Photos Courtesy of the Ayurvedic InstituteAyurveda is an ancient medical system that was developed in India approximately 5,000 years ago. "Ayur" and "veda" are two Sanskrit words that mean "knowledge of living." Ayurveda is often referred to as the "sister science" of yoga, and it’s believed by many to be the basis of several therapeutic approaches like aromatherapy, massage, energy therapy, and yoga postures.
Ayurveda defines health as complete physical, mental, emotional, social, and spiritual well-being. The Ayurvedic system was originally proposed by ancient sages, but is currently being confirmed by quantum physicists and molecular biologists. So while Ayurvedic concepts may seem "airy fairy" to some of you, I strongly suggest that you keep an open mind, because this ancient system of medicine works.
The Ayurvedic system holds that humans are intimately connected to the rest of the natural world. For example, many of the base elements that exist in a tree or an ocean also exist in the human body. The physical body is thus seen as an extension of our environment, meaning that we affect and are affected by everything around us. This connection is believed to exist on a deep energetic level – we are not solid beings that are separate from our environment.
Instead, we are a pattern of energetic vibrations that exist in a sea of natural intelligence. Although ancient, this view is being confirmed by quantum physicists, who have recently shown that matter is more aptly described as waves of energy than discrete particles.
According to Ayurveda, the natural intelligence that governs the world around us also governs our bodies, from our cells to our digestive and nervous systems. We experience disease when this natural flow of energy is blocked.
Ayurveda helps us heal ourselves by bringing the body back to its natural intelligence when it gets out of balance. In essence, Ayurveda focuses on the uniqueness of each individual and aims to get at the underlying cause of symptoms instead of focusing only on the symptoms themselves.
The Ayurvedic system proposes that the five elements (air, fire, water, earth, and ether/space) combine into three life-forces that are present in everything that exists in the natural world, including minerals, plants, and animals/humans. These three life-forces, called "doshas," support all of our bodily functions, and bring about disease in the body when they are out of balance. The three doshas include:
Vata: This is the air dosha, which governs our senses, mental balance, nervous system, and movement. It controls the flow of energy in our bodies and helps us adjust to change.
Pitta: This is the fire dosha, which is responsible for all chemical and metabolic transformations in the body. It helps us digest our food, and also helps us process our intellectual and emotional experiences.
Kapha: This is the earth dosha, which holds all aspects of our physical structure together (e.g. cells, tissues, organs, etc.). Kapha also regulates the energy of our thinking and emotions, and governs our immune system.
Each human being is believed to possess all three doshas in varying amounts. For example, some people have one dosha that’s predominant. Others might have two doshas that are predominant, or have relatively equal amounts of all three doshas. If you would like to determine your doshic constitution, you can fill out a questionnaire here.
In a broad sense, Ayurvedic principles hold that when any of our doshas are out of balance, we experience disease. In order to cure and prevent disease, we need to engage in practices that help us bring our doshas back into balance.
To bring these principles to life, I’ll use myself as an example. I tend to be vata-dominant, with moderate pitta and low kapha. In other words, I’m small-boned, I get cold easily, I have dry skin, and I have an active, restless mind (this is just a small example of what typically makes up a vata-dominant constitution).
When life throws me a curveball, I tend to get anxious, stressed out, and I develop digestive problems. When my vata gets out of balance in this way, I need to bring more pitta and kapha into my constitution by, for example, eating warm, easy-to-digest foods, and engaging in grounding practices like gentle yoga and meditation.
As another example, my husband tends to be kapha-dominant. He’s very laid back, has a medium build, tends to have oily skin, and is always warm. When his kapha gets out of balance due to life stressors, he tends to put on weight, get lethargic, and develops respiratory problems like sinus infections. In these situations, he needs to bring more vata and pitta into his constitution to give him energy and stamina.
These examples only highlight the tip of the iceberg when it comes to Ayurvedic practices. The moral of the story is that by paying attention to the balance of the doshas in your body, you can do practical things to enhance your well-being.
Ayurveda is an immense field of study, with entire books devoted to it. Obviously I can’t cover everything about Ayurveda here! If you’re interested in learning more, speak with a naturopath who is familiar with Ayurveda, or go to Ayurveda.com.