by Bhaswati Bhattacharya
Vegas, the physical urges of the body, are controlled by subtle impulses of the mind. These impulses are a collection of signals from all parts of the body to the nervous system. They coalesce in nerve bundles alerting the unconscious mind that some reflex movement in the body is required to balance a build-up or rush of energy.
In the nasal cavity, sinuses and throat, when a threshold of chemicals stimulate the receptors, irritation signals accumulate and cause firing together for the contraction of several muscles in the face, depression of the tongue, contraction of the diaphragm and opening of the nostrils to force air through the nose and mouth … in what is called a sneeze. This vegā is a natural urge created to rid the air passage of that irritant, whether it is pollen, poison or pepper. When people suppress the sneeze, they increase pressure into the closed mouth and nose, and trap those particles back into the passageway. Over time, those particles burrow into the lining of the cavity and create inflammation.
There are three important lasso-type muscles at the bottom of the pelvis, which control the sphincters of excretion. When the lower intestines get filled or the colon begins to rustle, a combination of the gastrocolic reflex, pressure in the rectum, irritation of the nerves and pressure on the sphincters creates the urge to go to the toilet. A similar collection of stimuli creates the urge to empty our urinary bladder.
Ayurveda warned that diseases can transpire if vegās are habitually suppressed or forcefully induced over a long period. The diseases may seem to have no direct bearing on the organ system that expresses the symptoms, but deeper connections in the body will correlate where the vegā had been aggravated at another time in life.
For example, in many medical systems, including ayurveda and traditional Chinese medicine, the lung is connected with the colon. Modern medical doctors do not recognize this and taunt those who make a connection. But when we look at modern anatomy and physiology the lymphatic system of the lower gut, called the lower mesenteric (mes-, middle; enteric, gut) artery and vein, is full of gut-associated lymphoid tissue (GALT) which drains up and out through the large lymphatic vessels into the lung area. Modern medical texts show the lymph vessels and know about the connection of the gut bacteria called the microbiome with the body’s immune system. Once they connect the lung and gut, all diseases involving the immune system will shift. This includes autoimmune diseases, infections, cancer care, hypersensitivity, immunodeficiency, and cytokine storms.
Many people who had shift-work jobs earlier in life that were not permitted to go to the toilet when they felt the urge find problems in their pelvis a decade later. They held in their urges until official breaks were given, in order to prevent interruptions in their work. Depending on how well they resolve their vata imbalances with regular exercise, rest and mental relaxation, years later many of them complain of incontinence or constipation. They wear adult diapers, or are forced to quit their jobs or transfer to less-demanding work schedules. Many have bathrooms installed in their office or nearer to their bed.
This malfunction of the voluntary muscles to control the bowel or bladder is simply written off as a neurological malfunction, ‘that just happens’ according to modern medicine. Medicines that suppress the bladder and bowel are thought to be the solution, but the body has a multitude of reflexes and sophisticated functions, and they create the side effects that occur.
Āyurvedic guidelines suggest optimal times for several vegās. These indicate whether we are in optimal flow states. Early morning is the time for the vegā to empty our bowels and bladder because toxins and wastes have accumulated overnight. The bowels then shut off the evacuation function in anticipation of a day full of work and travel, in which sitting on the toilet is not conducive in a healthy day. The kapha period of 8:30–10 a.m. is the optimal time for the vegā of hunger. When the fire is high in the sky, it is high in the belly, so 11:30 a.m.–2 p.m. is the optimal time for the vegā of midday hunger. If we mindfully allow the body’s flows to happen when they happen, healthy bodies will indeed feel urges at these prescribed times of day.
However, when our bodies are not in perfect health, our bowels will call to us at different times of day. This should not be ignored, though it may not be convenient for our schedule. As we pay attention to our body, and learn its messages through its patterns of flow, we will learn to make the adjustments that will reorient us to the optimal state of health.
The logic of Āyurveda states that flows of the body integrate a number of synchronized muscle and hormonal movements. Conscious suppression of urges over time muddles these automatic orchestrated responses. Āyurveda treats these disorders by simply re-orienting flow, lowering the vāta aggravation in that part of the body using herbs, yoga, diet and vāta-pacifying substances, and invoking the principle of vāta as the theme of proper movement. When the micro-currents of aberrant flow are stilled, like eddies of wind caught in an alley, the flow can be reinitiated slowly and smoothly.
How did Ayurvedic wisemen figure this out? Rishis watched wind flow through the forests, where objects occasionally obstructed its flow. They sat at the river edge and observed water move objects along the main stream and banks and sat at the foothills and watched clouds interact with the mountain tops. They inferred the flow of currents in the universe. Using inference (anumana in Sanskrit) and analogy (upamana in Sanskrit) to understand flows in nature as similar to flows in the body provided logic and remains among the pillars of evidence-based medicine in Āyurveda. As in the macrocosm, so in the microcosm.
The South Asia Times Columnist Dr. Bhaswati Bhattacharya is a Fulbright Specialist 2018‐2023 in Public Health and Clinical Asst Professor of Medicine, Weill Cornell Medical College, New York. Her bestselling book Everyday Ayurveda is published by Penguin Random House.