Ayurveda literally means “Science of Life” and it truly is. Ayurveda is the traditional medicine of India and is a complete system encompassing diet, lifestyle, herbal medicine, meditation and yoga. Because it is a science founded on simple, natural principles, this ancient system can easily be applied to modern life.
Ayurveda is the the Science of Life
Ayurveda is said to be 5000 years old and is more relevant today than ever. Ayurveda is holistic, comprehensive and simple to understand, although the science behind it is rich and complex. You’ll see that anyone can apply basic Ayurvedic principles to their life and enjoy natural health and optimal wellness.
We’ll start with Ayurveda’s definition of the Five Elements. Ayurveda teaches that the entire universe is made up of the following five elements: earth, water, fire, air and space. All matter is composed of these elements – our bodies, food, the environment.
Everything has its own particular proportion of these elements, including us. When we know which elements are primary for us, we can make choices that allow us to live a life of balance. Our particular elemental make-up dictates what balance looks like on an individual level, as is detailed below.
We are born with a very specific elemental composition called our constitution, or Prakruti. Many factors influence which constitution we are born with: heredity, our parents’ health at our conception, our in utero environment, astrology, and our past life karma.
Our constitution is with us from birth and never changes.
Ayurveda, like Tibetan and ancient Greek medicine, has at its core the concept of the three doshas, humors or constitutional types. In Sanskrit, these three doshas are called Vata, Pitta and Kapha. In Tibetan medicine these are translated as wind, bile and phlegm, which are very useful concepts in understanding the nature of these three types. Each dosha is a combination of 2 elements:
- Vata = Air + Space
- Pitta = Fire + Water
- Kapha = Water + Earth
There are actually seven constitutional types, because an individual may be Vata, Pitta, Kapha, Vata-Pitta, Pitta-Kapha, Vata-Kapha, or Vata-Pitta-Kapha equally. The last two types are extremely rare, whereas the first 5 are the most common.
What does each of these types really look like? Here are the classic descriptions of each constitutional type (though we are all unique, and may certainly have qualities outside of the typical picture):
If you consider the qualities of wind, you’ll intuit the attributes of Vata: cool, dry, rough, mobile, light, subtle, and clear. Vata people tend to be lean, with dry skin and coarse hair.
Vata people tend to have irregular bodily functions, like irregular appetite and elimination. Because the wind principle is dominant, Vata people tend to be very busy, are constantly moving, and prefer to do several things at once. They can be easily distracted.
Vata people often have nervous habits, like picking their nails or twirling their hair. Like the wind,Vata people can feel cold and can be spacey and ungrounded. Fear is the primary challenging emotion for Vata people.
A Vata person is also likely to be artistic and expressive in creative ways. Vata constitutional types tend to be spiritually oriented, in part because of the ethereal elements dominant in their composition. Vata people love raw food, because it is predominantly composed of air and space.
Pitta represents the union of fire and water, and the Tibetan translation as bile signifies its hot and oily nature. The attributes of Pitta are hot, oily, light, sharp, dispersing, mobile and liquid.
Pitta predominant people have sharp qualities, with sharp facial features and intellect. Pitta people are usually of medium build, and have strong appetites and good digestion. They tend to run hot and may easily perspire and become red in the face. Red-haired people are almost certainly Pitta constitution.
Pittas have focused concentration but can be easily frustrated and angered. They love spicy food and acidic foods that are primarily fire and water.
Kapha predominant people exhibit the qualities of water and earth. The attributes of Kapha are: heavy, slow, cold, slimy, dense, static, soft, oily and cloudy.
Kapha types are usually larger and heavier than the other two types, and their skin appears milky and smooth. Their features are round and wide, and their hair tends to be voluminous. They are grounded, calm people with great strength and endurance.
Kaphas can be extremely sweet, nurturing and loving, but may also become greedy and possessive of things and people. They tend to be lethargic and may have a slow metabolism.
Like phlegm, Kapha bodily elements can be thick and sticky, and this type of person prefers dairy products and rich foods that are primarily earth and water.
Ayurvedic Treatment of Disease
Although our Prakruti (our constitution) never changes, at any point in one’s life there is likely to be an imbalance, called Vikruti.
Imbalances may be the result of many things: stress, improper diet, environmental factors, or improper lifestyle. One or more of the doshas can become aggravated and result in an increase or decrease in those elements.
It is important to know what your Vikruti is in relation to your Prakruti so steps can be taken to bring those elements back into balance.
The best way to determine your Prakruti and Vikruti is to have the diagnosis made by an Ayurvedic practitioner. If there isn’t an Ayurvedic doctor in your area there are books and online quizzes to help you figure it out.
It bears mentioning that the problem with these quizzes is that people often mistake their current imbalance for their constitution. Take any of the quizzes twice, once answering while thinking back to how you were as a child, and once thinking about how things are for you currently. This should help discern which qualities have always been present, and which are more recent developments.
Ayurveda teaches that “like increases like.” In terms of diet, this means that consuming foods of Vata nature will increase Vata in the body. The same is true forPittaand Kapha.
Here are some examples:
If you have determined that you are predominantly Vata, perhaps you also have an aggravation of Vata causing symptoms of gas, bloating, constipation, and irregular appetite. Eating Vata foods like salads and beans will increase those Vata symptoms.
To treat that aggravation of Vata, you would want to eat foods possessing the opposite qualities: warm, heavy, oily foods like stews and soups with warming spices.
To treat excess Pitta, which may manifest as hyperacidity, skin rashes, or inflammatory conditions, avoid hot, spicy, oily foods. Instead, choose foods that are cooling, sweet and bitter, like cucumbers, watermelon, most legumes, and most dairy products.
If Kapha is excessive, and symptoms of sinus congestion or water retention are present, it is important to avoid dairy and fats and choose raw or steamed leafy vegetables and grains such as buckwheat and millet.
Lifestyle factors are equally important in being potentially harmful or therapeutic.
If Vata is in excess, keeping a regular routine, meditating to stay calm and grounded, and applying warm oil as a self-massage before showering will all promote balance.
For high Pitta, using breathing exercises to cool the system, limiting exercise to the cooler part of the day, and meditating on peace and compassion will reduce the fiery symptoms.
If Kapha is imbalanced, getting up early and exercising, staying active throughout the day, and varying one’s routine all serve to reduce Kapha.
Ayurveda is founded on natural principles that are intuitive and primordial. It is helpful to contemplate the qualities associated with each dosha in order to integrate Ayurveda into your life.
It is within each of us to understand the causes and symptoms of imbalanced health, and also the measures we must take to achieve balance and wellness.
We are all capable of understanding that if we live in a dry climate or at high altitude, we need to take measures to keep Vata under control.
If we live in a hot, humid climate we can choose a cooling diet and lifestyle to manage Pitta.
And if we live in a cool, moist Kapha climate we will need to keep ourselves warm and active to maintain balance.
You can apply Ayurvedic principles to your life to bring present imbalances into alignment with your original constitution. You can then enjoy optimal health and achieve your highest potential.