What is Ayurveda?

Ayurveda, (Eye-Your-Veda), Yoga’s sister science is a 5000-year-old holistic health system based in nature. Its primary tools are food, herbs, oils, cleansing, lifestyle, and education, each adapted to an individual’s unique constitution or body type.  Ayurveda is classified as a ‘complementary health approach’ by the National Center for Complementary & Integrative Health (NCCIH).

This Universal medical system sees the body, mind and spirit as connected to the natural world and its cycles, such as the Circadian Rhythm, which causes us to wake with the rising sun and get sleepy at night. According to Ayurveda, optimal health is built on a foundation of appropriate food, adequate sleep, and conservation of energy.  To create and maintain health, vigor, and longevity each person must be seen through the Ayurvedic lens of three constitutions or ‘doshas’.

Ayurvedic Cosmology

Ayurveda has an underlying cosmology, or way of looking at the universe and how it functions. This cosmology, samkhya describes the evolution of consciousness into matter. It views all there is as being made up of two components, Spirit and Matter, co-existing in what is referred to as a ‘non-specific’ relationship.

Spirit is light, formless, unchanging, conscious and, in the human psyche, is the source of all confidence, wisdom and joy. Spirit, often referred to as, the ‘soul’, is most easily accessed through the ‘hyrdaye', or heart.

Matter has shape, form, density and is always changing. It includes nature, the body, mind and emotions.  Matter is made up of three qualities, or rates of change, known as ‘the gunas’.  The three guns are:  Rajas, Tamas and Sattva.

They are described by Yoga Master, TKV Desikachar, as: movement or turbulence (rajas), heaviness or stasis (tamas) and lightness or luminousness (sattva).

The Gunas

Rajas refers to change occurring in a rapid or dramatic way.  Under pressure, we become reactive and nervous, and push ourselves physically and mentally. Tamas is when change occurs slowly, with great inertia. Mentally, there is heaviness, a resistance to change and a reluctance towards self-reflection.  Finally, when Sattva predominates, matter changes in a way that is appropriate, sustainable and healthy.

To recap, the entire material world, specifically our bodies, minds, and emotions are always changing in response to internal and external influences. It is the specific rate of change, however, that matters. When things change too quickly or too slowly, the seeds of disease are sown.

The Guans are best described in the well-known children’s story of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Remember?   One bowl of porridge was too hot, another was too cold, but the third bowl, the Sattvic one, was just right.

When our mental and physical processes change too dramatically, it speeds up the breakdown of the mind and body.  When the body-mind change too slowly, the result is doubt, congestion and heaviness. Change that is appropriate and sustainable creates optimal health at the level of the body, mind and emotions.  This allows us to experience and express our deepest spiritual connection. Cultivating and maintaining this Sattvic rate of change is the underlying goal of Ayurveda.

According to both Samkhya and Ayurveda, all existence is relationship, the most fundamental of which is between our spirit, which never changes, and the ever-changing material world, establishing a proper relationship between these two elements enables us to thrive, living in a manner which is more healthful, proactive, and empowering.

Ayurvedic Constitutions

The Ancient Sages that discovered/developed Ayurveda closely observed nature for hundreds of years. They concluded that the universe is composed of five states of matter, commonly referred to as the five great elements of Ether, Air, Fire, Water, and Earth. These five elements are also the basis for human anatomy and physiology.

In nature, ether, the subtlest form of matter is represented by space or distance.  In the body, ether represents the hollow spaces as found in the ears and mouth and our ability to produce sound and hear. 

Air represents matter in movement.   It functions as respiration, circulation, expression, digestion, and elimination.

Fire is matter in transformation.  In the body, it represents metabolic digestion and assimilation.

Water represents the liquid state of matter.  It is found in all bodily fluids, and is responsible for the cohesion and stability of all our tissues. 

Earth is the solid form of matter which constitutes the physical body.  It is the basis for our skin, skeleton, muscles and all our organs.

The Great Sages, or Reishis, reduced the five elements to three dosha, which describe all physical and mental functions. The doshas are Vata, Pitta and Kapha, commonly referred to as the three body types or constitutions.

Next, let’s explore the dosha’s various meanings and applications. Ayurvedic medicine uses dosha to both explain the structure and physiology of the body mind and the causes of disease. They also refer to a person’s individual or genetic constitution.  Doshas also address time, such as the cycles of day and night, the seasons, and the stages of life. 

Here, we will discuss doshas as they apply to our physical and mental structure and some of our tendencies towards disease.

Though each person has a unique combination of the three doshas in their constitutional makeup, most of us have one or two which are dominant. Our dominant dosha determines our physical appearance, the way we think, react and make sense of our world.  Our doshic makeup presents a complete picture of our individual nature, providing a detailed roadmap for wellness as well as specific tendencies towards disease.

The Doshas

A person who is dominant in Vata has a light body frame, (muscles, skeleton), dry, thin skin and light or irregular appetite and digestion. They arelight sleepers, with little perspiration, light urination and irregular, scant elimination.  They often speak and move quickly, this dosha tends to be more creative, energetic, and quite proficient at multi-tasking. They are visionaries who love to start new projects, but may be challenged when it comes to finishing them. Vata types are likely to be involved in several projects simultaneously, and as a result, their lifestyle and daily habits tend to be inconsistent and irregular.

Pittas usually run hot. Physically, they have a light body frame with good musculature and fair,sensitive skin, prone to redness or rashes. This dosha usually possess strong appetites, digestion and metabolism, eliminating as much as three times daily. Pittas are easily aggravated by warm, spicy foods and often suffer from hyperacidity. They become irritable if they miss a meal, so eating regularly is important. They are focused, goal oriented, intense, and competitive, and may be prone to heated emotions such as anger, irritability, criticism, and jealousy.

Kapha types have strong, well-proportioned bodies.   They are likely to have soft, thick skin, full, lustrous hair and well-formed facial features. Their appetite and metabolic processes are slow so they don’t need much food. Kaphas speak and move slowly. They are frequently consistent and dedicated. This doshic type tends to avoid physical activity, yet often has strong, steady energy and abundant stamina. Though Kaphas present as emotionally stable and deeply satisfied with life, they can become overly attached, lethargic and depressed.

Though I have done my best to offer a brief overview of Ayurveda, it’s underlying Cosmology, and the Three Constitutional Types, I assure you we have barely scratched the surface of this fascinating Science of Living.  I hope you will join me in my ongoing exploration and learn to see the world through the lens of Ayurveda.