What is Ayurveda?
Updated: Dec 20, 2020
Like any animal, humans typically thrive in our natural habitat. Research demonstrates the health benefits of feeling connected to nature. Yet we live concrete and rubber lives; walking on neatly paved lines of society, soaking up LED rays of artificial sun, and staring at screens to keep our minds distracted. We have classes for "Earthing" or "Forest Bathing" now because we are so desperate to connect with our natural world.
Ayurveda is a system of wellness that comes from India. It's called the sister science of yoga because each practice compliments the other. Ayurveda helps us maintain a healthy body and mind, while yoga helps us with more subtle pursuits of self-realization and mental liberation. Without Ayurveda, our efforts in yoga can stagnate and without yoga, Ayurveda alone can feel unfulfilling.
Ayurveda is natural
According to Ayurveda, the material world is composed of five basic elements: earth, water, fire, air, and space (ether). We can observe various ratios of these elements in different parts of the material nature, like the seasons, types of food, and times of day. As individuals, we also have differing ratios of the elements within us. Our unique mix of the elements is called our dosha, or constitution.
Following an Ayurvedic lifestyle helps you commune with the natural rhythms of the planet. It helps you regain an interactive relationship with nature. When we harmonize ourselves with nature, our lives move with more ease. We start to understand the beauty of the things we used to struggle against and are able to embrace the flow that is inseparable from the material nature of which we are a part.
Understanding the Elements
It's easy to understand the qualities of the elements if you really stop to think about them. Space is sort of like a void, emptiness, pure potential. I tend to think of outer space when I think of this element, but it's also the empty space between you and your phone, or the space between protons & electrons. It's all around us but we never really notice it as something on it's own. The most subtle of all the elements, space is still considered a material element. It is not unmanifest. Without it, none of the other elements would have space to exist.
Air is similar to space because we don't see it, but we recognize it and interact with it. We breathe it, obviously, and we feel it, see it, and hear it as wind. We also recognize it in relation to other elements. We know that things that have a lot of air float in water. We know that air must be present in order for fire to exist. We also know that if we try to contain air, like in a balloon, if it can find a way to escape, it will. Air is cool, dry, and always moving. It's moving through our lungs and blood stream, sometimes it moves through our digestive system as gas, it moves through water and into the gills of fish, it moves the rain, it moves through the plants as well as blowing their leaves.
Fire is the next most subtle element and is the focus of many Ayurvedic treatments. Fire governs our metabolism, which includes digestion and cellular regeneration. When we eat, our body breaks down the food with fire in the gut, the nutrients are then distributed to the organs and tissues of the body through the bloodstream. The cells that make up your organs and tissues are constantly being replaced by new cells. This is why we grow and it's also why we age. The whole process is governed by fire. Without a healthy inner fire, this process stops. Light and heat are inseparable from fire.
Water becomes the first gross element; it's obvious when something contains water. It makes up most of our body. We need it to survive. We are well acquainted with the qualities of water and knowing how to identify it. It is wet and anything it touches becomes wet too. It is typically cool, but can also be warm. Water is mutable because it takes the shape of whatever form you give it. It's flexible and flowing. It can be still or moving, but it doesn't move on it's own. Water can be very soft, but it can also be relentless.
Earth is the grossest of the elements, the most solid. Anything that you can't put your hand through has earth in it. It's physical form, stable and grounded, immutable, finite. The bones are the part of the body that contain the most earth, they are dense and create the foundation/structure of our whole body.
Understanding the Doshas (Simplified)
People with a lot of ether and air are typically very intellectual. They are most interested in esoteric, mystical, and spiritual topics. They typically have smaller bones, which can lead to higher rates of bone density loss with age. They are prone to anxiety and stress from overactive thoughts, as well as dry skin and constipation. I imagine a hummingbird when I think of vata.
Pitta is the fiery dosha, sort of like the Leo of Ayurveda. These are passionate people, often outspoken and loud in their personality. They are indulgent in their pleasures and deeply feel their pains. They often have good digestion, and are medium build to athletic. People with a lot of fire are often outgoing and popular, but can be prone to issues with anger management or emotional instability. They also often struggle with dermal issues like acne or rash.
When I think of kapha, I think of a bear. Being the only dosha with the earth element, it makes sense that kapha is the most grounded and associated with nourishment. People with a lot of earth energy tend to have bigger bones and enjoy a slower pace of life. They sometimes struggle with health issues that affect their weight or weight issues that affect their health. They are typically home-bodies and can sometimes struggle to get motivated. Kapha types can be prone to depression, especially if unbalanced in the winter months.
Ayurveda is practical
All of the medicine offered by Ayurveda is natural, which makes it accessible to pretty much anyone with access to nature. While there are Ayurvedic treatments that should not be attempted without the supervision of a qualified Ayurvedic doctor, there are many remedies that are safe to do on your own at home. Once you understand your constitution and you start to study the qualities of the world around you, you begin to recognize little things you can do every day to maintain personal balance.
Balance is the key to achieving and maintaining health
In Ayurveda, health is individual. What is healthy for you is based on your dosha. Someone with vata dosha could benefit from a high-fat diet whereas someone with kapha dosha would most likely suffer from a high-fat diet. Let's look at my dosha as an example:
Vata = ether & air
Pitta = fire & water
Kapha = water & earth
My constitution is essentially the ratio of elements that would keep me most balanced (aka healthy) as an individual.
When looking at my constitution, there are a lot of ways I can apply this information to help myself stay balanced on a day to day basis. Let's break it down:
Because I have so much vata, keeping that balanced is going to be my biggest challenge area. The most difficult aspect of managing vata dosha is it's quality of movement. Things can change quickly when you have such a high volume of ether & air. Vata is unpredictable and eratic, so much so, it's the only dosha that gets called "deranged" when it's out of balance. Trying to still vata often feels like trying to catch a fly with chopsticks. Because it's so ungrounded, it's the easiest dosha to be thrown off balance and trying to manage it can feel exhausting.
The pie graph you see is like my baseline. This is what I want my ingredient ratio to look like all of the time. When I take in ether & air from my environment (like in the autumn), from my diet (crunchy, dry foods that I love to snack on), from my interests (the mystical & unmanifest), and my routine (not getting enough sleep), then I mess with my pie chart, which leads to imbalanced expressions of vata, like anxiety, constipation, dry skin, fatigue, etc.
I am naturally attracted to a lot of these vata-inducing things. To avoid all of them would surely lead to frustration and unhappiness, but I have to keep a close eye on my internal balance to make sure I'm not taking in more than is good for me. When my skin is overly dry, my body is telling me there's too much vata in my system. Armed with the tools of Ayurveda, I can take action to reduce my intake of ether and air, and bring in the opposite qualities to restore balance.
Since I have so little kapha in my constitution, focusing on my nourishment is a good place to start. One way I can keep my vata from becoming deranged is to eat a vata pacifying diet. That means I have to curb my natural enthusiasm for vata inducing foods, like crunchy, dry, flakey foods. I still eat foods that will meet my nutritional needs, but I look for ways to do that with foods that are also compatible with my elemental needs.
Sleep is another thing that can be a challenge. Creating balancing night time rituals helps tame the eratic nature of vata and prepares my body for restful sleep: eating a warm heavy meal for dinner, taking a hot bath, having a warm drink, rubbing my body down with oil, using a weighted blanket, going to bed before 10pm. Rituals and routines act kind of like a sail on a boat, so I can catch and channel the wind (air) to get myself where I want to go, rather than trying to paddle against it. Just like on a boat, occasionally I have to adjust the sails when the wind changes. Judging when and how to make those adjustments is the dance of Ayurveda.
Applying Ayurveda to Your Wellness
When we look at our life through the lens of Ayurveda, we open doors of connection. We come to understand our body and it's needs in a new way. We acknowledge our individual nature and feel affirmed in our experience. We also learn ways to balance our inner and outer worlds. Ayurveda helps us practice greater self-awareness and teaches us to synchronize with the natural rhythms of the planet.
If you want to learn more about Ayurveda and how to apply it to your life and your yoga practice, I offer an online class through AirMid Wellness & Counseling Center every Sunday at 1pm EST. Click here to register >>>
If you want to dive a bit deeper into your own constitution and the nuances of what balance looks like for you, all of my one-on-one yoga therapy programs include an in-depth dosha analysis. Together we will look at your baseline and any imbalances you're presently experiencing. Based on what we find, I'll design a self-care regime that addresses diet, daily routine, seasonal wellness, lifestyle choices, as well as dosha-balancing yoga techniques.
About the Author
Nancy Cooke is a certified Trauma Informed Yoga Therapist and Professional TIYT Clinical Facilitator with the Overcome Anxiety Project, a non-profit organization committed to teaching body-based therapeutic approaches to mental health.