AYURVEDA: AN INTRODUCTION


Ayurveda means the “Science of Life.” Ayurveda originated thousands of years ago in a region which is now known as India. Ayurvedic Medicine is one of the oldest holistic approaches to health in the world. While western medicine tends to treat individual symptoms, Ayurveda views health as a balance between Mind, Body, Spirit, and the interplay of the elements that impact them. Ayurveda focuses on lifestyle choices that CAUSE disease, rather than symptoms resulting from disease.

How Ayurveda Works

Balance

Ayurveda focuses on bringing balance into one’s life through becoming aware of the habits and lifestyle practices that are at the root of dis-ease, and helps one to make changes toward healthier choices.

What throws a person out of balance? Life. Just being alive on Earth (especially at this time) and interacting with the environment can throw a person out of balance. There are things that we cannot control, but can do our best to mitigate, such as air pollution, viruses, GMOs, weather changes, and EMFs. However, there are things that we can control, such as our food choices, lifestyle practices, sleep patterns, what we watch, exercise, our thoughts, and our response to our interactions with other humans and our environment.

Balance equals order – imbalance equals disorder. Order equals good health – disorder equals disease (dis-ease). The body and mind are always being pulled out of balance. Ayurveda helps to identify that which is creating imbalance and provides a framework for restoring balance, through the five elements (panchamahaboothas) and three doshas.

Ayurveda places a great deal of importance on the individual’s constitution – which is the balance of the five elements in the body: Air, Ether, Fire, Water and Earth. Humans are a microcosm of the macrocosm of Earth, which is composed of these same five elements. Just as too much fire can cause entire towns to burn down and dry up, too much fire in the body causes burning and dryness, which eventually manifests as specific dis-eases (hyperacidity, skin rashes). With the wisdom of the interplay of the elements (panchamahabhutas) and qualities (gunas), Ayurveda provides this intricate system for achieving health.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to wellness in Ayurveda. What helps one person achieve balance can throw another person with a different constitution completely out of balance. This is why it is important to work with a qualified practitioner to identify one’s constitution (prakriti), and imbalances (vikruti), to assess habits and lifestyle choices, and to help adopt healthier patterns and practices.

What Are The Doshas?

Ayurveda divides the elements that make up an individual person’s constitution into doshas. The three doshas, as they are commonly called, are Vata (Air & Ether), Kapha (Water & Earth), and Pitta (Fire &Water).

Vata (movement) – is made of Air and Ether. Vata energy is involved with movement; like the wind, Vata is always moving. Vata is involved in breathing, muscle movement, heartbeat, and all internal movements within the body. When it is in balance (imagine trying to balance the wind), vata shows up as creativity and flexibility. When Vata is out of balance, it is experienced as fear and anxiety, pain and dryness.

Pitta (digestive fire) – is composed of Fire and Water. Pitta is the energy used in metabolism and digestion, as in “digestive fire.” When in balance, pitta is experienced as focus, drive, and intellect. Out of balance, pitta is experienced as anger, jealousy, aggression, and inflammatory conditions.

Kapha (hydrodynamics and Structure) – Kapha is a combination of Earth and Water. Kapha energy is involved with fluid dynamics, and structure. It provides fluid and fluidity to the body. When in balance, kapha is experienced as love, equanimity, and steadiness. Out of balance, it is experienced as depression, fatigue and weight gain.

All three doshas or the interplay of these five elements occur simultaneously in each of us, though not in equal amounts. Normally, there is a primary and secondary dosha operating with some smaller volume of the third dosha present. It is also important to point out that the doshas indicate imbalances (in Sanskrit, dosha literally means a problem, issue or glitch). If one’s entire being was in complete harmony there would be no doshas to speak of. As a result of misunderstanding doshas, more and more westerners have begun describing themselves according to their doshas – i.e, “I am Vata. I am SO PITTA! My Kapha is getting the best of me.” We do not want to be defined by our doshas. We want to work for balance and harmony.

It is also important to note that Ayurveda is not just about the three doshas. Ayurveda views everything in the world that is said to exist to be a combination/compilation of the five main elements—Space, Air, Fire, Water and Ether. The three doshas are various permutations of the combination of these five elements, manifested as the endless “patterns of energy” that includes the whole of creation. Just understanding the doshas, or one’s prakriti, does not bring a person into balance.

Ayurveda – Versus – Western Medicine

As mentioned above, western medicine tends to focus on symptoms and disease. Their primary tools for treatment are the use of drugs and/or surgery to reduce symptoms, or to remove or repair the diseased body part. Most definitely, western medicine has and will continue to help many patients, but there is an equal place for holistic medicine, such as Ayurveda, that seeks to ensure the patient does not ever need conventional medical intervention. Ayurveda is not a substitute for western medicine. Drugs and surgery are often absolutely necessary when symptoms or disease have become acute. Ayurveda might instead be seen as a method to be used with western approaches to medicine – to either help reduce the likelihood of being afflicted with disease in the first place, or to help strengthen the body after being treated with drugs or surgery.

Unlike western medicine, Ayurveda does not focus on disease or symptoms. Ayurveda focuses on keeping energy in balance, which allows the body to make effective use of its own disease fighting capabilities. Ayurveda focuses on removing the causes and conditions of disease, rather than waiting until dis-ease manifests to take action.

In western culture we often wait until we get sick before going to the doctor. The doctor may or may not offer a diagnosis, and often prescribes medication that suppresses the issue, rather than cures the actual problem. Once the symptoms have passed, people tend to go right back to doing (or not doing) what they were doing before they became sick. Ayurveda does not follow this approach. Instead, Ayurveda addresses dietary and lifestyle choices to ensure health over disease. In other words, Ayurveda is a lifestyle program, not a quick fix.

So why would someone choose Ayurveda? Often it is because they realize that they keep getting sick, and are faced with two choices: They can either continue taking pills, and more pills, and then more pills to offset the side effects of all the other pills – or change what is causing them to get sick in the first place. This is precisely where Ayurveda shines and western approaches to lifestyle changes fall flat. The multi-billion dollar “diet industry” is a prime example…and we as westerners have never been more obese and more unhealthy. This approach obviously isn’t working.

Ayurveda addresses all aspects of life: mind, body, and spirit. Ayurveda acknowledges that we are unique, and each of us responds differently to the pressures of life. Ayurveda doesn’t just offer a pill, but it does require commitment and accountability. The lifestyle changes required to bring the doshas into balance may feel extreme at first, especially to the undisciplined person. There may be many habits that need to be undone, and many new ones that need to be formed. This is why it is important to seek out a qualified Ayurvedic Practitioner that can offer support and guidance through this lifestyle transformation.

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More About Doshas

Vata Dosha

Vata (movement) – is made of Air and Ether. Vata energy is involved with movement; like the wind, Vata is always moving. Vata is involved in breathing, muscle movement, heartbeat, and all internal movements within the body. When it is in balance (imagine trying to balance the wind), vata shows up as creativity and flexibility. When Vata is out of balance, it is experienced as fear and anxiety, pain and dryness.

A person who is predominantly Vata dosha will have a quick mind and tend to be creative. They can grasp broad concepts. They tend to be “in motion” – they walk, talk and think fast. They have a very active mind and body. They may often say they “feel ungrounded.” Fear and anxiety plague the Vata person when out of balance.

Vata tends to “accumulate” in the fall and at the change of seasons. For those who have a lot of Vata, these are important times to pay close attention to diet and lifestyle. Slow down. Consume foods that are warm and unctuous as opposed to cold and dry. Routine is good for Vata to help ground the “movement” aspect of Vata.

Irregularity is a key word when describing Vata dosha. As such, they will tend to have an irregular diet and digestion. They tend (like most doshas) to crave things that aren’t going to help balance them, i.e raw veggies, cold drinks, dry snacks, – when cooked veggies, warm soupy food, warm drinks, and salty/astringent flavoring are actually needed for a balancing Ayurvedic diet. Because of the dry quality of air, their feces is often hard, dry, and small in size/quantity.

Vata’s main site is in the colon, and is associated with the brain, ears, bones, joints, skin and thighs. Vata predominant people are more susceptible to diseases involving air/breathing, such as emphysema, pneumonia and arthritis. Also because of air they can be very gassy. Dryness rules Vata, which may show up as dryness in the hair, skin, and joints. The variability of Vata can show up in the nervous system in twitches and nervous tics.

As we age we move into the Vata stage of life, so Vata naturally increases with time. Eventually we all become more dry and cold, as our body, brain, bones, hair, skin, and vital organs all begin to dry out.

Because of the cold and dry nature of Vata, inducing foods with the opposite qualities (warm/unctuous) is good for balancing Vata. Scheduled meal times can be helpful. Use healthy oils and ghee in cooking, and raw uncooked food should be limited, as should cold beverages – especially during fall and winter.

Pitta Dosha

Pitta (digestive fire) – is composed of Fire and Water. Pitta is the energy used in metabolism and digestion, as in “digestive fire.” When in balance, pitta is experienced as focus, drive, and intellect. Out of balance, pitta is experienced as anger, jealousy, aggression, and inflammatory conditions.

Pitta dosha takes on the qualities of fire. Fire is hot and sharp. Because of this, individuals with a lot of Pitta tend to be warm bodied and have sharp intelligence. When out of balance, they can quickly become angry and irritable.

Because of their “fire” they tend to have strong metabolism and good digestion. Like all doshas, they will tend to crave things that aren’t good for them – like spicy food and cold drinks. To be balanced, they would do better with an Ayurvedic diet of sweet, bitter, and astringent flavors. Pitta dosha makes people perspire easily. They will have warm hands and feet (the opposite of Vata).

Mentally, Pitta types tend to be good leaders and planners as they are sharp and diligent at their work. Most people you think of as “natural” leaders will have primarily Pitta dosha. Unfortunately, because of all that fire, they can be easily agitated and aggressive when they become imbalanced. Pitta people tend to have diseases associated with their fire – i.e. inflammation, ulcers, skin conditions and digestive disorders.

Summer is the Pitta season, the hot time of year. Pitta dosha might be easily irritated during the heat of summer, and cool off when the weather does. They do better in cooler climates. They should avoid spicy food as this increases their fire.

Kapha Dosha

Kapha (hydrodynamics and Structure) – Kapha is a combination of Earth and Water. Kapha energy is involved with fluid dynamics, and structure. It provides fluid and fluidity to the body. When in balance, Kapha is experienced as love, equanimity, and steadiness. Out of balance, it is experienced as depression, fatigue and weight gain.

Kapha types are strong, durable, and have good immunity. They tend to be sweet loving people who are well grounded. Their skin will be thick and oily (as opposed to thin and dry like Vata). They tend to have slow metabolism, and also tend to avoid strenuous exercise (although they are the one dosha it would be good for). They sleep very soundly, and for long periods of time.

They are more likely to have diseases associated with water – i.e. congestion, mucus and phlegm.

Unfortunately, the things that are most helpful in balancing Kapha are the things a person with Kapha dosha is least likely to want to do. They need vigorous exercise, variance in routine (to keep from getting stuck in a rut), lots of activity, and avoidance of fatty, heavy, rich, oily foods. Basically, what would help a Kapha person is to try to get themselves to do things that a Vata person would do naturally.

Summary
The most important thing to remember is that everyone has each of the doshas present in various amounts. It is only when these doshas go out of balance and start affecting changes in the tissues that dis-ease occurs. Therefore, exercise caution and discernment when taking an online dosha quiz, as these can mislead people into taking actions that further aggravate their imbalances – because they end up treating their prakriti (innate constitution) rather than their vikruti (current state of imbalance). Ayurvedic diagnosis should be done face-to-face with a qualified Ayurvedic Practitioner who has a proper education.

What is a proper education? In the United States, the basic level of training is usually at least one year (Ayurveda Counselor or Wellness Educator) and the Ayurveda Practitioner level is at least two years. There has been an explosion of weekend and short-term Ayurveda courses, and some that are entirely online. Unfortunately, this is the age we’re living in – cheap, quick courses, and the ability for anyone to self-title and promote themselves as “experts” in the field, even with sub-par training. Ask a potential practitioner if the school they attended meets NAMA Standards (National Ayurveda Medical Association), and check to see if their school is listed on the NAMA website. Ideally, your practitioner has had some in-person, hands-on education, as Ayurveda is a tactile modality, and some things just cannot be learned online.

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