As one approaches ayurveda, inevitably questions arise pertaining to how one can better understand the body and how to heal it? Initially, it’s important to cultivate a meditative relationship with the three forces ayurveda identifies as vata, pitta and kapha. These forces known as dosha are responsible for most physical and mental activities which determine the current state of health an individual experiences. By balancing each dosha through a healthy diet and lifestyle, one will relish in the positive responses of the doshas and mitigate most adverse experience of imbalance. The practice for achieving such a balance is in part the role of ayurveda.
This balance is wholly reliant upon the reality an individual is currently experiencing and living out. Within the vast system of Indian and ayurvedic thought there is important need for understanding the expressions of the pancha maha bhuta, literally translates as five great elements, which are the constructive materiels for this world and universe. These five elements known as ether, air, fire, water and earth are in everything and everyone, influencing the way things exist in nature. In brief, ether gives space for things to exist within and expressive itself as sound, air creates movement and touch, fire gives rise to sight, heat and transformation, water creates taste and cohesion, and the earth element constructs matter, smell and stability.
As the human body is viewed as one part of creations totality, it’s important to understand how the five elements are influencing health and well being. To simplify this, ayurveda states that the dosha vata is mostly composed of ether and air, pitta is predominantly formed from fire and water, and kapha is created through earth and water. These three doshas exist within the human body in a particular balance formed at the moment of birth (prakruti), which is a type of baseline for achieving optimal health. Classically it is stated that a dosha creates health when peacefully balanced through diet and daily choices but plagues the body through disease when negatively influenced with poor food and lifestyle. Seeking balance with the three doshas and understanding one’s truest inner nature through therapeutically cleansing the body and mind forms much of the practices of both ayurveda and yoga.
Vata exist within the body as the subtle movements and discharges that perpetually occur within the body and mind. These activities include inhalation and exhalation, the steady rhythmic beat of the heart, peristalsis (moving food through the GI tract), excretion, speaking and movement of thoughts. When vata is at peace and working optimally an individual experiences regularity in elimination (sweat, urine and feces), clarity in thought and speech, steadiness and deepness of breath, all of which leads to mental calmness, creativity and joy. Yet due to negative external forces such as overly consuming foods that are too raw, cold and dry which are bitter and astringent in taste, and by not drinking enough water vata may accumulate to the point of imbalance. These imbalances can also occur by pursuing activities that cause vata express itself more erratically, which usually comes from too much traveling, talking, lack of sleep, irregular meals and daily routines. These are experienced through the symptoms of an irregular and/or increased heart rate, constipation, insomnia (trouble falling asleep), gas and bloating as a result of weak digestion, and overall nervous giddiness that manifest through excessive talking and thinking.
In most simple terms vata should be treated like holding a flower and is brought into balance through slow deep breathing, a warm oil massage (particularly to the soles of the feet), soft vegetable soups with ghee (clarified butter) as opposed to eating dried nuts and seeds, and by diminishing most electronic activity. Vata is strongly influenced through the air element and is positively strengthened through the practice of pranayama (breathing exercises) and yoga asana.
Pitta is the force of metabolism and is responsible for transforming experience into intelligence. As pitta is constructed of the fire and water element it will influence heat regulation, vision, digestive processes, and most functions within the liver. Psychologically, the positive expression of pitta will be expressed through courage, bravery, determination, and a bright intelligence. Pitta makes the individual a shining light and a source for knowledge; however, when this fire becomes harmful pitta can cause issues with acid indigestion, hives/rash, diarrhea, irritated eyes and all cases that involve inflammation.
Pitta should be approached like you would a close friend, one you never want to say “no” to. As the heat of pitta is irritating, the scorching of healthy nutrients is a common symptom which is evident in chronic fatigue syndrome. Thus, cooling the body and mind is generally the first step towards bringing pitta into balance. This is achieved though the application of coconut oil through self massage and drinking coconut water and adapting a diet that is sweet with delicious bitters such as basmati rice, kale and chard. Additionally, one should avoid hot and spicy foods or foods that are overly acidic and pungent such as tomatoes and garlic. It is suggested to wear garments that are free flowing, be around sweet smelling things, and take a swim in cool waters. Spontaneous meditations such as repeating mantras and focusing on breath are very helpful.
Kapha forms the various materials, structure and substances that make the physical body. Kapha acts as a glue which holds the body in place and provides the strength needed to perform physical functions. Additionally, kapha lubricates all joints and organs that rely on its oily nature to nourish the system. In a balanced state one will experience a healthy movement of limbs, firm and strong stamina, a well functioning immune system, and a healthy long term memory. Yet, as kapha accumulates problems with obesity, asthma, chronic sinus congestion, and lethargy occur. Mentally, the individual can become unmotivated, depressed, and inert.
There is a tendency for kapha to become stagnant and lazy, which should be countered with an urgency to move. Anything that excites and initiates movement should be encouraged; this is most easily done with walking twenty minutes or more daily. Foods that are light and easy to digest yet heating are encouraged such as quinoa, red lentils, asparagus, and celery. Sweets, particularly ice cream, cheeses, heavy meats, and fried food should be avoided.
Integration into balance
Unlike other healthcare practices, achieving total health in ayurveda does not stop from the absence of a sickness. Supreme health comes when all three doshas are in harmony and a cultivated sense of bliss has been realized in the mind. As the recommendations for balancing a dosha mentioned above are simple and broad, addressing an issue should similarly be approached with simplicity and specifics will later be addressed with herbs and a more specialized diet. Ultimately, like all other forms of thought stemming from India, the practice of ayurveda should eventually lead to enlightenment, the bliss we all seek. This being known, ayurveda is a day to day, moment to moment practice for self knowing and self healing.