What is Ayurveda?
Ayurveda is a system of medicine that originated in India several thousand years ago. The term Ayurveda is of Sanskrit origin made up of ‘ayur’, which means life, and ‘veda’, which means science of or knowledge. Basically, Ayurveda means "science of life."
While Ayurveda is a system of medicine, it differs from allopathic medicine in various ways, the main difference being its focus on integrating and balancing the body, mind and spirit. The second main difference, from my perspective, is the inherent belief in Ayurveda that it is the balance of one’s energies that brings health. Rather than focusing on ‘fixing’, Ayurveda focuses on reestablishing a harmony and balance to the body, mind and spirit.
While sometimes in the west we forget, medicine, in every form, is really made up of initial ideas that have been researched to create belief systems. Ayurveda is based on ideas from Hinduism at its core with various other ideas, including some from ancient Persia mixed in. These ideas became a system of practices handed down through generations and ultimately, they were written down in the first texts on Ayurvedic Medicine, the Caraka Samhita and Susruta Samhita.
While new to many in the west, India has held Ayurveda as its main system of healing for generations. Like Ayurveda’s influence in the U.S., western medicine has begun infiltrating India’s health care systems as well. I believe an integration of the beliefs of Ayurveda with the knowledge of western medicine is a powerful combination.
Ayurveda and the Constitutions
Ayurveda bases much of its work on what it terms the body's ‘constitution’. At a high level the word ‘constitution’ refers to an individual’s overall health as unique to their body's own inner ways of healing itself. This includes an individual’s tendencies for imbalance and their physical, mental and spiritual resilience to return to balance naturally.
One’s constitution is referred to as their ‘prakriti’ which is the term for the overall characteristics, physical and psychological, that make up the individual and create their unique state of health. Digestion, breath and the way a person moves as well as their thinking processes and ability to change are all a part of prakriti and most practitioners will attest that one’s prakriti, or constitution, never changes over the course of one’s lifetime (even though dominances may shift).
To make things easier to understand, there are three main qualities that form one’s constitution in Ayurvedic medicine. These are what are termed the doshas and their Sanskrit names are vata, pitta, and kapha.
Here are a few core aspects about the doshas.
Ø Each individual dosha of vata, kapha and pitta is actually constituted of one or two of the five basic elements which are space, air, fire, water, and earth and these energies relate to the balance and imbalance of an individual. That means that each person has their own unique balance of these doshas.
Ø Dosha’s can be rebalanced through energy therapies, physical activities, the use of herbs and the use of foods, as well as through thoughts which manifest as energies in the body/mind/soul.
Ø Imbalances of these doshas cause various forms of health problems – mental/ emotional, physical and spiritual.
Overview of the Doshas
Kapha is a balance of the elements of water and earth with earth often being dominant.
This dosha's energy is often represented in the following ways with individuals who have a predominantly kapha-type constitution:
Ø Relaxed, easygoing personality.
Ø Tendency toward slower, gradual movements and speech.
Ø Strong health, strong mental stability.
Ø Physically often a stockier, solid build - often slow digestion.
Ø Can tend toward hoarding things.
These are the characteristics of a dominant kapha constitution when the body is in balance.
When a kapha constitution is out of balance, you might see:
Ø Low energy and weight gain.
Ø Stiffness and feeling chilled.
Ø A sullen, pale tone to the skin. Especially the face.
Ø Excessive sleeping, especially late in the morning.
Ø The feeling of 'blah', as if nothing brings you comfort.
Ø Lack of motivation to start new projects or finish old ones.
To shift these qualities, here are a few examples of what those experiencing kapha imbalances can do to return to balance:
Ø Choose what are termed kapha-pacifying foods (meaning they pacify the kapha imbalance to allow it to come to balance). These are foods such as warm foods, soups that are lighter no creams), spicy-hot foods and heavier grains like buckwheat and barley.
Ø Excess salt aggravates kapha, so limit salt intake.
Ø Add ginger and other heat-enhancing spices like turmeric.
Ø Sweet can often pacify kapha as long as it is of a certain type. Honey - especially clover honey - is good for kapha imbalance. Honey is really the only sweetener I use with strong kapha imbalance. Even sucanat can aggravate it.
Ø A sluggish kapha constitution needs to bring up energy. Do some type of more vigorous exercise a few times a day for 10-20 minutes. Dancing is great as it opens chakra energy too. Walking is good for Kapha's in balance, but something more vigorous when you are out of balance.
Ø In cold weather, kapha’s out of balance can get a deep chill that goes to the bone so keep warm in the winter to balance. Hot baths are great, especially with the water element of kapha which can be limited by too much cold as the energy stagnates.
Ø Keep your sleep patterns regular - no naps. Daytime sleep can aggravate and maintain a kapha imbalance.
Pitta is mostly about fire with a balance of water.
This dosha's energy is often represented in the following ways with individuals who have a predominantly pitta-type constitution:
Ø Sharp mind that can jump a bit with a sharp tongue.
Ø Competitive in nature and often passionate about their causes.
Ø Strong digestion which can amaze their friends when they can eat a lot at once. Can also be aggravated if they miss a meal or have caffeine without food.
Ø Often fair skinned and medium build though with changes in diet, can put on excess weight.
Ø Strong speakers and leaders, challenged at following the pack. Can complain a lot about what others aren't doing.
These are the characteristics of a pitta constitution when the body is in balance.
When a pitta constitution is out of balance, you might see:
Ø Strong urge for sweets and creamy desserts. (I find myself drawn toward pudding when my pitta is out of balance.)
Ø Irritable and even angry for some with an inner frustration that feels challenging.
Ø Stomach upset, can cause diarrhea and feeling as if ulcers are present (consistent feelings of this type of heat can cause ulcers as well.)
Ø Redness of skin and eyes - think overheated with pitta imbalance.
To shift these qualities, here are a few examples of what those experiencing pitta imbalances can do to return to balance:
Ø Nearly the opposite of kapha imbalance, go toward cool - not too cold - foods such as watermelon, veggies - especially cucumbers, can assist.
Ø Eliminate foods that cause heat such as meat, spicy foods, cheeses, alcohol and foods/ dressings with vinegar - especially red vinegars. Note that this is basically a vegetarian diet which is a bit on the bland side of things.
Ø Limit external heat as well - take less or cooler showers/baths; no sweating in saunas or jacuzzi's or sweat lodges for a while. External heat can really kick up an imbalance, even causing nausea.
Ø Keep exercise more relaxed – yoga (not ‘hot’ or exercise-type yoga, classical hatha is recommended); walking rather than running or intense exercise. While many pitta's like to run, it is not a good idea to run fast in the heat of a summer day if you have a pitta imbalance.
Ø Also, deep breathing in through the nose and out through the mouth can assist.
Vata, is a balance of the elements of air and ether.
This dosha's energy is often represented in the following ways with individuals who have a predominantly vata-type constitution:
Ø Quite excitable in nature and tendency to do things quickly (sometimes before others are ready).
Ø High energy in general. This can come through in their speech, gait, mannerisms, etc.
Ø Can be impulsive and this can manifest in quick purchases (unlike kapha's which tend to think things through more.)
Ø Variable appetite and changeable digestion. They can be very sensitive to some foods, no sensitivity to others. I've worked with Vata's who could eat a lot of meat, but couldn't do sugar at all.
Ø Strong creativity and quick thinkers though racing thoughts and ADD type tendencies can be a challenge.
These are the characteristics of a dominant vata constitution when the body is in balance.
When a vata constitution is out of balance, you might see:
Ø Restlessness in thinking, acting and a tendency to move around physically a lot. Aggravated by caffeine.
Ø Troubled sleep to the extreme of staying up all night without much remorse in the morning. (I do this sometimes when my Pitta is out of balance.)
Ø Frequent need to urinate (think a lot of movement) and digestive problems which may cause constipation as well as more of a reflex.
Ø Appetite is poor and excessive caffeine intake which aggravates the imbalance much of the time.
Ø Fearful and estranged.
Ø Excessive exercising in an effort to try for a form of natural balance which has the opposite effect.
To shift these qualities, here are a few examples of what those experiencing vata imbalances can do to return to balance:
Ø Think foods that are warm/ strengthening without too much activity. No caffeine or raw foods which are about energy. Lean toward cooked foods, thoroughly cooked vegetables and soups with a solid base such as heavy grains (barley soup is great).
Ø Use of good, warming oils. I often find sesame oil very beneficial as it is a strong, dark, heavy oil. I sometimes do a sesame scrub of my arms, legs and stomach before bed. Also self-massage with almond oil which is such a wonderful oil to take in through the nose and the skin.
Ø Focus on consistency in your daily routine of work and sleep.
Ø Deep breathing in through the nose and out through the nose or mouth.
Ø Yoga is a good one here too as is walking by a quiet stream (or walking on the treadmill and listening to a quiet stream on your headphones).
Note that this information is about the individual doshas and all individuals exhibit qualities from each with dominances in one or two that make up your unique constitution. We can, therefore, have an imbalance in any of the doshas depending on our lifestyle and makeup.
For more information on your personal ayurvedic type, there are many online tests you can take. I tried to offer the more unusual aspects of the doshas as many of the tests focus on physical appearance versus inner emotional states and feelings.
My goal with this article was to offer an overview of Ayurveda for those interested in learning more about what it is and how its principles may be used in health assessment and healing. Ayurveda is a complex science which also includes pulse testing, organ testing, tissue testing and more so please note that this is an introduction to the amazingly vast resources available in Ayurvedic Medicine.
I hope you found this exploration useful, not only in providing information, but also in providing new ways of thinking to open your mind and your heart to your own path of healing.
Jenifer Shapiro is a holistic practitioner/ alternative health specialist in Pennsylvania with offices in Malvern/ Great Valley. Jenifer works with local clients and clients via phone and has assisted individuals in their unique path to healing since 1990.