Body, Mind and Consciousness:
The Body-Mind Connection in Ayurveda and Yoga
by Vishnu Dass and Yol Swan
Ayurveda is India’s 5000-year old science of life, health, and longevity. According to Ayurveda, there is no separation between body, mind, and consciousness. Therefore, the concepts of health and disease must address all of these aspects. The mind is organically related to the physical body. Any imbalance of the doshas (psycho-physiological principles, or humors) will create signs and symptoms at all levels. The doshas rule and regulate all functions of the organism and determine disease proneness at the physical level and emotional response at the mental level. They are known as vata, the energy of movement; pitta, the energy of metabolism and transformation; and kapha, the energy of lubrication and cohesiveness.
The bond between body and mind can be easily observed when physical fluctuations disturb our mental state, as when we have a flu and aren’t able to concentrate, or when our behavior changes depending on diet and lifestyle habits. This is one of the reasons why Ayurveda places great emphasis on diet and lifestyle for preventing disease and restoring health through balancing the doshas.
The body-mind complex is an organic unity, but mind and body are not the same. The mind appears to be wherever we direct our attention. It can function apart from the body consciousness, as when we are dreaming. The physical body is primarily an organ of perception and expression through the senses and motor organs. We could say that the body is a gross form of the mind, as it serves as a vehicle for the mind to perceive, act, and express itself. On the other hand, the mind is influenced by the impressions of the world we receive through the senses and motor organs. So body and mind work constantly together. Yet what gives us the sense of who we are is not the physical body. It is what we think and feel, how we perceive and experience the world and others around us. So let’s look at the mind in more detail, from a philosophical and yogic perspective.
Samkhya philosophy serves as a major philosophical foundation for both Ayurveda and yoga. This is one of the reasons why both sciences are so closely related and complement each other. According to the Samkhya system, the two eternal principles of creation are Purusha, or pure consciousness, and Prakruti, or matter. All creation emerges from their interface. These two principles are at work at every level of existence, from the Cosmic Mind to the elements of nature (earth, fire, water, air, and ether) that form everything, including the doshas.
The mind is part of Prakruti (matter) and is not conscious by itself. Just like a movie projector shines a light upon a screen and creates an image that seems real, so does Purusha reflect on all matter and makes it appear to be conscious. This reflection is what gives us the “I-sense” of individuality (the ahamkara, or “I-sense”), as well as the ability to cognize the world around and within us. All impressions, emotions, thoughts, intuitions, and experiential knowledge are modifications of this mind stuff. In other words, everything the mind perceives is colored by this “I-sense.”
This “I-sense” creates the subject-object experience. It is the experiencer that connects all experiences. It works along with another three aspects of the mind: the buddhi, or subjective body of intelligence and discrimination; the manas, or objective mind field; and chitta, or the mind field within which the other aspects of the mind work to create the sense of experience. These three aspects serve the interests of the “I-sense” and this is why we all experience the world according to our own projections.
When the sage Patanjali, the author of the Yoga Sutras, states that the “control of thought waves in the mind is yoga” (Sutra 2), he is referring to controlling all four aspects of the mind. This is because according to yoga, as well as Ayurveda, the ultimate cause of disease is ignorance (the illusion that the “I-sense” is real), the ultimate cure of disease is discriminative wisdom (the realization that the “I-sense” is an illusion), and the ultimate state of health is liberation from the cycle of reincarnation and suffering (through that ultimate realization). Therefore, when we look closer, the “control of thought waves in the mind” is the cure to all disease in yogic terms. It is the realization that we ultimately are Purusha, pure consciousness, and not just its distorted reflection in the mind (the “I-sense” or ego). In other words, the goal of both yoga and Ayurveda is the ultimate merging of the individual mind with pure consciousness.
Thought waves (or vrittis) include emotions, imaginations, memories, intuitions, and subliminal and cognitive thoughts. Every thought creates an impression, or samskara, which is stored in the experiential mind field (chitta). Samskaras are like seeds that can be dormant for many years and/or lifetimes, and become activated when the environment is favorable for them to blossom. They can be perceived as latent tendencies. This is why one thought gives rise to another thought, or a particular situation can trigger a specific emotional response. Since each thought wave is already conditioned by past impressions, it creates another impression that reinforces a thought pattern, which eventually forms a belief system along with other thought patterns. So there is a feedback loop in our mental processes that colors our perceptions and triggers both our conscious and subconscious responses. Since thought patterns and impressions become part of the subconscious mind, they can either promote health or imbalance, depending on their subtle qualities.
All disease has a mental, emotional, and physical component, even though we tend to focus primarily on the physical symptoms (unless the mental aspect is too strong). This is obvious when, for instance, a person develops a disease after receiving bad news, or after experiencing trauma, abuse, or grief. Here the emotional pain manifests on the physical level. Likewise, the effects of inappropriate diet and lifestyle, seasonal changes, or the environment can have a mental manifestation. High pitta (or fire element in the body) can cause volatile emotions such as anger or jealousy; high vata (or air element) can produce anxiety and fear; and high kapha (or water element) can create dullness and depression. Balancing the doshas would bring harmony to the mental and physical aspects in both cases, since the doshas govern the different functions of body and mind, from the gross to the subtle level, and because in essence body and mind are an organic unity.
All impressions and tendencies in the mind permeate our needs, drives, habits, relationships, addictions, and so on. In reality, thought waves and impressions are constantly expressing themselves through the body. For instance, if we love ourselves and believe that we deserve to be loved, we will project those beliefs through our attitude, habits, relationships, and general state of health. On the other hand, suppressed or unresolved emotions will cause imbalance. In Ayurveda we say that bad food combining causes ama, or toxins, because the body cannot properly process certain food combinations. In the same manner, unresolved (“unprocessed”) emotions and impressions can also cause mental ama, which will eventually manifest as disease. This is where yogic practices and meditation are invaluable to quiet the mind and remove the emotional garbage we all carry.
According to Ayurveda and yoga, nature consists of three subtle qualities, known as sattva, rajas, and tamas. Sattva is purity, right action, and spiritual purpose. Rajas is the principle of movement, change, and excitability. Tamas is inertia, darkness, and confusion. From rajas comes the false idea that the external world is real, which makes us lose track of the world within and seek happiness outside of ourselves. Rajas creates desire, ambition, mental activity, and emotional upsets. From tamas comes the ignorance that veils our true nature and weakens our power of discrimination. Laziness, lethargy, and lack of determination or purpose are created by tamas. An ego (“I-sense”) that identifies itself with the body is also created by tamas. Sattva gives clarity, concentration, love, and devotion. Sattva as a state of balance is responsible for health and healing.
These three universal qualities deeply influence the mind-body complex. Just as we can have a more predominant dosha in our constitution (say we are pitta predominant), so can our mind have a more predominant quality (either rajasic, tamasic, or sattvic). To have sattva as the predominant quality in our nature is the key to good health, creativity, and spirituality. A sattvic diet consists of food that is easy to digest, nourishing, and promotes clarity and purity of mind, such as grains, vegetables, dairy, fruit, and nuts. A sattvic lifestyle includes mindfulness, discipline, spiritual practices like prayer, yoga and meditation, and cultivating virtuous qualities such as honesty, non-violence, compassion, contentment, selflessness, and so on.
We can transform our mental constitution through an Ayurvedic sattvic diet and lifestyle, healthy routines, and yogic disciplines such as hatha yoga, pranayama, mantra repetition, and meditation. Furthermore, Ayurveda offers subtle therapies to restore balance at all levels, such as Shirodhara (mental rejuvenation therapy), Marma Chikitsa (energy point therapy), or Panchakarma, a deep cleansing and rejuvenation program. These Ayurvedic therapies are profound and effective because they address the whole person and restore health at the cellular and subconscious levels, embracing the organic connection between body, mind, and consciousness.
© 2005 Vishnu Dass and Yol Swan. This article was originally published on New Life Journal, Feb/March 2005. No reproduction allowed in whole or in part without written permission from the authors.