Ayurveda is perhaps the oldest system of holistic medicine that is still around today, dating back over 5,000 years.
Ayurveda can be translated to mean the “science of life,” “knowledge of longevity,” or “the art of living.” The word ayuh means life, and veda means knowledge or truth. It is perhaps the oldest system of holistic medicine that is still around today, dating back over 5,000 years. In India, where Ayurveda is still widely practiced, Yoga and Ayurveda are considered to be “two sides of the same coin.” While the ultimate goal of Yoga is self-realization, Ayurveda’s primary goal is self-healing. Ayurveda is a system based on the premise that the body is naturally inclined toward health and wholeness, and offers therapies for supporting the body’s natural intelligence to heal. Ultimately, Ayurveda provides the foundation in body and mind for pursuing a spiritual path through yoga. Together, these two systems afford a complete system of restoring health and harmony in body, mind, and spirit.
According to Ayurveda, all matter is made up of five elements: earth, water, fire, air, and space. Part of what makes each person unique is the varying proportions of these elements in their body.
The doshas of vata, pitta, and kapha are organizing principles that describe how these elements function in the body.
We can best understand the doshas through their functions and qualities:
vata dosha is the principle of movement, and describes the functions of space and air in the body. It governs all bodily movements, from the smallest nerve impulses to more obvious activities such as breathing and walking. Vata has the qualities of being light (opposite of heavy), dry, rough, mobile, cold, subtle, clear, and astringent.
pitta dosha is the principle of transformation, and describes the functions of fire and water in the body. Pitta is responsible for digestion—not only of the food we eat, but also the mental/emotional digestion of information and our life experiences. Pitta’s qualities include light (opposite of dark), oily, sharp, hot, fleshy-smelling, spreading, liquid, sour, and pungent.
kapha dosha is the principle of nourishment, and describes the functions of water and earth in the body. Kapha provides us with physical support and structure, and also nurtures us emotionally through love and compassion. Kapha has the qualities of being heavy, slow, dull, cool, oily, slimy, dense, stable, and can be either soft or hard (think of the difference between adipose tissue and bone—both are kapha).
When the doshas are functioning properly, we don’t notice them. It is only when they become imbalanced that we begin to pay attention to them—when we experience something that’s “not right” with our body such as dry, rough skin (vata), acid reflux (pitta), or weight gain (kapha). Although these symptoms are uncomfortable and annoying, they serve a purpose: the doshas actually go out of balance to protect your body’s tissues. They’re an indicator that something in your diet or lifestyle is provoking an imbalance, which gives you the opportunity to adjust your diet and lifestyle in order to return to your natural state of balance.
Unfortunately most western medicine is aimed at merely suppressing these uncomfortable symptoms, rather than addressing the root cause. If we continue to ignore or suppress these symptoms for a long period of time, they can become chronic, weakening our body's tissues and leading to disease.
This is why Ayurveda is such an effective method of preventing disease. In Ayurveda there are 6 stages of the disease process. Western medicine doesn’t diagnose a disease until the 5th stage of this process, after it has created measurable changes in the body's tissues and organs. If we can mitigate a provoked dosha before it gets to that stage, we have a much better chance at maintaining health and preventing disease.