What Is Ayurveda? Here’s a Crash Course in Everything You Need to Know

Ayurveda is a term that comes up a lot when talking about living a yogic lifestyle, but in reality, a lot of people don’t truly know what the term encompasses. Ayurveda is often considered one of the oldest systems of medicine and wellness in the world, and it includes a rich and layered tradition. Many of its principles and lifestyle components can be integrated into your daily life to help you become balanced both physically and mentally.

The History and Foundation of Ayurveda

The History and Foundation of Ayurveda
The History and Foundation of Ayurveda

In Sanskrit, the word ayurveda comes from two words: ayuh, meaning either “life” or “longevity”, and veda, meaning “science” or “sacred knowledge”. Therefor, ayurveda is interpreted as “the sacred knowledge of life”, or “the science of life”.

This holistic wellness system originated in India over 5,000 years ago. The main principles of this tradition claim that the mind and body are connected, and that the mind is well equipped with the power to transform and heal the body. By following an ayurvedic lifestyle, you are able to prevent illness, heal sicknesses you encounter, and prolong your life. You are actively taking part in maintaining your overall wellness through taking care of your physical body and mind, rather than dealing with health issues as they arise.

The Five Elements

The Five Elements
The Five Elements

Ayurveda is based around the elements: space/ether (akasha), air (vayu), fire (tejas), water (apas), and earth (prithvi). Together, these elements work together to create nature, and each serve as the foundation for Ayurvedic practices. Each element is associated with different tissues, bodily functions, personality characteristics, and medicinal actions to take.

Ether, or akasha, comes first in the elements, as it is the lightest, most subtle of the group. This elements revolves around emptiness, and it is the element that all others fill. The ear is the sense organ associated with akasha, while the mouth is the organ that takes action. In the body, ether is found within the empty spaces (such as the intestines, blood vessels, lungs, and bladder).

Air, or vayu, represents the possibility of movement and kinetic energy. It comes second because it evolves from ether, and is nearly as subtle as it. Within the body, air is represented through motion, such as blood flow, inhalations and exhalations, and thoughts going through the mind.

Fire, or tejas, contains both air and ether, and therefor comes third in the list. It represents a source of energy, both in the body and on the planet, and sheds light onto the world, helping us with our vision and perception. The feet are associated with the element of tejas, as they are responsible for bringing us to action when reacting to what we see.

Water, or apas, is fourth on the list, and evolves from the three elements before it (while also containing them). Water is seen as the protector of the body, against both harsher elements and inflammation or pain. The tongue is associated with apas, as without the presence of water (or saliva), we are unable to taste the world around us.

The final element is earth, or prithvi. It contains the essence of all elements, and represents structure and solid matter. It gives form to both the human body and all of creation. The nose it associated with prithvi, because it allows us to smell and take in the elements around us.

The Three Main Doshas

The Three Main Doshas
The Three Main Doshas

According to ayurvedic tradition, people are a combination of three doshas, or energies — Vata, Pitta, and Kapha. Each dosha encompasses a combination of some of the five elements. The doshas exist within all of us, but the levels of each differ from person to person. People will generally have one or two that are dominant.

Vata contains air and ether elements, which lead to the qualities of light, dry, rough, cold, subtle, and clear. It is considered the energy of movement, and it is responsible for respiration, blinking, tissue and muscle movement, and the beating of the heart. Vata primarily builds up around the large intestine, colon, pelvis, skin, ears, thighs, and bones.

A person who associates highly with the vata energy may present the lightness of the energy through a smaller frame. They are likely to be always on the go, and have a constant urge to move around and travel. This person is often highly creative, spiritual, and imaginative. When vata is balanced, it produces creativity and flexibility. When out of balance, fear, restlessness, and anxiety can build up.

Pitta contains fire and water elements, and governs digestion, nutrition, absorption, metabolism, and body temperature. It is associated with transformations, and has qualities of heat, flow, clarity, and sharpness. It primarily is located around the small intestine, stomach, blood, fat, sweat glands, and the eyes.

People with high pitta energies generally have a warmer body temperature. They have a high intelligence, are competitive, can produce sharp ideas, and are natural leaders with a friendly demeanor. A balanced pitta energy can promote understanding, intelligence, and ambition, while and unbalanced energy can cause jealousy, anger, agitation, and hate. People connected with the pitta energy can be particularly prone to inflammation and overheating.

Kapha contains water and earth elements, and is the energy of structure and protection–it is the glue that holds the cells of the body together. It is associated with nourishment, and presents wet, heavy, static, soft, smooth, and cloudy qualities. Kapha supplies water for bodily function, helping with the lubrication of joints, moisturization of skin, and overall immunity. It provides a sense of grounding to both the mind and body. The energy is typically found around the chest, throat, sinuses, nose, and liquid secretions of the body.

A kapha person is compassionate, loving, and nurturing. They tend to have a solid, sturdy body type, and may have a slower metabolism, and a strong immune system. When Kapha is balanced, it is expressed through love, forgiveness, and calmness; when out of balance, it is manifested through attachment, greed, and envy. People with a high kapha energy can be particularly prone to weight gain and chest infections (or diseases having to do with an accumulation of mucus).

Our well-being depends on the three doshas being in balance within our bodies, and each person’s desirable balance will be different. If a dosha is under- or overwhelming our body, we need to take certain actions in order to bring harmony back. In ayurveda, diseases or ailments are believed to be caused by an excess or deficiency of one of the doshas.

Discovering Your Dosha

In order to learn about the dosha makeup in your body, it is best to meet with an ayurvedic practitioner. This person will be trained in the intricacies of the practice, and will be able to truly pick up on the nuances of your energy. However, if you’d like an introductory idea of what your makeup may consist, you can turn to an online quiz, such as this questionnaire from the California College of Ayurveda.

Applying Ayurvedic Principles to Your Life

There are a variety of ways you can bring ayurvedic principles into your day to day life. In order to fully benefit, it is best to get an understanding of your doshas, so that you can take the right steps to balance them. You may also want to meet with a practitioner to get a more personalized approach based on your nature. However, the following will give you an introductory look into how people of varying constitutions can bring ayurveda into their life.

Diet

Diet
Diet

Diet is one of the primary ways to implement ayurvedic principles, and it is highly dependent on doshas.

Vata people have a varied appetite, and tend to be drawn towards astringent foods like salad and raw vegetables. However, they are best balanced by food that is warm and cooked, and react well to tastes that are sweet, sour, or salty. Foods like soups and herbal teas may help with stiffness, coldness, and digestion problems, which vata people are prone to when they are not balanced.

Pitta people can suffer from overheating, inflammation, and acid reflux, so their diet should consist of cooler foods with a sweet element, such as salads, juices, raw seeds, and cooling herbs. They are better off avoiding alcohol and caffeine, as well as overly spicy food.

Kapha people are prone to weight gain, as well as high cholesterol and congestive issues. Dry, light, and bitter food is generally recommended, which can include citrus, beans, salads, and whole grains. These people need to watch out for overeating, especially when it comes to salty and sugary foods (which they can be particularly attracted to).

Asana Practice

Asana Practice
Asana Practice

Yoga is considered the “sister science” of ayurveda, so it’s no surprise that it can be used to balance out your doshas. People of all constitutions can benefit from an asana practice, and you can find specialized sequences to bring doshas into balance. If curious about practicing yoga for your dosha, try this pitta sequence, this kapha sequence, or this vata sequence.

Daily Routine

Daily Routine
Daily Routine

There are general ayurvedic tips that a person of any dosha nature can apply to their daily lifestyle routine. This includes:

Rising before the sun

Stretching or doing light yoga

Drinking 8 ounces of warm water right when you wake up, and continuing to hydrate throughout the day

Allowing at least two hours between your last meal and bedtime

Going to bed around 10:00-11:00 pm

Practicing gratitude

Meditating at least once a day

Ayurvedic tradition is deeply layered and complex, but you can begin to take actions to implement it into your daily life. As you continue to expand your horizons on the meaning of ayurveda, you can take major strides towards balancing your body and taking your overall wellness into your own hands.

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