Ayurveda literally means “knowledge of life” and its scope is truly no less encompassing. While the tradition is thought to be over five thousand years old, Ayurveda remains as relevant as ever—and it is enlivened every day as individuals around the world engage its timeless wisdom in their day-to-day lives.
Focusing On Individual Health
Ayurveda is a remarkably individualized system of medicine. The tradition is rooted in the idea that each of us is born with a completely personal blueprint for optimum health. From birth onward, it is this reference point—your constitution—that, in many ways, defines who you are. No two constitutions are exactly alike; therefore, no two human beings can have precisely the same expression of ideal health.
Ayurveda is fundamentally opposed to one-size-fits-all remedies. While there are certainly some practices that are considered to be beneficial for most everyone, Ayurveda places the focus firmly on you, the individual concerned.
What is Health
The Sanskrit word for health, svastha, describes an authentically harmonious interaction of many parts within the whole—such that the mind, soul, and senses are infused with an abiding sense of Self, wellness, and even bliss. Achieving this quality of life may seem a lofty ambition, especially when human beings throughout the world are riddled with stress, anxiety, and chronic disease. But Ayurveda provides a treasure chest of elegant and insightful tools that can be used to assess the degree of discord (no matter how slight or severe), determine its root, and ultimately, begin reclaiming our health.
Basic principles of Ayurveda
As a starting place, it is helpful to have a basic understanding of some of the principles through which Ayurveda views the universe. These are foundation tools for understanding the laws of nature, identifying various states of health or imbalance, and for charting a course toward improved well-being.
The Five Elements
Ayurveda recognizes five elements as the fundamental building blocks of nature—earth, water, fire, air, and ether (space). Every substance, every cell, contains all five of these elements. That said, in a given substance, one or two elements are typically predominant over the others
The Twenty Qualities
Ayurveda also identifies twenty qualities (the gunas) that can be used to describe every substance or experience. These qualities are organized into the following ten pairs of opposites:
|Slow (Dull)||Sharp (Penetrating)|
The gunas are essential to understanding the Ayurvedic principle that like increases like and that opposites balance. For example, a person who is particularly cold natured, living in a cold climate, in the middle of winter, is likely to be experiencing an aggravation of the cold quality. The remedy? Heat—in the form of warming foods, hot drinks, heating spices, soothing baths, snuggly warm clothes, and if possible, an abundance of heart-warming experiences.
The Three Doshas
Then there are the three doshas (bodily humors): vata, pitta, and kapha. Each of them embodies a particular combination of elements and qualities to create a functional entity—an energetic force of nature. The doshas, or some combination of them, can be identified in various seasons, climates, landscapes, activities, plants, and animals. In the context of our bodies, all three doshas are necessary to facilitate important physiological functions. But if they accumulate beyond healthy limits (those determined by one’s constitution), the doshas can also wreak havoc on our health.
|Primary Elements||Air + Ether||Fire + Water||Water + Earth|
All three doshas are present in everyone, but the ratio between them varies a great deal from one person to the next. We will get to that in a moment, but first, here is an overview of the essential nature of each dosha.
Vata is the energy of air and ether, movement and impulse, creativity and connection. This dosha governs breathing, the pulsation of the heart, muscle movement in general, nerve impulses, sensory perception, communication, and our capacity to experience flexibility, joy, and expansive consciousness.
In excess, vata can cause fear, anxiety, physical and emotional constriction, ungroundedness, poor circulation, constipation, dry skin, cracking joints, emaciation, insomnia, twitches, tremors, and other abnormal movements.
Pitta is the energy of fire and water, digestion and transformation. This dosha governs appetite, digestion, absorption, assimilation, intelligence, charisma, courage, and ambition. In excess, pitta can cause anger, jealousy, inflammation, excessive heat, heartburn, loose stools, migraines, rashes, bruising, bleeding disorders, sharp hunger, an overactive metabolism, and difficulty sleeping.
Kapha is the energy of water and earth, structure and cohesiveness, grounding and stability. This dosha governs nourishment, growth, lubrication, regeneration, fluid balance, fat regulation, strength, stamina, memory, and our ability to feel compassion and contentment.
In excess, kapha can cause attachment, greed, resistance to change, lack of motivation, heaviness in the mind and body, excessive sleep, depression, a sluggish metabolism, congestion, water retention, hardening of the arteries, and the formation of masses and tumors.
A New Paradigm
According to Ayurveda, your constitution (prakriti, in Sanskrit) is the particular combination of vata, pitta, and kapha that is established within you at conception, cemented at birth, and that remains constant over the course of your lifetime. It represents your natural state of equilibrium, your blueprint for perfect health, and it influences your physiology, your physique, your likes and dislikes, your tendencies and habits, your mental and emotional character, as well as your vulnerabilities toward imbalance and disease. Therefore, understanding your constitution can be truly enlightening.
But if vata, pitta, or kapha become imbalanced, and this baseline state of health is disturbed, the doshas can also cause a great deal of harm. When this occurs, recognizing which doshas are at play and where they have accumulated is a critical first step in discerning how to return to balance. This is why your current state of balance (vikriti, in Sanskrit), which reflects the present level of the doshas in your system, is equally important. In contrast to one’s constitution, the current state of balance can and does change over time, as we move through different climates, different seasons, and the various stages of life. It is also impacted by our daily routines, diet, exercise, relationships, stress levels, and our evolving life circumstances. In fact, it is not uncommon for one’s current state to undergo minute changes from one day to the next, or even over the course of a single day.
Together, your constitution and your current state of balance provide an invaluable context from which to consider your path forward. A seasoned Ayurvedic practitioner uses all of this information to identify the root cause of any departure from one’s natural state of equilibrium, and to determine how balance can best be restored.
At the heart of the Ayurvedic approach to wellness is the idea that like increases like and that opposites balance. So whether we are attempting to mitigate the effects of certain innate vulnerabilities, or trying to correct an active imbalance, we can apply the energy of opposites in order to steer our bodies in the right direction. The twenty qualities mentioned above provide the most straight-forward illustration of how the concept works, and their grouping into ten pairs of opposites makes for a fairly intuitive grasp of how this wisdom can be applied in practical terms.
A person with aggravated pitta can invite a return to balance by minimizing exposure to the qualities that provoke pitta (hot, sharp, light, liquid, spreading, and oily) and by increasing contact with the cool, slow, heavy, dense, stable, and dry qualities that balance pitta. And when we know which qualities, in particular, are aggravated, we can be even more precise in our treatment strategies. For instance, if this same person were suffering from acid indigestion and a short temper, we could focus on balancing the hot, sharp qualities with cooling, calming foods and herbs while cultivating more slow, relaxed experiences throughout each day.
The beauty of the Ayurvedic approach is that it is as elegant and intuitive to the novice as it is the seasoned Ayurvedic practitioner. For those relatively new to Ayurveda—especially those willing to cultivate enhanced self-awareness around their habits, strengths, and vulnerabilities—the tradition offers a clear path to improved wellness and vitality. The same set of fundamental principles guides the skilled practitioner of Ayurveda in directing potent remedies to specific organs, tissues, and channels throughout the physical and energetic bodies.
There are, of course, some universals in Ayurveda: practices that are generally understood to be beneficial for all of us, regardless of constitution or current state of balance. These include things like eating whole foods, proper food combining, and following a traditional Ayurvedic Daily Routine—which might involve cleaning your tongue upon waking, practicing some yoga or meditation daily, and soothing your system periodically with a loving oil massage. But if you follow only general principles, you may inadvertently limit Ayurveda’s extraordinary ability to specifically support you and your changing needs.
Remember, your constitution reflects the ideal ratio of vata, pitta, and kapha in your system. However, if any of the doshas are out of balance (and for most of us, at least one of them is), your constitution is not the entire story. Your current state of balance may actually be more important because it highlights which doshas you need to pacify in order to return to balance, and can help you identify the most effective treatment strategies for your particular situation.
In closing, we would like to offer you a warm-hearted welcome as you begin to explore the world of Ayurveda. We hope that you find it as inspiring as we do, and that we can support and serve you in your process of discovery.
The purpose of Vishva Ayurveda is to care the patients of various health issues. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health care provider regarding your medical condition or treatment and before undertaking any new health care regimen.