Introduction to Ayurveda
Ayurveda is one of the world’s oldest medical systems. Stemming from the Vedas, ancient Sanskrit texts that date back over 5,000 years, the word itself is derived from ayur meaning life and veda meaning knowledge so can be translated as ‘knowledge of life’. Part medical system, part life philosophy, Ayurveda aims to integrate and balance each individual’s mind, body and spirit in order to achieve wellness.
Whereas Western medicine is often about treating disease, the Ayurvedic way is more about creating and restoring balance in the body in order to prevent as well as manage any illness. A key part of Ayurveda is cleansing the body of substances that could lead to disease, thereby creating a more harmonious and balanced system.
Ayurveda philosophy addresses the interconnectedness of mind, body and spirit of self and others; in other words, not just looking at your individual systems but also your interactions with others and your environment. Ayurveda practitioners believe that everything in the universe is connected and one’s health and well-being will be good if mind and body are in harmony and one’s interaction with the universe is balanced. Conversely, illness is a manifestation of being out of harmony with the universe. This disharmony could arise from physical, emotional or spiritual causes. Treatment therefore is about the restoration of harmony to the body and mind.
Key Ayurvedic Concepts
Prakriti is an individual’s underlying constitution. It takes into account current health as well as tendencies towards imbalance and ability to recover from these imbalances. Prakriti includes both physical and psychological characteristics and factors such as digestion and stress management. A person’s prakriti is fixed throughout life and is not believed to change.
Alternatively, the doshas, or life forces, of any individual can fluctuate at different times of life. Doshas are the energies that control the body and it is the imbalance of these life force energies that could lead to illness. Each dosha is made up of two of the five basic elements of life: ether, air, fire, water and earth. While all three doshas are present in every individual they will be in greater or lesser degrees based on your unique constitution. Many people have either a dominant dosha or, more commonly, a combination of two strong doshas with one weaker presence. In keeping with the Ayurvedic philosophy, your diet and lifestyle can be adapted to restore balance, adding fuel to your least prominent dosha and creating balance.
The Three Doshas
Each dosha (known as vata, pitta and kapha) has its own physical and mental characteristics that can be agitated for various reasons. Doshas, unlike prakriti, are a moveable feast and can change with time as well as habit.
Vata is associated with ether and air. Vata types tend to have slight builds and be naturally thin. They are mentally and physically quick and alert and enjoy creative activities, travel and social situations. When in balance, vatas are lively, creative and energetic but when out of balanced this energy can lead to anxiousness, nervousness and instability. They can appear to others as lacking in commitment and unable to follow projects through to completion.
Vata are strongly influenced by the air element and so their energy, mood and appetite can fluctuate rapidly. This can often lead to irregular eating and sleeping patters which in turn can lead vatas to try to regulate through use of stimulants and sedatives. Common problems for sensitive vata types are insomnia and weak immune systems.
Pitta is associated with the elements of fire and water, making them strong, intense and at times irritable. They are generally of average build with well-defined muscles. When in balance, pittas are natural born leaders and live their lives according to the ‘work hard, play hard’ mentality and can pick up new ideas and activities quite easily. When not in balance, this same skill can lead to impatience or a tendency towards being judgemental.
Pittas have strong digestive systems and healthy appetites so missing meals can lead to irritableness. Common pitta ailments are heartburn, inflammations and rashes, so pittas need to guard against giving in too much to their fiery nature.
Kapha is associated with water and earth, making them loyal and stable. They appreciate order and routine in their personal and professional lives. They have naturally strong frames and can have a tendency to gain weight when not in balance. They can also become stubborn, stuck in their ways and resistant to change.
Kapha types tend to have slow metabolisms so could benefit from occasional fasting. Common ailments for strong kaphas are diabetes, obesity and respiratory illnesses.
Knowing your dosha balance can help you to choose the right foods, activities and lifestyle choices to create harmony and maximise your health.
Many Western medical systems are starting to embrace some, if not all, of the Ayurvedic concepts. This change from managing disease to promoting wellness can lead to a more well-rounded health system for all.