Introduction to the principles of Ayurveda
Ayurveda (“Knowledge/Science of Life”) is an ancient practice of holistic medicine already mentioned in the oldest of the vedas. While it is rooted in India, where it is well established as a recognised health care system, it has in recent years spread throughout the world. With growing popularity in the west, more and more medical doctors and nurses turn their attention to the Ayurvedic point of view to offer an alternative to their patients.
But isn’t this system well out of date, you may ask. After all it has developed in a completely different time and culture, lacking of modern science with all it’s sophisticated equipment, where humanity faced very different kinds of health challenges then today.
And why, when we have achieved so much in medical sciences, would we even need a different point of view?
While I greatly believe in the value of modern allopathic medicine – my life has been saved by it on more than one occasion and I am more than grateful for the power of a painkiller in case of a bad toothache – it also has a great flaw: It is, in essence, a reductionistic view, mostly concerned with isolating substances and treating symptoms, rather than being concerned with the cause of a disease.
In western medicine, the first stage of disease is the stage where one experiences a symptom, for example a cracking or pain in the joints (arthritis). According to the Ayurvedic system, this would be seen as the fifth stage of the disease, with it’s beginnings long before the pain could be felt.
The earlier an imbalance can be detected, the easier it is to treat. Therefore, any disease can be prevented.
The same principle applies even after symptoms have developed. We just have to trace the disease back to its origins so that the cause can be treated, not just the symptom.
So how is it possible to detect such subtle changes in the body without the help of any medical device? And how can we treat them without causing any negative side effects?
Ayurveda, like any other eastern system of holistic medicine, is based on the idea of everything in nature consisting of five basic elements.
These elements – Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Space (or Ether) – are the basis for diagnosing and treating all disease.
To most westerners this may seem outdated, archaic and even nonsensical, until we actually take a closer look at these essential substances.
Pancha Maha Bhuta (“five great elements) are a way of describing five basic qualities of any object in nature (ie our bodies).
Bhuta, also translated as “ghost”, or “spirit” or “essence” is that which can’t necessarily be seen but has a certain quality. This means the elements should be regarded as a description of a quality rather than an object in itself:
The essence of Earth (Prithvi) is that which supports and gives stability, which is solid, dense, slow to move, heavy. The parts of our bodies containing a lot of earth element, are those that have these qualities.
The essence of Water (Jala/Ap) is by nature liquid, mobile but also heavy, slightly less dense than earth, depending on it’s form. It is nourishing, conducting and it clings to things. It is clear, cold, smooth and soft.
The element of Fire (Teja/Agni) is hot, bright, light, clear, transforming, devouring. It is concentrated energy, heat, rising upward, drying.
Air (Vayu) is much lighter even than fire. It is clear, cold, dry, mobile, fast, moving, irregular, rough, unattached and volatile.
Space (Akasha) is that which contains all other elements. It is vast, expansive, not containable, dry, light. It gives expression to Air, Fire, Water and Earth.
All of nature, including our own bodies and minds, can be described by these five elements in different combinations.
Each of us is a unique individual with a unique combination of elements.
To make this more easily understandable, Ayurveda distinguishes between three main constitutional types (Dosha):
A combination of the elements of Air and Space.
People with a lot of Vata Dosha typically tend to have a light body frame, are naturally flexible (space in the joints), not very strong build, have irregular features, often are tall and thin, or very small and thin.
They can think, talk and move fast, have very active minds. Always on the move, they like to change aspects of their lifestyle and habits, going with the flow and with new ideas. They are highly imaginative and sensitive and don’t like to be tied down by too many rules or expectations.
However if too much Vata is accumulated due to lifestyle, diet or climate, it becomes aggravated and imbalanced. Sensitivity can turn into anxiety and fear, Imagination into paranoia and their independence into a feeling of being “spaced out”, “disembodied” or loneliness.
Aggravation of Vata can also show as irregularity in digestion, gas and bloating, nervous disorders, joint pain, memory loss, insomnia, etc.
To reintroduce balance, the cold, dry and irregular qualities of Air and Space will need to be counteracted with warming qualities of fire and nourishing, grounding qualities of earth and water – eating more warm, moist, nourishing and comforting food and taking more rest and respite, as well as some regularity in daily routine.
Warm oil treatments, warm, digestive spices and Vata balancing herbs as well as methods to clear accumulated Vata toxins from the body (ie enemas) are often prescribed to help cure diseases with a cause in Vata aggravation.
A combination of Fire (mostly) and Water (some).
This particular combination of elements refers to iquid, hot substances like stomach acid, digestive juices, blood, bile, etc.
A person with a lot of Pitta has a strong digestion (both physically and mentally!) and a strong appetite. They can usually digest a lot of food without much issue and have a high metabolism.
Their personalities are warm, generous, giving, bright and confident, they are natural born leaders or teachers. Their minds are clear and focused and they can process information very well. They are passionate and creative people and great intellectual thinkers, ambitious and often successful in life.
When there is too little water present to keep the fire in check, or if the qualities of fire are increased by a Pitta aggravating lifestyle, diet or climate, ambition and focus can turn to obsession, passion to anger, confidence to arrogance and their healthy appetite for food and life, into greed. Their discerning mind can become highly critical, both of themselves and others and they can become isolated. On a physical level, there is a tendency toward developing stomach ulcers, acid reflux, diarrhoea, early balding/greying or hair loss, eye issues and inflammation in the body. To calm an unbalanced Pitta, we need to cool it by avoiding spicy foods and hot temperatures, and taking up cooling relaxation practices and eating a diet high in anti inflammatory foods.
Treatment is often given by prescribing Pitta pacifying herbs, Ghee, Massage therapy, as well as clearing Pitta toxins from the body by purgative practices, clearing excess acid from the body.
A combination of Earth (mostly) and Water element.
People with a high amount of Kapha are typically quite attractive, with shiny eyes, thick hair and smooth skin. They have strong thick bones and often a larger frame.
They tend to be nourishing, supportive and caring people with a lot of compassion and a big heart. They process things rather slowly but also don’t forget easily. They are sturdy, with good stamina and immunity and – when in balance – rarely get sick. They also rarely get angry. But when they do, you will know about it! For these qualities, they are often compared to an elephant.
They are very reliable, loyal and get on with most people.
When Kapha becomes aggravated, the sturdiness turns to heaviness. They can become sad, depressed and lethargic. They can be difficult to motivate and can’t cope well with change. Comfort can become an addiction and this can turn into a tendency to overeat. Their already slow metabolism cannot cope well with large amounts of foods and they can become obese or develop diabetes or food allergies. An accumulation of Mucus can cause chest/lung and sinus issues and compromises general immunity.
To restore balance, they need to introduce more heat and more movement and mobility as well as more lightness. Keeping warm, eating light, spiced food that is easy to digest, in smaller amounts, exercising and moving regularly and introducing changes to their life’s regularly can help keep Kapha in check. Avoiding exposure to cold, damp weather will help to counteract these imbalances.
Kapha reducing herbs, detoxification and fasting methods, a Kapha pacifying diet and lifestyle as well as herbal massage therapy are usually prescribed to help issues caused by Kapha aggravation.
We all have some amount of Vata, Pitta and Kapha and sometimes it is not necessarily just one Dosha that clearly stands out. Some people are a mix of two dominant Doshas and sometimes (although rarely) all three can be relatively equal to each other.
Also there is a distinction between ones genetically inherited constitution (Prakruti) and the constitution that evolved due to our lifestyle and environmental influences (Vikruti). It is our Vikruti that we need to look at most closely and work on achieving a balance and it is our Prakruti that we should look to express in it’s most natural, positive way by respecting our own particular talents and preferences and employing them as much as we can in life, so that we can experience the joy of authentic expression in life.
To find out more about your own constitution it is best to visit a qualified Ayurvedic practitioner who can examine you properly and ask the most relevant questions to you, but you can get a general idea by taking one of the many online quizzes that are available these days, for example this one here.
Knowing your own constitution can help you make better choices in daily life, regarding your diet, daily habits and of course also the way you practice Yoga. So next time you are on your mat, if you are a Vata type with some imbalances, you might consider less moving around and more holding of postures, deep breathing, cultivating strength and a feeling of being stable in the postures. If you think your Pitta is a little out of balance, try a less heating practice, don’t get too attached to “achieving” something, but instead work on mindfulness within your practice, don’t give more than 70% of your energy and take an extra long Savasana.
And if you are more of an imbalanced Kapha type, introduce more movement, take that extra Vinyasa, and don’t skip practice or cut it short – Savasana will feel even better!