Ayurveda: A Brief Introduction and Basic Guide
Ayurveda is considered one of the world’s oldest healing sciences, originating in India at least 5,000 years ago. Its name is a Sanskrit word that literally translates as “the wisdom of life” or “the knowledge of longevity” (it is a compound of ãyus, meaning life or longevity, and veda, meaning deep knowledge or wisdom).
In accordance with this definition, Ayurveda views health as much more than the absence of disease.
Health, from an Ayurvedic perspective, is defined as a gracious, tranquil, content, joyous, bright, and clear state of the body, senses, mind, and spirit, including the balanced state of one’s natural constitution, all bodily tissues, the digestive capacities, and waste excretion. What a mouthful! Simply put, health is achieved when you are aligned with your own natural and unique state of balance.
How is Your Health Unique?
The key to Ayurvedic wellness and healing is the knowledge that health is not a “one size fits all” proposition. One must understand the unique nature of each person and situation, taking into account the individual, the season, the geography, and so on.
Each person has a constitution that is specific to him or her, and movement away from that constitution creates health imbalances; if such imbalances are not addressed, disease may develop.
So, the early signs of imbalance serve as a wakeup call to make gentle and natural shifts in behavior to return to balance—such as adjusting diet, modifying daily activities, and taking herbal remedies for a time.
To understand how imbalances occur, and what to do about them, we can look to the following fundamental concepts of Ayurveda.
The Five Elements That Transform Our Understanding of Health
Ayurveda arises from a tradition that describes the entire physical world—including man—in terms of five elements:
space, air, fire, water, and earth.
These five elements can most accurately be thought of as energetic patterns rather than as purely physical substances, and each has particular qualities. To help make sense of this, consider how these elements manifest in the natural world:
- Earth is cold, heavy, solid, stable, and dry. This element is exemplified by dirt.
- Water is cold, mobile, heavy, soft, and liquid. Think of the ocean.
- Fire is hot, subtle, mobile, dry, and sharp. Its clearest manifestation in nature is the sun, which provides warmth to the earth and sky.
- Space, as in the sky, is vast, cold, light, and clear. It enables all other things to have a place to take form and exist.
- Air is dry, cold, rough, and full of motion. To understand these qualities, think of what it’s like to be whipped by an aggressive wind.
These five elements clearly manifest individually in the natural world. But even more profoundly, they all exist at all times in all things—including in the body—and each has its particular role to play.
For example, let’s look at the body’s digestive system:
- Earth rules the actual structure and solidity of the digestive tract.
- Water rules the liquid, fluid quality of the digestive juices and acids.
- Fire rules the heat and digestive enzymes involved in the metabolic process.
- Space pervades the whole process, including the space within each cell.
- Air rules the peristaltic movement of the nutrients through the digestive tract.
In fact, each and every cell of the body is made up of all five elements.
The Three Doshas That Will Change the Way You See Yourself
The five elements combine in various ways to form three constitutional principles, known in Ayurveda as doshas.
- Vata, comprised of air and space.
- Pitta, comprised of fire and water.
- Kapha, comprised of earth and water.
To understand these principles at their core, it is useful to think of the different qualities of the elements that create them.
Composed of air and space, vata is dry, light, cold, rough, subtle/pervasive, mobile, and clear. As such, vata regulates the principle of movement.
Any bodily motion—chewing, swallowing, nerve impulses, breathing, muscle movements, thinking, peristalsis, bowel movements, urination, menstruation—requires balanced vata. When vata is out of balance, any number of these movements may be deleteriously affected.
Pitta brings forth the qualities of fire and water. It is sharp, penetrating, hot, light, liquid, mobile, and oily. Pitta’s domain is the principal of transformation.
Just as fire transforms anything it touches, pitta is in play any time the body converts or processes something. So pitta oversees digestion, metabolism, temperature maintenance, sensory perception, and comprehension.
Imbalanced pitta can lead to sharpness and inflammation in these areas in particular.
Kapha, composed of earth and water, is heavy, cold, dull, oily, smooth, dense, soft, static, liquid, cloudy, hard, and gross (in the sense of dense or thick).
As kapha governs stability and structure, it forms the substance of the human body, from the skeleton to various organs to the fatty molecules (lipids) that support the body. An excess of kapha leads to an overabundance of density, heaviness, and excess in the body.
Once you put on the lenses of Ayurveda and see things in terms of vata, pitta, kapha, and combinations thereof, the whole world comes alive in a new way.