Svasthya
— What Is Health?

According to Ayurveda — the world’s oldest, uninterrupted system of medicine — svastha is the healthy, living individual — one who is embodying svasthya. And according to the Charaka Samhita, one of Ayurveda’s foundational, extant compendiums, “An individual is the epitome of the universe, as all the material and spiritual phenomena of the universe are present in the individual, and all those present in the individual are also contained in the universe.

When oral traditions were lifelines and words were literally charged with meaning, “healthy” was synonymous with “whole”, and sourced from their Proto-Indo-European roots—*koil, *kóh₂ilus—was the English word “holy”. Health in its dawning literal sense was hallowed. “Sound”, “sane”, “safe” and “salutary” are words for health that stem from the Proto-Indo-European *swā-n, *swen, *sal, and  *sol, and all of them relate us back to the expression of wholeness. What would it mean to be whole if loss—of limb, of luck, of laughter, of love—appeared to define one’s lot? What does it mean to be whole and holy, if cells and facets of one’s self are newly forming, while others are vulnerable, decaying and dying? Debating—as ancient philosopher-physicians did—we would arrive at those answers which resonated within our own selves.

Drawing from the Proto-Indo-European *swé—“self”—and *sweb—“one’s own”—is the Sanskrit sva—“one’s own self”. The Sanskrit word for health is svasthya, which signifies the universal wisdom of staying (stha) true to one’s own self (sva). Seers and sages (rishi), surpassing themselves in fathoming eternal self, propagated in Sanskrit the Vedic oral tradition of India. Extraordinarily prodigious and skilled in terms of energy, accuracy, and mnemonic fidelity, they generated the world’s largest, if not oldest, bodies of revelatory literature still in use today. Being that the sonic core of these transmissions is the “Word” (Vāc), without name, “heard” (shruti), and not framed, the Vedas are classified as unauthored (apaurusheya). 

Accordingly, the highest truth to live and prosper by is not man-made but rather the governing principle of cosmic order, intrinsic to nature’s physical laws (Rta). The 3,000-year-old Vedic aphorism, “As in the atom, so in the universe”, initiates within one’s entire self an existential inquiry or spontaneous insight that transcends notions of separate self. By law of correspondence, the individual is homologous with the universal. The realised self is homologous with the absolute. And one’s own genius is homologous with cosmic intelligence. 

The basis of realised health is realising essential self—through mindful, sensorial synchronisation with the consciousness principle that patterns atoms, universes, planets, and cells

Naturally, this was and would be a tall order, so the seers of India preserved a pluralistic knowledge base for self realisation, knowing that one single path to truth would not resonate for everyone, at all times. Of the four Vedas, it is the Arthava Veda that grounded for the people formulas and procedures for preventive, curative everyday use. Of all the Vedic or Yogic sciences, it is Ayurveda—the Science of Life—that translates the physical laws of nature into practical guidelines for personalised, everyday well-being. According to Ayurveda—the world’s oldest, uninterrupted system of medicine—svastha is the healthy, living individual—one who is embodying svasthya. And according to the Charaka Samhita, one of Ayurveda’s foundational, extant compendiums, “An individual is the epitome of the universe, as all the material and spiritual phenomena of the universe are present in the individual, and all those present in the individual are also contained in the universe (…) As soon as he realises his identity with the entire universe, he is in possession of true knowledge, which stands him in good stead for salvation.” CS 4:5.3, 7 

Standing purposefully in good stead, with possession and application of true knowledge—that of our real nature and the eternal laws that govern it—is svasthya. Transgressing natural laws by making misjudgements or volitionally going against one’s better judgement leads to the underuse (hina), abuse (mithya) or overuse (ati) of the sensory modalities. These are the causative factors of psychophysiological dysregulation and actions that are unsound, unsafe and unwholesome. Our individual psychophysiological constitution is called prakruti or “original nature” (from Prakriti, meaning Nature or “primal motive force”).

The deviation and disposition to physical and mental disorders is called vikruti. Ayurvedic treatments work towards restoring the individual’s dynamic equilibrium, prakruti. Fundamental and unique to Ayurveda is the prakruti/vikruti and tridosha concepts. The three dosha are bio-energetic agencies, responsible for regulation and dysregulation of all physiological, emotional and energetical processes. Our prakruti is a consequence of the relative proportion of the three doshas, determined at conception and modulated by the diet, lifestyle, age and condition of our parents and the environment.

Vata dosha regulates catabolic activity and interaction. Pitta dosha governs metabolic activity and assimilation. Kapha dosha is responsible for anabolic activity and cohesion. When in dynamic equilibrium, the doshas function to sustain the body sound, safe, and whole. However, when aggravated or vitiated—either singly or in combination—they become the intrinsic factors of endogenous, internally caused disease (nija roga). In the cases of exogenous, external, incidental disease (aganturoga)—such as trauma and microorganisms—the doshas are vitiated secondary to the external causes.

The Ayurvedic analysis of health is the interactive equilibrium of all three doshas, with integral functioning of all seven dhatus (supporting tissues of the entire physical body), of all thirteen operative factors of agni (metabolic enzymes and digestive functions), of all mala (metabolic by-products and excretory functions), and gratification of indriya (sensory modalities), manah (mental faculty), and atma (embodied locus of all-pervading, eternal consciousness). 

When the compound operations of interdependent structural and functional elements of the body are regulated and the sensorial gratification of physical, mental, and spiritual harmony is perceivable—that is svastha, the healthy living being. 

The disharmony of interaction between the mind, sensory modalities, and chrono-biological rhythms, leads to the predisposing factors of disease, which according to Ayurveda are: (1) Vitiation of the doshas(2) Accumulation of metabolic by-products and toxic waste products (ama). (3) Weakening of digestive power (agni). It is precisely the misuse of one’s mental faculties of intellect and discernment (dhi), patience and fortitude (dhrti), and recall and memory (smrti), which leads to intellectual error, or crime against nature—termed PrajnaparadhaHealth care that is preventive and precautionary (svasthavritta) involves the entire psychosomatic being, whereby the individual’s vikruti is apprehended and the prakruti supported, using timed and cyclic (kala) actions (karma) or regimens to regulate contact (samyoga) with the objects of our senses (artha). Ayurveda is in a steady process of globalisation, due in part to migration of communities for whom Ayurveda is assimilated as a way of life, and in part to the spreading demand for integrative, personalised medicine. Evaluated by the World Health Organisation (WHO) as a system of traditional medicine with long-standing and notably significant value for preventative healthcare and herbal pharmacology, Ayurveda with its classical texts (c. 2000 BCE–400 CE) is a continuously applied resource.

Striving to revitalise health as an imperative for a meaningfully integrated life today, WHO aims for balance between removing the obstacles to “Health for All” and promoting health as “a resource for everyday life, not the objective of living”.

WHO proposes that, “In a context of growing inequity, competition for scarce natural resources and a financial crisis threatening basic entitlements to health care, it would be hard to find a better expression of health as a fundamental right, as a prerequisite for peace and security, equity, social justice, popular participation, and global solidarity …” Replace “health” with its synonym “wholeness”, and the WHO statement is altered to read: It would be hard to find a better expression for *wholeness* as a fundamental right, as a prerequisite for peace, equity, social justice, popular participation, and global solidarity. Realistically, however, 2,500 years have passed since Hippocrates distinguished science from theurgy and philosophy, and circumscribed physicians to rational medicine. 

The signification of “wholeness”—let alone “holy”—has long been purged from the Western medical definition of health. Being that allopathic doctors are invested with knowledge of disease, rather than health, definitions of health do not feature in their classical textbooks or professional vernacular. 

Even now, the Oxford Dictionary defines health as, “The state of being free from illness or injury.” Such a  definition stands corrected by WHO’s declaration that health is, “A state of complete physical, mental, and social well-being, and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” Enter salutogenesis (rather than pathogenesis), developed by Aaron Antonovsky, a professor of medical sociology, in the late 1970’s. With salutogenesis, the Western focus returns to the origins and evaluation of health. Health is redefined as a process. Moving incrementally along a continuum between ease and disease, without pressure to perform according to fixed ideals, allows realistic day-to-day balance in light of one’s own actual life circumstances. 

Evidence of remarkable resilience from 29 percent of female survivors of Nazi concentration camps, compelled Antonovsky to research resources and produce his Sense of Coherence model (SOC) in 1979. SOC explains the dimensions involved in determining variable human response to ubiquitous and traumatic stressors. SOC examines how some people under potentially disabling stress cope, adapt, and achieve health, while others suffer greatly in comparison and decline. Identified as being central to SOC are comprehensibilitymanageability, and meaningfulness

Researching “The Relationship between Sense of Coherence and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Symptoms among Firefighters”, psychologists from the Polish Nofer Institute of Occupational Medicine concluded that: “For persons with a high level of comprehensibility it is easier to incorporate traumatic events, such as a directly witnessed death or human suffering (an ‘unfair’ suffering) which often affects the children, into the ‘natural’ order of things. The individuals with a high sense of manageability probably have a stronger sense of their causative power and stronger conviction about the possibility of changing the course of events.

People with a high sense of meaningfulness tend to perceive a traumatic event rather as a challenge than danger. The tragic events they experience provide just a stronger stimulus for them to behave more actively instead of being merely a passive witness of the tragedy. This allows them to avoid an experience of helplessness and shame for not having done something that should have been done. Emotions of this kind may facilitate the onset of PTSD.” The person resourced with insights and overviews of life’s purpose, cultivated through exposure and or mentorship, has the advantage of an inhering sense of “life orientation”, direction, and control. Developing simultaneously with the means to accept, interrelate, navigate, and profit, is the confidence generated through self-knowledge and self-possession. Privileged to have counselled thousands of clients on their individual journeys of health, I have come to hear unrehearsed lines underscoring self-possession on a regular basis.

“I feel who I am is more established in me—more of me in myself, and having more to give to others.”

“I feel it’s a sort of deepened homecoming—coming more home to the body, home to self, looking forward to coming home to my land…[I] feel happy to be able to be me, exactly me, in my unique way—to fill, be, live my own fingerprint.”

 “Giving myself permission to be my real self is the palpable relief from suffering that I have been looking for.” 

The above three quotes attest to the condition of svasthya and prakruti. The first two testimonies were written by patients at the end of their residential Panchakarma, a 28-day clinical sequencing of Ayurvedic therapies. Panchakarma (meaning “five actions”) is a comprehensive system of purificatory and palliative procedures that support the body’s own capacities to detoxify, regenerate, and thrive.[Text Wrapping Break][Text Wrapping Break]The third testimony is an example of the relief that is commonly referred to following an in-depth Ayurvedic intake and consultation in which prakruti and vikruti are determined. Interventions for nutrition, lifestyle measures, yoga, meditation, and herbo-minerals are personalised and explained.                 

Aligned with the generalised resistance resources advocated by the SOC model, the Ayurvedic elementary rules of living re-establish consistency, balanced dosage of sensory stimulation, and powerful decision-making that prioritises comprehension and devotion to psychosomatic well-being.[Text Wrapping Break][Text Wrapping Break]Abiding soundly in one’s own natural self and therefore one’s uniquely configured sense of wholeness—with the relative, integral capacity to adapt and flourish as meaningfully necessary—is svasthya. That is health—a lifelong process. 

Number One Health Tip: 

Relaxed awareness of our own natural breath. 

As unique as we each are, this is a general guide for all of us. At any moment—day and evening—breath regulation is a tested method for appeasing Vata, the subtle, driving force of our neurophysiological system.  

Breathing with awareness is an organic way to directly cultivate the mindfulness necessary for attaining and sustaining health.  

Mindful ingestion, mindful recuperation and mindful orientation of our vital, generative energies are the Ayurvedic “three pillars of life” (food, sleep, sex). 

Whatever number of health tips I love to share, each tip is naturally supported by mindfulness or presence. So let’s start at the beginning. 

Close the eyes and track the inflows, outflows and organic retentions of breath. Pace yourself and ease off before feeling any strain.  

Unforced awareness of any combination of tempo, rhythm, intervals, vibration, and symmetrical passage of breath, gradually engages the mind in a measured, symphonic and comprehensive experience.  

Bearing witness to one’s own breathing processes, allows us to ultimately modulate at will the vibratory rate and cadence of thoughts and of actions. Thereby, we can begin to stabilise and harmonise nervous energy, resolve psychosomatic dissonance, mitigate bodily sensations, and direct powers of clear intention. 

Text: Uma Inder