Ayurveda, ancient yet timeless, gives you the means of attaining and maintaining your own optimal health and wellbeing. The benefits of Ayurvedic medicine have been proven over centuries of use, and its methodologies are as applicable today in the West as they were thousands of years ago in India.
Ayurveda is the traditional healing approach of the Vedic culture from India. It is said to be 2000 to 5000 years old, meaning it has stood the test of time. Ayurveda is a Sanskrit word that literally translates as “the knowledge of life”. In accordance with this definition, Ayurvedic medicine views health as much more than the absence of disease. The wise sages of the time, intuitively understanding the physiology and workings of the mind-body-spirit long before the advents of modern medicine, explained the basic principles of Ayurveda.
Ayurvedic medicine was originally an oral tradition, taught and passed directly from teacher to apprentice, who would learn and work side by side. The oldest written codification of Ayurvedic principles is found in the Rig Veda. The fundamentals are then laid out in several major treatises, including the texts from Charaka, Sushruta, and Vaghbhat. There are also numerous other smaller works, written over time to explain the various branches of Ayurveda, which include disciplines such as general medicine, pediatrics, surgery, toxicology, fertility, and rejuvenation. The beauty in the way these have been explained is that they rely on basic principles which can be applied practically in any day and age.
Ayurveda has thus been passed down through the centuries as a complete healing system, evolving to meet the needs of the time, and yet remaining committed to its core principles. Various cultures have drawn upon the ideas of Ayurvedic medicine, and it continues to thrive in both the East and the West. In India, an Ayurvedic physician must undergo at least a 5 year post-graduate degree program (Bachelor of Ayurvedic Medicine and Surgery) to become qualified. In the West, Ayurveda is recognized as a Complementary and Alternative Health System by the National Institutes of Health, and is blossoming in various educational institutions.
Basic Principles of Ayurveda
While Ayurvedic principles can be used to explain the complexity of not only health, but also the world around us, there are several simple basics that become the building blocks for everything else:
- Ayurveda’s fundamental approach to well-being is that you must reach your unique state of balance in your whole being — body, mind, and spirit.
- Ayurveda views the world in light of 3 constitutional principles or doshas: vata, pitta, and kapha. These are explained in more detail below.
- The first line of defense in combating imbalances is to remove the cause of the problem. If the trouble-maker is out of the picture, the body starts being able to heal itself.
- If there are any lingering imbalances after removing the inciting cause, then bring balance by using opposites. For example, the Ayurvedic remedy to excess heat is to use something cooling. So for excess heat or acidity in the digestive system, you could use cooling and soothing herbs like Shatavari.
- Always support the digestive fire, so that nutrition can be absorbed and waste materials can be eliminated.
Vata, Pitta, And Kapha: your viewing lenses
Once you put on the lens of Ayurveda and see things in terms of vata, pitta, kapha, and combinations, the whole world comes alive in a new way. Look at the world around you! The doshas take form in endlessly interesting ways.
Composed of air and space (or ether), 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, 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.
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 that support the body. An excess of kapha leads to an overabundance of density, heaviness, and excess in the body.
What is your dosha? Take the quiz here
Your Unique Constitution
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 an Ayurvedic constitution that is specific to him or her, and movement away from that constitution creates health imbalances; if such imbalances are not addressed, says that illness may develop. So, the early signs of imbalance serve as a wakeup call to make gentle and natural shifts in behaviour to return to balance — such as adjusting diet, modifying daily activities and taking herbal remedies for a time.
Determining your prakriti — your fundamental balanced constitution — requires an assessment of your most natural state. Consider your physical structure as well as mental and emotional tendencies. Remember to think of what is most natural to you, rather than what you are like when you are stressed or ill. Ayurveda says you can understand your basic nature and tendencies by understanding your balanced state.
Dosha imbalances (your vikruti, or current condition) can manifest in various stages, from a general feeling of “something is not right” all the way to diagnosed illnesses with serious complications. To address this, Ayurveda presents a vast toolbox of treatment modalities to choose from; but whatever the treatment, the goal is to reestablish your natural balance of vata, pitta, and kapha.