Ayurveda is considered one of the world’s oldest healing sciences, originating in India at least 5,000 years ago. Its name is a Sanskrit word that literally translates as “the wisdom of life” or “the knowledge of longevity” (it is a compound of ãyus, meaning life or longevity, and veda, meaning deep knowledge or wisdom). In accordance with this definition, Ayurveda views health as much more than the absence of disease. Health, from an Ayurvedic perspective, is defined as a gracious, tranquil, content, joyous, bright, and clear state of the body, senses, mind, and spirit, including the balanced state of one’s natural constitution, all bodily tissues, the digestive capacities, and waste excretion. What a mouthful! Simply put, health is achieved when you are aligned with your own natural and unique state of balance.
Your health is unique
The key to Ayurvedic wellness and healing is the knowledge that health is not a “one size fits all” proposition. One must understand the unique nature of each person and situation, taking into account the individual, the season, the geography, and so on. Each person has a constitution that is specific to him or her, and movement away from that constitution creates health imbalances; if such imbalances are not addressed, disease may develop. So, the early signs of imbalance serve as a wakeup call to make gentle and natural shifts in behaviour to return to balance—such as adjusting diet, modifying daily activities, and taking herbal remedies for a time. To understand how imbalances occur, and what to do about them, we can look to the following fundamental concepts of Ayurveda.
The Five Elements That Transform Our Understanding of Health
Ayurveda arises from a tradition that describes the entire physical world—including man—in terms of five elements: space, air, fire, water, and earth. These five elements can most accurately be thought of as energetic patterns rather than as purely physical substances, and each has particular qualities. To help make sense of this, consider how these elements manifest in the natural world:
- Earth is cold, heavy, solid, stable, and dry. This element is exemplified by dirt.
- Water is cold, mobile, heavy, soft, and liquid. Think of the ocean.
- Fire is hot, subtle, mobile, dry, and sharp. Its clearest manifestation in nature is the sun, which provides warmth to the earth and sky.
- Space, as in the sky, is vast, cold, light, and clear. It enables all other things to have a place to take form and exist.
- Air is dry, cold, rough, and full of motion. To understand these qualities, think of what it’s like to be whipped by an aggressive wind.
These five elements clearly manifest individually in the natural world. But even more profoundly, they all exist at all times in all things—including in the body—and each has its particular role to play.
In Ayurveda, there are three basic types of energy, universal principles known as the doshas. In many ways, the doshas—vata, pitta, and kapha—are the building blocks of the material world. All three of them can be found in everyone and everything, but in different proportions. They combine to create different climates, different foods, different species, and even different individuals within the same species. In fact, the particular ratio of vata, pitta, and kapha within each of us has a significant influence on our individual physical, mental, and emotional char
Vata Dosha (Wind Energy)
Vata is predominantly composed of the space and air elements. From a qualitative perspective, vata is dry, light, cold, rough, mobile, subtle, and clear. It is the subtle energy of movement and is therefore often associated with wind. Vata is linked to creativity and flexibility; it governs all movement—the flow of breath, the pulsation of the heart, all muscle contractions, tissue movements, cellular mobility—and communication throughout the mind and nervous system.
Pitta Dosha (Fire Energy)
Pitta is principally made up of the fire and water elements and is an amalgamation of the hot, sharp, light, liquid, oily, and subtle qualities. Pitta is neither mobile nor stable, but spreads—much as the warmth of a fire permeates its surroundings, or as water flows in the direction dictated by the terrain. Pitta is closely related to intelligence, understanding, digestion, and transformation; it governs nutrition and metabolism, body temperature, and the light of understanding.
Kapha Dosha (Water Energy)
Kapha is composed primarily of the earth and water elements. It is heavy, slow, cool, oily, smooth, soft, dense, stable, gross, and cloudy. Kapha lends structure and solidity to all things; it provides the cohesiveness needed to maintain a particular form. Kapha also hydrates all cells and systems, lubricates the joints, moisturizes the skin, maintains immunity and protects the tissues. Kapha is often associated with water energy, and with love and compassion.