Ayurveda literally translates as “the wisdom of life” or “the knowledge of longevity”. Originating in India approximately 5,000 years ago, Ayurveda is the oldest healing modality that is as fresh and useful today as it was in the beginning. In a profound sense, Ayurveda is the mother of all healing systems; it is the oldest medical system in the world. It began as an oral tradition, eventually being written down in codifications known as the Vedas, the world’s oldest literature. People traveled from all over the world to study Ayurveda and it is the root of many other medicines including Chinese medicine, Tibetan medicine, and Western medicine.
In the West, Ayurveda is recognized as a Complementary and Alternative Health System by the National Institutes of Health.
Ayurveda is all about guiding us in how to live in a way to prevent illness. Health is defined as the well-being of the body, mind and spirt. What is happening in the mind and emotions will eventually affect the body. And what is happening in the body will eventually affect the mind and emotions.
What sets Ayurveda apart is that it recognizes that each person has a unique balanced state that is as individual to a person as their fingerprints and DNA. Health is attained by maintaining your unique state of balance in your whole being. We automatically tend to self-correct and maintain health if we pay attention to ourselves; our bodies are full of beautiful wisdom. However we are constantly bombarded by changes in our environment, our shifting thoughts, feelings and emotions, the foods we eat, the work we do and the relationships we are in. Excess stress, unhealthy eating, not getting enough rest, working too much; these are some of the things that can throw us off balance. These subtle biochemical changes can ultimately lead to disease.
Our life has a purpose. We each have a path to follow and a work to do. We know when we are doing what is ours to do when we feel passionate about the work, when we feel happy and content.
There are four aspects of life- our life purpose, financial security, creative positive actions and thinking, and spiritual awareness. To carry out our life purpose, and duties to ourselves and others, we must be healthy. To achieve financial security, good health is indispensable. To have positive desire, we need a healthy body, mind and perception. And spiritual liberation is nothing but perfect harmony of body, mind and soul.
Ayurveda helps us to live the longest and healthiest life possible by making decisions based on our own uniqueness. It brings out the best in us and supports the areas of our life that give us challenges. When we live in harmony with our environment and live with sensitivity to our own needs, we can make choices that let us reach our full potential.
“Imbalance of the body is disease which is known as unhappiness. Balance of the body is health which is known as happiness” Charaka Samhita
The Five Element Theory
Ayurveda uses the language of the elements to consider the world around us, our bodies and our minds. These five elements exist in all matter. Our psychological, emotional and physical tendencies are all related to the five elements and Ayurveda focuses on the balance of them. Ayurveda considers the elements in terms of food, lifestyle, remedies, exercise, time, seasons and everything that exists in the world and the relationships between all things. We use our understanding of the elements along with two guiding principles “like increases like” and “opposites decrease each other” to help us understand how to remedy anything that is out of balance.
Ether (space), air, fire, water and earth are the five elements that are tangible to our senses and are the building blocks of everything in the universe, without exception. Everything is made up of different combinations of all of the five elements together.
“The quantity, quality, and proportion of the elements always show themselves in the nature of a thing” -Charak Samhita. Water is always wet, earth is always heavy.
Let’s take a look at what these elements are and how we perceive them.
Space (Ether). There are no physical qualities to space. It enables all other things to have a place to take form and exist and has no physical existence. Space governs hearing and speaking in the body, and is in all the spaces in the body from the gastrointestinal tract, respiratory tract, to the subtle energy channels.
Air (Wind) Air is movement in space. Air governs touch- sensation in the skin and hands. All movements that happen in the body from peristalsis, blinking of the eye, movements of any muscle and movement of thoughts is air moving through space.
Fire In our bodies, fire exists as our body temperature and metabolism; it is the fire of digestion, absorption and assimilation. The fire element governs the eyes, along with all the transformations that happen in the body, from digestion of food to the comprehension of ideas.
Water – Water is the principle of cohesion, regulating lubrication and connection, protecting us from wind and fire. In the body, it gives us nourishment, growth and lubrication. Water cools, moistens, adheres, soothes, softens, and spreads.
Earth Earth is the energy of stability. In the body earth is all the solid structures like bones, muscle, fat and hair. Earth gives us our sense of smell and regulates stability and insulation, keeps our organs in place, and holds fluids and warmth in the body.
These five elements manifest and exist at all times in all things, and each has a role to play. For instance in our digestive system, space gives the room for the other elements to work in. Air rules the peristaltic movement through the digestive tract, fire provides the heat and digestive enzymes involved in metabolism, water provides the liquid, fluid quality of the digestive juices and acids, earth provides the actual structure and tissues of the digestive tract.
The Law of Opposites: 20 Qualities of the Universe (Gunas)
When we understand the 20 qualities, or gunas, we can use them to balance our diet and lifestyle. Similar qualities aggravate each other, and opposite qualities balance each other. We are constantly affected by the qualities around us. For instance if it is a cold, cloudy and rainy we may feel cold, sluggish and heavy, possibly getting a cold and cough. Our mood might be heavy as well. During this cold weather, we are drawn to eat and drink things that are hot and spicy, take a hot bath and wrap up to stay warm, which helps to counterbalance the qualities of the weather. We do not have to think about these remedies because they naturally make sense. However, if we ignore our bodies natural intelligence, eat ice cream and milkshakes during the winter, drink iced tea, and dress too lightly, chances are we will end up sick in bed.
Learning how to work with the 20 qualities gives you the key to stay healthy by adjusting your lifestyle, diet and exercise to restore a state of health. Ayurveda focuses of these 10 pairs qualities. Each pair is a continuum between opposites: Hot to Cold Wet to Dry Heavy to Light Smooth to Rough Static (stable) to Mobile (spreading) Dull to Sharp (penetrating) Dense to Liquid Gross to Subtle (expansive) Hard to Soft Sticky (cloudy) to Clear.
The Organizing Principles: The Three Doshas: Vata, Pitta and Kapha
The Doshas are the energies that organize and animate the five elements. Literally, dosha means “that which changes”. There are three doshas; they are called vata, pitta and kapha.
Doshas are required for life to happen and are constantly moving in dynamic balance, one with the others. The five elements give us matter, the three doshas give us life. All people have all three doshas, but usually one is prominent and the others are secondary. Each person has their own individual pattern of energy which determines their physical, mental and emotional characteristics. This energy print, called your constitution or prakruti, is your unique, one-of-a-kind proportion of the three doshas, vata, pitta and kapha. Our bodies are constantly interacting with our environment, with our diet and with our experiences. Good health occurs when all three doshas work to maintain the original state of balance. You need all three doshas for good health.
So let’s learn more about the three doshas.
What is Vata? Vata is composed of space and air and is the energy of movement. When you think of vata, think of the wind. Vata is our life source, our Prana. Vata is responsible for all movement, both mental and physical. It governs our nervous system, our breathing, chewing, swallowing, peristalsis, muscle movements, thinking, bowel movements, etc.
Vata is dry, light, cold, rough, subtle, mobile and clear. When vata is in balance, vata gives us an accepting, flexible and open mind. It gives us creativity, enthusiasm and flexibility. When vata is out of balance it can disturb pitta and kapha. The majority of illnesses are caused by vata being aggravated
What is Pitta? Pitta combines the qualities of fire and water. Pitta is the energy of transformation. It is hot, sharp, light, oily, liquid, pungent, sour and spreading. Pitta controls the enzymes that regulate digestion and the hormones that manage metabolism. When you think of pitta, think of fire. Pitta governs all biochemical changes in the body, and regulates digestion, metabolism, temperature, sensory perception, intelligence and understanding. Pitta gives us appetite, vitality and an inquiring mind.
What is Kapha? Kapha is composed of water and earth. Kapha is the energy of structure and lubrication. Kapha is heavy, slow, cool, oily, damp, viscous and sweet. When you think of kapha, think of the solid earth. Kapha provides strength and stability. Kapha is responsible for anabolism, for building the body and cellular repair. Kapha gives us our tissues, and lubricates our bodies, and maintains immunity.
The doshas combine in different proportions to give us the seven main body types: Vata Pitta Kapha Vata-Pitta Pitta-Kapha Kapha-Vata Vata-Pitta-Kapha Remember that all people have all three doshas, but their proportions vary. So we might have ten pitta-vata people, but they will have ten unique sets of characteristics and qualities. Additionally, if you have ten vata-pitta people diagnosed with the same disease in western medicine, each person came to develop that disease in a unique way, and their road to health will be unique to them. We must identify what is the underlying imbalance and remove the cause. There is no one size fits all healing protocol.
Your Constitution -Prakruti Your constitution is your unique genetic makeup, how you relate to the world. Prakruti is a Sanskrit word that means, "nature," "creativity," or "the first creation." Prakruti does not change during your lifetime.
Your prakruti is determined at your conception based on your parents health at that time, and is fixed throughout your lifetime. In order to understand yourself, it is necessary to determine your constitution or Prakruti.
Your combination of vata, pitta and kapha is as unique as your fingerprints and your DNA. The doshas are responsible for the individual differences among us, and influence all that we do. Additionally, the proportion of the 20 qualities (gunas) within you makes you unique. This is how Ayurveda explains why everyone is unique and no two persons will respond the same when exposed to the same environment or stimuli.
It is fairly common for a person to have two predominant doshas, which means that two doshas are just about equally as strong and predominant.It is even said to be possible to be “tri-doshic” in which all three doshas are equally strong and predominant, but this rarely occurs.
Current State of Imbalance or Vikruti Vikruti is “that which covers over Prakruti”, our current state. Vikruti happens due to all outside influences that we are exposed to through living that effect Prakruti. In increase or decrease of the elements through this outside influences changes our balance of doshas. Balance or health does not mean that all three doshas are in even proportion in your body. Balance and health occurs when your particular pattern –your prakruti and your current state are the same. When they are different, you are unhealthy. Discomfort and disease occurs when we have more or less dosha than what is in our constitution. Ayurveda is based on the law of causation. Nothing exists without a cause and every cause has an effect – this is the law of karma. Ayruveda first seeks to remove the cause of any effects or symptoms. “As you sow, so shall you reap”.
To return to balance, we first remove the cause and then you eliminate the imbalance by using opposite qualities. It is not enough to suppress the effect through drugs and surgery. Living in balance is the key to a long and healthy life. Ayurveda seeks to balance the elements and doshas within each unique individual relative to the ever changing environment. That is why it is important to know your Prakruti, your constitution.
Once you learn your original constitution, you can learn what is right for you, what is the right food to eat, the right type of exercise, the right lifestyle choices that will keep you healthy. Your health is up to you. No one else can do it for you.
Ayurveda says the original cause of disease is ignorance. Wrong understanding leads to wrong actions which lead to imbalance. All disease occurs through accumulated karma, time and seasonal changes, our diet and our lifestyle. We cannot influence past karma and the seasons, but we can influence our diet, our actions, and our lifestyle.