Ayurveda 101: The Science of Life

Many great philosophical systems emerged from the Indus Valley in India around 5,000 years ago. It was a time of great spiritual movement, when man was seeking a deeper knowledge of both body and mind. The ancient systems of Yoga and Ayurveda grew up hand-in-hand against this backdrop, their foundations deeply rooted in the Upanishads, a collection of mankind’s most ancient historical texts.

upanishads eknath easwaran

Thought to be written around 800-500 BCE, the Upanishads are a distillation of hundreds of years of Indian spiritual teachings that were passed down through oral tradition before they were ever recorded. They describe the universal laws of nature and principles for living in harmonious balance within yourself and the world around you.

These teachings form the foundation of Ayurveda, a holistic health system and ancient form of medicine that offers wisdom for achieving balance in the mind, body, spirit and environment. Ayu comes from the Sanskrit word for “life,” and veda means “knowledge”; thus, Ayurveda can be roughly translated as the knowledge or science of life.

How Does Ayurveda Differ From Western Medicine? 

Western medicine, also known as allopathy, tends to focus on curing the symptoms of disease. Here in the West, our emphasis is on fixing what has gone wrong with the body — cutting it out, replacing it or taking medication that has been prescribed by a physician.

In Ayurveda, prevention of disease is the main focus. People who practice Ayurvedic medicine believe that everything is connected with your state of health. Diet, exercise, breath and meditation all have a part to play. This principle is simple enough, but it does require a little effort at first — certainly more effort that popping a pill. However, the rewards of incorporating Ayurvedic wisdom in your life can transform your health and sense of well-being in a profound and permanent way.

While we sleep, the body repairs damaged cells, processes toxins and recharges the mind. Junk food, alcohol, drugs and too much stress overload the body and affect its ability to repair itself. Ayurveda says that, in this unbalanced state, we are vulnerable to illness, depression and disease.

Like Yoga, Ayurveda is enjoying a revival as the West awakens to the need for a more balanced lifestyle. Widely promoted by popular speakers such as Deepak Chopra, Ayurveda, with its simple yet potent philosophy on life, is reconnecting us to the rhythms of nature and our own physiology.

Ayurveda Doshas infographic
Infographic by Sattva Ayurveda

What Are the Doshas? 

According to Ayurvedic philosophy, everything in the tangible world (known as prakriti, or nature) consists of three vital energies called doshas: Vata, Pitta and Kapha. We are each born with an individual doshic makeup, or constitution — not equal parts of the three doshas, but our own unique blend of these energies. Each dosha is associated with certain physiological processes, qualities and physical characteristics.

1.  Vata Dosha 

Vata energy regulates all bodily functions and is the quality of motion and change. People who are predominantly Vata are likely to be thin, enthusiastic, quick-thinking, restless and creative. They may find it difficult to put on weight, and often have thick, wiry hair that is curly or wavy.

Because Vata is an active energy, Vatas benefit from calming (Kapha) activities like meditation, massage and yoga, which help ground their restlessness and anxiety.

2.  Pitta Dosha

Pitta energy regulates the absorption of food; it can be thought of as the fire of digestion. Pittas tend to be ambitious and confident perfectionists who love a challenge. They are lucid thinkers and often inspiring public speakers.

Since Pitta quality is hot, they can have a quick temper. Calm, cool surroundings can be used to balance this dosha. Pittas tend to have a medium build and fine hair that may turn gray or thin prematurely.

3.  Kapha Dosha 

Kapha energy holds together the cells of the body and the connective matrix that contains them. The most stable of the doshas, Kaphas generally avoid change and feel secure when things stay the same. They are patient, supportive and caring.

Physically, Kaphas tend to be short and strongly built; they may put on weight easily and find it hard to lose again. Their hair is likely to be thick, dark and wavy. Kaphas benefit from regular exercise and shaking things up a bit from time to time to avoid dullness and boredom.

Image via A Charmed Yogi

In the Ayurvedic view, if one of the doshas in our makeup is out of balance, health problems may arise. The aim of Ayurveda is to treat each patient with a recommendation for diet, exercise and daily routines that are most beneficial for their individual doshic constitution and its ongoing balance.

There are many self-tests that can help you identify which dosha or combination of doshas make up your individual constitution (for example, this one from The Chopra Center). For a truly accurate reading, however, it’s best to seek out an experienced Ayurvedic practitioner, who can help you discover which foods, environments and exercise will help balance your mind and body.

This article only scratches the surface of the vast and fascinating subject of Ayurveda. If you’re interested in learning more about Ayurveda and the doshas, I recommend checking out Perfect Health by Deepak Chopra and Ayurveda by Anna Selby and Ian Hayward — two great books on the topic.


Image credit: Miran Rijavec on Flickr (CC)

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