Ayurveda is a Sanskrit word that literally means “the science of life”
It refers to the Indian healing system that is focused on enhancing life through the use of herbs, lifestyle, diet, as well as the understanding of how our thought patterns affect our sense of well being. Often referred to as traditional Ayurvedic medicine (TAM), this is the oldest medical system in the world, dating back several thousand years, and is still used in India today. Ayurveda is often referred to as the “mother of all healing” and is thought to have influenced other healing systems, like Chinese medicine and the Greek humoral medical system.
Herbal medicine in both Ayurveda and Chinese medicine use many of the same herbs and define similar actions for the herbs in terms of the temperature and moisture effect on the body (i.e. is an herb warming cooling, drying, or moistening). Both systems also have a fundamental concept that we are composed of the elemental energies and that illness and wellness can be understood by understanding the actions and effects of these energies. This means that energies like fire in the body produce certain verifiable signs such as redness, feelings of heat or a fever, etc. These systems of health understand that we, as humans, are composed of the same fundamental, elemental building blocks. We are not separate from nature and understanding how we are similar can enhance our own healing journey.
While Michele practices Chinese medicine, she was also trained in some fundamentals of Ayurvedic herbal medicine and uses the principles of Ayurvedic understandings about food and diet in her practice. Given that, we wanted to share some information about Ayurveda that can be useful to you when understanding yourself, your behaviors, and the types of food and lifestyle changes that may help bring a greater sense of harmony and balance.
Like Chinese medicine, Ayurveda is not a one size fits all type of medicine, but rather diet, herbal, and lifestyle strategies are formulated through an assessment of the unique constitution of the individual. Also similar to qi in Chinese medicine, is Ayurveda’s concept of you prana, or lifeforce energy that animates us and our bodies. However, Ayurvedic therapies are structured around constitutional types. It is, essentially, a constitutional system. There are three constitutional types that are different combinations of the five elements of nature, water, fire, earth, air, and ether. This constitutional typing, known as tridoshic theory, is used to understand the dynamic life processes and how they affect the physical body and emotions. At the end of the article we are including a link to a tool you can use to figure out what your type is.
Each individual is a unique constellation of these individual elements. A practitioner will assess how these elements combine in an individual through examination of the tongue, nails, skin, eyes, voice, and pulse. This balance can be affected by a wide variety of things, including diet, the climate, the season changes, lifestyle, and our thoughts. The three doshas or humors are: Pitta (fire/water), Kapha (water/earth), and Vata (air/ether). These three doshas, offer a practical way of understanding the body, both how it looks when in balance and how it looks when out of balance. In fact dosha can be translated to mean fault or essentially what things look like when they are out of balance. Most importantly, they also offer the tools to understand how to restore balance.
In Ayurvedic medicine, the constitutional type or basic nature that we are born with is referred to as prakruti. This unique blending of the combination of the three doshas in each of us does not change throughout our life and is determined at birth when we are conceived. Prakruti is based on habits and proclivities consistent throughout your life, as well as more fixed or stable attributes, such as body frame, metabolism, height, weight, and complexion. Individuals are typically classified as a combination of two types usually with one predominating (ie Kapha/Pitta or Pitta/Vata). A rare instance is the individual who is an equal balance of the three dosha types. It is important to keep in mind that we all have each of these three doshas in us and any one can become aggravated. In fact the culture in the US with the fast pace of life and constant movement tends to disrupt the Vata energies in the body, and manifests physically with such symptoms as anxiety, insomnia, mental health issues, and issues with the nervous system.
We also have our current state of health, literally what we are in this moment, given our current lifestyle habits, our diet, and our relationships. This is referred to as our vikruti, which can change with age, lifestyle habits, food, level of stress, seasons, among other things. Usually, the element that finds itself out of balance does reflect the dosha in which we predominate. Meaning, if you are predominantly pitta, it is more likely that this element would be aggravated and you would experience health issues that correspond to that element (ie like acid reflux, ulcers, or skin eruptions). Chronic conditions that have lasted for long periods of time can mask the prakruti, making it harder to understand what that is until the health issues are brought back into balance. You can liken this process to peeling away the layers of an onion. Here is a brief description of the key characteristics of each of the three individual doshas.
Vata – Ether and Air
Vata is composed of the elements of ether and air, which represent the expansion and movement of conscious thought. Its qualities can be described as dry, light, cold, rough, hard, and dispersing, and it is the seat of all movement in the body. Our breathing, our muscle movements and contractions, our heart beat, our nerve functioning, our digestion, and our elimination are all governed by Vata energy.
A person with a Vata constitution tends to be thin and small framed with dry, rough and darker-toned skin, and runs cold. Their body frame tends to be irregular in stature and composition, either very tall or very short. A Vata person also tends to have a lot of nervous and restless energy, but usually tires easily. Vatas are the peope who talk with their hands and can not sit still. They have a quick intellect, but may quickly forget the thought. Emotionally Vata can manifest as adaptability and inspiration, as well as fear and insecurities. When Vata is out of balance it can lead to such disorder as anxiety and nervous conditions, depression, muscle spasms and tension, arthritis, insomnia, constipation, dizziness, mental confusion, migrating pains, and gas and bloating.
Foods for Vata types should be warming, moistening, nourishing, and mildly spiced. Foods that can aggravate Vata energy in the body are addictive substances like caffeine and white sugar. It is important for Vata types to eat meals spaced at regular intervals to avoid hypoglycemia.
Pitta – Fire and Water
Pitta is composed of fire and water and represents the metabolic fire that transforms things. Its attributes are hot, oily, penetrating, smooth, aggressive, and liquid. Pitta governs hunger, thirst, digestion, body heat, and the complexion.
People with a Pitta constitution tend to be moderate build , weight, and height and tend to have balanced and proportional frames, with soft, oily skin that has a reddish luster or tone. They tend to gray easily and have soft yellowish or red hair and sharp penetrating eyes. They tend to have a courage and will power to see things through , as well as enthusiasm, however, this energy can also be expressed as aggression and anger. The Pitta person is often the natural leader in the group who will make sure that things get done.
When Pitta is out of balance, it can be expressed in the body as heat and inflammation, fever, skin rashes, excess hunger or thirst, liver problems, ulcers, and difficult sleep, as well as anger or other outbursts of emotion.
The best foods for Pitta types should be drying and cooling, with mild spices. Foods that can aggravate Pitta energy in the body are foods that are too spicy, salty, sour, or heating.
Kapha – Earth and Water
Kapha is composed of water and earth energy and represents that which holds things together. Its attributes are heavy, slow, dull, dense, thick, soft, cold, sticky, and oily. It is the substance and support for our body and it governs lubrication, body fluids, taste, the joints, storing of energy, and stability and solidity.
People with a Kapha constitution tend to have a thicker or bulkier frames, with smooth, soft, pale skin that tans evenly and big eyes with thick eyelashes. They move slowly (especially in the mornings) and tend to have an innate sweetness and be calm, steady, serious, which can also be expressed as passivity, greed, and attachment. When Kapha is out of balance it results in fluid stagnation and accumulation, lymphatic congestion, depressed digestion, nausea after eating, lethargy, cough, and weight gain. The Kapha type is usually the person who does not get easily ruffled, but seems to stay clam and serene.
Foods that best suit Kapha types should be warming and drying and lighter, and spiced well. Foods that can aggravate Kapha tend to be dampening foods like flour products, dairy, salt, and oily or heavier foods. For Kapha, the key is movement, as they can tend to get stuck, experiencing things like constipation and congestion (remember it is the combination of water and earth).
Most common is a combination of two different types, such as Vata and Pitta. You may find that you share a lot of traits of two different dosha types. Keep in mind we have all of these elements in us, just in different amounts and combinations, making each of us a unique expression of the life-force energy. You may notice during certain seasons you tend to exhibit a certain tendencies. When you are beginning to explore this system, I (Michele) think the most important thing is understanding what the different energies feel like and knowing where you are at any given time. Essentially, to start your exploration, use them to help you understand where you are in a given moment, and thus what you need to restore balance.
What is Your Type?
After reading these three descriptions, you may already have some good ideas about what your predominant dosha type is. A company we have found, Mayarishi Ayurveda, just came out with a quiz you can take to assess your dosha type. It is a nifty tool that assesses how strongly you embody the characteristics of each dosha and gives you a numerical score. You can actually see the numerical ratings you have of each dosha. It is fun to play with as a tool for self understanding and growth. Use the link below to start playing!
PS Mayarishi Ayurveda has an excellent and certified organic rose petal spread that we love. We actually but it on our pancakes instead of syrup. Roses are used to help calm Pitta energy in the body which means it has a cooling effect and is calming to the mind and emotions. Great in the summer and for anyone with excess Pitta energy. If you use the promo code michelevergara10 on your first order from Mayarishi Ayurveda you will get a 10% discount. Enjoy!