In what sense is ayurveda yoga’s sister science? Philosophically, both yoga and ayurveda spring from the common ground of Sankhya philosophy. The goal of both is to eradicate pain and misery. Although scriptures such as the Charaka Samhita claim that ayurveda can help us attain freedom from all levels of pain and misery—physical, mental, and spiritual—its focus is mainly on preventing and treating physical illness. Yoga texts such as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika and the Yoga Sutra focus on disciplines related to the mind and senses.
Today many people are drawn to yoga in order to reduce stress, lose weight, and keep fit, rather than for its spiritual benefits. On the other hand, many who do come to yoga for spiritual reasons are often struggling with stress, physical problems, and the effects of aging, so despite their intense desire they are not able to practice many of the yogic disciplines. This is where ayurveda can support the practice of yoga.
According to the Yoga Sutra (1.2 Vyasa’s commentary), there are five states of mind: disturbed, distracted, stupefied, one-pointed, and well controlled. The body and mind are intertwined, and ordinarily those in the first three states of mind are not in good physical condition. Yoga, as the great masters in the past intended it to be practiced, can be undertaken only after both body and mind are healthy and balanced.
Ayurvedic rejuvenation techniques can nourish and revitalize the body so that we can develop a productive yoga practice. With the help of these techniques, the body becomes healthier, stronger, less toxic, more flexible, and more energetic; the mind clears and is free from sloth and inertia. Such a body and mind are necessary to practice yoga in its truest sense.
What is ayurvedic rejuvenation? Ayurvedic rejuvenation programs are of different lengths and intensities. There are hundreds of recipes for herbal preparations in ayurveda, and an expert vaidya (ayurvedic physician) knows how to custom-design each one to suit individual needs. But the rejuvenating herbs of classic ayurveda, especially the bhasmas (medicines prepared from metals and minerals), are too powerful to be assimilated by those whose systems are weak or blocked by toxins.
In our quick-fix culture, most “ayurvedic” rejuvenation programs are simply mini-programs for revitalizing and energizing the body for short periods of time. According to ayurvedic scriptures, the ultimate goal of a rejuvenation program is longevity and the unfoldment of extraordinary abilities of body and mind so that the practitioner is able to sit in samadhi for a long time.
An authentic rejuvenation program involves both cleansing and nourishing. According to ayurveda, ama (any undigested and unassimilated food in the body, as well as undigested words and thoughts in the mind) floats into the system as waste matter, blocking our shrotas (arteries, veins, capillaries, nerves, etc.) and our nadis (energy channels). The forces of nourishment can rejuvenate the body (and even reverse the aging process), but only if they are not counteracted by waste matter contaminating the system.
What is the difference between ayurvedic and yogic rejuvenation techniques? Which is better? Detoxification—cleansing—is the main goal of both, but their orientation is different. The ayurvedic pancha karma is part of a medical system; the yogic shat kriyas are part of a spiritual system. Pancha karma grants mainly a physical level of cleansing; the shat kriyas lead us to mental and spiritual purification. Because some of the pancha karma procedures are invasive, they must be done under the supervision of a properly trained physician, especially during virechana (purgation therapy) and rakta moksha (bloodletting). The yogic shat kriyas can be practiced without the help of a physician. They are undertaken in several steps and are therefore milder at first, but they can become intense as a practitioner becomes more expert.
A combination of both pancha karma and the shat kriyas can be more productive than either alone, but it is crucial that a proper assessment be made of how best to combine the two therapies. An expert yogi and an ayurvedic doctor make an excellent team. Together, they can make an initial evaluation of personality type, energy level, and previous medical history, and design an appropriate detoxification program. This may involve pancha karma, shat kriyas, or a combination of both.
The pancha karma practices of vamana (vomiting therapy) and virechana are almost the same as the upper and complete washes of the yogic shat kriyas. The only difference is that in pancha karma, herbs and oils are used to induce vomiting and peristalsis, while in the yoga system, normal saline water and willpower are used (along with some yogic techniques) to accomplish the same result. For optimal results, the snehana (oleation therapy) and svedana (sudation therapy) aspects of pancha karma can be combined with the yogic shat kriyas, as well as with other yoga practices.
The remaining four shat kriyas—neti (the nasal wash), dhauti (a technique for cleaning the stomach), nauli (a technique for activating the solar plexus), and trataka (gazing)—can help us remove toxins and waste matter not eliminated by the practice of pancha karma. Furthermore, neti, nauli, and trataka not only detoxify, they also energize the system. In the advanced stages, nauli and trataka can awaken startling dormant forces, resulting in an extraordinary level of health as well as expanded consciousness.
The next stage in a rejuvenation program is nourishing, and there are many ayurvedic guidelines for this. Then, after the body has detoxified and come back to normal, the regimen requires help from experts in both disciplines. Some of the techniques come from yoga and some from ayurveda, and the prescription for proper diet, exercise, herbal tonics, breathing practices, and relaxation techniques, as well as a healthy routine—all integral to a rejuvenation program—will vary from person to person.
What is more, it is important to introduce only such herbs or ayurvedic preparations (rasayana) as can be easily assimilated, for ayurvedic herbs and the rasayanas prepared from them are not like the herbal teas used to balance vata, pitta, and kapha. They are medicines. For example, ashwagandha and vacha are traditionally used as tonics for the body and brain, respectively. They are quite effective when the person taking them is in fairly good health, physically and mentally, but they can be overwhelmingly powerful for those with a weak body and mind. The combination of ashwagandha and black musli is even more powerful than ashwagandha alone. If the patient is weak, another herb, punarnava, may be the best one to begin with. Later, other more powerful and effective herbs can be introduced as that person gains strength. There is no counterpart to ayurvedic medicines in yoga. This is one of the reasons a complete rejuvenation program should combine elements of both disciplines and be supervised by an expert yogi and an ayurvedic doctor.