What is Ayurveda?

Article by Joseph P. Kauffman


Ayurveda is an ancient science of healing, originating in India more than 5,000 years ago. It is considered by scholars to be the oldest medical system known today. In Sanskrit, Ayurveda means “The Science of Life,” and is often called “The Mother of All Healing.” It stems from the ancient Vedic culture and was taught for many thousands of years in an oral tradition from accomplished masters to their disciples, and this transmission of knowledge continues up to the present day.

 

How Does Ayurveda Relate To Your Individual Health?

Ayurveda focuses primarily on prevention of disease and encourages the maintenance of health through close attention to balance in one’s life, harmonious thinking, proper diet and lifestyle, and the use of medicinal herbs. Knowledge of Ayurveda enables one to understand how to create this balance of body, mind and consciousness according to one’s own individual constitution and how to make lifestyle changes to bring about and maintain this balance. 

Just as everyone has a unique fingerprint, each person has a particular pattern of energy—an individual combination of physical, mental and emotional characteristics—which comprises their own constitution. This constitution is determined at conception by a number of factors and remains the same throughout one’s life. 


According to Ayurveda, our original constitution is known as our prakriti, a Sanskrit word meaning “nature.” Due to the experiences and circumstances of our lives, our original nature is continually imbalanced, manifesting as our present state, or our vikriti, in Sanskrit.

Ayurveda focuses on bringing the disturbed energy of one’s present state back into harmony with their original nature, as it sees the disturbance of balance to be the primary cause of disease. Many factors, both internal and external, act upon us to disturb this balance. Examples of these emotional and physical stresses include one’s emotional state, diet and food choices, seasons and weather, physical trauma, work and family relationships. Once these factors are understood, one can take appropriate actions to nullify or minimize their effects or eliminate the causes of imbalance and re-establish one’s original constitution. Balance is the natural order; imbalance is disorder. Health is order; dis-ease is dis-order. Within the body there is a constant interaction between order and disorder. When one understands the nature and structure of disorder, one knows how to re-establish order. 

 

Balancing the Energies of Nature

According to Ayurveda, there are three basic types of energy that are present in everyone and everything. These energies are known as doshas in Sanskrit, and the three primary doshas are vata, pitta and kapha. Energy is required to create movement so that fluids and nutrients get to the cells, enabling the body to function. Energy is also required to metabolize the nutrients in the cells, as well to lubricate and maintain the structure of the cell. Vata is the energy of movement, pitta is the energy of digestion or metabolism and kapha, the energy of lubrication and structure. All people have the qualities of vata, pitta and kapha, but one is usually primary, one secondary and the third is usually least prominent. The cause of disease in Ayurveda is viewed as a lack of proper cellular function due to an excess or deficiency of vata, pitta or kapha. Disease can also be caused by the presence of toxins, or ama in Sanskrit. 

In Ayurveda, body, mind and consciousness work together in maintaining balance. They are simply viewed as different facets of one’s being. To learn how to balance the body, mind and consciousness requires an understanding of how vata, pitta and kapha work together. According to Ayurvedic philosophy the entire cosmos is an interplay of the energies of the five great elements—Space, Air, Fire, Water and Earth. Vata, pitta and kapha are combinations and arrangements of these five elements that manifest as patterns present in all creation. In the physical body, vata is the subtle energy of movement, pitta the energy of digestion and metabolism, and kapha the energy that forms the body’s structure. 

Vata is the subtle energy associated with movement composed of Space and Air. It governs breathing, blinking, muscle and tissue movement, pulsation of the heart, and all movements in the cytoplasm and cell membranes. In balance, vata promotes creativity and flexibility. Out of balance, vata produces fear and anxiety. 

Pitta expresses as the body’s metabolic system — made up of Fire and Water. It governs digestion, absorption, assimilation, nutrition, metabolism and body temperature. In balance, pitta promotes understanding and intelligence. Out of balance, pitta arouses anger, hatred and jealousy. 

Kapha is the energy that forms the body’s structure — bones, muscles, tendons — and provides the “glue” that holds the cells together, formed from Earth and Water. Kapha supplies the water for all bodily parts and systems. It lubricates joints, moisturizes the skin, and maintains immunity. In balance, kapha is expressed as love, calmness and forgiveness. Out of balance, it leads to attachment, greed and envy. 

Life presents us with many challenges and opportunities. Although there is much over which we have little control, we do have the power to decide about some things, such as diet and lifestyle. To maintain balance and health, it is important to pay attention to these decisions. Diet and lifestyle appropriate to one’s individual constitution strengthen the body, mind and consciousness. 

 

So How Do We Determine Our Constitution?

According to Ayurveda, the three basic energies of vata, pitta, and kapha, combine to form our individual constitution. As mentioned before, we have a constitution inherited from birth, known as our prakriti, and we have the present state of our constitution as it exists under the influence of vata, pitta, and kapha, which is known as our vikriti. Knowing your particular prakriti is the key to knowing how to maintain balance for your body, mind, and consciousness.

Ayurveda describes seven possible constitutions that one’s prakriti can be: Vata, pitta, kapha, vata-pitta, pitta-kapha, kapha-vata, or tridosha (vata-pitta-kapha). Whatever our prakriti is, is determined by which doshas are most prevalent in our constitution. For example, if my prakriti is pitta dosha, that means that pitta is the primary energy in my constitution, so to maintain balance between the other doshas, I will have to find what it is that pacifies the energy of pitta and brings it back into harmony with vata and kapha. It is important to know that we all have the energies of vata, pitta, and kapha within us, but that one or two are usually the most prominent (tridosha being the only exception).

To truly know your unique constitution, it is best to seek out an Ayurvedic practitioner, but there are some general characteristics that help us to know what our constitution might be. These recognizable features include the following:  


Key distinguishing features for prakriti determination

VATA

  1. Thin body frame, does not gain weight easily
  2. Skin dry, rough, dark complexion, cracked
  3. Hair dry and splitting 
  4. Quick performance of activities
  5. Variable and/or poor appetite.
  6. Physical working capacity less, resistance to disease usually poor
  7. Prefers warm or hot food and climate.
  8. Scanty perspiration, variable thirst
  9. Tendency for constipation
  10. Light sleep with many dreams
  11. Prone to anxiety, worry and depression, unpredictable nature

PITTA

  1. Medium body frame
  2. Skin delicate, reddish complexion, warm to touch
  3. Good/excessive appetite
  4. Feels warm/hot sensation
  5. Prefers cold food and climate, intolerance to hot food and climate
  6. Tendency for loose motion
  7. Excessive thirst and perspiration
  8. Bright eyes, reddish sclera, yellow iris, sharp penetrating vision
  9. Hair soft, premature graying, baldness
  10. Intelligent, sharp memory, hot tempered, brave, jealous, aggressive, commanding nature

KAPHA

  1. Large, board body frame, tendency to gain weight
  2. Skin thick, soft, smooth, firm, glossy, fair complexion
  3. Good stamina but slow in physical activities
  4. Deep and pleasant voice
  5. Moderate appetite
  6. Moderate perspiration, low thirst
  7. Deep and sound sleep
  8. Large eyes, calm, stable with whitish sclera
  9. Hair thick, oily, wavy dark colored
  10. Calm, cool, joyful, polite good nature

There are many more characteristics that describe the nature of one’s constitution, and the one’s described above are primarily physical, whereas psychological influences are also an important factor to understand. To know our individual nature is something that really requires us to become intimate with ourselves, and Ayurveda helps us in this process by pointing out some of the basic energies in nature, how they function, and most importantly how to bring them into balance.

Ayurveda addresses all aspects of life—the body, mind and spirit. It recognizes that each of us is unique, each responds differently to the many aspects of life, each possesses different strengths and weaknesses. Through insight, understanding and experience Ayurveda presents a vast wealth of information on the relationships between causes and their effects, both immediate and subtle, for each unique individual. It is a fascinating science that can assist us in our journey of restoring balance within ourselves, and learning how to live in balance with nature.