From golden milk lattes; to smoothies fortified with coconut oil and cinnamon; and yoga classes that promise to balance your dosha, the healing power of Ayurveda seems to be everywhere, yet for many of us, it’s a bit of a mystery. What is it exactly and what makes Ayurveda so special?
Translated as the Science of Life, Ayurveda is an ancient system of healing from India which believes that our wellbeing is related to the balance between the body, mind and spirit; as well as our relationship to our external environment. To “get” this, muse upon Ayurveda’s Big bang theory: that divinity manifests itself as five great elements: earth, fire, water, air and ether or space, which forms the basis of all material creation, from the tastes of food, to the changing seasons, to our unique individual constitution.
How exactly do the elements impact us?
They combine together to form vital bio energies known as the Doshas, of which there are three. Vata, Pitta and Kapha. Vata is a combination of air and space; Pitta: fire and water and Kapha: water and earth. Says Ayurveda: we are born with our own unique balance of the doshas, known as our Prakriti, or constitutional blueprint and it is our prakriti that informs our specific physical, emotional and mental characteristics.
Understanding the 3 doshas:
Doshas sound complex, but you will be surprised to note that not only do we understand these concepts in our life, we even use them colloquially. For example, consider someone you know who you think of as rather “airy.” Describe them. Are they quick moving, or slow? Are they steadfast or do they change their opinions often? Are they wispy or large framed?
Chances are, they are quick to walk and talk, changeable and often hard to pin down for a date. They are also probably thinner vs. larger. “Ayurvedically,” you are describing someone with a lot of the air element in their constitution, which would imply a prominence of the Vata dosha. Similarly, could you describe someone you know as “fiery?” Substitute passionate or confident, determined, ambitious and athletic here. Chances are, this individual has a lot of fire in their constitution – or a lot of Pitta, your typical type A personality.
Lastly, we have Kapha. Kapha is the dosha containing heavier elements, i.e. water and earth. Can you think of someone you know who is “earthy” or grounded? Are they dependable, or flighty?
Are they bigger boned, or wispy? Chances are they are dependable and larger boned. They probably give the best hugs and you can count on them to pick you up at the airport when you show up unannounced. Each one of us has characteristics of all three doshas, yet some predominate, while others are secondary and even tertiary.
Balancing our doshas is key to maintaining health as well as healing illness. Why? So that we can harness the qualities the doshas offer us in a positive manner yet are not overrun by our doshas. For example, vata in balance is wonderful. It gives us creativity, quickness, alertness, sensitivity to new ideas and the ability to develop non-attachment to material things. Many artists have much vata in them. However, when we are overrun by vata, we can become unfocused, unable to complete tasks, overwhelmed, anxious and worried and our digestion suffers.
Pitta in balance allows us the ability to channel our creativity out in the world as concrete plans. When out of balance, we can get burnt out, literally feeling adrenal fatigue. We tend towards irritability, anger and frustration and can suffer from ulcers and gastric reflux. Kapha, the most stable of the three doshas when in balance offers us calm, patience and the ability to follow things through to their end point. When we have too much Kapha, however, we can become too rigid. We also begin to lose our fire and become depressed, feeling lethargic and gaining weight.
To balance a particular dosha, our work is to cultivate the qualities opposite to the dosha(s) we are trying to balance. E.g. if we have too much air (Vata) in us, we need more fire (Pitta) and earth (Kapha).
How do we balance the doshas?
An Ayurvedic principle says: Like increases like, while opposites balance. So to balance a particular dosha, our work is to cultivate the qualities opposite to the dosha(s) we are trying to balance. E.g. if we have too much air (Vata) in us, we need more fire (Pitta) and earth (Kapha). We do this by qualitatively assessing everything we do in life from the food we eat, our daily routine and other lifestyle choices, through the lens of the doshas.
If we have much Pitta in our constitution, are we living a Pitta aggravating lifestyle? If we are highly Vata, is our life too fast paced and airy? And if we are very Kapha predominant, are we averse to change? Chances are, we probably are, as the doshas want to heighten themselves. It takes much self-awareness, mindfulness and discipline to start to make the shifts that truly do help us to experience more balance. But we have to start somewhere!
Here are some practical suggestions to balance each of the doshas.
To balance Vata:
Practice a routine. Vata loves spontaneity which can further throw it out of balance. Create a disciplined routine around waking up, sleeping and eating your meals. Eat meals at the same time daily, awake early, before sunrise and sleep by 10 p.m. to balance your hormones and endocrine system. Minimize time spent on your tech devices. Turn everything off 1 hour before bedtime. This will help to calm the nervous system which is impacted by Vata. Eat seasonally. In the winter, abstain from eating raw veggies and smoothies as they increase vata. Favor warm spiced soups and stews, cooked fruits and warm grains for breakfast and spiced, warm milks. Slow down the pace of your life. Avoid multi-tasking and create boundaries regarding answering emails. Choose one thing and do it slowly. This will increase your focus and productivity. Practice slower yoga. Avoid too many quick sports such as running. Instead, go for a sustained, longer walk out in nature.
To balance Pitta:
Minimize too much coffee. Coffee is a pitta aggravating drink. If you do drink coffee then drink it with milk, which helps to cool the acidic heat of coffee. Eat grains such as cream of wheat and oats to bring some coolness and sustenance to your fire. Eat cool, leafy green salads and avoid too much red meat, which is also pitta provoking. Practice sports without a competitive mindset. Challenge yourself physically but look at the entire practice as a journey, not a destination, so you can stay calm and still enjoy yourself. Stay away from hot yoga or any activities in a heated environment. Dedicate your work to a higher cause, which will help you to ease your affliction of perfectionism and ego. Enjoy a bath with lavender and rose oils to soothe your soul.
To balance Kapha:
Commit to daily exercise. Kapha needs to sweat to move out excess Kapha out and can endure stronger exercise such as long distance running, weights and vigorous yoga. You can also sustain some heat as Kapha tends to run cold. Create more spontaneity in your life. Commit to trying one new thing every month, so you step outside your comfort zone and don’t spend too many nights on your couch. Minimize dairy and carbs such as wheat in your diet. Instead eat grains such as quinoa, millet and barley which are lighter on the body. Eat lots of vegetables, less meat. Add warming spices such as ginger, cinnamon and black pepper to your food and use only raw honey as a sweetener to your foods and tea. Include dry brushing after you shower to your daily routine to stimulate the lymphatic system and keep Kapha in balance.
Ultimately, says Ayurveda, we inhabit this lifetime to carry out a specific purpose. If we are able to stay healthy, we are able to fulfill our calling with more ease, vitality and bliss. And the more we can do to balance our constitution, the easier it is for us to stay truly healthy from the inside out.