Ayurveda is considered by many scholars to be the oldest healing science. Ayurveda is a Sanskrit word which means “The Science of Life.” Ayurvedic knowledge originated in India more than 5,000 years ago and is often called the “Mother of All Healing”. It stems from the ancient Vedic culture and was taught for many thousands of years in an oral tradition from accomplished masters to their disciples. Some of this knowledge was set to print a few thousand years ago, but much of it is inaccessible. The principles of many, if not all, natural healing systems now familiar in the West, such as Homeopathy and Polarity Therapy, have their roots in Ayurveda.
Ayurveda places great emphasis on prevention and encourages maintaining health by paying close attention to balance in one’s life through right thinking, diet, lifestyle and herbs. Knowledge of Ayurveda enables one to understand how to create balance of body, mind and consciousness according to one’s own individual constitution and how to make lifestyle changes to bring about and maintain this balance.
Just as everyone has an individual face or thumb print, according to Ayurveda, each person has a particular pattern of energy–an individual combination of physical, mental and emotional characteristics–which is his or her constitution. This constitution is determined at conception by a number of factors and is the same throughout one’s life. Many factors, both internal and external, act upon us to disturb this balance and are reflected as a change in one’s constitution from the balanced state. Examples of some of these emotional and physical stresses are: one’s emotional state, diet and food choices, seasons and weather, physical trauma, work and family relationships. Once these factors that can cause imbalance are understood, one can take appropriate actions to nullify or minimize their effects or eliminate the causes, and re-establish one’s original constitution. Balance is the natural order; imbalance is disorder. Health is order; disease is disorder. Within the body there is a constant interaction between order and disorder. Once one understands the nature and structure of disorder, one can re-establish order.
Ayurveda identifies three basic types of energy (doshsas) or functional principles that are present in everybody and everything. There are no single words in English to describe these principles, so we use the original Sanskrit words vata, pitta and kapha. Energy is required to create movement so that fluids and nutrients get to the cells, enabling the body to function. Energy is also required to metabolize the nutrients in the cells, and is called for to lubricate and maintain cellular structure. Vata is the energy of movement, pitta the energy of digestion or metabolism and kapha the energy of lubrication and structure. All people have vata, pitta and kapha, but one is usually primary, one secondary and the third least prominent. The cause of disease in Ayurveda is viewed as the lack of proper cellular function because of an excess or deficiency of vata, pitta or kapha and/or the presence of toxins. In Ayurveda, body, mind and consciousness work together in maintaining balance. They are simply viewed as different facets of one’s being.
To learn how to balance the body, mind and consciousness then requires an understanding how vata, pitta and kapha work together. According to Ayurvedic philosophy the entire cosmos is an interplay of the energies of the five great elements–Space, Air, Fire, Water and Earth. Vata, pitta and kapha are combinations and permutations of these five elements that manifest as patterns present in all creation.
In the physical body, vata–composed of Space and Air–is the subtle energy associated with movement. It governs breathing, blinking, muscle and tissue movement, pulsation of the heart, and all movements in the cytoplasm and cell membranes. In balance, vata promotes creativity and flexibility. Out of balance, vata produces fear and anxiety.
Pitta, made up of Fire and Water, expresses as the body’s metabolic system. It governs digestion, absorption, assimilation, nutrition, metabolism and body temperature. In balance, pitta promotes understanding and intelligence. Out of balance, pitta arouses anger, hatred and jealousy.
Kapha is formed from Earth and Water and is the energy that forms the body’s structure–bones, muscles, tendons–and provides the “glue” that holds the cells together. Kapha supplies the water for all bodily parts and systems. It lubricates joints, moisturizes the skin, and maintains immunity. In balance, kapha is expressed as love, calmness and forgiveness. Out of balance, it leads to attachment, greed and envy.
Life presents us with many challenges and opportunities. Although there is much over which we have little control, we do have the power to decide about some things, like our diet and lifestyle. To maintain balance and health, it is important to pay attention to these decisions. Diet and lifestyle appropriate to one’s individual constitution strengthen the body, mind and consciousness.
The basic difference between Ayurveda and Western allopathic medicine is important to understand. Western allopathic medicine currently tends to focus on symptomatology and disease, and primarily uses drugs and surgery to rid the body of pathogens or diseased tissue. Many lives have been saved by this approach. In fact, surgery is encompassed by Ayurveda. However, drugs, because of their toxicity, often weaken the body. Ayurveda does not focus on disease. Rather, Ayurveda maintains that all life must be supported by energy in balance. When there is minimal stress and the flow of energy within a person is balanced, the body’s natural defense systems will be strong and can more easily defend against disease.
It must be emphasized that Ayurveda is not a substitute for Western allopathic medicine. There are many instances when the disease process and acute conditions can best be treated with drugs or surgery. Ayurveda can be used in conjunction with Western medicine to make a person stronger and less likely to be afflicted with disease and/or to rebuild the body after being treated with drugs or surgery.
We all have times when we don’t feel well and recognize that we’re out of balance. Sometimes we go to the doctor only to be told there is nothing wrong. What is actually occurring is that this imbalance has not yet become recognizable as a disease. Yet it is serious enough to make us notice our discomfort. We may start to wonder if it is just our imagination. We may also begin to consider alternative measures and actively seek to create balance in our body, mind and consciousness.
Ayurveda encompasses various techniques for assessing health. It assesses prodromal symptoms, cardinal signs and symptoms, and one’s suitability for treatment to help determine the etiology and pathogenesis of an imbalance. Various methods are utilized to help acquire information during an assessment with a client. These methods include: questioning, observation, palpation, direct perception and inference. Techniques such as taking the pulse; observing the tongue, eyes and physical form; and listening to the tone of the voice are employed during an assessment. Palliative and cleansing measures, if appropriate, can be used to help eliminate an imbalance along with suggestions for eliminating or managing the causes of the imbalance. Recommendations may include: implementation of lifestyle changes; starting and maintaining a suggested diet; and the use of herbs. In some cases, participating in a cleansing program, called panchakarma, is suggested to help the body rid itself of accumulated toxins so it can gain more benefit from various suggested measures of treatment.
In summary, Ayurveda addresses all aspects of life–the body, mind and spirit. It recognizes that each of us is unique, each responds differently to the many aspects of life, each possesses different strengths and weaknesses. Through insight, understanding and experience Ayurveda presents a vast “database” of the relationships between causes and their affects, both immediate and subtle, for each unique individual
Vata: The Energy of Movement
A person with vata predominant is blessed with a quick mind, flexibility and creativity. Vata provides the essential motion for all bodily processes and is extremely vital for health. One purpose of lifestyle considerations is to “ground” or stabilize this motion. On an annual basis, vata is most prominent in the fall and at the change of seasons, and these are the most important times to be careful of diet and lifestyle. Routine is very useful in assisting the vata individual to effectively ground all this moving energy.
Vata types have variable appetite and digestion. They are often attracted to astringent foods like salad and vegetables, but their constitution is balanced by sweet, sour and salty tastes. Vata people tend to produce little urine and their feces are hard, dry and small in size and quantity. Mentally, vata people usually grasp things quickly but then forget them quickly. They are alert, restless and very active. They walk, talk and think fast, but are easily fatigued. They have less willpower and often feel unstable and ungrounded. They have less tolerance, confidence and boldness. When unbalanced, vata types have a tendency to become fearful and nervous, and may experience high anxiety. In the external world, vata types tend to earn money quickly and spend it quickly. They are not good planners and as a consequence may suffer economic hardship. Vata resides in the colon, as well as the brain, ears, bones, joints, skin and thighs. Vata people are more susceptible to diseases involving the air principle, such as emphysema, pneumonia and arthritis. Other common vata disorders include flatulence, tics, twitches, aching joints, dry skin and hair, nerve disorders, constipation, and mental confusion. Vata tends to increase with age as is indicated by drying and wrinkling of the skin.
Since the attributes of vata are dry, light, cold, rough, subtle, mobile, clear and dispersing, any of these qualities in excess can cause imbalance. Frantic travel, especially by plane, loud noises, continual stimulation, drugs, sugar, and alcohol all derange vata, as does exposure to cold and cold foods. Like the wind, vata types have a hard time becoming and staying grounded. Routine is difficult but essential if vata is to be lowered and controlled. In general, people with excessive vata respond most rapidly to warm, moist, slightly oily, heavy foods. Steam baths, humidifiers, and moisture in general are helpful.
General food guidelines for decreasing vata are:
- 50% whole grains: whole grain cooked cereals, some breads and crackers
- 20% protein: eggs, high quality dairy products, poultry, fish, seafood, beef, tofu, black and red lentils
- 20-30% fresh vegetables with an optional 10% for fresh fruits
General guidelines for balancing vata:
- Keep warm
- Keep calm
- Avoid raw foods
- Avoid extreme cold
- Avoid cold foods
- Eat warm foods and spices
- Keep a regular routine
Pitta: The Energy of Digestion and Metabolism
Pitta people have many of the qualities of fire. Fire is hot, penetrating, sharp, and agitating. Similarly, pitta people have warm bodies, penetrating ideas, and sharp intelligence. But they can also become very agitated and short tempered. The pitta body type is one of medium height and build, with ruddy or coppery skin. They may have many moles and freckles. Their skin is warm and less wrinkled than vata skin. Their hair tends to be silky and they often experience premature graying or hair loss. Their eyes are of medium size and conjunctiva is moist. The nose is sharp and the tip tends to be reddish.
Pitta people have a strong metabolism, good digestion, and strong appetites. They like plenty of food and liquids. They tend to love hot spices and cold drinks. However, their constitution is balanced by sweet, bitter and astringent tastes. Pitta people sleep well and of medium duration. They produce large quantities of urine and feces, which tend to be yellowish, soft and plentiful. They easily perspire. Hands and feet stay warm. Pitta people have a lower tolerance for sunlight, heat or hard physical work. Mentally, pitta types are alert and intelligent and have good powers of comprehension. However, they are easily agitated and aggressive and tend toward hate, anger and jealousy when imbalanced. In the external world, pitta people like to be leaders and planners and seek material prosperity. They like to exhibit their wealth and possessions. Pitta people tend to have diseases involving the fire principle such as fevers, inflammatory diseases and jaundice. Common symptoms include skin rashes, burning sensation, ulceration, fever, inflammations or irritations such as conjunctivitis, colitis, or sore throats.
Since the attributes of pitta are oily, hot, light, mobile, and liquid, an excess of any of these qualities aggravates pitta. Summer is a time of heat, the pitta season. Sunburn, poison ivy, prickly heat, and short tempers are common. These kinds of pitta disorders tend to calm down as the weather gets cooler. The diet and lifestyle changes emphasize coolness-cool foods, avoidance of chilies and spices (especially difficult for New Mexicans), and cool climates. People with excessive pitta need to exercise at the coolest part of the day.
Dietary guidelines for pitta are:
- 50% whole grains–whole grain breads, cereals, cooked grains
- 20% protein–beans (except lentils), tofu, tempeh, cottage cheese, ricotta cheese, raw milk, egg white, chicken and turkey (white meat), shrimp, rabbit, venison
- 20-30% vegetables with an optional 10% for fresh fruits
- Avoid excessive heat
- Avoid excessive oil
- Avoid excessive steam
- Limit salt intake
- Eat cooling, non-spicy foods
Exercise during the cooler part of the day
Kapha: The Energy of Lubrication
Kapha people are blessed with strength, endurance and stamina. They have sweet, loving dispositions and are stable and grounded. Their skin is oily and smooth. Physically, kapha people tend to gain weight and have a slow metabolism. They shun exercise. They have thick skin and their bodies and muscles are well developed. Their eyes are large, dark, and attractive with thick, long lashes and brows. Kapha people evacuate slowly and feces tend to be soft, pale and oily. Perspiration is moderate. Sleep is deep and prolonged. Kapha types are attracted to sweet, salty and oily foods, but their constitutions are most balanced by bitter, astringent and pungent tastes.
Psychologically, kapha people tend to be calm, tolerant and forgiving. However, they may become lethargic. While they may be slow to comprehend, their long term memory is excellent. When out of balance, kaphas tend to experience greed, envy, attachment and possessiveness. In the external world, kapha tendencies toward groundedness, stability, and attachment help them to earn and hold onto money. They tend to have diseases connected to the water principle such as flu, sinus congestion, and other diseases involving mucous. Sluggishness, excess weight, diabetes, water retention, and headaches are also common. Kapha can become more aggravated as the moon gets full because, as biologists have discovered, there is a tendency for water retention at that time. Winter is the time of greatest kapha accumulation and following the dietary and lifestyle changes are most important during that season.
Dietary guidelines for kapha are:
- 30-40% whole grains: rye crackers, dry cereals, and cooked grains
- 20% protein: chicken, turkey, boiled and poached eggs, rabbit, small amount of goats milk, and most beans (including garbanzos, adukis, pintos, black beans, red lentils, navy and white beans, split peas, and black eye peas)
- 40-50% fresh vegetables with an optional 10% for fresh or dried fruits. A daily salad is good.
- Get plenty of exercise
- Avoid heavy foods
- Keep active
- Avoid dairy
- Avoid iced food
- Vary your routine
- Avoid fatty, oily foods
- Avoid iced drinks
- Eat light, dry food
Remember that your progress toward balance and health is proportional to how well you stick to the guidelines of diet and lifestyle. Old habits sometimes die hard and your changes may be very gradual but, to achieve progress, the changes need to be made. You are in charge of your own rate of change.
If you wish to learn more about Ayurveda, there is a bibliography at the end of this booklet. We highly recommend Dr. Lad’s Ayurveda: The Science of Self-Healing for a conceptual understanding of Vata, Pitta, and Kapha. For guidelines and explanations about the Ayurvedic approach to food and healing we also recommend Usha Lad and Dr. Lad’s cookbook, Ayurvedic Cooking for Self-Healing.
Lad, Vasant. Ayurveda: The Science of Self-Healing. Lotus Press: Santa Fe, 1984.
Usha Lad & Dr. Vasant Lad. Ayurvedic Cooking for Self-Healing. The Ayurvedic Press: Albuquerque, 1994).
Morrison, Judith H. The Book of Ayurveda: A Holistic Approach to Health and Longevity. New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1995, A Fireside Book.
Svoboda, Robert E. The Hidden Secret of Ayurveda. Pune, India, 1980; reprint, The Ayurvedic Press: Albuquerque, 1994.
Svoboda, Robert E. Prakruti: Your Ayurvedic Constitution. Geocom Limited: Albuquerque, 1989.
Svoboda, Robert E. Ayurveda: Life, Health and Longevity. Penguin: London, 1992.
Frawley, David, and Vasant Lad. The Yoga of Herbs. Lotus Press: Santa Fe, 1986.
Frawley, David. Ayurvedic Healing. Morson Publishing: Salt Lake City, 1989.
The above books are recommended in the order of the simplest to the most complex, from those containing basic Ayurvedic knowledge to those with resource and reference information.