What is Ayurveda?

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Ayurveda (knowledge of life)

Definition Of Ayurveda

Ayurveda is a holistic and ancient system of medicine originating in India. In Sanskrit, Ayur means ‘life’, and veda means ‘science’ or ‘knowledge’. This means that Ayurveda is often translated as ‘knowledge of life’, or ‘life science’.

Ayurveda Deep Dive

Ayurvedic medicine is based on the idea that disease is caused by an imbalance in one’s consciousness, which can, in turn, lead to physical ailments.

Ayurveda views the body as a carefully balanced system. When this balance is disrupted, sickness and disease can occur. There are many things that can trigger an imbalance in the body, including injuries, emotions, seasonal changes, and foods.

Ayurvedic doctors use a holistic approach. This means that all aspects of the patient’s lifestyle are analyzed in order to understand the root of the patient’s symptoms.

Ayurvedic practitioners believe that our bodies are made up of five basic elements: ether (or space), air, fire, water, and earth.

  • Ether, Ākāśa (आकाश) in Sanskrit, is associated with the throat chakra. It is also connected to the ears and the sense of hearing.
  • Air, or Vāyu (वायु), is associated with the heart chakra. It is also connected to the skin and the sense of touch.
  • Fire, or Agni (अग्नि), is associated with the solar plexus/navel chakra. It is connected to the eyes and the sense of sight.
  • Water, or Apas (अपस्), is associated with the sacral chakra. It is connected to the tongue and the sense of taste.
  • Earth, or Pṛthivī (पृथिवी), is associated with the root chakra. It is connected to the nose and the sense of smell.
the five elements of ayurveda

The five elements represent the various forms of awareness and consciousness that we, as humans, have access to.

Our inherited body types can also have a predisposition to specific physical ailments. Ayurveda recognizes this and categorizes individuals and their health concerns into the three doshas.

The Three Doshas:

In Ayurvedic medicine there are three Doshas:

  • Vata Dosha
  • Pitta Dosha
  • Kapha Dosha

The three doshas are a combination of the five elements (ether, air, fire, water and earth). Vata dosha (space and air), Pitta dosha (fire and water), and Kapha dosha (water and earth).

Although everyone embodies the qualities of all three doshas, it is normal for one dosha to dominate, causing an imbalance that can lead to sickness. Ayurvedic medicine seeks to bring all three doshas into balance to promote healing.

ayurveda herbs

Vata Dosha

Elements: Air & Space

Individuals with a vata dosha tend to be slim, energetic, and creative. Vata is characterized as cold, light, dry, rough, flowing, and spacious. It is associated with the season of autumn due to its cool and crisp weather.

Often, those with strong vata energy become easily distracted. Their mood can be influenced by the weather and by the people around them. They can also be especially sensitive to foods.

Vata-dominant individuals can be highly creative. However, weaknesses can include forgetfulness, anxiety, and digestive issues.

To maintain optimal health, individuals with a vata dosha should follow a regular daily routine, manage stress through meditation and other calming activities, and maintain a warm body temperature by avoiding cold weather and consuming warm foods and drinks.

clouds in the blue sky

Pitta Dosha

Elements: Fire & Water

Individuals who embody a predominantly pitta constitution often exhibit a muscular, athletic build, and a natural inclination towards leadership roles.

Pitta embodies characteristics that are hot, light, sharp, oily, and fluid. As the seasons shift to the sunny and scorching days of summer, this is deemed the pitta season.

Driven by motivation and goal orientation, they possess an inherent competitive spirit. However, their tenacious and assertive demeanor may sometimes rub others the wrong way, leading to potential conflicts.

Physically, pitta types typically enjoy a quick metabolism and efficient circulation. However, pitta individuals may be prone to inflammation, skin conditions such as acne, and sensitivity to hot temperatures.

To maintain balance and well-being, it is crucial for pitta-dominant individuals to prioritize work-life balance and avoid excessive exposure to extreme heat, including hot weather and spicy foods.

fire against a black background

Kapha Dosha

Elements: Earth & Water

Individuals with a predominantly kapha constitution embody strength, both physically and emotionally. They possess a robust, thick-boned structure and are known for their caring and nurturing nature.

Often, they serve as a reliable support system for others, keeping things together with unwavering stability. Kapha-dominant individuals rarely succumb to agitation, instead embodying a thoughtful and deliberate approach to life’s challenges.

Kapha types generally have strong endurance levels and good stamina, but may be prone to congestion and respiratory issues.

Mentally and emotionally, kapha individuals tend to be calm, steady, and nurturing. They have a stable and reliable nature, often displaying patience and compassion. However, they can also be more resistant to change and may have a tendency towards lethargy or sluggishness.

When in balance, kapha individuals are typically strong, grounded, and exhibit a healthy immune system. However, an imbalance in kapha can lead to weight gain, excessive mucus production, lethargy, and emotional stagnation.

four little seadlings growing in the roof

Ayurvedic Cleansing Techniques

Cleansing is an important aspect of Ayurvedic medicine, and there are a range of techniques to support the cleansing of the body.

Cleansing diets such as the kitchari cleanse are often recommended as a gentle detoxification practice.

Kitchari is a simple, nourishing dish made of rice, lentils (or alternative legumes), and a variety of spices and vegetables. During the cleanse, one consumes kitchari as the primary meal for a specific duration, typically ranging from three to seven days.

The kitchari cleanse is believed to support the body’s natural detoxification process by giving the digestive system a break and providing easy-to-digest, nutrient-rich food. In addition, kitchari is considered balancing and gentle on the digestive system, allowing it to reset and heal.

The cleanse helps remove accumulated toxins, improves digestion, promotes mental clarity, and boosts overall vitality. It is also thought to balance the three doshas (Vata, Pitta, and Kapha), bringing the body and mind into a state of equilibrium.

Others cleansing techniques include:

  • Oil Pulling – swishing oil in the mouth to remove toxins from the body
  • Tongue Scraping – using a copper scraper to remove toxin build-up on the tongue
  • Abhyanga – full body massage with oil to stimulate the lymphatic system
  • Dry Brushing – supports lymphatic systems and exfoliates skin
a woman with her mouth open using a tongue scraper

Ayurveda In Your Life

Ayurveda is a standard form of medical care in India, where it is just as widely used as other forms of medicine, such as Western, Chinese, naturopathic, and homeopathic. In Europe and the United States, Ayurveda is often used as a complementary therapy alongside conventional medical care.

If you are looking to treat yourself with Ayurvedic medicine, it is important to seek a fully qualified Ayurvedic doctor, especially if you are currently taking medication or are pregnant.

Some Ayurvedic products may contain substances that can interact with Western medicines. So it is advised to discuss any Ayurvedic treatments with a healthcare provider, especially for pregnant or nursing women, and children.

Some simple ways to incorporate Ayurveda into your life:

  1. Identify your dosha and begin making small adjustments your lifestyle and diet to balance and compliment your body type. You may be able to determine your dosha through online research, however, if you have any health conditions it is recommended to consult an ayurvedic practitioner who will be able identify your dosha and suggest the best treatment.
  2. Align your daily routines to the seasonal cycles. Adapt your diet to seasonally available produce. Focus on warming foods in the winter and cooling foods in the summer. You can also experiment with aligning your sleeping habits to the natural seasonal shifts, for example rising with the sunrise and winding down as the sunsets.
  3. Introduce gentle cleansing techniques into your daily routine, such as dry brushing and then oil pulling while you are in the shower, or practicing abhyanga before an evening bath. You can also experiment with adding tongue scraping into your dental routine.
  4. Consider swapping coffee for herbal tea. There are plenty of flavours to choose from, ginger is brilliant for digestion and warming the body, peppermint is cooling and works well for nausea, and fennel can help to support the liver and relieve bloating.
  5. Develop a daily yoga and meditation practice. With consideration of your dosha, find a yoga practice that supports your body. A restorative yoga or yin yoga practice may be beneficial to find balance for those who are pitta dominant, while a dynamic practice that warms the body may benefit vata dominant bodies. A variety of different meditation techniques are available, experiment to find what it most beneficial and convenient for you.
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To go deep and expand your yogic knowledge, access our free Yoga Terms Encyclopedia, where we host a profound wealth of ancient and timeless yogic wisdom in an accessible modern format.

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Amy is a yoga teacher and practitioner based in Brighton.

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