Looking to the east for guidance, can CBD products be used as part of an Ayurvedic lifestyle?
Ayurveda is an ancient Indian healing system with roots that stretch back to the pre-biblical era. With a holistic approach at the core of its practice, it is widely considered to be one of the oldest systems of medicine in the world. Its traditional philosophies stress the importance of maintaining a balance between your mind, body and spirit, in order to promote physical and mental wellness, and a chief way this can be achieved is through diet and the use of herbal medicine.
Cannabis, amongst many other sacred herbs, has been used ritualistically since the origins of the practice, and it is currently featured in 80 traditional Ayurvedic formulas. Despite being lauded for its medicinal and healing qualities, marijuana has a contested relationship with Ayurveda as its intoxicating effects are understood to be at odds with spiritual progress.
As a changing tide of drug reform sweeps much of the Western world, many curious individuals, and corporations alike, are searching for new applications of this wonder drug. Health products such as CBD are becoming viable alternatives to smoking marijuana, and are gaining traction within the wellness industry. Lacking the psychoactive compound that stands behind marijuana spiritual critique, and having emerged centuries after the origins of Ayurveda, cannabidiol’s compatibility with this ancient practice is yet to be thoroughly analysed.
With CBD and Ayurveda both increasingly becoming popular buzzwords within the wellness industry, it's an important time to explore whether cannabidiol can be used as part of an Ayurvedic lifestyle, or if its link to the practice is just due to misinformed, opportunistic marketing.
What is Ayurveda?
Before we explore CBD’s compatibility with Ayurvedic medicine, it is important to take a deeper look into this ancient system of healing. You may not have come across the term Ayurveda before, but its ancient practices have laid the foundations for commonplace surgeries like rhinoplasty, and natural healing systems such as Homoeopathy and Polarity Therapy.
Translated from Sanskrit with ‘āyus’ meaning life and ‘veda’ meaning sacred knowledge, Ayurveda has been used since antiquity as a tool for gaining knowledge about life and longevity. The tradition gained significant momentum in India during the Vedic period that dates back to 1500 BCE, but some believe its practices can be traced back to as early as the bronze age. Ayurveda descends from ancient Hindu practices, and it stands as one of the oldest medical traditions that is still practised today. Its core beliefs derive from sacred texts, which are considered to include information passed down by Hindu gods. These holy origins explain why Ayurveda is considered to be more of a spiritual textbook to a balanced lifestyle than just a medical practice.
Its core beliefs are centred around the importance of maintaining balance through the unity of the body, senses, mind and spirit. And through mindfully balancing these elements, it is understood that good health can be maintained and disease can be avoided. Key to this philosophy is the belief that the universe and every being within, is made up of a unique pattern of energy, the configuration of which is fixed from one's inception and stays the same throughout the passage of life. This individual pattern of energy represents the five elements of Earth, Water, Fire, Space and Air, and these elements form doshas.
What are Doshas?
As Ayurvedic philosophy goes, doshas, or constitutions, are the biological life forces responsible for an individual's unique combination of characteristics. Similar to Latin humors or China’s yin and yang, they are thought to account for the differences between every being and govern all physical and mental processes. Everyone is understood to be made up of a combination of all three doshas, but identifying your dominant one or one’s will help provide you with a unique model for health and fulfilment.
The three doshas and their characteristics are:
Vata (composed of Space and Air) Vata is associated with the energy of movement. Its characteristics are creativity, flexibility, and free-spirited nature. Physically, someone who is predominantly Vata may have a slimmer frame and get colder easier, as its properties are drier and colder than the other doshas. An imbalance in this dosha can lead to heightened anxiety and digestive issues.
Pitta (composed of Fire and Water) Pitta represents the body's metabolic system. Someone who is mainly Pitta are considered to be intellectual high achievers with large amounts of courage. Pitta types are physically likely to have a medium build and oily skin. If a balance isn’t obtained, Pitta’s can be vulnerable to angry episodes, burnouts, and irritated skin.
Kapha (composed of Earth and Water) Kapha is considered to be very much of a grounding force. Its calming, kind and forgiving properties enable it to be stabilizing energy, helping to bind the other doshas together. Its main characteristic is lubrication, however, an unbalanced Kapha can lead to laziness, attachment and jealousy.
For more information about doshas, and how to find out your predominant dosha, click here.
The three Gunas
Also, core to Ayurvedic philosophy is the concept of the three Gunas. These are simply understood to represent the three states of mind of an individual. Translating from ‘quality’ in Sanskrit, they constitute everything in nature, and they are understood to affect someone's worldview by interplaying with the balance of the doshas. They all share different attributes and can be drastically affected by diet and consumption, which is why they are important to consider when looking at the effect of marijuana and CBD into Ayurveda. The three Gunas include:
Sattva - meaning ‘true essence’, this Guna encompasses virtues such as understanding, awareness and compassion. Sattva is an all-round positive Guna and it promotes energy, health and joy.
Rajas - This Guna is understood to be the energy of change. Translating as ‘passion’, the rajasic activity can be responsible for sparking change in one's life, moving it in the direction of the more positive Sattva, or the more negative Tamas.
Tamas - or ‘darkness’ is responsible for creating dullness, lethargy and inaction. This Guna can contribute to heightened anxiety, depression, or stagnation in life. However, this solidity is also accredited for holding things together and creating stability.
Differences between Ayurvedic practices and Western medicine
In contrast to the objective science of the western world, Ayurveda encompasses a healing system as a way of life, as well as a medical practice. The main way that these traditional practices differ from those in the west, is that Ayurvedic medicine works with holistic strategies that focus more on prevention than cure. The driving force of this practice is instead rooted in restoring the balance that corresponds to each of our unique circumstances. Its practices treat no two individuals the same and instead encourages everyone to follow a unique regimen.
Also, contrary to western allopathy, Ayurveda rejects medication using man-made drugs as they are believed to weaken your body due to their toxicity. Instead, mindfulness, exercise, and a diet consisting of a variety of herbs are promoted as ways to minimize stress and prevent disease.
The rise of Ayurveda in the West
The west’s complex relationship with Ayurvedic science started off on rocky ground during England’s imperial rule over India. Ayurveda was largely suppressed and banished to the fringes of society. This was until India found its independence in 1947 and traditional methods were widely reinstalled, Ayurvedic practices were even implemented within the national medical system.
Now, however, as alternative therapies and New Age culture fall more into the mainstream, the Ayurvedic industry has been achieving exponential growth in the west. As health failures like diabetes, heart disease and kidney disease continue to proliferate western countries, with one in ten over 40’s in the UK now having type 2 diabetes, preventative healthcare strategies are becoming more and more attractive to those disenfranchised by the western model.
In the US a recent study has shown that 38% of adults routinely use alternative treatments such as acupuncture, reiki and Ayurveda, which indicates the growing number of people looking towards the east for ancient tried and tested healthcare practices. And take a walk down Venice beach in Los Angeles or Camden market in London and you’re likely to come across a poster for Ayurvedic massages or see its benefits being flouted on herbal soaps or tea blends.
Similarly, with the increased legalisation and decriminalisation of weed across countries such as America, Canada and much of central and south America, medical and recreational applications of this plant have received a surge of interest in recent years. Due to the relaxation of these regulations, it’s predicted that the medical marijuana industry in America could be worth up to $66.3 billion by the year 2025. Similarly, the chemical compound CBD is also set to have an annual growth rate of 33.5%, firmly stapling its place within the wellness industry.
However as the hype around this relatively new industry increases, so do the opportunities in which to profit from it. Phenomenons like 420-friendly Yoga classes have been popping up throughout the US, where practitioners preach marijuanas sacred ability to help them connect their physical to their spiritual side, by enabling them to reach a higher meditative space. But is altering your state of consciousness actually compatible with the Ayurvedic lifestyle? Or is it just another New Age fad with no substantive backing? To find this out we have to reflect on how marijuana was utilised in ancient Ayurvedic practices.
Marijuana’s history in Ayurveda
Marijuana has been used in Ayurvedic medicine since its inception, and is even mentioned in the ancient script ‘Sarngadhara Samhita’. Understood to have fallen from the sky in the form of heavenly nectar to bring pleasure to mankind, its sacred properties are believed to contribute to the spiritual and cognitive evolution of mankind. Known in Sanskrit as ‘vjaya’, its synonyms roughly translate to ‘soother of grief’, ‘the poor man's heaven’ and ‘the sky flier’, which all allude to the herbs therapeutic and potentially transcendental qualities.
It is still widely used in many traditional Ayurvedic formulas and it is understood to enhance the benefits of the herbs it is used with. Its medicinal qualities are still well respected as it is recognized to help with pain, digestive disorders, dysentery, and sexual limitations, among a range of other ailments. Despite the consensus that this medical herb has spiritual, emotional and psychical benefits, it is only recommended to be taken in tiny doses and as part of a ritualistic practice.
How the herb is used in Ayurveda
Marijuana is only used in conjunction with other traditional herbs, in order to balance out the guna properties. Conventionally, the whole plant is processed in water for at least 24 hours, before being dried out and fried in ghee, a butter popular in south-east Asia.
The herb comes in one of three main forms, Bhang, Chara or Gangha. Bhang is another name for the leaves of the plant. In Ayurvedic tradition, it’s common to boil bhang with cow's milk, nuts and spices such as saffron or black pepper, and it is understood to help lower high blood pressure and to stimulate the nervous system. Bhang can also be combined with tobacco, or made into fresh leaf juice or dried leaf powder, and can be ingested or applied onto the body.
Chara refers to the resin of the plant and is the strongest intoxicant of all the forms. It is a concentrated version of the herb and is most likely smoked in a pipe or with tobacco. Because of its powerful effects, it is normally used to ease insomnia, cases of chronic pain and manic states of mind. Finally, gangha are the flowers of the plant, and are normally consumed for the purposes for pleasure, but can also be combined with other herbs for medicinal purposes.
Ayurvedic properties of marijuana
According to Ayurvedic philosophy, weed inhibits hot, dry and penetrating qualities. When using the substance correctly, these properties are thought to lead to various health benefits such as improved digestion, improved sex drive and pain management. However if used in excess amounts, the herb is also thought to contribute to a wide range of mental and psychical detriments, which we will explore next.
How Marijuana is considered to be disruptive to an Ayurvedic lifestyle
According to Alakandana Ma, a highly respected doctor and teacher of Ayurvedic medicine, using the herb is thought to elicit a short-term pleasurable and Sattvatic high after being consumed, before increasing the raja leading to a longer Tasmatic dull state of mind. Its ability to produce a Tamaic state of mind is the reason why habitual use of this plant is warned against in the Ayurvedic custom. This is, therefore, the main reason the habitual use of cannabis is viewed to be problematic in Ayurvedic practice. Since Tama is a guna that is associated with lethargy, dullness, and fogginess of the mind, it is considered to contribute towards episodes of depression, anxiety and poor memory. The dominance of this guna also aggravates the Vita dosha, which is predominantly dry. Marijuana’s dry and hot characteristics exacerbate the already dry properties of Vita, leading to a fundamental imbalance of doshas. And since the disturbance of the natural order of the doshas is what is understood to lower one's defences and leave them vulnerable to disease and poor health, a careful balance is key to maintain a healthy self.
Central to the Ayurvedic belief is that anything can be considered a poison if used out of balance. So despite many of marijuana’s well-known health benefits, if used in excess and not alongside traditional herbs that balance out its Tamasic qualities, it can be considered to be toxic to the liver and blood. An unmoderated use of marijuana is therefore thought to lead to indigestion, tissue depletion, and a range of other health defects.
Another reason cannabis can be viewed as a barrier to spiritual connection is because of its intoxicating effects. The psychoactive component THC and the mental fogginess that it induces is largely at odds with the mindful state of mind that is required to attain spiritual enlightenment. Ayurveda dubbs continued use of the substance ‘prajnaparadh’ which translates to English as ‘crime against wisdom’, as using cannabis outside of a ceremonial context is thought to create a lack of progression as well as spiritual confusion. And as the key figure in the world of Ayurvedic medicine Dr John Doullard, points out, the “illusion of real spiritual progress” is the most dangerous component of all.’’.
Why is CBD different?
CBD, short for cannabidiol, derives from the hemp plant, and is non-intoxicating. The chemical component of THC is also hemp-derived, however, it gives users that ‘high’ feeling. CBD is increasingly being celebrated for providing solutions to physical and mental challenges such as insomnia, chronic pain, epilepsy, anxiety and depression. A 2019 study even found cannabidiol responsible for slowing down the growth and spread of tumour cells. And according to the World Health Organization, unlike its psychoactive cousin, “there is no evidence of public health-related problems associated with the use of pure CBD”. Also unlike cannabis, it wasn’t around when Ayurvedic medicine was developed, so its value within this ancient healing system is yet to be thoroughly considered.
How could CBD be compatible with Ayurvedic practices?
Unlike the dry, erratic and energetic Vata imbalance that can be triggered with excessive use of cannabis, CBD’s qualities are warmer, slower and heavier, helping to counteract the negative qualities of the Vata dosha. These calmer properties of CBD are more likely to correspond with the Kapha dosha, which elicits more grounding and stabilizing effects. The Kapha dosha is also credited for binding the other doshas together, which reflects the healing nature of CBD. Although CBD may also induce some tamasic qualities, these in moderation may help to calm down the mind from over-active states. The dull and stagnant properties of Tamas that are present within CBD may indeed help bring a calmness over the mind that can enable someone to think and act more clearly. As a cannabinoid user with postpartum anxiety expressed in her blog, the routine use of CBD oil helped to balance out her Vata dosha, enabling her to seek relief from a condition that was difficult and incredibly debilitating.
Another way CBD is likely to be compatible with Ayurvedic medicine is because similar to the practice, it works hard at maintaining a healthy balance within the body. The endocannabinoid system is great at helping the body maintain homeostasis, which basically refers to the body’s ability to react to external conditions in order to increase optimal health and survival. Everyone’s body naturally generates a certain amount of cannabinoids, which help them to regulate bodily processes and maintain good health. But if your body is short of cannabinoids it could mean you have a deficiency, which is thought to increase the likelihood of you getting certain conditions such as migraines, fibromyalgia (irritable bowel syndrome) and even Parkinson's disease. This is why the use of CBD can be useful in combating certain ailments because it balances out the potentially dangerous patterns of your endocannabinoid system.
This process shares many similarities with the philosophy behind Ayurveda, as health is achieved through maintaining a natural balance within the body and mind. The benefits of using CBD to stabilize the endocannabinoid system mirrors the will to balance the three doshas, as a disharmony in both of them is understood to lead to bad health and potentially disease.
In Ayurvedic philosophy, anything can be a medicine if used mindfully, in moderation, and with balance in mind. So if we apply this theory to the practical use of CBD, as long as it is used alongside a wider holistic practice with other herbs to balance out its qualities, it could likely balance out some of the more active doshas, leading to a healthier body and mind.
Why it is useful to integrate Ayurvedic understandings with evidence-based science
Despite the clear benefits of Ayurvedic medicine, it's far from lacking in criticism. The traditional system of healing is regularly under scrutiny for being difficult to follow and for its stubbornness to evolve with evidence-based methods. The folklore and myths that lie at the heart of this practice are precisely what gives Ayurveda its spiritual distinction, but its refusal to adapt to contemporary changes in society and pathology leaves it at risk of appearing outmoded in the modern world.
Not that western allopathy is without its shortcomings either. Western logic often fails to pay attention to the preventative methods that are taught by ancient systems of medicine. The strategy of focusing more on symptomatology and tackling diseases with drugs and surgery after they arise, overlooks the importance of building up one’s natural defences preemptively.
The intuitive, holistic nature of Ayurvedic medicine and the centuries of observation it is based upon, could provide many valuable insights into the world of western medicine. Even outside the practice of medicine, the philosophy of restoring one’s cosmological balance through exercising, eating a balanced diet and reflecting closely on one's mind and body, are incredibly valuable tools when it comes to achieving and maintaining good health.
What the biomedical scientist Dr Patwardhan calls for is the emergence of a New Ayurveda. By pushing past dogmatic concepts on either side, progressive solutions supported by modern technology could be harnessed to further the applications of Ayurveda. If traditional systems of knowledge could be applied with greater ease to the modern world, more people would be able to reap the benefits of this ancient practice. In doing so however it is incredibly important to respect the origins of this knowledge system, its traditional applications and its spiritual significance.
Using this tact, incorporating the use of recently discovered treatments such as CBD can help to build on the practices of Ayurveda without standing at odds with its ancient traditions. If the use of cannabidiol is used mindfully and in conjunction with other Ayurvedic methods, its medicinal properties can be harnessed, and it can be used to promote a healthy balance within the body and mind.
Ways to use CBD as part of an Ayurvedic lifestyle
Using what we know about the treatment of marijuana in ancient Ayurvedic practices, what can we glean about the potential uses of CBD?
Use it in relation to your predominant doshas
- Since an increased Vata dosha can contribute to heightened anxiety, insomnia and a racing mind, CBD can counteract this high energy because of its calming and tasmatic qualities.
- If you’re predominantly Kapha, CBD share’s much of the same qualities, so use it in moderation so it doesn’t contribute to too much inaction.
Use it alongside Ayurvedic foods and herbs that balance out its tamasic and rajasic qualities
- Certain herbs help to counteract the heavy and dull properties of CBD.
- Nervine herbs like Amla and Brahmi have been used with marijuana for centuries to balance out its toxins and repair the damage to the nervous system. So it’s likely these properties will also relate to CBD.
- Milk also balances out the lethargic and aggressive qualities of marijuana, so it can likely also be extended to the use of CBD.
- Ghee would also mate a great accompaniment because it is also used to help purify marijuana and bring out its healing properties.
Use it in edibles
- Marijuana is best incorporated into Ayurveda through fresh and healthy food. This is because it makes it easier for our body to sustainably digest the substance.
Make it into Bhang
- An example of a great traditional Ayurvedic drink to integrate CBD into would be bhang.
- By substituting marijuana with CBD, you can incorporate the compound into a delicious creamy drink that dates back hundreds of years. Ingredients vary but the drink usually consists of yoghurt or milk, a mixture of spices and nuts.
- All of these ingredients are carefully combined to balance out the effects of cannabis, so would be perfect with the incorporation of CBD.
- For more information on Bhang and tips on how to make it click here.
Try to avoid smoking it in a vape
- Smoking using a vape would be less encouraged because it could compound the already hot and dry qualities of CBD. The exaggeration of these properties makes it more likely to aggravate the Vata dosha.
As CBD and alternative forms of therapy such as Ayurveda continue to rise in popularity, it’s no wonder that they are often, and sometimes clumsily, assimilated with each other. Often when the use of medical marijuana or CBD is declared to lead to a Ayurvedic spiritual awakening, it neglects the nuanced relationship between Ayurveda and marijuana, by exploiting the latest wellness trends.
From tracking Ayurveda’s complex relationship with cannabis, in its capability to be considered both holy nectar and poison, it shows how important the context behind its use is. If used recklessly and out of line with traditional practice, marijuana and even CBD can be considered harmful and stand in the way of spiritual progress. But If taken ritualistically, in moderation and in combination with other Ayurvedic practices, these substances can play a crucial role in achieving spiritual balance and maintaining good health.
If you are curious about exploring Ayurveda and living by its principles, it’s important to really do your research. This centuries-old tradition is rich, complex and filled with nuances, so you truly gain more if you have an in-depth understanding of its core philosophies and applications.
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