In the following article, we will explore the extensive relationship and vast interconnections between Yoga and Ayurveda, focusing on the Yoga Sutras. This examination extends to important issues of Yoga sadhana, Yoga therapy and Ayurvedic healing for body, mind and consciousness.
I have been working in the fields of Yoga, Ayurveda and related Vedic disciplines for several decades, and found that the connections between these systems are much greater than usually acknowledged, particularly in the West. We cannot separate them or understand one of these systems without the others. All are part of an integrated stream of higher knowledge that we can refer to as Vedic knowledge or the Vedic sciences. Most important of these is the integration of Yoga and Ayurveda. This includes the full scope of all eight limbs of Ashtanga Yoga in the Yoga Sutras and Ayurveda for both body and mind.
The Yoga Sutras arises out of the Yoga Darshana tradition of ancient India, which is Yoga as one of the six schools of Vedic philosophy (Vaidika Darshanas). Yoga is generally coupled along with Samkhya philosophy among these six systems, but has many other ramifications as well.
Yoga itself is a broader topic that is reflected in a number of different approaches and in various schools of Yoga indicated throughout the Vedas, Upanishads, Puranas, Tantras and the many dharmic schools of thought and spiritual practice in India, Vedic and non-Vedic. Yoga begins with Veic mantras like the Gayatri and extends in many direction. The many branches include such topics as Jnana Yoga, Bhakti Yoga and Karma Yoga, as well as Patanjali Raja Yoga and Hatha Yoga. Not all these Yoga schools follow the Yoga Sutras or use it as a primary text, though most honor or respect its teachings.
The Yoga Sutras are the main text of Yoga Darshana, but does not represent its beginning. Yoga Darshana is rooted in an older Hiranyagarbha tradition, such as mentioned in the Mahabharata, notably in the Moksha Dharma Parva, which connects it with the Vedas. Hiranyagarbha is regarded as the founder of Yoga Darshana, with Patanjali, the compiler of its teachings at a later period.
The Yoga Sutras remains the most important text of classical Yoga, though there are many other texts as well. As a brief Sutra work, consisting of about two hundred axiomatic statements, it relies upon commentaries and other branches of Vedic thought for its full explication.
The Yoga Sutras, we should first note, is mainly a practical text and does not go into detail into philosophy. Aspects of its teachings have been used by a number of different philosophical systems. Broadly speaking, Yoga Sutras reflects the philosophy and terminology of Samkhya, though Samkhya terminology occurs in many Vedic schools, including several Upanishads.
Yoga Sutras deals primarily with sadhana or spiritual practice aimed at developing a state of Samadhi, control of the mind or Self-realization (also defined as realization of the Purusha). It discusses states of mind, knowledge, cognition and awareness on various levels as part of this process.
Ayurveda and Yoga
Ayurveda is one of the four Upavedas or secondary Vedic texts. Its specific concern is with health and well-being for body and mind. Ayurveda comprises a complete system of medicine in terms of diagnosis and treatment, internal and external medicine, dietetics, herbology, psychology, right living, longevity and rejuvenation. It has an extensive literature and many branches. Ayurveda also rests upon Samkhya and Vedantic thought and mentions Yoga in various contexts.
This means that in the original Vedic scheme of knowledge, Yoga is primarily a sadhana school aimed at Self-realization beyond the body and mind. Ayurveda is the chikitsa school aimed at healing of body and mind. This is a little different understanding of Yoga than most of modern Yoga that is physically oriented and concerned with health.
There is however, considerable overlap between Yoga and Ayurveda. When classical Yoga speaks of health issues or of the health benefits of Yoga practice, these are usually placed in the language and greater therapeutic scheme of Ayurveda. Ayurveda formed the dominant medical discourse of classical and ancient India at the time most of the Yoga schools and arose as part of the same cultural and spiritual background.
The Hatha Yoga tradition more specifically mentions Ayurveda in terms of doshas (biological humors), prana, agni (digestive fire) and dhatus (tissues) relative to the physical side of the practice. Many Yogis also used Ayurvedic herbs and many Yoga centers in India have promoted Ayurveda from ancient to modern times.
Ayurvedic texts starting with Charaka Samhita, the most central of the classical Ayurvedic texts, mention Yoga in some detail, as well as related teachings of Samkhya and Vedanta. Ayurveda of course predates Patanjali and does not mention him in its older texts, though it does refer to Yoga. Yet Charaka mentions Yoga mainly as Raja Yoga, or Yoga as a sadhana tradition, not Yoga as a separate medical system or healing therapy. The same is true of the other main classic texts of Ayurveda as Sushruta Samhita and Ashtanga Hridaya of Vagbhatta.
Charaka prescribes Yoga for Moksha or liberation from all suffering, and emphasizes Yogic values and practices like yamas and niyamas for health of both body and mind, and for rejuvenation, Ayurveda’s highest and ultimate therapy. Yoga practices form part of Ayurveda’s behavioral medicine as well as treatment methods and Yoga is often part of an Ayurvedic life-style.
Classical Ayurveda has three levels of treatment:
The first is the “yukti vyapashraya” or rational therapy that consists of reduction of the three doshas or biological air, fire and water humors of Vata, Pitta and Kapha. This is the main scope of its physical treatment and consists of life-style practices, diet, herbs, and clinical methods to reduce the doshas as constituting the main causative factors behind the disease process.
The second is “sattvavajaya” therapy for the increase of sattva guna. On this level, Ayurveda employs the practice of Yoga, including the main approach of the Yoga Sutras starting with the yamas and niyamas. For Ayurveda, sattvavajaya is the main psychological therapy. Ayurveda views rajas and tamas as the main doshas or factors of disease and suffering on the level of the mind, and the increase of sattva guna as the basis of health and well being at a psychological level.
This Ayurvedic approach to Yoga makes sense because the Yoga Sutras approach is primarily a psychology. Yoga Sutras defines Yoga as control of the mind and the elimination of mental suffering. It explains the factors of psychological suffering through the kleshas, and it promotes sattva guna as a prime factor of practice.
The third level of Ayurvedic treatment is the “divya chikitsa” or spiritual therapy. This consists of the usage of rituals, mantra, gemstones, pilgrimage, asceticism and other esoteric practices performed in order to remove karmic afflictions. It employs aspects of Yoga, Tantra and Veda, extending to Vedic astrology.
In other words, Yoga in the broader sense is an integral part of two of the main therapeutic approaches of Ayurveda and implied in all three. However, classical Yoga in itself is a spiritual practice aimed at Moksha or Self-realization.
Though classical Yoga is mainly a sadhana or Self-realization tradition, Yoga practices do have their health benefits. This is true not only of the Yoga asanas but of all eight limbs of Yoga, which comprise an harmonious way of life from dharmic values and attitudes or yamas and niyamas, to asana, pranayama, use of the senses, concentration of the mind, mantra and meditation.
Ayurveda comprises a complete Yogic system of medicine. It has its view of the human body and mind and how they work, its understanding of the disease process, and a full range of treatment measures and life-style disciplines for health and well-being. Ayurveda takes the principles of Vedic, Yoga and Samkhya thought and extends them into the realm of healing for body and mind. It has an extensive literature and history describing different diseases, their diagnosis, prognosis and treatment in great detail.
Yoga and Ayurveda have also overlapped in terms of teachers. Patanjali is often regarded as an Ayurvedic teacher as well as Yoga teacher, and is sometimes associated with or identified with Charaka himself. That is why Patanjali is said to help us with body, speech and mind, reflecting his work with Ayurveda, grammar and Yoga.
Whether Patanjali was the same as Charaka or was an Ayurvedic doctor is not important here. The association reflects the connection between the two systems and its teachers. Yoga goes back to the Rishi Vasistha, seer of the seventh book of the Rigveda, while Ayurveda is connected more to the Rishi Bharadvaja, seer of the sixth book of the Rigveda.
Yoga Therapy Today
During the British era in India, Ayurvedic schools were closed down. Since the independence of the country Ayurveda has been gradually undergoing a revival, with new Ayurvedic schools arising, integrating aspects of modern medicine within their purview.
This suppression of Ayurveda in the colonial era meant that when Yoga first came to the West and was revived in the modern world, it did so largely without its older Ayurvedic background or connections.
People in the West began to apply Yoga for health benefits, but did not know Ayurveda. They began to define and apply Yoga for health in terms of modern medicine or other medical systems like naturopathy. Some had no awareness of Ayurveda at all. Even in India, Yoga as a therapy was often dominated by doctors trained in modern medicine but not trained in Ayurveda.
Today there is a new development and spread of Yoga therapy or Yoga Chikitsa worldwide. Some of this rests upon Ayurveda, but other portions rest upon modern medicine or other medical systems. Many teachers in this Yoga for health approach are unaware of or have little knowledge of Ayurveda and like to view Yoga therapy and Ayurveda as two different but perhaps related systems, not as two aspects of the same tradition.
Yet if we examine the Yoga Sutras we find that the term chikitsa is not mentioned in the text. The term Yoga chikitsa is very rare in any traditional Yoga literature and has no classical texts of its own. The four sections of the Yoga Sutras are defined in terms of Samadhi, Sadhana, Vibhuti and Kaivalya, or purely spiritual concerns, reflecting the main concerns of Yoga practice. There are no specific Yoga Chikitsa texts from the ancient or classical periods, though the health benefits of Yoga practices are mentioned in passing or in an incidental manner in the existing Yoga literature.
Yet Chiktsa is a common term in Ayurvedic texts, with Charaka and Sushruta Samhitas having a chikitsa sthana or Chikitsa/treatment section, describing Ayurvedic therapies in great detail. This therapy approach rests upon a section relating to disease theory and diagnosis, called nidana, and to one describing anatomy, physiology and the workings of body and mind called sharirika sthana.
In other words, Chikitsa or treatment is primarily a concern of Ayurveda as part of a full medical system in terms of theory, diagnosis and treatment. There is no independent tradition of Yoga therapy or any traditional Yoga system of medicine or approach to disease apart from Ayurveda. To talk of Yoga therapy apart from Ayurveda or as different from Ayurvedic therapy is a new approach, not that of the older traditions.
A true Yoga Chikitsa or Yoga therapy should rest upon a yogic nidana or yogic diagnosis and theory of disease, and a full set of treatment measures that must address diet, herbs, massage, detoxification and rejuvenation. This is provided by Ayurveda as a complete yogic and natural system of medicine. We need not create a new yogic system of medicine but need only restore the original connections between Yoga and Ayurveda, with Ayurveda as the medical or healing branch of Yoga and Vedic knowledge.
Yoga Chikitsa or Yoga therapy can certainly benefit from the examination and restoration of its profound and intricate Ayurvedic connections. Otherwise it likely remains a limited therapy, and lacks the support of a complete yogic medicinal system to support its philosophical and spiritual view of life.
Mind and Prana
Yoga Sutras defines Yoga as control of the mind or chitta, which occurs through reducing the qualities of rajas and tamas and increasing that of sattva. This reflects the psychological approach of Ayurveda as noted.
Yet the vrittis or movements of the mind rest upon the movements of Prana. Chitta spanda and prana spanda go together, such as well explained the Yoga Vasishta. Some Yoga approaches like Hatha Yoga put more emphasis on control of Prana as a means of controlling the mind.
Control of Prana means control or harmonization of the physical prana or vayu or Vata dosha that is the root of the other two doshas of Pitta and Kapha. So control of the mind benefits from balancing of the doshas, which are both physical and psychological factors. This further connects Yoga and Ayurveda.
Both Yoga and Ayurveda work extensively with Prana and with the five Vayus of prana, apana, samana, vyana and udana, which are the five subtypes of Vata dosha in Ayurvedic thought, whose imbalances are part of the disease process and explained accordingly in Ayurveda. The three doshas of Vata, Pitta and Kapha are physical manifestations of Prana and extnd the Yoga theory of Prana into the realm of health and disease treatment.
Besides the doshas as disease factors there are master forms of the doshas that promote positive health, immunity and longevity. These are called Ojas (higher form of Kapha), Tejas (higher form of Pitta) and Prana (higher form of Vata). Ojas is also mentioned in Yoga literature.
Hatha Yoga meanwhile, along with much of Tantric Yoga, is concerned with the balancing of pranic energies much like Ayurveda, including balancing the solar and lunar forces or ida and pingala nadis that reflect the solar and lunar energies of Pitta (fire or sun) and Kapha (water or moon) doshas.
Classical yoga also works with the Agni concept of Ayurveda. This is not just the jatharagni or digestive fire but extends to the pranaagni or pranic fire, which aids in the purification of the mind. Classical Yoga speaks of the Yogagni or fire of Yoga as in the Svetashvatara Upanishad. Indeed the Agni of the Vedas is at an inner level this same Yogagni, which is the basis of the inner Yajna or sacred practice of the Vedas.
To understand the energetics of Yoga practice extending to Kundalini, the chakras and Tantric Yoga, it helps to understand Ayurveda and the Ayurvedic implications of the terms used in yogic teachings. These are not explained as much in the Yoga Sutras but there are hints of them there as well.
Asana in classical Yoga was not meant as an exercise system or physical therapy, but as a preparation of the body for pranayama and meditation. But exercise and health benefits are also there. Ayurveda recommends asanas as a physical therapy and for musculo-skeletal disorders in a primary sense with secondary benefits extending to all the organs and systems of the body. But it regards asana or exercise as only one aspect of health and not as a complete therapy for disease treatment.
Ayurveda prescribes exercise relative to the nature of the individual doshic or mind-body type and other organic and pranic considerations. These have their relevance in the health prescriptions of Yoga asanas.
Pranayama and Pranic Healing
Classical Yoga defines prana and pranayama in Ayurvedic terms of sun and moon, doshas, agni, heating and cooling effects. Ayurveda uses pranayama to balance the doshas and promote positive health. These are important considerations for pranayama in Yoga as well.
Ayurveda considers Pranayama as the most important health practice that we can do for ourselves on a daily basis. Bringing in more Prana, it naturally helps correct afflictions of the body and mind and developing our own healing power.
Meditation and Mantra
Ayurveda recognizes the importance of mantra and meditation in healing the mind and recommends them as part of a normal healthy life-style. Mantra removes negative samskaras from the mind and meditation heals the mental field. It is the main Ayurvedic tool for healing the mind.
Hatha Yoga employs the Shadkarmas or six purification practices. These are similar to the five purification practices of Pancha Karma in Ayurveda, which include Vamana (therapeutic emesis), Virchana (therapeutic purgation) and Nasya (nasal cleansing) among both their practices. Yet in Ayurveda these purification practices are prescribed in a more systematic manner and relative to a more precise diagnosis of the individual that can make them safer and more effective. They are preceded by special preperatory practices of oil massage and steam therapy, and followed up by special rejuvenative or rasayana practices to develop a higher level of energy.
Yoga promotes a sattvic diet. Ayurveda also promotes a sattvic diet for calming the mind but adjusts its diet relative to individual doshic concerns. These adjustments can also be relevant for Yoga practitioners. Some Yoga practices tend to disturb Vata dosha dominated by the air element, for example, which requires heavier food to ground its energies.
According to Ayurveda there are two main causes of disease. The first is called “Prajnaparadha” or wrong judgment. This equates to ignorance or avidya among the five kleshas of Yogic thought. Its removal relates to Yoga practices of dharana, dhyana and samadhi.
Second, as a common cause of all diseases is the wrong use of the senses. This relates to raga-dvesha or attraction and repulsion among the five kleshas and implies therapies based upon asana, pranayama and pratyahara.
On the basis of these two factors, Ayurveda brings in the physical causes of the disease process relative to the doshas, external pathogens, the movement of time and the aging process. This means that Ayurveda shows us how the disease process is rooted in the kleshas of the Yoga Sutras and extends to physical factors from there.
In conclusion, the Yoga Sutras provides an excellent system of psychological treatment, particularly if integrated into the broader concerns of Ayurveda as complete natural healing system. All practices of Yoga have their Ayurvedic relevance.
As Yoga teachers focus more on the Yoga Sutras, they should remember how it fits into the greater scheme of Vedic knowledge that emphasizes Ayurveda as the Vedic and yogic system of healing.
Hatha Yoga brings in additional dimensions of asana and pranic healing that also can benefit from understanding its Ayurvedic connections and explications.
All Yoga teachers should strive to gain a basic knowledge of Ayurveda and its primary principles and practices relative to health and disease for body and mind. This will make them better teachers and help them expand the scope of their practice.
Yoga therapists should consider studying Ayurveda in a primary way and integrating their Yoga therapy with a broader Ayurvedic therapeutic approach, diagnosis and prognosis. Then their Yoga therapy will be part of a complete yogic system of medicine, its ancient traditions and vast body of knowledge and expertise. Yoga therapy apart from Ayurveda remains limited in its scope and may not reflect the true healing potentials of Yoga.
Ayurveda and Yoga together form a complete system of well-being for body, mind and consciousness that remains relevant for all people, all cultures and all time, and can be adjusted to our modern life circumstances with many benefits for everyone.
Fortunately, Yoga groups today, particularly in India, are bringing in more of Ayurveda and restoring the natural connections between these two important Vedic disciplines. The Yoga-Ayurveda connection is once more spreading globally and may likely become the dominant trend in Yoga therapy in the near future. This would greatly enrich the global Yoga movement and help develop its full scope of practice.
An integral approach to Yoga and Ayurveda or an integral Yoga-Ayurveda is one of the most important ancient and modern trends in Yoga that deserves a greater study and application.
Dr. David Frawley