Most people would define indigestion as the temporary inconvenience or discomfort that arises from eating too much food or eating foods that are too rich or spicy for our digestive process to handle. This description tends to place the focus more on the symptoms of indigestion than the process itself. Ayurveda offers a much more specific and comprehensive definition. It states that indigestion is both the inability to transform and assimilate food and the inability to eliminate metabolic waste products that result from the digestive process. Several things occur as a result of poor digestion.
This metabolic sequence is not unique to human physiology; it is a universal phenomenon. Jathara agni exerts its influence on life everywhere, particularly organic life, and we see the same three transient phases operating throughout nature. For example, freshly cooked rice is sweeter than uncooked rice, reflecting the sweet phase of transient metabolism.
A fascinating area of Ayurvedic science is the knowledge of rasa, the influence that a food’s taste has on digestion. Understanding the three categories of rasa can be very helpful in both the diagnosis and treatment of disease. That is why it is important to be able to distinguish between these three types of rasa or taste. As was mentioned earlier, the first type of rasa is the natural taste of food imparted by the combination of elements that make up that food substance. For example, a food that is high in both vayu and agni will taste sour and pungent, like chilis or peppers.
The process of digestion is not complete when food passes through the three zones of the gastrointestinal tract. The nutrients that result from prapaka digestion are still not in a form that can be assimilated by the dhatus. Because each dhatu has a different structure and function in the body, it requires its own metabolic process — one that can convert the raw nutrients into a form that can be used for its specific nutritional requirements.
At one time or another, almost everyone has wondered about the vast range of differences that exist among human beings. Though physiologically, we are made of the same substances and function in much the same way, our responses to life vary tremendously. Why do human beings exhibit such diversity in size, shape, complexion, energy levels and health? What produces the great variety in intelligence, emotional responses and adaptability to the environment’s demands?
In our discussion of the three constitutional types, it is important to keep a number of things in mind. First, just as no one’s life ever expresses a perfect balance of all three doshas, no one perfectly exemplifies one single doshic type. Even though the qualities of the primary dosha are most obvious, the characteristics of the less dominant doshas always filter through to influence who we are. The degree to which this happens depends on the relative strengths of each dosha.
People naturally prefer foods which balance the excessive influence of their primary dosha. For example, kaphic people normally shun rich, oily, cold and sweet foods, as well as dairy products, because these foods augment the already excessive action of kapha in their bodies. Instead, they choose dry, porous and light foods, like puffed grains, crackers, toast and salads. Because dry foods have greater absorptive capacity, they reduce the abundance of moistening and cohesive secretions that are typical of the kaphic nature. Kaphic individuals like warm food and enjoy and benefit from spices and pungent condiments. Pungent foods and fasting counteract excessive kapha, and these people are usually comfortable missing a meal or fasting.
We can now construct the “pillars of ayu,” the basic principles upon which health, happiness and harmony with natural law rest. These three pillars are referred to as ahara, vihara and aushadhi.
In our discussion of the three qualities of the mind in earlier article, we briefly mentioned the effect that certain foods have on the predominance of sattva, rajas and tamas in the mind. The following list offers a more detailed explanation of the connection between food and the state of mind.
In addition to proper diet, ahara emphasizes the role of three components vital to healthy gastrointestinal functioning: deepan, the maintenance of strong digestive fire; pachan, smooth digestion and assimilation; and anuloman, proper elimination of waste materials. When these three operate normally, the body will respond well to almost any appropriate treatment. People fall ill because they have problems in one or more of these areas. Many people consider weak appetite, sluggish digestion or constipation as an unfortunate but minor fact of life. They are not aware that these “small” inconveniences can lead to serious disease over time.