The mind and the body can’t be separated by neat lines – they work together as one. Modern medicine treats mental and physical ailments separately, while Ayurveda views each person as an integrated mind-body system. When the mind is out of balance, there will always be a manifestation in the body, even if it can’t be graphed or measured.
Imagine you are suddenly faced with an anxiety provoking situation. Maybe you witnessed a road collision, or heard a loved one was rushed to hospital. When your mind becomes frantic, there are immediate effects in your body. You may feel tension in your muscles, a pit in your stomach or your heart may start to pound as stress hormones are released.
The mind-body connection is a two way system that also works in reverse. If there is an imbalance of the physical body, this will impact your state of mind and emotional stability. Using anxiety as an example again, an accumulation of toxins in the colon due to improper diet will irritate the nervous system. This toxic accumulation and irritation of the nervous tissue can progress to constant feelings of low level anxiety in the mind.
Ayurvedic Anatomy of the Mind
The nervous system is pervasive, reaching every corner of your body so you can sense what is happening both internally and externally.
The mind processes all of this stimulation and tries to organize and make sense of all the sensory input. Nerves allow you to experience life through sensations and the mind makes sense of these experiences. The mind refers to how you think, react, and respond to sensations reported by the nervous system.
Wherever nerves are present, thinking is also present – so in Ayurveda there are both nerves and thinking throughout the body. One could say that the mind is infused in the whole body, not just in the brain. The idea that we have feelings and awareness in various parts of our body is reflected in common sayings such as “gut feelings” or a “broken heart”. We feel our emotions in many places of the body. This mind-body connection is a fascinating subject of study. In Ayurveda, whenever something happens, it affects your body, your mental state, and your beliefs about the world.
Ayurveda’s Approach to Mental Wellness
Ayurveda offers a unique and practical framework for managing the health of the mind and addressing its specific disorders. This framework is based on 20 opposing qualities (gunas). An excess of any of the gunas in your body will incline your state of mind towards certain emotions and feelings. Here are some examples of how the physical gunas in the body impart personality traits in the mind:
- A cool mind may be relaxed, refreshed, but also aloof. A hot mind is a warm hearted, passionate and caring mind, but may be easily irritated and angry.
- A light mind is carefree, but may be scattered and spaced out. A heavy mind is stable and steady, but may be dull and slow.
- A mobile mind is motivated and enthusiastic, but may be frenetic and anxious. A stable mind is confident and steadfast, but can get stuck in a rut.
- A clear mind is focused but disengaged, while a cloudy (damp) mind has abundant feelings, but may have trouble letting go.
The gunas are an integral framework that Ayurveda provides to understand the mind. They are incredibly useful for assessing someone’s current mental state, and offers a workable system to bring these gunas into balance.
Imbalances of the gunas in the body affect the mind because of majja. Nervous tissue is very sensitive to changes in the blood chemistry (rasa), including any toxins in the blood, and these in turn affect the mind. Digestive toxins (ama) in the bloodstream can irritate nerve tissue, making your nerves feel frayed. Often, these toxins come from the digestive system, so taking care of digestive health is a key factor in supporting mental health. Toxins may come from other sources as well.
Ayurveda addresses mental health issues by balancing the gunas in a step by step approach. First, Ayurveda balances digestion and elimination to reduce the amount of accumulating toxins. Then, it uses diet, lifestyle & herbs to correct blood chemistry and balance the gunas in the blood. Along the way, Ayurveda nourishes the nervous system with healthy fats and appropriate herbs.
Ayurveda also recommends that you protect your sense organs from gratuitous exposure to disturbing images and thoughts – such as one might encounter in an daily input of news designed to trigger reactions .
What Causes an Imbalance in the Mind?
The mind is incredibly sensitive and can be easily imbalanced. Here are some causes of mental imbalances
- Lack of sleep, excess stress, working too hard, no routine and not enough self care will place strain on the mind.
- Overloading the mind leaves little time or mental energy to process all of your experiences.
- Burying unwanted past experiences can also impact your psychological and spiritual health.
- Exposure to worldviews and lifestyles that undermine health & relationship
- Exposure to disturbing images or sounds.
- An inappropriate diet for your body type
While these causes may not have an immediate impact on your mind, they slowly accumulate and twist the reality in the mind. The mind is supposed to contain an accurate map of reality. However, each person’s mind frequently misinterprets reality as well. Incorrect beliefs slowly warp this map of reality over such a long period of time that the individual often has difficulty identifying the true cause. The mistakes of the mind should not cause despair, or indecision, but instead should inspire renewed commitment to understanding and good use of reason.
Anxiety is an incredibly common ailment of the mind. Everyone will experience a little anxiety from time to time, but for some individuals chronic anxiety is prevalent on a day to day basis, sometimes for no apparent reason. Ayurvedically, anxiety may be a result of toxins that have accumulated in the colon and an aggravation of Vata (udana vayu). Anxiety is also fuelled by past traumas, poor routine, stress and eating at irregular meal times. Finally, anxiety may be caused by too much weight loss, or other deficiencies, a Vata imbalance. To remedy anxiety where a Vata imbalance is the underlying root cause, add healthy fats like ghee to the diet, and a little mineral salt to balance electrolyte levels. Ground Vata with a regular routine including self massage with sesame oil, a regular mealtime and a bedtime routine. deep belly breathing calms feelings of anxiety and helps restore healthy perspective.
Irritable, Angry and Frustrated
Feeling irritable and angry are classic signs of “hot blood”, a Pitta imbalance in the mind (sadhaka pitta). The source of this heat is Pitta ama, which creates inflammation, higher blood pressure, liver stress and feelings of frustration and short temper. To reduce mental irritation, remove any pitta aggravating foods from your diet, including spicy, sour or fermented foods, plus caffeine and alcohol. Follow a Pitta pacifying diet including sweet, cooling foods and cleansing bitters. Alterative herbs like turmeric, aloe vera juice and amalaki cleanse the blood, reduce Pitta ama and can help balance blood chemistry.
Fatigue and Brain Fog
Mental fatigue is natural after a long day, but in more serious cases, it is persistent and chronic. Mental fatigue, confusion and a slow, cloudy mind are often a result of aggravated Kapha (tarpaka kapha). Kapha becomes imbalanced in the mind due to a rich, heavy, sweet diet which reduces circulation and creates ama. Instead, eat food with spicy, pungent taste, as it clears and lightens a heavy mind. Trikatu (or “three pungents”) stimulates digestion and burns away an accumulation of Kapha ama that creates a sluggish body and mind. A light diet should be followed and Kapha provoking foods avoided. Engage in stimulating exercise first thing in the morning to refresh your mind and combat fatigue.
Trouble Falling Asleep / Insomnia
A good night sleep may be disrupted for any number of reasons. Perhaps falling asleep seems impossible with a swirling mind of worry, or you find yourself waking up around 1am feeling overheated and can’t get back to sleep. For difficulty falling asleep and excessive worrying before bed (Vata), practicing belly breathing, as we do at the start of a yoga class. Or even Veloma breathe, which can also be done laying down.
If you are waking up feeling hot and bothered in the middle of the night, Pitta may be imbalanced. In that case rub brahmi oil on your head before bed, turn off all electronics and stop work at least two hours before bed. Dim the lights an hour before bedtime and keep the bedroom cool in summer.
Heavy Sleeping / Tired & Groggy
Perhaps you get a great night’s sleep but the issue is getting out of bed and shaking off the morning fatigue. If sleep is deep but the mornings are a struggle (Kapha), set an alarm to rise early, before 6am each day. Drink a glass of hot water, with juice from a wedge of lemon, 10 drops of apple cider vinegar, a pinch of cayenne, and a teaspoon of honey. Then, do some stimulating exercise like a brisk walk in the fresh air. Also, make sure to have a light evening meal and avoid any rich or heavy food at night.
Tonics for the Mind
Tonics nourish and ground the nervous system. They can rejuvenate the mind and build mental strength.
Vata Mental Tonics
Vata disorders tend to be light, dry and mobile (like anxiety, fear and worry), so tonics should be heavy, oily and grounding. Oil nourishes and strengthens your nerves. Self massage with sesame oil is recommended for Vata. This warming, unctuous oil soothes the nervous system and pacifies Vata. It’s also good to include healthy fats, like ghee or raw sesame oil, in your diet. Avoid bad fats, such as the overheated fats in fried foods. Shankhapushpi can be used to reduce insomnia and anxiety. Ashwaghanda is a staple tonic for Vata as it calms a hyperactive mind, helps the body adapt to stress, builds strength and rejuvenates tissues.
Pitta Mental Tonics
Imbalances of the mind that are hot, sharp and penetrating (like anger, frustration and stress) are related to Pitta dosha. Tonics for Pitta disorders should be cooling and calming. Regular Self massage with coconut oil calms Pitta and soothes nervous tissues, as coconut oil is cooling. Bhringaraj oil can be used for a scalp massage as it reduces mental aggravation as a result of high Pitta and tones the nervous system. A few drops of brahmi oil in each nostril also cools the mind, reduces mental stress and increases strength in the mind including memory and concentration.
Kapha Mental Tonics
Kapha disorders of the mind are heavy, dull and slow, such as depression. Tonics for a Kapha mind should be light and invigorating to reduce the damp, heavy sluggish feeling. Shilajit is warm, light, drying and penetrating. It lifts mental sluggishness, depression and mental ama associated with Kapha. It rejuvenates the mind and helps clear brain fog. Kapha individuals can rub Vacha powder on their skin and take ginger baking soda baths to stimulate their body.
Multi Level Approach
The health of the mind has a powerful impact on the health of the body, and vice versa. The body and mind are intricately connected, and both must be taken into consideration when seeking a good nights sleep. We need to understand that poor sleep is a reflection of imbalance and often needs a multi pronged approach. So here is a relaxing yoga sequence for you to settle down with after your night time rituals.