Balance or imbalance in physiology is traceable largely to the quality of either digestion or elimination. Digestion is responsible for transforming all influences from the environment into something useful for physiology (here we call food, pollutants, radiation, and all sensory experience etc., influences). If digestion is not good enough then the product of digestion may be waste, a toxic substance Ayurveda calls ama (meaning uncooked). Ama is produced in this case especially when we eat improper food combinations. Certain foods taken together are difficult or impossible to digest or transform properly, such as milk with orange juice. Ama is also the natural by-product of cellular metabolism (also called free-radicals). Ama thus comes into the body from the environment and is made in the body itself. It is sticky, which quality interferes with physiology by blocking the channels of elimination and nutrition. Its presence is experienced as heaviness, dullness of mind and digestion, sluggishness, lethargy, sleepiness, depression, etc. No matter what it is the body can't use it and doesn't want it. It represents that which is non-self and is that which interferes with the flow of intelligence in the body-mind system. Intelligence expresses as the path of orderly change so when disorder occurs then ama must be present.
The most revered classical writer on Ayurveda, Caraka (Ca. Vi II.8) gives this discussion on the cause of ama. Not only the quantum of food in respect of quantity alone causes over-affection of ama but also the use of food and drinks which are heavy, rough, cold, dry, disliked, distending, burning, unclean, antagonistic, and taken untimely and also while afflicted with psychic emotions such as passion, anger, greed, confusion, envy, bashfulness, grief, conceit, excitement and fear. These also cause over-affection of ama.
It is easy to think of ama as strictly physical but in fact it has an emotional counterpart. Ama as emotions of fear, anger, depression also interferes with physiology. The research on the neuropeptide over the past two decades has confirmed the role of thoughts and emotions as agents for the production of chemicals (neuropeptides) in the brain and body which have been shown to alter thought and behavior. Phobias, neuroses, and hypertension are types of manifestations of this form of ama. Fear and other emotions which block the flow of intelligence also can be the effect as when trauma causes mechanical blocks to physiology and depression results. A steady diet of heavy, sweet, sour, and salty foods may bring on the same emotion, also. Thus, in Ayurveda a given result may have many different causes.
Perception of reality serves as the basis for a conceptual framework which becomes a belief system. When this framework fails to provide an understanding of things as they really are (and this is the typical human experience) then what results is again a kind of ama which degrades physiology. When achievement does not bring fulfillment there exists a kind of pinch in activity which continually drives one toward more satisfaction. This ama may be experienced as confusion or delusion and expresses in an extreme form as psychotic behavior.
Since the presence of ama is literally guaranteed by virtue of its inherence in the process of change (metabolism, for example) then the physiology must provide an efficient way to eliminate it–and it does. Unfortunately, there are so many sources of stress-produced ama that the typical individual is not able to avoid accumulating it. What results, of course, is declining functioning–we call this aging. It's not normal to “age” but because we don't make the right choices which reduce stress in life it happens. Ayurveda is about how to release this ama.
Ayurveda emphasizes that awareness through experience of our status as unbounded, immortal, omnipresent spirit is the key determinant in the release of stress (ama). The experience of transcendental consciousness is a spur to improved orderliness in mind and body; conversely the lack of this experience serves to promote mental ama because emotional conflicts and intellectual error tend not to be resolved. Meditation, a technique to culture this expanded awareness, plays a crucial role in a program of stress reduction.
But we'd like to point to other simple but practical ways to reduce ama such as hygiene, non-suppression of natural urges, rest, diet, and exercise: Hygiene addresses the exterior ama by advocating daily bath, clean, attractive clothing, tongue scraping, teeth brushing, and nail cutting, etc. Here in the West we don't think about the tongue as related to health but in Ayurveda it is an indicator of the ama in the digestive tract and a proper routine includes daily tongue inspection. If there exists a coating–white, yellow, brown, e.g., this would indicate some imbalance of physiology. There is value in scraping the tongue of this ama as taste and digestion are improved and the source of problems in the mouth is directly removed. Scraping however does not treat the source of the imbalance.
Long fingernails are a source of toxins and even intestinal worms. When we touch our contaminated pets, etc. we bring eggs, etc. to our mouths during eating or scratching,. Therefore, cleaning and short fingernails are important prevention.
As a point of interest the Ayurvedic literature does not mention the word-equivalent of soap. Bathing in clean water with the use of essential oils and flours and pastes are however indicated as part of daily hygiene. The oils can prevent the growth of bacteria, fungi, virus. They also serve to lubricate the skin, thus promoting the timely elimination of wastes and toxins ama Soaps, by the way, may contain alkali which are caustic to the skin tissue–causing it to become dry and leathery.
Ayurvedic experts associate balance in the physiology with the natural urges–thirteen of them are listed. Honoring these urges assures that the release of ama in the physiology is not restricted through an act of choice (intellectual error). These urges not to be suppressed are: 1) sleep 2) hunger 3) urination 4) defecation 5) vomiting 6) sneezing
7) yawning 8) belching 9) flatulence 10) thirst 11) crying 12) breathing (from exertion especially) 13) sex urges. The process of elimination is so important that it is described as the source of all disease when it is disturbed. For this reason one should move the bowels at least once daily, preferably immediately upon rising.
It is easy to understand that when the body wants to release something that this urge not be restricted but sleep, hunger, and thirst may seem unrelated. Actually, sleep is the time when blood and tissue cleansing are most active. It's also the repair time for the mind and body and emotions (dreaming). If sleep is interfered with then ama backs up and physiology suffers. If sleep is disturbed digestion usually is degraded and if digestion is degraded elimination will be disturbed and we have the vicious cycle of production and accumulation of ama within the body itself.
The body is mostly water thus water is necessary for flushing wastes and for maintaining the body. Drinking hot water is especially recommended to eliminate ama. Heat transforms (cooks) the ama and the liquid helps transport it out of the body. Research shows that older people experience many degenerative functions just from dehydration. So be sure to drink adequate quantities of fluids.
Hunger is the experience we have when the tissues, and the physiology generally, require more intelligence (energy and information). The food nourishes but it also influences digestion and elimination. Dryness in the colon or tissues disturbs physiology–constipation is a common expression of this condition. Food which is warm and unctuous mitigates this dryness in the colon and can aid digestion also. Ghee and olive oil lubricate and soften the channels of nutrition and elimination and thereby promote good physiology. Heat is the basis of the principle of transformation and ama responds directly to an increase in bodily heat. Such foods as ginger, cayenne, and black pepper are excellent for eliminating ama from the physiology. They are also excellent for ridding the intestines of worms.
It is important to realize that these urges are just indications from the physiology of the changing needs of the body in its natural quest to maintain balance. The lesson is to just listen to and learn from the body. Health is really just this simple.
Finally, another natural ama transforming technique is just daily exercise. Ayurveda says that exercise is the best at producing lightness, stability of mind and body, and it increases digestive power, physical strength and capacity for work. During exercise bodily heat rises and this heat transforms ama. The increase in the circulatory system provides the vehicle for its elimination. Exercise is also a powerful technique to regenerate atrophied muscles arising from long-term inactivity. And by the way, walking is still the best form of exercise when done properly.
Lest we fail by omission, Ayurveda suggests that some urges are to be suppressed: greed, grief, fear, anger, vanity, immodesty, envy, excessive attachment, theft, harsh speech, betrayal, false, untimely speech, action causing pain to others such as adultery, theft, violence are all to be suppressed / avoided.
In our discussion we have described ama as the cause and effect of imbalance. We noted that it may arise in the body-mind from mental, emotional, or physical causes and it also comes from the environment in the form of pollutants, trauma, situations, and so on. Nature provides for the elimination of this “stuff” in a natural way but in our way of life we tend to make choices which undermine the natural cleansing process. By listening to the body we can make better, healthier choices which may be as simple and inexpensive as proper rest, diet, and exercise. Better quality of life suggests we slow down and be involved in the now or process of living and not only in its goals.