Ayurveda is a Sanskrit word which means the knowledge of life (‘Ayur’ means life and ‘veda’ means knowledge). Ayurveda originates from ancient India, as one of the world’s earliest heath systems. It has not only remained alive over millennia but it is now sought more than ever by more and more people who are disillusioned by the limitations of modern medicine.
Rather than looking at disease in a piecemeal way, Ayurveda looks at the whole person to understand causes of the illness, identifies the imbalance in the body humours or doshas, locates which body tissues or dhatus are affected and then maps out a journey into health, by addressing diet, lifestyle, psychological and spiritual factors, alongside medicinal herbs.
Ayurvedic treatments include herbal medicine, massage and detoxification therapies. These treatments often provide side-benefits with no negative side effects. A person receiving Ayurvedic treatment is empowered by taking charge of their own health through understanding their unique constitution and learning how to look after their health better in the future.
In Ayurveda the physician’s contribution to the patient’s recovery
is seen as 50% of the work, whilst the other 50% is to be done by the patient by adhering to the diet and lifestyle advice. Ayurveda treats disease, but it also guides the healthy people to remain healthy, with extensive guidance about health practices and rejuvenation treatments.
It, therefore, is known as the science of longevity. Ayurveda is especially helpful at the early stages of a disorder. If you are generally healthy with a few uncomfortable symptoms, often the GP or the allopathic doctor is not able to offer any advice. However, an Ayurvedic practitioner is trained to identify the pre-signs and symptoms of imbalance in the body.
Every disease starts with minor symptoms, which, when ignored, flower into a full blown illness with the passage of time. Ayurveda recognises that it is much easier to arrest the development of a disorder when it is in its embryonic stage.
Here is a whistle stop tour of the basic concepts in Ayurveda:
The Five Great Elements of Ayurveda
Ayurveda is grounded in five great elements –
Everything in the universe, alive or not is made up of these elements. In the human body these elements give rise to three biological humours – doshas – called Vata, Pitta and Kapha. Vata is made of air and space; Pitta is mostly made of fire with some water; Kapha is made of water and Earth.
When out of balance, the doshas are the causative forces behind the disease process.
What are 'Doshas'?
1. Vata means air or that which moves things. Vata represents the principle of movement as in breathing, circulation of blood, ingestion of food and its
movement through the digestive tract, elimination, walking and other
movements within the body.
2. Pitta is the biological fire, also translated as bile. Its meaning is ‘that which digests things’. Pitta dosha contols the function of heat in the body, as seen most obviously in body-temperature. It also covers our digestion, metabolism, skin colouration, vision and intelligence.
3. Kapha is the biological water, also translated as phlegm. It means that which holds things together. Kapha dosha gives substance and structure. It also relates to positive emotional traits such as love, compassion, patience and forgiveness.
Each dosha has its own primary qualities. Vagbhatta, one of the great Ayurvedic commentators, describes them as follows, in his classical Ayurvedic textbook, Ashtanga Hrdyam:
- Vata is dry, light, cold, rough, subtle and agitated in qualities.
- Pitta is a little oily, sharp, hot, light, unpleasant in ordour, mobile and liquid.
- Kapha is wet, cold, heavy, dull, sticky, soft and firm. (From Ashtanga Hrdyam I.11 -12)
Prakruti - Your Unique Constitution
Each of us has a unique combination of the three doshas in different strengths – usually one or two doshas are predominant which characterise our constitution or prakruti. Our prakruti is already in place at the time of birth and cannot be changed.
Awareness of our dosha can help us understand our unique needs to maintain our particular balance.
Vata, due to the elements of space and air is highly changeable and quick moving.
Vata people tend to have a thin body and possess a quick thinking mind and an enthusiastic attitude. They are creative and are attracted to freedom, like birds flying in the sky.
When out of balance, vata-type are prone to anxiety and hyperactivity.
Their appetite tends to be irregular and, if imbalanced, they can lose weight easily.
People of pitta dosha have a medium sized body and often a reddish complexion. Pitta people possess intelligence, focus and determination. When out of balance pitta people may become short-tempered and argumentative. When out of balance they may suffer from skin rashes, burning sensations and acidic digestive issues.
Kaphas generally have a larger frame and are physically strong. They learn a little bit slower but have a great ability to retain information. In balance they are loyal and steadfast people. When out of balance kaphas tend to suffer from slow digestion, weight gain, depression, and chesty conditions.
You may have a single dominating dosha as Vata or Pitta or Kapha, or you may be a combination of two different doshas. It is useful to note that there can be six different combinations with one dosha being dominant and a secondary dosha being subordinate: Vata-Pitta, Pitta-Vata, Kapha-Vata, Vata-Kapha, Pitta-Kapha, Kapha-Pitta.
If you have a dual dosha you will experience the qualities from both of your doshas. So for example if you are Pitta-Kapha, your pitta qualities will be modulated by the presence of kapha alongside the pitta. So your body type is likely to be more solid and curvaceous than a pitta person, and your energy is likely to be warm rather than the hot energy of a pitta person or the cool energy of a kapha person.
Akruti – the imbalanced dosha
The word ‘dosha’ means fault and can be understood as something that is quick to get imbalanced. Thus it is said in Ashtanga Hrdyam ( I. 6):
Vata, pitta and kapha are the three dosha. In brief they destroy and sustain the body when they are abnormal and normal respectively.
Your own dosha is the one that is most likely to get out of balance. However, all the signs and symptoms in the body need to be examined carefully to find out which dosha is imbalanced. There can be imbalance of one, two or all three doshas.
For example hay fever is due to pitta imbalance. Pitta people are most likely to have hay fever. However, many individuals of vata and kapha constitution can also have hay fever.
In Ayurveda all allergies, infections and inflammatory conditions are due to high pitta. Therefore, if someone is suffering from an allergy, infection or inflammatory condition, regardless of their own constitution they will be treated to reduce and balance the pitta dosha.
Certain illnesses such as certain asthma or rheumatoid arthritis are tridoshic disorders, where all three doshas are imbalanced. In these ailments, a careful regimen of diet, lifestyle and remedies to balance all the doshas would be needed.
There is a great deal of information available about doshas on the internet these days with suggestions about what kind of diet to follow for keeping your dosha balanced. As a rule of thumb, when you are generally healthy, you can follow the diet for your dosha with good results.
However, if you are trying to manage a health condition, it would be best to seek some support from an Ayurvedic Practitioner/ Diet and Lifestyle Consultant, due to a few reasons: so your imbalance can be properly diagnosed; secondly disease is not just due to the imbalanced dosha but has involvement of toxins accumulating in certain tissues of the body, as well as some level of impairment of the digestive fire.
A practitioner, or diet and lifestyle consultant can devise a dietary and lifestyle plan according to your unique needs, taking into consideration your constitution and current imbalance, as well as advising you about remedies to correct the digestive fire and removal of toxins.
One of the fundamentals of Ayurveda is digestive fire or ‘agni’ which controls the assimilation of nutrients by the body. In Ayurveda all illness is seen to stem from impaired digestion.
A fault in digestion leads to formation of toxins or ‘ama’ which circulates through the body, alongside the imbalanced doshas through, causing uncomfortable symptoms, in time maturing into disease.
Digestive fire can be of four kinds:
1. Too little – there is not enough digestive fire to digest the food properly; it takes a long time to digest the food. Typically affects Kapha type people and can result in low energy levels and weight gain.
2. Too much – excessive digestive fire– food is digested very quickly, so a person may be hungry after just 2-3 hours after eating a meal. The nutrients are burned by this high fire instead of being absorbed effectively. Typically affects Pitta type people and can result in acidity and loose stools.
3. Up and down fire – sometimes there is a lot of hunger and sometimes very little. Typically affecting Vata type individuals and may cause wind, bloating and constipation.
4. Balanced digestive fire – nutrients are absorbed effectively and there is good elimination, leaving no residual toxins in the body. No matter what your constitution may be, the aim of Ayurveda is to help you to return
to achieve balanced digestive fire.
Return to health is established through correcting both the digestive fire and the imbalanced dosha, as well as removing the accumulated toxins.
Ayurveda describes six tastes:
1. Sweet - needs no explanation – dates, raisins, maple syrup, jaggery
2. Sour – lemon, limes, tamarind, sour cream, yoghurt, vinegar
3. Salty – needs no explanation
4. Bitter – often missing from our diet – coffee, rocket has a bitter note in it, dandelion leaves and root, angelica root, fenugreek leaves and seeds
5. Astringent – pomegranate, cranberries, crap apples, quinces, green and black tea and herbs such as rose, sage and yarrow.
6. Pungent – chillies, raw onion, radish, thyme, pepper, asafoetida, mustard greens and seeds.
Each of the tastes has a specific action on the doshas, and, therefore, the taste of what we eat is of primary importance for maintenance and restoration of health.
Here is how taste affects doshas:
Sweet, sour and salty tastes alleviate vata and increase kapha. Bitter, astringent and pungent tastes alleviate kapha and increase vata. Sweet, bitter and astringent tastes alleviate pitta whilst sour, salty and pungent tastes increase pitta.
Therefore, if you are suffering from a kapha disorder such as weight gain, introduction of foods and herbs with bitter, astringent and pungent tastes can be of help. If you are suffering from a pitta disorder, such as migraine headaches or inflammation, reducing salty, sour and pungent foods will have a positive effect.
However, it is never a good idea to completely remove one or more of the tastes from your diet, as all the tastes serve particular functions for health. A good Ayurvedic meal would include all six tastes in your diet regardless of your constitution, with their proportions adjusted according to your constitution and any existing imbalances.
An Ayurvedic Lifestyle and Diet Consultant can guide you to discover how to incorporate the different tastes for your unique needs.