The Art of Ayurvedic Pulse Reading

The Art of Ayurvedic Pulse Reading


Written by Andrew Dowdy.


What if your heart’s beating pulse were the window to your body, mind and your soul’s path? 

According to Ayurvedic medicine, the human pulse can be used to get an idea of someone’s healthy mind-body baseline, and can be used to also peel back the curtain and gaze into the landscape of different systems and functions within their body. This way the pulse can show the signs of certain aspects of your body acting under stress, which can inform therapeutic interventions.

And because Ayurveda is a spiritual and a health science, the pulse can also point you in the direction of the current challenges facing you on your soul’s transit through life. 

But before we get that deep into things, let’s talk about the physiology and experience of the human pulse. 

The Human Heartbeat 

We’ve all seen it in movies. Some of you reading may have actually seen it in the hospital. Some of you may have even seen it as a loved one passes away. 

Someone lays alone in a hospital bed. They are hooked up to an ECG (electrocardiogram) machine. A tiny digital screen nearby beeps as it draws a line showing the peaks and dips of the heart’s electrical activity, representing the ventricular filling and contractions within the heart. This contraction and dilation of the heart muscle in response to electrical impulses creates the up and down and the distance between peaks. 

And once the person’s heart stops, the line goes flat on the tiny screen. The machine’s eerie hum buzzes on and fills the room. The silence of the person’s breath and the stillness of a life-long beating heart becomes a new constant, evermore. Someone’s soul has just left their body. 

But as long as you are alive, your heart beats. From a spiritual perspective, there is a sacredness to your heartbeat in that way. It is a rhythm that you carry with you throughout your life. It’s unique to you and its melodic song will only be heard for as long as you are here.

The Heart-Brain Connection

The human heart responds moment to moment to neural impulses from the brain, where all of your experiences are stored in your personal world’s wide web - a synaptic tapestry. 

As your senses and your attention draw in experiences and information from outside you and within your body, your brain processes them against what it already has stored in its system to reduce the amount of energy needed to process the stimuli. 

For example, you read these words. You may glance over them and digest them quickly, or perhaps you speak them subverbally in a voice in your head. But as your eyes gloss over them, you do not have to reinvent the wheel of the alphabet or what these words are attempting to convey. 

Each letter is a symbol you are already familiar with, and each conjunction of letters forms a word that you have already created an image or interpretation of in your mind. Even reading the example of the person hooked up to the ECG machine, you were likely able to imagine the scene perfectly. Because you’ve experienced it before. 

As you move through life then, your brain is constantly interpreting signals and stimuli in the form of sensory information and reducing it into your own interpretations of what it all means. Additionally, neuroscience is now showing us that the human brain doesn’t tend to believe what it sees and experiences - rather, it tends to see and experience what it already believes. What it already believes is encoded in its nerve cells, the hardware of the brain’s computing system, if you will. 

As your brain interprets these stimuli, it responds simultaneously by sending signals to engage the whole body through the autonomic nervous system functions (via the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous system), which takes place automatically without conscious control (like your heart beat or digestion, etc.), and through your motor faculties, which includes the impulses that allow for conscious coordination and movement.

It’s like a simultaneous interpretation from the language of your sensory stimuli to the brain’s language of neurotransmitters and nerve impulses that affect the rest of the body. 

So it is all to say that your heart’s beating is generally a decent reflection of your brain’s interpretation of reality. 

Take as an example you watching a scary movie. Even though you are likely aware at some level that it’s not real, you jump and squeal and toss some popcorn into the air when BAM out of nowhere the little scary doll appears. It’s not real, and yet your brain interprets the stimuli nevertheless and your brain tells your body a certain story about reality to which your physiology responds. 

The same goes for if you’ve ever practiced a manifestation meditation where you imagine your future self having and achieving the things that you want, and what that might feel like. You get all warm and fuzzy. There is maybe a buzzing around your solar plexus of excitement, and a bubbling of joy in your heart. Your jaw and eyes relax and a smile even creeps across your face. 

You’re not there. It’s not presently real, but your brain can draw upon its past experiences of joy and excitement to revisit the feeling through imagination. 

As far as your brain is concerned, the tangibility of reality isn’t of utmost concern - your brain prioritizes its ability to help you as an organism interpret your way through perceived reality, and signal your body to respond accordingly. 

So your heart responds to the reality your brain interprets or perceives to be true. 

The Brain-Muscular Connection

Your muscles are also affected by the brain’s neural electrical impulses to contract. By tensing, muscle fibers contract to then move your limbs around and allow you to walk and even move your eyes from side to side to read this. 

When under perceived stress, there is a certain grade of tension that your nervous tissue holds within the fibers of the muscles. It’s why your jaw is always clenched up or your shoulders are hiked up when you’re tense. This tension can affect your blood pressure as your capillaries tighten and contract or release when you relax. This is partly why stress can acutely send your blood pressure through the roof! 

Your organs are also constantly receiving impulses from your brain to perform their duties, or to halt progress. 

This has a great deal to do with stress as well, since your major central organs, like the liver, kidney, intestines or stomach, function more optimally when your body is able to shift more of its focus into a parasympathetic response - “rest and digest” mode. 

When you’re stressed on the other hand, more resources, including blood flow, are drawn into your extremities and away from vital organs. 

Depending on other physiological stresses a certain organ may be under, such as fatty liver or kidney stones, this means a certain organ in particular may be put under a disproportionate amount of stress than others when you’re stressed out. This stress on certain organs may relate to a genetic predisposition or may be linked to dietary or lifestyle-related stressors. 

With this as the context, I return to the concept of your pulse being able to reflect your body as a whole and paint a broad general picture of your body’s current state of internal affairs. 

Ayurvedic Pulse Reading

While modern science would use an ECG machine to monitor the heart, Ayurvedic teachings share how practitioners can utilize the highly sophisticated and sensitive nerve receptors under the fingertips to uptake information about the pulse. 

A practitioner sits with their client, gets consent to read their pulse and then takes one or both of the client's wrists into their hands. They position their pointer, middle, and index fingers on the radial artery just below the wrist, a pulse point where many are used to dabbing essential oil or perfume before dabbing onto the pulse points on their neck. 

We call this listening to the pulse or reading the pulse. 

In Sanskrit, pulse reading is known as Nadi Vigyan or Nadi Pariksha, which could translate to something like the knowledge, knowing or science of the impulse of life, or pulse examination. 

But what is the practitioner reading or listening to through their fingertips? 

The 7 Levels of the Pulse

According to Ayurvedic teachings, the pulse holds or encodes seven layers of information about the individual. 

Depending on the depth of the pressure, from the most superficial touch, to the closest depth before occluding or blocking off the pulse, the practitioner can arrive at these different layers. 

While I will give a brief introduction to each of these 7 levels of the pulse, just know that it takes a great deal of practice to develop your discernment of what you’re feeling, and a lot of background knowledge to interpret your findings. 

But that doesn’t stop you from getting a sense of your pulse right now! 

Give pulse reading a try! 

  1. Turn your right hand so the palm faces you. 

  1. Look at the palm of your right hand, then wrap your left hand’s fingers around your right wrist, so you can see the fingernails of all the fingers of your left hand. 

  1. About a finger’s distance down from your wrist, there is normally a little crease of skin that nearly lines up with a bony structure called the styloid process of the radius (feel free to Google that one) - which basically feels like a bony bump on the thumb side of the forearm bone. Slide your left hand in the direction of your elbow slightly so your index finger lines up right underneath that bony protuberance and that little crease of skin. You should be able to feel the pulsation of your radial artery under your index finger. 

  1. Now, find that pulsing with your middle and ring fingers lined up next to the index finger, moving in the direction of your elbow. Wrap your left thumb around the wrist and find a relaxed position for your pinky. You’re aiming to feel your pulse just beneath the index, middle and ring fingers. Depending on the force of your pulse and the thickness of your skin, you may have to press down more or less to find your radial pulse. 

  1. Close your eyes and bring your awareness into what you feel under your fingertips. Notice what sensations you feel. 

  1. Take a few deep breaths just feeling, and then slowly increase your pressure by 20%, digging your fingers inward ever so slightly. Do you feel a difference in the sensation under your fingers? Maybe it feels like there’s more or less pressure under a certain finger, or where your mind is naturally drawn to is a different place. 

  1. After a few breaths feeling at this next layer, keep going downwards, gently increasing the pressure. Observe what you feel and after a few breaths at each new level of pressure, experiment by going up and down with the pressure you apply. Let yourself be open to surprising new sensations. 

  1. Open your heart to the possibility that your heart is constantly in communication with your brain, your brain with your heart, and both your heart and brain with the rest of your body! Recognize that what you feel under your fingers is a sign that you still have life to live. Feel into the vast sacredness of the mystery of being alive! 

If you did this exercise, what did you find? What did you feel? Did you get any intuitive impulses, “out of the ordinary” thoughts, curiosities or did your mind jump to “what a load of bull” or “I didn’t feel anything”? This exercise alone holds a lot of information about how your mind and your brain works. 

I’ll now give an introduction to what information lies within the seven layers of the pulse. Each layer represents a different angle to view a certain aspect of the individual’s mind-body apparatus. 

I will go in a non-linear order of layers to share the information in a way that should make the most sense for most readers, since I will use each layer to give a brief introduction to how Ayurveda views the body.

Level Seven of the Pulse

Level seven is the deepest level of the pulse that can be felt beneath each fingertip. To get to this level, you must go down until you occlude the pulse, which means you block its flow with all three fingers, and then you rise up just a bit. Once you’ve come up enough that a bit of the pulse can peer through the skin between your finger and the artery, this is the deepest layer - the 7th level of the pulse. 

This level is used to assess the unique mind-body type of the person, or their unique psycho-physiological pattern. Ayurveda knows this as Prakriti - which literally means your “nature.”

Within Ayurveda, there are three major mind-body patterns that each human represents in differing proportions. These are known as the three doshas - Vata, Pitta, and Kapha.

For simplicity’s sake, here’s a very brief introduction to the three mind-body pattern or doshas: 

Vata people tend to be thin or wiry in stature. They struggle to gain weight and have tendencies towards insomnia, anxiety, nervousness, gas, bloating and constipation. They also tend to have dry or curly hair and dry skin. The Vata mind is endlessly creative, and yet easily dispersed. Think… SQUIRREL! They may struggle with setting and holding boundaries, and containing or processing their own emotions, with a certain tendency to intellectualize their experiences or be in constant learning or doing mode - unable to stop, slow down or just feel their feels. They may tend to feel spread too thin or overextended, trying to “do it all”.

Pitta people tend to be more naturally athletic, their hair is thin and often straight, and their temperature tends to run hot. They tend to experience relatively more burning, itching, acidity, irritation (like on the skin) or inflammation - like in the gut, than other mind-body types. The Pitta mind likes to stay in control and has a strong sense of direction and focus. In today’s hyper-focused world this can lead Pitta folks to burn out more quickly than others in the pursuit of perfectionism and success. They may be exceptionally hard on themselves, but this can also be a force that pushes them towards great achievements and trail-blazing.   

Kapha people tend to be full-figured, voluptuous, stocky or brawny (depending on how you may prefer to be described!). Their hair is often wavy, thick and lustrous. Their bones and joints are strong and sturdy and their eyes, skin and teeth often glow with a cool, milky complexion. Their personality tends to be big-open heartedness and deep compassion and emotion. I tend to think of when movies say “he’s just a big teddy bear” about some big, bulky biker guy who might otherwise look intimidating. They tend to go through life seeking to stay connected to what matters most to them, though they can sometimes end up too attached to certain people or outcomes, leading to depression or feeling stuck when things don’t go as they had hoped. Physically, they may tend to experience more mucus, heaviness, and congestive conditions

Most people have one primary dosha that colors their body-mind, with a secondary dosha a little less obvious or likely to affect their health.

This stays the same throughout your life, it’s like your blueprint - how you’re built. It is similar to how science would describe your DNA - it’s yours for life and determines how your body is structured and what is more likely to affect your health.

Believe it or not, the seventh level of the pulse is used to determine how predominant each of the doshas are in your prakriti or your nature. We start here because it's the baseline for your healthy, optimal state. 

Level One of the Pulse

The first level is the most superficial sensations of the pulse that can be felt under the fingertips.

The present moment is fleeting so the outer circumstances to which your body and brain are exposed to are constantly in flux. This means the stimuli entering your body are in constant flow as well. We can’t stop the world turning, the cycle of day or night, the cycle of the seasons. We are immersed in a world that itself is constantly shifting and evolving around us. 

According to Ayurveda, in order to stay healthy an individual must learn to create balance internally so the external world does not weaken their system. 

Take for example winter time, and how this is when more people are prone to getting the common cold. The outer, seasonal circumstance affects the body’s inner environment and its resistance to pathogens. 

So what’s a body and a brain to do?

Ayurveda tells us that food is the first medicine. A hot soup in winter - medicine. It helps you balance with the external environment. 

But what to put in the soup? That may depend on your prakriti or your individual nature. If you tend towards gas and bloating, a bean soup probably isn’t the best! If you tend towards inflammation, a hot, spicy chili won’t do your acid indigestion any good. If you’re feeling heavy and congested, a soup with ginger, fennel and leafy greens will likely be a great thing for you!  

And lifestyle factors will also affect your balance. Think about how your mom used to tell you to put on a sweater, scarf or hat before leaving the house. Clothing is but one of countless lifestyle decisions you can take every day to create more balance… or leave your organism more vulnerable to the changes in the outer environment. 

So at the first level, the practitioner gets a sense of what’s known as your vikruti, or the current state of the three doshas in your body. This means that if you’re feeling really cold, dry or gassy, then Vata is likely higher than it is in your prakriti, your original nature. 

If you’re experiencing acid reflux or another inflammatory condition, or a fever from that bug you just picked up, then there will be more Pitta in your vikruti pulse. If you have a cold or are feeling particularly lymphy, heavy or lethargic from the winter darkness, for example, then there will likely be more Kapha in the pulse at the vikruti level. 

The amount of difference between your first level (current balance of doshas) and your seventh level (original balance of doshas) shows the level of imbalance. That imbalance also then tells a practitioner what type of changes to recommend to the diet and lifestyle to bring about a more optimal state of balance and homeostasis, a range within which the body can maintain its most optimal health and do its best healing, and the mind its best work. 

The 5th level of the pulse

At the fifth level, we examine something known as the dhatu pulse. 

Dhatu translates to tissue, which is a group or layer of cells that perform a similar function in the body. 

According to Ayurveda there are seven types of specialized tissues that are distinguished by their function. All cells in the body fall into one of these seven types of function. 

The seven dhatus, or tissues, according to Ayurveda are:

  1. Rasa dhatu - The nutrient-rich plasma part of the blood responsible for bathing and nourishing every cell in the body. This is the byproduct of what nutrients are absorbed by your digestive system and circulates around the body to feed vital nutrients and minerals to every other cell so they can perform their functions.
  2. Rakta dhatu - The red blood cells that carry oxygen around the body, the byproduct of what is absorbed by your respiratory system, which provides cells with vital oxygen needed for cellular respiration.
  3. Mamsa dhatu - All muscle tissue and fibers, plus tendons and ligaments, that allow for movement and stability of the structures of the body. 
  4. Meda dhatu - Fat and adipose tissue in the body, which provides vital storage of energy, insulation and protection, including the lubrication of joints.  
  5. Asthi dhatu - The mineral-rich tissue in the body including bones and teeth. This tissue provides structure and support to the body. Hair and nails are also said to mirror bone health, so it is important to be mindful of changes you observe in nails and hair, like spots on nails or sudden hair fall. 
  6. Majja dhatu - All nervous system tissue and bone marrow. It’s understood this tissue fills up the spaces that are left over by other tissues. The bone marrow fills the bones like the spinal cord fills the spine, and the brain fills the skill. This tissue is specialized in communication and signaling between all areas of the body, so it can include endocrine glands. 
  7. Shukra / Artava dhatu - Hormonal and reproductive tissues. Shukra in men includes the testes, prostate and reproductive apparatus. In women, this involves the female reproductive apparatus, uterus and ovaries. These tissues specialize in being able to create the conditions for life to continue, and also influence the overall health of the whole body. Anyone who has experienced shifts in estrogen, progesterone or testosterone levels (such as women going through menopause), understand how these shifting hormone levels make systematic shifts, from bone density to mood and energy levels. 

According to Ayurveda, practitioners can get a sense of the functional health of these seven tissues at the fifth level of the pulse. 

This level is significant, because Ayurveda views disease as a process. 

According to modern epigenetics, each person has some degree of genetic predisposition to certain chronic diseases encoded in DNA. The diet and lifestyle choices an individual makes, and their levels of stress, however, will influence the expression of their DNA. 

This means that through your diet and lifestyle choices, you will be more or less likely to experience the chronic disease encoded in your DNA. Epigenetics is confirming that you can influence your health through your choices and habits. 

Ayurveda has seen this for thousands of years, which is why it takes a huge focus on preventive health measures through aligning diet and lifestyle with your nature. When you’ve been out of balance for a longer time, the imbalances in your system will add up over time and run over into your functional tissues. 

Take for example someone who is used to burning the wick at both ends, getting little rest, and who is stressed out in their job and home life. This will stress both Vata and Pitta dosha, which could end up creating some degenerative or inflammatory effect in the tissues of the body. Weight-loss, hair fall, dry, irritated eyes, tremors, insomnia, mood swings - all because Pitta and Vata have been out of balance for so long they are depleting other tissues. Ayurveda would say that eventually this could spill over into amore chronic autoimmune condition like psoriasis, or another degenerative-inflammatory condition like diverticulosis or diverticulitis. 

This is how Ayurveda would say that imbalances, left untreated, end up affecting the tissues and organs of the body. When nipped in the bud earlier on, and when someone knows how to live in balance, they are more likely to express health through their genes than disease. 

The 3rd Level of the Pulse

The third layer of the pulse relates to what is known as sub-doshas. 

Subdoshas represent the physiological functions of the three doshas. Vata is responsible for communication and movement. Pitta is responsible for digestion and metabolic functions. Kapha is responsible for protective and stabilizing functions and lubrication. 

These are all reflections of the circadian rhythms. Each physiological function operates most optimally at a certain time of day or night. For example, if you stay awake when your organs should be going into repair mode and your brain should be reorganizing itself, then this can lead to greater levels of neural inflammation, leaving you foggy, groggy and with a short fuse the next day. 

As practitioners of Ayurveda, we assess this level to get a sense of what specific functions may be off or where someone’s lifestyle or diet may be misaligning with what their body needs to work like clockwork. 

Because of our unnatural modern lifestyles, it is more difficult than ever to stay in balance. Yet many people want to turn to natural methods to heal the effects of an unnatural lifestyle. 

Food is your first medicine, and herbs are great healing companions, but they can do little when your timing is all off. 

Trust the timing - because timing is everything. 

The 4th Level of the Pulse

The fourth level reflects what is known as prana, tejas and ojas. 

Prana is life force, and governs the function of cellular communication. It could be likened to the neural electrical impulses moving through your nervous system - that which makes it all move and work! 

Tejas relates to cellular intelligence, so it governs the ability of each cell to perform its vital functions properly. This includes recognizing its role within the body and within a tissue or organ. Each cell is individual but must operate as part of a whole for your body to function properly. 

Ojas relates to cellular immunity. This is the most distilled essence of cellular nourishment that allows for each cell to stay alive and well. Without this, the cell’s function is weak, and it is more vulnerable to pathogens. 

This level is significant because it helps a practitioner get a sense of how the body’s cells, independent of their tissue or categorical functionality are operating. This can provide insight for improving health, or understanding how long-standing imbalances may be affecting the whole body. 

The 2nd and 6th Level of the Pulse

Finally I come to the sixth and second levels of the pulse. 

This level gives the practitioner an idea about the person’s personality traits. At the sixth level, closest to their physical nature, we can get a sense of their psychological nature. At the second level, closest to the current state of the doshas, we can sense into the current state of psychological balance. 

This level holds significance because as far as Ayurveda sees things, the mind decides what to do with the body, and an individual’s personality will influence how their mind translates their consciousness into a world view. 

Think of how someone with a fixed mentality versus a growth mindset will navigate their health challenges differently. Both of these people may have arrived at an imbalance or diseased state because their mind kept them busy and overlooked their body’s needs and early warning signs. 

Yet the person whose personality and mindset is optimistic, and open to the possibility of change is more likely to invest their time and energy into learning what they need to do to get back to health. 

The person with the fixed mindset will likely stay stuck in a victim mentality, thinking “why is this happening to ME? Why am I being punished?” This person may look at their situation pessimistically and be reluctant to make any changes other than accepting medications or surgical interventions without getting a second opinion or trying to learn how they might support their health and healing process through complementary medicine interventions like diet and lifestyle changes Ayurveda might recommend. 

One of these two people may more readily experience the benefits of aligning their diet and lifestyle with their body’s natural constitutional needs (prakriti), and choose to make big changes to their life to remove unneeded stress and engage in more fulfilling, purpose-driven activities. The other may stay stuck in the same diet, lifestyle habits and stressful situations that contributed to their illness in the first place. 

I’ll let you decide which type of person might get which type of outcome. 

The Significance of Pulse Reading in the Future of Healing 

The human mind and body are immensely complex. 

Through modern science, we are barely just getting to peel back the true complexities of the human genome, cellular function, the magic of neuroscience and connections like the mind-body, gut-brain, heart-brain axes. Consciousness itself is at the cutting-edge of scientific research and promises mind-boggling discoveries that may contribute not only to fields like artificial intelligence, but understanding the intelligence present in the whole cosmos - and present in each food, herb, and in each human, right down to each cell of the human body! 

This has profound clinical applications, but it would require modern medical science to broaden its focus from a narrow, compartmentalized and reductionist view of a purely physical human body - to an interdisciplinary integrative model of human health that goes beyond the limitations that allopathic medicine has put into place. 

Allopathic medicine tends towards an antagonistic view of the human body and disease. It is anti- focused, meaning it focuses heavily on diagnosing and treating with antibiotics, antifungals, anti-coagulants, anti-inflammatories, etc. 

Ayurveda offers the medical field valuable insight into an integrative model of the human body that is not anti - but is rather is more pro - 

Ayurveda doesn’t ask, how can we eradicate disease? It asks instead, how can we create the circumstances for optimum health?

Furthermore, I believe Ayurveda provides deep insight into the functional aspects of human bodily systems and cellular functions, while taking into consideration the interface of human consciousness with the psycho-physiological vehicle that the human body represents. 

What is today cutting-edge epigenetic research has been discussed in other words as standard practice in Ayurvedic medicine for both preventive medicine and reversing otherwise chronic, supposedly “untreatable” health conditions. 

Long before science could peer into a microscope and see cells, their nuclei and DNA, Ayurveda discussed these as functional concepts in written texts and oral tradition. 

How in the world did the practitioners of this medicine know this information thousands of years ago, without the tools and tests made available to us in the last century or so? 

If that question itself doesn’t raise an eyebrow in the medical community, then I believe we still have much work to do as a collective to open up our mind to the true heart of science - which is in essence the pursuit of the truth. 

And until then, may we at least be open to the notion that the pulse holds valuable information about the heart, and the heart’s impulses reflect signaling that not only reaches the heart, but that affects the organism as a whole. 

And if that is the case, then there is undoubtedly more innovation within pulse monitoring, heart monitoring, and bio-indicator monitoring technology yet to be discovered that holds the potential to help millions of people world-wide and garner great deals of investment. 

One hope I walk forward with today is that someday as a collective, human society will operate from a level of understanding of the human mind-body and spirit to the extent that we will one day see the immense value of investing in human health and wellbeing, not just trying to figure out how to patch up holes in the system once the ship is already sinking. 

Disclaimer: This article is meant to be purely informative about Ayurveda and related topics, as well as to share a handful of my personal insights and opinions in a blog format. Ayurveda does not represent a licensed medical profession in the United States. No part of this article constitutes any attempt or basis upon which to diagnose, treat or prescribe any form of medicine or medical intervention. If you suspect you or a loved one are physically or mentally ill or unwell, I encourage you to seek out a qualified and licensed medical professional or specialist to work with as soon as possible. 

How can I work to support you? 

If you are interested in learning how you could use Ayurveda to inform diet and lifestyle changes that may help you improve your digestion, energy levels, mood, focus, performance and overall sense of wellbeing, then I would love to work with you! 

I invite you to schedule a Free 15 minute Discovery Call using my scheduling app below to see if we might be a good fit to work together so I can support you at this stage in your health and healing journey! 

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