,” and it governs movement and is the force that directs and guides the other humors. Its power animates and makes one feel vital and enthusiastic! When our life force is threatened or jeopardized, or Vata is somehow lessened, it can result in fear and anxiety. 

Pitta. This is “what cooks,” and it governs transformation in the body and the mind. Pitta is responsible for all heat and light from sensory perception down to cellular metabolism. Pitta in the mind governs reason, intelligence, and understanding; allowing the mind to perceive, judge, and discriminate. The main emotional disturbance of pitta is anger.

Kapha. This is “what sticks,” and it governs form and substance and is responsible for weight, cohesion, and stability. It also relates to the senses of taste and smell. Kapha in the mind governs feeling, emotion, and the capacity of the mind to hold onto form. This gives us the sense of calmness as well as stability. Its disturbance results in desire and attachment, which can lead to holding onto things in ways that can overwhelm us.

Most people are dominated by one dosha or two, and these shape a person’s physique and personality. The doshas are constantly shifting and changing, and balancing them for health looks different for each individual.

The master forms. Vata, Pitta, and Kapha have subtle counterparts on the level of vital energy – Prana, Tejas, and Ojas. These essences are the key to vitality, clarity, and endurance. They are built through the essence of nutrients taken into the body in the form of food, heat, and air on more tangible level, while on a subtle level, they are built by the impressions taken in by our senses. 

 Prana- primal life force. This is the subtle energy of air, the master force behind mind-body functions that coordinates breath, the senses, and the mind. It governs the development of higher states of consciousness. Prana is also responsible for enthusiasm and expression in the psyche, and it is thought that it’s imbalance can lead to depression. 

Tejas- inner radiance. This is the subtle energy of fire, the master force that digests impressions and thoughts. On an inner level, it governs the development of higher perceptual capacities. Tejas governs mental digestion and absorption so without it clarity and determination are lost. 

Ojas- primal vigor. This is the subtle energy of water, and the essence of that which has been digested. On an inner level, it gives calm and supports and nourishes higher states of consciousness. Ojas provides psychological stability and endurance, and when it is diminished the result is anxiety and mental fatigue. 

Three Qualities of Nature. Now that we’ve outlined the way that our bodies are composed, we can talk about everything we put in it, and surround ourselves with. According to Ayurveda, all of nature has three primal, subtle qualities that underlie matter, life, and mind. These qualities are gunas, which in Sanskrit translates to “that which binds,” because they bind one to the material world if not properly understood. 

Tamas is substance, and it creates inertia. It is the quality of heaviness, and it veils and obstructs action. It is the force of gravity, and it holds things in their form. Tamas brings sleep and loss of awareness to the mind, and can cause decay and disintegration. While this sounds negative, this is necessary for balance and to be able to create new things. 

Rajas is energy, and it inherently causes imbalance. It is the quality of change, activity, and turbulence. It is stimulating and provides pleasure in the short term, but, because it is unbalanced, can also lead to pain and suffering. It is the force of passion and can cause distress through conflict. 

Sattva is intelligence, and it upholds balance. It is the quality of virtue and goodness and creates harmony and stability. It brings about spiritual progress and provides happiness and contentment of a lasting nature (Frawley, 1997).

While Sattva alone brings clarity, Rajas and Tamas are factors that bring disharmony to the mind by causing agitation and delusion. Rajas can create turbulence, and tamas can create ignorance. Sattva is the balance of Rajas and Tamas. However, even attachment to Sattva can lead to unhealthy attachment, and Ayurveda says that we have to pursue sattva for the balance and not for its quality. 

Each person has a balance of these three qualities within themselves. Sattva leads us to be  harmonious and adaptable, to strive towards peace of mind and balance, by being considerate of all, while taking care of ourselves. When we’re rajasic, we can feel very energetic. This can make us inconsistent and impatient too though, as we work towards meeting our goals. When the tamasic people quality is reigning, we have gravity and heaviness, which can lead to a mind with stagnant and repressed emotions. We may be overly open to to influence of others. Therapy through the gunas focuses on the Sattvic, though Rajasic and Tamasic modalities are used for balance. 

“Ayurvedic psychology aims at moving the mind from Tamas to Rajas and eventually Sattva. This means moving from an ignorant and physically oriented life (Tamas), to one of vitality and self-expression (Rajas), and finally to one of peace and enlightenment (Sattva)”

  • Dr. David Frawley

Ayurvedic Healing

The first stage of healing through Ayurveda requires breaking up the excess of Tamas in a person, to move them towards change. This is done with the element fire, which can release patterns of deep attachment, stagnation, and depression. Dr. David Frawley says that to do this 

“We must recognize our suffering and learn from it, confronting our pain, including what we have suppressed or ignored for years. A new sense of who we are and what we need to do is required.”

The second stage of healing is moving from Rajas to Sattva, with the element of space. As Dr. Frawley states,

“We must surrender our pain and give up our personal seeking, letting go of individual hurts and sorrows. Egoistic drives and motivations must be surrendered for the greater good. We must depersonalize our problems and look to understand the entire human condition and the pain of others. Leaving behind our personal problems, we must take up the problems of humanity, opening up to the suffering of others as our own. This is a stage of service and charity”

The third stage is developing pure Sattva, by developing love and awareness:

We must learn to transcend the limitations of the human condition to our higher spiritual nature. Inner peace must become our dominant force. We should no longer seek to overcome our pain but to develop our joy. At this stage we move from the human aspect of our condition to the universal aspect, becoming open to all life.

These three stages of counseling are meant to move an individual towards moksha, beyond all attachment, even to personality, mind, and sense of self, which can make the end goal very different from Western Psychology.

Ayurvedic counseling takes place in four primary areas. Physical factors, including diet, herbs, and exercise; psychological factors, including impressions, emotions, and thought; social factors including work, recreation, and relationships; and finally, spiritual factors including yoga and meditation. There are four levels of treatment to be considered.  The level of the  biological humors – balancing vata, pitta, and kapha – happens largely through changing physical factors like diet and exercise. The vital essences, or strengthening prana, tejas, and ojas, can be done with pranayama, or breathing regulation. The third level is managing impressions to harmonize the mind and the senses, which can be addressed through sensory therapies. Finally, consciousness, and promoting the correct functions of it, occurs through increasing sattva with mantra, or repetition, and meditation. Dr. Frawley explains that Ayurvedic counseling is practical in nature and comes from the therapist and the client learning…

“…how the mind and body work so that we can use them properly… Therapy is a learning process. Ayurveda looks upon someone suffering from a psychological problem not as a bad or disturbed person, but as someone who does not understand how to use the mind properly”

TL;DR: Ayurveda is about balance, on every level of our being. That means understanding that what we’re eating, how we’re using our bodies, what conversation we’re taking in and many other things impact us, to make sure that the choices we make are aligning with the values we have for ourselves and where we want to be. It is a very individual journey, and requires a deep understanding of ourselves. Golden milk can certainly help, but only if we’ve worked out that that is where our imbalance is! 

Frawley, D. (2005). Ayurveda and the mind: The healing of consciousness. Motilal Banarsidass Publishing.