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Mamsa Dhatu: A closer look at the muscles from the ayurvedic perspective

Advanced Ayurvedic Theory

Mamsa dhatu refers to the muscles of the body, but the term literally means flesh or meat. In the physical body, mamsa dhatu refers directly to the muscles and indirectly to the ligaments and skin, which are upadhatus formed as the unstable form of rakta dhatu (posaka rakta) is converted to mamsa dhatu.

Mamsa dhatu is more than muscle; it is the provider of strength, courage, fortitude and self-confidence. It is also the vehicle through which we express ourselves. When healthy, our muscles work in a modest fashion to express the needs and desires of the ego, while also available to express the creative inspiration of the Divine.  In other words, our flesh (body) is the expressive vehicle of both the jivatman (that part of our soul that identifies with the ego) and the paramatman (that part of our soul that identifies with the Divine).

Muscle is built from earth and fire and is then motivated by air. Earth provides the substance from which the bulky structure of muscle is made.  Fire ignites the engine that directs its focus and action. Muscle is a highly metabolic tissue. While earth and fire play their fundamental roles in building the tissue, it is air that inspires and initiates its motion. 

In order to produce healthy mamsa dhatu, adequate earth must be consumed through the diet. Earth element is found in large amounts within grains, nuts, meats and legumes. Consumption alone, however, is not enough to build mamsa dhatu. The earth element must be properly digested so that its qualities can be reused to build mamsa dhatu. Thus, jatharagni (main digestive fire) must be healthy, as well as the mamsagni – the agni which transforms posaka rakta dhatu into mamsa dhatu. While the function of the mamsagni is partially dependent upon jatharagni (the health of all secondary agnis depend on jatharagni), mamsagni itself is affected directly by exercise. The more a person exercises, the stronger mamsagni becomes.

When mamsagni is too low, and there is adequate earth taken into the body, muscle and other tissues form but they are of low quality. As such, they are hard but proportionately weak. These muscles can do little work relative to their size. When mamsagni is too high, and there is adequate earth taken into the body, the muscles that form will be lean and strong but prone to inflammation. When mamsagni is balanced, the earth that is taken in will be converted to muscle that is healthy and capable of large amounts of work without injury.

In the event that there is not enough earth element present to generate mamsa dhatu, then the body tissues that are formed will always be inadequate regardless of the state of mamsagni. However, if mamsagni is strong, the body will become very lean, the tissue formed will be prone to inflammation and eventually, if there is not enough earth to sustain the muscles, the agni itself will begin to devour the mamsa dhatu and there will be muscle wasting.

Udana vayu is the force that inspires the contraction of muscle so that work (expression) can be accomplished. When mamsa dhatu is healthy, work is generated in a balanced and healthy manner. In the sattvic individual (one with a pure consciousness), the work generated is an expression of the Divine will. In the rajasic and tamasic individual (one with a distracted or ignorant consciousness), the work generated is an expression of personal will or ego.

Mamsa dhatu, made up of earth and fire, has the following qualities: hot, heavy, dry, hard, unstable, rough, dense, cloudy, gross and sharp. These qualities are similar to a combination of pitta and kapha doshas and, as such, these doshas play the greatest role in its development and health. A balanced kapha dosha provides for proper structure and a balanced pitta dosha for proper metabolic function.  Disturbances in these doshas are responsible for alterations of form and function.

The amount of muscle and the thickness of the skin and ligaments depend upon a person’s constitution. Those with a vata prakruti have minimal amounts of muscle and thin skin and ligaments even when healthy and balanced. Those with a pitta nature have moderate muscular formation along with a moderate thickness of the skin and ligaments. Those with a kapha nature have larger muscle mass with thicker skin and ligaments. Regardless of the dosha, the tissues are healthy if they are consistent in formation with the doshic balance of the individual and are tone and supple.
   
Vitiation of kapha dosha in the mamsavaha srota (channel that carries posaka rakta dhatu) results in low mamsagni. This results in excessive mamsa dhatu formation but the tissue formed is hard and inflexible.  In addition, the upadhatus (secondary tissues) are similarly affected. Thus, the skin and ligaments of the body become thicker, harder and tighter. Psychologically, self-confidence is quiet and strong but the motivation and courage to take action is lacking. 

Vitiation of pitta dosha in the mamsavaha srota results in high mamsagni. This results in less mamsa dhatu formation though the tissue formed is strong and lean.  Skin and ligaments also become thinner and all three are prone to inflammation and injury.  Psychologically, there is strength of will along with the courage to take chances and move forward. Self-confidence is high. This is not necessarily as good as it sounds.  Remember that pitta vitiation is an imbalance. Thus, the sense of confidence and strength that is present is driven by the ego. It is the confidence and strength of will that often results in injury and inflammation within the mamsa dhatu from pushing too hard.

Vitiation of vata dosha in the mamsavaha srota results in a variable mamsagni. This also results in minimal tissue formation and the tissue formed is weak. In addition, the skin and ligaments become thinner and prone to injury. Vata vitiation within the mamsa dhatu is responsible for the greatest number of challenges within the tissues surrounding the joints of the body. Psychologically, a lack of mamsa dhatu results in a lack of emotional strength, courage and self-confidence. This creates timidity, along with physical and emotional fragility.

Summary of the Effects of Dosha Vitiation on the Mamsa Dhatu

                                              Vata                                 Pitta                                 Kapha
Tissue                               Minimal tissue            Minimal to moderate tissue          Excessive tissue
Muscle form

and function        Weak and prone to injury   Strong but prone to inflammation    Hard and inflexible
Psychological    Emotional fragility, low self-confidence  High self-confidence, strong will    Quiet self-confidence, lacking in courage

In the subtle body, the health of the mamsa dhatu is directly dependent upon the flow of prana through muladhara, manipura and vishuddha chakras. Through muladhara chakra, the prana that carries the qualities of the earth element flows allowing us to feel grounded and anchored to our bodies and to the body of planet earth. Proper tissue development is dependent upon a healthy connection to the mother Earth. Through manipura chakra, the prana that carries the qualities of the fire element flows igniting the metabolic functions of the body and mind – increasing will and motivation. The role of vishuddha chakra is less important in mamsa development but quite important as regards the proper use of the dhatu. Vishuddha chakra is the home site of udana vayu – the force that inspires the muscles to act and, in doing so, express ourselves.

Only when the doshas are in a healthy state of balance is it possible to utilize the mamsa dhatu at the highest level. A healthy body allows for the complete fulfillment of dharma.
Doshic disturbances of the body, disturbing the mamsa dhatu, interfere with one’s ability to serve.

Healing the mamsa dhatu means restoring the proper quantity and quality of earth and fire in the body and mind. The proper quantity is based upon the constitutional tendency of the individual. Those with more kapha in their constitution will naturally have more mamsa dhatu. This makes depletion less likely and excess more likely. Those with more of a vata constitution tend to have a naturally lower amount of mamsa dhatu and are the most susceptible to depletion. Those with a pitta nature tend to have a moderate quantity of mamsa dhatu and are prone to depletion secondary to excessive fire.

In order to evaluate the health of the mamsa dhatu, the muscles, ligaments and skin should be evaluated. Visual inspection allows for a quick assessment of muscular development. Palpation of the muscles provides an indicator of tone. Palpation of the ligaments and the joint capsule may reveal tenderness due to either vata or pitta vitiation. Vata vitiation within the mamsa dhatu results a low pain threshold and high pain sensitivity. This tissue surrounding the pain will feel cool to the touch. Pitta vitiation within the mamsa dhatu produces pain as well but the tissue surrounding the pain will feel warm and may appear reddened. Kapha vitiation rarely produces pain but the muscles will be taught and motion limited. The tissue may feel fluidic or boggy. The skin should be evaluated as well for excessive dryness, red rashes and fluidity reflecting vata, pitta and kapha doshas respectively.

Once the mamsa dhatu is vitiated, it is important for treatment to be as specific as possible. While general lifestyle treatments that pacify the vitiated dosha are important, the more specific the treatment is, the more successful the outcome will be.

Proper Treatment of the Mamsa Dhatu
When kapha has entered the mamsa dhatu and mamsavaha srota, the best treatment is reducing the quantity of heavy foods and increasing agni in order to enhance muscle metabolism. Heavy foods such as nuts, grains, meats and legumes should be minimized and lighter foods such as vegetables and seeds should be increased. The pungent taste is the best taste as it reduces mamsa dhatu and increases agni. Thus, foods should be prepared accordingly and oral supplementation with hot spicy herbs such as the trikatu combination is appropriate.  Exercise is the surest way to increase mamsagni and reduce the dhatu but only if food intake is minimized. Aerobic exercise is best. If a patient lifts weights then light weights should be lifted with many repetitions as the joints move through their full range of motion. Additional time in the sun is also supportive. Yoga asana to improve flexibility and heating pranayamas are also recommended.

When pitta has entered the mamsa dhatu and mamsavaha srota, the best treatment is to reduce the strength of jatharagni and mamsagni. Jatharagni is reduced through the intake of cooling foods such as milk, butter, bitter vegetables, wheat and oats. The best taste for a quick effect is the bitter taste as it quickly reduces all agnis. The sweet taste, however, is better for the long-term management of high agni. Because it is heavy, its effects are longer lasting. Being moist, the sweet taste also provides protection against the heat. Thus, muscle or ligamentous inflammation responds quickly to bitter herbs such as kutki, gentian and barberry. Long-term treatment and also prevention of future inflammation can be better accomplished through the use of licorice root, shatavari or slippery elm. These herbs, being rejuvenative, also help restore the injured tissue. Exercise should be completely avoided as this increases mamsagni. Once inflammation is resolved, however, exercise can slowly begin but only in proportion to the amount of earth element that requires digestion. Excessive time in the sun should be avoided. Pranayama practices that are cooling should be practiced. Cooling forms of yoga asana may be practiced as soon as the inflammation is reduced.

When vata has entered the mamsa dhatu and mamsavaha srota, the best treatment is to stabilize jatharagni and mamsagni and increase the intake of the earth element in proportion to the strength of agni. Stabilization is accomplished through the formation of regular daily routines – particularly those surrounding eating and sleeping habits. Earth element is increased through the intake of heavier foods such as grains, meats, nuts and legumes. In order to support and stabilize agni, warm spices should be taken but not those that are very hot. The best tastes are sweet and sour as they contain earth element. The sour taste containing fire element is even more beneficial as it has a long-term stabilizing effect on agni. When the sweet taste is utilized, it should be warmed with spices to add fire. For example, when sweet herbs such as ashwagandha, shatavari, licorice and slippery elm are used, they should be mixed with warmer spices such as ginger, cumin or cinnamon. Exercise may be performed but only in proportion to the amount of earth element that is in need of digestion. Thus, more exercise can be recommended so long as more nourishment is provided. Pranayama practices that balance agni, such as alternate nostril breathing, are beneficial. Yoga asana may also be practiced but should be restorative to the physical and energetic systems of the body.

In summary, a healthy mamsa dhatu is necessary to do the work of life. In order to keep it healthy, it is important to know one’s prakruti and vikruti and then to take the appropriate actions that are necessary to restore balance.

 

 


About the Author

Halpern Dr. Marc Halpern is the founder and President of the California College of Ayurveda. An internationally respected expert in the fields of Ayurveda and Yoga, Dr. Halpern received the award for Best Ayurvedic Physician from the Indian Minister of Health and Family Welfare, Dr. A. Ramdas. He is a co-founder of the National Ayurvedic Medical Association and the California Association of Ayurvedic Medicine. He is on the advisory board of Light on Ayurveda Journal in the United States and the Journal of Research and Education in Indian Medicine in Varansi, India. Dr. Halpern has published articles in popular journals and magazines of Ayurveda and Yoga including Yoga Journal. He is also a contributing writer in several popular books on Ayurveda and has written two textbooks. Dr. Halpern is a regular speaker at Ayurvedic and Yoga conferences and teaches regularly at the International Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Centers where he received his Yoga Teacher certification. Read more...