Ayurveda is a natural system of medicine that originated in India. While no one knows the exact date that Ayurveda began, it is known to be at least 5,000 years old, making it the oldest known medical system in the world. For this reason, it has often been referred to as "the mother of all healing." This article will give an in-depth overview of this ancient medical system and how it can support our health in modern times.
What Is Ayurveda?
Ayurveda is a Sanskrit word that is composed of two words "Ayur," which translates as "life," and "Veda," which translates as "knowledge" or "science." So, "Ayurveda" is translated as "the Science of Life." It is a system of natural medicine that seeks to explain the fundamental principles of nature and how we can live in harmony with them. For example, a fundamental concept in Ayurveda is that health comes from living in harmony with nature. At the same time, dis-ease occurs from living out of balance and out of harmony with nature.
Ayurveda focuses on treating the uniqueness of the individual. We all know that each of us is different and that what may work for one person may not work for another. Ayurveda helps us understand why this is and how we can better understand our unique nature to best support our health.
Ayurveda is said to have been taught by the ancient rishis—meditation masters that discovered these natural laws through long periods of deep meditation. The oldest source of information on Ayurveda comes from the ancient authoritative text, the Caraka Samhita, which claims to be a revision of an even more ancient text called the Agnivesa Samhita. Unfortunately, this lost text is no longer available today.
The Five Elements in Ayurveda
To understand Ayurveda, one needs to understand the Ayurvedic philosophy of the five elements. According to Ayurveda, all matter is made up of five elements:
- Ether (Space)
These elements refer to more than just their actual natural elements. Instead, they refer to specific ideas that can be represented in the natural world.
- Earth is the idea of solidity and stability.
- Water is the idea of moisture and flow
- Fire is the idea of heat and light
- Air is the idea of movement and vibration
- Ether, or space, is the idea of space and connectedness
Another way to think of these elements is as different states of matter:
- Earth is the solid state matter
- Water is the liquid state of matter
- Fire is the radiant state of matter
- Air is the gaseous state of matter
- Ether is the etheric state of matter, or simply the space that all matter exists in
The 20 Qualities of Matter
According to Ayurveda, everything comprises the five elements. These elements are made up of certain qualities—20 qualities, to be exact. The 20 qualities are ten pairs of opposites that can be found to describe all matter. These are:
As this applies to the elements:
- Earth is cold, dry, heavy, hard, rough, dull, static, dense, gross, cloudy
- Water is cold, moist, heavy, soft, smooth, dull, static, flowing, gross, cloudy
- Fire is hot, dry, light, soft, rough, sharp, mobile, flowing, subtle, clear
- Air is cold, dry, light, soft, rough, sharp, mobile, flowing, subtle, clear
- Ether is cold, dry, light, subtle, clear
The 3 Doshas in Ayurveda
This is the part of Ayurvedic philosophy that most people who have heard of Ayurveda are familiar with. According to Ayurveda, the five elements combine to create the three doshas. These three subtle energies govern the biological functions of our body and mind. They are:
- Vata – composed of air and ether, Vata dosha has the qualities of cold, dry, light, soft, rough, sharp, mobile, flowing, subtle, and clear.
- Pitta – composed of mostly fire and a small amount of water, pitta dosha is hot, moist, light, soft, rough, mobile, flowing, subtle, and clear.
- Kapha – composed of water and earth, Kapha dosha has the qualities of cold, wet, heavy, soft, smooth, dull, static, dense, gross, and cloudy.
These three doshas influence all of the functions of the body:
- Vata influences movement, so there is movement, such as circulation, nerve impulses, muscular contractions, thoughts, etc., because of Vata dosha. Vata dosha also occupies the body's hollow spaces because of its ether qualities.
- Pitta influences digestion and heat, so anywhere there is digestion or heat in the body, such as with the digestion of food, cellular digestion, body temperature, etc., it is because of pitta dosha.
- Kapha dosha influences moisture and body structure, so anywhere these exist in the body, such as in our mucus membranes, saliva, bones, muscle, fat, and other tissues, etc., is because of Kapha dosha.
Together the three doshas govern all the metabolic activities of the body: anabolism or building tissue (Kapha), catabolism or breaking down tissue (Vata), and metabolism or digestion (pitta).
According to Ayurveda, health depends on having a healthy balance of these three doshas in the body. When the doshas are in balance, our body is functioning optimally, and health will result. On the other hand, when the doshas are out of balance—when one or more doshas become excessive or deficient—it interferes with normal body functioning, and sickness will result.
While the balance of the doshas is essential in Ayurveda, what has considered a healthy balance is different for each person. Ayurvedic philosophy states that we all have the three doshas in our bodies, but they are in different proportions. Some people have more Kapha dosha, some have more pitta dosha, some have more Vata dosha, and some have two doshas in proportion. Rarely some have all three in proportion.
This explains the different body types and personality types that people have. In Western medical traditions, these differences in body types are explained as ectomorph (Vata), mesomorph (pitta), and ectomorph (Kapha).
While the idea of the three doshas may seem strange to someone unfamiliar with them, they are not unique to Ayurveda. Most ancient medical traditions had a similar concept—though they did not refer to them as doshas.
In Greek Medicine, which is the root of modern Western medicine, these were called the three humours of wind (Vata), bile (pitta), and phlegm (Kapha). In Traditional Chinese Medicine, they are called the three treasures of shen (Vata), qi (pitta), and jing (Kapha). In ancient alchemical traditions, they are the three principles of mercury (Vata), sulfur (pitta), and salt (Kapha).
In ancient times, they did not have advanced instruments like we do today. However, they recognized that there were biological functions in the body that needed to be balanced for one to be healthy. When they were out of balance, then disease would follow. For example, an excess or deficiency of wind or movement created imbalances, as did an excess or deficiency of heat or an excess or deficiency of mucus or body tissue.
Traditional medicine practitioners would focus on applying the opposite qualities to remedy these imbalances. For example, if someone had too much heat in the body, such as inflammation, fever, or burning indigestion, they would apply things with cold qualities to cool the heat. If someone had too much dryness in the body, such as dehydration, chapped lips, or dry skin, they would apply things with moist qualities to dampen the dryness.
If the same qualities were applied, it would only worsen the illness—known as the principle of "like increases like." So, for example, you wouldn't want to give heating remedies to someone suffering from a hot condition or dampening remedies to someone suffering from a moist condition.
These principles are relatively common sense but not something that is taken into account in modern medicine that looks at everything only through a lens of physiology and chemistry.
Traditional medicine systems always relied on applying the opposite qualities for treatment. While "like increases like," it is said that "opposites create balance." So, it became essential to identify the unique qualities of a condition or illness, the unique qualities of the remedy or treatment, and the unique qualities of the individual person to know what qualities to apply to create and maintain balance.
The Ayurvedic Constitution
As mentioned, Ayurveda and numerous other ancient medical traditions observed that people had different body types and personalities determined by their unique ratio of the elements and three primal energies of Vata, pitta, and Kapha. A person's unique combination of these energies is called their constitution or Prakriti.
Yet, our environment influences us throughout our lives and may alter our unique balance of the three doshas, which may manifest as certain symptoms and ailments. Our current state of imbalance is known in Ayurveda as vikruti.
In Ayurveda, health depends on bringing our current state of imbalance (vikruti) back into harmony with our constitution (prakruti) and maintaining that balance with the right dietary and lifestyle practices.
For example, if one has a pitta constitution—meaning they have more pitta dosha in their constitution than Vata or Kapha—they will have more heat and intensity than the other dosha types. Therefore, they will need to focus on more cooling and relaxing dietary and lifestyle practices to maintain balance.
Different foods affect different dosha types differently. Different dosha types are also drawn toward different things and have different personality tendencies. Knowing your unique dosha type or constitution is key to maintaining your health from the Ayurvedic perspective.
What Are the Different Constitution Types?
Everyone has a unique balance of the three doshas in their constitution. Still, according to Ayurveda, there are seven possible constitution types:
- Vata (predominance of Vata dosha)
- Pitta (predominance of pitta dosha)
- Kapha (predominance of Kapha dosha)
- Vata-Pitta (equal predominance of vata and pitta doshas)
- Pitta-Kapha (equal predominance of pitta and Kapha doshas)
- Vata-Kapha (equal predominance of Vata and Kapha doshas)
- Vata-Pitta-Kapha, or Tridoshic (equal balance of all three doshas)
Vata is made of air and ether elements and is considered cold, light, dry, rough, flowing, and spacious. People with a predominance of Vata in their constitution tend to be thinner, have lower body weight, and have long and narrow physical features. Their personalities tend to be very "spacey." They are creative individuals, can be very talkative, have difficulty focusing on one thing, and quickly become distracted, scattered, and overwhelmed. They also tend toward fear and anxiety. Physically, they tend towards coldness and love warmth and heat.
Pitta is made of fire and water elements and is considered hot, light, sharp, moist, flowing, and mobile. People with a predominance of pitta in their constitution tend to be moderate in size, have an average weight and frame, have good muscular development, and have sharper physical features. Their personalities tend to be heated and intense. They are very driven and passionate individuals, usually have sharp and focused minds, and tend towards irritation, anger, and "hot-headedness."
Kapha is made of water and earth elements and is considered stable, heavy, slow, cold, moist, and soft. People with a predominance of Kapha in their constitution tend to be larger in size, have a heavier weight and more oversized frame, and have rounder physical features. However, they are not necessarily overweight but have more dense and broad physical features. Their personalities tend to be slower, calmer, and gentler. They are caring and compassionate individuals, usually have relaxed and easy-going personalities and tend towards stubbornness, laziness, and lethargy.
What Is My Dosha in Ayurveda?
Suppose you are curious about your constitution or ayurvedic body type. In that case, it may help to think about the qualities of the three doshas and consider which best represents your natural tendencies. Remember, we all have the three doshas in our constitution in different proportions. So, it is natural to have some tendencies from each dosha. Therefore, we want to determine the dosha(s) best represent our overall tendencies and characteristics. It is also essential to look at these characteristics based on what has been confirmed for most of your life, not what is true currently or even for the past few years.
- Naturally thin body frame
- Difficulty gaining weight, easy to lose weight
- Hair tends to be dry or thin
- Skin tends to be dry and thin
- The tendency toward feeling cold, often having cold hands and feet
- Eyes are small
- Appetite is variable or irregular
- Do not sweat easily
- Temperament is energetic, creative, nervous, and indecisive
- Learn quickly, but also forget things easily
- Can be very talkative, with fast speech and often scattered thinking
- Tend to be restless, active, and social
- Often have dry stools and a tendency toward constipation
- Medium body frame, naturally good musculature
- Weight tends to stay the same
- Hair is often straight and fine and may grey prematurely
- Skin tends to be warm with a tendency toward acne or rashes
- Becomes easily overheated
- Eyes are deep set, may have an intense gaze
- My appetite is usually high; I do not like to skip meals
- Sweats profusely
- Temperament is driven, focused, direct, intelligent, arrogant, competitive, and often easily irritated
- Learns quickly, efficiently retains information
- Speech is clear, sharp, and decisive
- Often have loose stools and a tendency toward diarrhea
- Broad, muscular, larger body frame
- Weight is easy to gain, difficult to lose
- Hair tends to be wavy or curly, oily, and thick
- Skin is often oily, thick, and smooth
- Eyes are big and round
- Appetite is steady
- Sweats moderately
- Temperament is relaxed, calm, grounded, stubborn, greedy, can be lazy
- Learns slowly but has a good memory
- Speech is slow and deep
- Usually have regular bowel movements with little variability
Do any of these characteristics reflect your body type or personality more than the others? Do you recognize characteristics in more than one that you can relate to? For some, finding out their constitution is easy, but for many, it requires a deeper look into their unique traits. While an online ayurvedic dosha quiz might help you determine your constitution, it often takes working with an Ayurvedic practitioner to understand your constitution.
Knowing your constitution is valuable because it helps you understand your natural tendencies, what helps you stay balanced, and what may cause you to fall out of balance.
How Do I Keep My Dosha In Balance?
We all have a natural balance. Some of us are more active, mobile, and creative, others are more driven and focused, and others are more calm, relaxed, and stable. Whatever doshas are predominant in our constitution, however, are the doshas that will tend to get out of balance for us. If we have many data, for example, we will tend to have more Vata imbalances. If we have much pitta, we will tend toward pitta imbalances. The same goes for Kapha and any dual dosha predominance.
Keeping these doshas balanced depends on following a diet and lifestyle that manages the dosha(s) we have a natural excess of.
To keep Vata dosha in balance:
- Focus on eating more warm, moist, and cooked foods, such as oatmeal, kitchari, soups, steamed vegetables, quinoa bowls, etc.
- Favor sweet, sour, and salty tasting foods.
- Limit your consumption of bitter, astringent, and spicy tasting foods.
- Establish regular routines, such as regular meal times, sleeping and waking times, and exercise.
- Rub warm oil on your skin daily (such as sesame oil or almond oil), an Ayurvedic practice known as abhyanga.
- Avoid excess travel, overstimulation, cold and dry environments, and erratic schedules.
To keep pitta dosha in balance:
- Focus on eating more nourishing, refreshing, and cooling foods.
- Favor sweet, bitter, and astringent tasting foods.
- Limit your consumption of spicy, salty, and sour-tasting foods.
- Avoid anything that leads to overheating, such as high-temperature environments, foods, or activities that are too intense.
- Avoid skipping meals and aim to eat at regular meal times.
- Try to keep your body cool.
- Focus on moderate exercise.
- Regularly perform grounding and relaxing activities like meditation, walks in nature, or yoga.
To keep Kapha dosha in balance:
- Focus on foods that are light, warm, and cooked.
- Favor spicy, bitter, and astringent foods.
- Limit your consumption of sweet, sour, and salty tasting foods.
- Make exercise a part of your daily routine.
- Aim to include spontaneous activities in your life and avoid routines that are too stable and regular.
- Aim to wake up before sunrise if possible.
A lot more goes into keeping your dosha(s) balanced, but this is an excellent place to start. In general, diet, lifestyle, and environment are the most significant factors that influence our doshic balance and health.
What Is An Ayurvedic Diet?
An Ayurvedic diet is different from a typical one because there is no exact diet to follow. Instead, an ayurvedic diet is a diet that is based on knowing your constitution and eating in a way that supports keeping your doshas in balance. This is primarily done by focusing on the tastes of the food.
According to Ayurveda, there are six tastes, each made up of different elements:
- Sweet, made of earth and water, tend to be the most nourishing of the tastes (most grains, dairy, and meats are considered sweet foods, as well as certain fruits and vegetables).
- Sour, made of fire and earth, tend to be foods that support digestion (fermented foods are considered sour, as are many fruits)
- Salty, made of fire and water, tends to be foods rich in minerals (salt, certain vegetables)
- Pungent (Spicy), made of fire and air, tend to be foods that improve blood flow and digestion (cayenne, peppers, cooking spices)
- Bitter, made of air and ether, tend to be foods that are detoxifying and improve liver health and digestion through stimulating bile production (leafy greens, vegetables, teas)
- Astringents, made of earth and air, tend to be cleansing foods (legumes, certain vegetables, greens, and herbs)
Getting all six tastes in our diet is recommended, as they all play different roles. However, each dosha should favor specific tastes more and limit others:
- Vata should favor sweet, sour, and salty and limit pungent, bitter, and astringent.
- Pitta should favor sweet, bitter, and astringent and limit pungent, sour, and salty.
- Kapha should favor pungent, bitter, astringent, and limit sweet, sour, and salty.
An Ayurvedic diet does not focus on any foods in particular but on the qualities of the foods we eat. However, Ayurveda does emphasize eating a whole food diet that consists primarily of:
- Whole grains
- Animal products (in moderation)
While it is not essential, many Ayurvedic practitioners follow a vegetarian diet, which is considered more ethical and compassionate to animals. Those who eat meat tend to do so sparingly and not as the base of their diet.
Digestion – the Most Important Factor in Health
According to Ayurveda, health or disease starts in the gut. This is something that modern health researchers are just starting to catch on to. In contrast, Ayurveda knew this over 5,000 years ago.
How well we digest our food determines how well we absorb the nutrients in our food and, therefore, how well our tissues are developed and our health maintained. Because of this, Ayurveda considers how you eat to be of greater importance than what you eat.
While it is still essential to focus on healthy, nutritious foods (and to avoid toxic junk foods), we will not see any benefit from these foods if we do not digest them properly—and many things can interfere with proper digestion.
Ayurveda has some recommended tips to help us optimize our digestion and, therefore, our health. The primary tips for improving digestion are:
- Chew your food thoroughly
- Avoid overeating (eat until you are 75% full)
- Eat food in a relaxed state of mind
- Avoid eating while distracted or stressed
- Eat at regular meal times each day
- Avoid foods that are too cold (frozen)
- Do not drink too much liquid with meals (drink less than 8 oz)
- Allow for at least 3 hours between meals
- Avoid excessive snacking
- Take time to rest after meals (at least 30 minutes)
- Eat food prepared with love
- Give thanks for your meal
- Eat mindfully and enjoy your meal.
Ayurveda is a very ancient system of medicine, yet many of its principles still have relevance to us today. It is fascinating to consider that over 5,000 years ago, people had such an in-depth understanding of health. Unfortunately, this article has barely scratched the surface of what Ayurveda is and how it can be used as a tool for health maintenance and treatment. Still, hopefully, it has served as a good introduction for those curious about India's traditional system of medicine.
Some of the essential foundations that Ayurveda teaches are that:
- Each of us has a unique constitution; therefore, different foods and activities work better for us than others.
- Health is not one-size-fits-all but is unique to the individual
- Living in harmony with nature is the key to health
- Living out of harmony with natural laws is bound to lead to poor health
- Health or disease begins in the digestive system
- Most health issues begin (and can be cured with) diet, lifestyle, and environment
- Health is holistic and incorporates our body, mind, and spirit
There are many more critical Ayurvedic topics not discussed in this article, like the importance of daily routine, living harmoniously with the changing seasons, an advanced and unique system of anatomy and physiology, powerful herbal remedies, ayurvedic therapies, mind-body medicine, meditation, and breathing practices, and much more.
At its core, Ayurveda is a rich tradition of medicine that aims to help individuals live a harmonious life so they can thrive, be happy, and pursue their goals in life.