Depression and Health

Can one be depressed and healthy at the same time?

I read with amusement, a recent news article with headlines that read “Singaporeans are leading healthier lives but experiencing more mental health problems.” (Today Singapore 5 July 2021). I was amused by this headline the author (and most people) see the physical body as separate from the mind. This shows how modern concept of health has a long way to go in understanding health and wellbeing. From an ayurveda standpoint such a statement would be an oxymoron because a person with mental health issue is not considered balanced as it will show up in the physical body and vice versa.   

Definition of Health according to ayurveda

According to ayurveda health is defined as:

“sama dosha sama agnischa sama dhatu mala kriya

prasanna atma indriya mana swastha iti abideyate”

Susrutha, Chap 15

Here ayurveda takes both the gross body (stoola sharira) and subtle aspects (sukshma sharira) such as mind, senses, True Self to define as true health.

Let’s look at each of the word individually and then we will see how ayurveda sees health as a holistic system which include the body (sharira), mind (mana) and True Self (atma).

Gross Body (stoola sharira)

sama means “balance” , well-maintained, regulated – this refers to a particular state as we will see later

dosha does not have any direct English translation. The word dosha is derived from the verb ‘dusa’ which means to vitiate/spoil/damage/harm.  In a normal state of equilibrium dosha support the body and when dosha is imbalanced it produces disease. dosha refers to a principle that can be easily imbalanced due to internal or external factors.  ayurveda classifies 3 types of dosha-s known as vata, pitta and kapha.  I will expound on this further in the article on dosha-s.

agni in this context agni refers to the jataragni (digestive capability of the main body channel) which is responsible for the balance of all other agni in the body. agni is the principle of transformation. In this context it means the body should be able to convert external raw material such as food, water, air into usable body parts. agni is not just digestion but the ability to digest, absorb, transport and assimilate that which enters the body.

dhatu has no English translation. Many English books use the word “body tissues” and as mentioned earlier, such one word equivalents can misrepresent the intended meaning. The word ‘dhātu’ is derived from the verb ‘dha’ which means “to hold.” dhatu is “that which holds the body together” The way ayurveda classifies dhatu is again different from the classification of modern science.  

mala kriya discusses the process of excretion in the body.  Here mala means bowels, urine and sweat but the term waste again is limiting.  Again to equate the word “waste” to mala will not correctly convey what ayurveda is trying to express.  

Subtle Body (sukshma sharira)

The first part of ayurveda health definition covers the physical or gross body (stoola sharira). The second part of health definition includes the subtle aspect of a person.

prasanna means happiness, tranquil, balance, clear, bright, equilibrium etc. 

atma is generally translated as soul in English but I prefer not to use this word English words keep changing its meaning over the years.  Let me explain –  According to sanskrit, Indian definition atma has no desire, no disease, no needs, is independent etc..  Whereas in English we use statements like  “food for the soul”, or “searching for a soulmate” ,  “he/she is an unhappy soul”.   As such, soul is now no longer an appropriate word to use to translate atma. I will use the term “True Self for atma. True Self is internal driven and not external driven.

According to tarka sashtra such as vaishesika school of Indian philosophy, atma is one of the 9 causative substances (dravya). (Note: The samkya school of philosophy uses the term purusha). According to ayurveda, atma is one of the 4 components of ayu (lifespan) and its existence is inferred from its functions.  Therefore, when defining health, we cannot negate the existence of atma.

For understanding a non-perceptible existence, ancient seers divided the atma into 2 categories – jivatma (individual self) and universal atma (paramatma) – the all-pervasive Life principle.

In ayurveda’s context of health definition, atma here refers to the individual atma (jivatma) – the empirical atma which is conjoined with the mind which itself has four functions, senses (indriya) and body (sharira).  Like most schools of Indian philosophies, anything that has a cause is not eternal.

indriya includes the five sense organs (jnanendriya), the five organs of action (karmendriya) and the mind (atindriya). The five sense organs (eyes, ears, nose, tongue, skin) are known as jnana (knowledge) + indriya (organs) because these sense organs gives me knowledge of the world. They are also referred to as “input” or “doorway to the mind” which allow me to perceive and experience the external world through sight, hearing, smelling, tasting, and feeling.  The five organs of action (tongue, hands, feet, genitals, anus) are considered output that allows me to express myself through action (karma).  Therefore the word karmendriya (karma (actions) + indriya (organs).  

mana here refers to the mind, inclusive of the four functions of the mind, namely memory (citta), Identity Creator (ahankara), wisdom or Higher Mind (buddi) and Lower Mind (manas).  I will write about these four functions.


ayurveda – holistic and comprehensive definition of health

As you can see the first part of health definition covers the physical aspect of the body known as the gross body (stoola sharira) while the second part covers the non-physical aspect known as the subtle body (sukshma sharira).  According to ayurveda a person is considered truly healthy if and only if both gross and subtle aspects are healthy. 

This was the reason I was amused when I read the news article mentioned above. When will the world acknowledge that mind is part and parcel health definition – when the mind causes imbalance it will invariably affect the body and vice versa. It is like a glass and water. If an empty glass is kept in a fridge and you remove it and pour hot water into the glass, the glass will become hot. Likewise when a glass is hot and you pour cold water, the water will become warm.  Although both the mind and body have a different planes of existence and operation, they are closely interlinked and integrated. Therefore they cannot be separated when looking at wellbeing of a person. Mental health and physical health go hand in hand.

ayurveda’s definition of healthcare and wellbeing is an extensive, all-inclusive, holistic definition which covers the entire spectrum of a human including the intricacies of the body’s functional system and the peace and happiness of a person – referring to one’s True Self.  In another words it acknowledges both the physical gross body  and subtle unseen intangible such as the mind. Incidentally the ‘unseen” is now being referred to as mental health.

Next we will discuss the 5 great principles (panchamahabhuta) which form the foundation of ayurveda. Only when you understand the panchamahabhuta and their qualities (guna) you will be able to appreciate the functional principles of vata, pitta and kapha.

ayurveda even though is an ancient system of wellbeing, is timeless and more so relevant in today’s context. The definition of health according to ayurveda itself is proof of this.


Vasanthi Pillay is the President of the Ayurveda Association of Singapore (AAOS) and the Director of Innergy Ayurveda and Yoga Pte Ltd. She conducts several Talks and Workshops on Ayurveda in Singapore and Asia to help people understand the fundamental principles of Ayurveda so that they can apply the principles as a preventive medicine for their families and themselves. Vasanthi works with 2 large conventional hospitals in Taiwan in assisting them with training and integrating ayurveda and yoga into the healthcare system. She has  also worked with Montessori Schools in China and Taiwan in educating the parents and teachers in incorporating a holistic diet and lifestyle program for parent-child education.  Vasanthi who has worked in a highly stressful corporate world, developed a keen interest in mind-body relationship. This prompted her to take up her yoga Instructor Course in Vyasa, Bangalore India in 1995 and several ayurveda Courses. Vasanthi also holds a Bachelor of Arts (NUS) majoring in Philosophy and Sociology; Post Graduate Diploma in Business Administration (SIM) and Post Graduate Diploma in Banking and Finance (UNSW, Australia).  Vasanthi collaborates with M S Ramaiah Indic Centre for Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine (Bangalore) to offer joint certificate programs on ayurveda and yoga.