If you are interested in basic Ayurveda, you’ve come to the right place! Ayurveda is an ancient Indian medicine and healing system that is over 5,000 years old. It is thought to be one of the original medicine systems known to man. It is a medicine for the body as well as the mind and spirit.
The Sanskrit word Ayurveda breaks down to Ayur which translates to life and Veda which translates to knowledge. So Ayurveda literally translates to “Science of life” or “Knowledge of life” depending on the source. The primary and most authoritative source of Ayurveda medicine is the Charaka Samhita, written in Sanskrit.
Ayurveda medicine can play an important role in all our everyday lives. It is often something many people turn to when in a crisis,. Rather, it can be a powerful tool for living in balance and harmony (and therefore quite preventative in terms of health issues).
Ayurveda teaches the idea that every single one of us is unique and different and should be treated as such. It can also be an incredibly beneficial complement to traditional medicine. A common misconception is that one cannot combine different modalities and that it is either Western Medicine or Ayurveda. I don’t believe that at all and, in fact, I think they can work beautifully together.
The Elements of Ayurveda Medicine
There are five elements of Ayurveda medicine that are found in each person. These also happen to be the fundamental elements of nature. They are space (ether), air, fire, water, and earth.
Even though each person possesses these, there will generally be one or more that are dominant over the others.
The Principles of Ayurveda Medicine
I’m sure you’ve probably heard the term dosha if you’ve studied Ayurveda at all. Ayurveda medicine works around your unique body composition, which is referred to as your dosha. Doshas are an expression of the elements.
As we talked about, the body is made up of different combinations of the 5 elements. The doshas are different pairings of these elements.
In a balanced state, the body is healthy. It is believed that when our doshas are out of balance, this is when disease presents. Ever heard the phrase “Too much of a good thing….”?
For most people, we each have one dominant dosha and often a secondary dosha. On rare occasions, two or more of the doshas are equal.
If you want to find out which dosha is your dominant dosha, take this quiz. While quizzes are great, they are a snapshot in time. For example, your skin may feel different in the winter vs. the summer. So answering questions about the dryness of your skin may be somewhat more relevant when taking the time of year into account, which the quizzes do not do. The best way to learn your dominant dosha is really observing yourself over time. But for beginners, a quiz is a great place to start.
Before we go into each specific dosha, however, I want to mention the 20 qualities (or gunas) as identified by Ayurveda and then we’ll be able to see which ones make up which dosha.
What are the Gunas?
There are 20 qualities (“gunas”) identified by Ayurveda medicine. These 20 qualities or gunas are:
Heavy – Light
Slow – Quick
Subtle – Large
Cold – Hot
Oily – Dry
Stable – Moving
Soft – Hard,
Smooth – Rough
Solid – Liquid
In the most simple terms, the law of opposites applies here. If you are feeling heavy and off, then we want to counteract this by, for example, eating light.
Balance in Ayurveda is key.
Now, let’s walk through the doshas, their attributes, and signs of imbalance.
The Vata Dosha
This dosha is made up of Space and Air. It is the energy within ourselves that is responsible for controlling all movement in our body. Which makes sense when you think about space and air, right?
Vata is my specific Dosha, by the way.
Dry, Light, Mobile, Cold, Rough, Subtle
Signs of Balance
Excitable, Creative, Outgoing, Spontaneous.
Signs of Imbalance
Anxiety, Fear, Worry, Insomnia, Tremors (ex, Parkinson’s), Excessive Cold (Raynaud’s), and Dryness in the Body.
The Pitta Dosha
This dosha is Fire and Water. More like fire and steam. It is the energy that is responsible for metabolism and transformation.
Sharp, Oily, Hot, Light, Mobile, Liquid
Signs of Balance
Courageous, Friendly, Great Leader.
Signs of Imbalance
Aggressive, Angry, Depressed, Inflammation, Red Rashes, Burning Urine.
The Kapha Dosha
This Dosha is Earth and Water. It is the energy that creates stability and protection, and is very grounding.
Soft, Cold, Flowing, Slow, Heavy, Stable
Signs of Balance
Calm, Strong, Loyal.
Signs of Imbalance
Overweight, Greedy, Complacent, Mucous Secretions, Diabetes, Lactose Intolerant.
Wellness and Disease in Ayurveda
Wellness is most simply the absence of disease and when you are feeling balanced. When wellness is not present, then Ayurveda will address the body as a unique body (as it is).
We can’t talk about health without mentioning agni.
What is Agni?
Agni is the spark of life, the fire element. All agni in the body is governed by the digestive fire in the lower stomach. If this is out of balance, all agni is affected. The following is from The Everyday Ayurveda Guide to Self-Care which is a fantastic read for beginners:
Caring for the digestive fire in the stomach is the easiest way to preserve health. A strong agni will ensure that the tissues are nourished and that nothing that isn’t supposed to be there is able to survive, anywhere in the body. Strong agni cooks away impurities. Weak agni allows for poorly digested food to sit around in the stomach, which over time begins to congeal into a thick, sticky sludge that is very hard to get rid of. This substance, called ama, stays in the stomach initially and sits upon the agni, dampening the fires of digestion, which makes production of more ama likely. A catch-22. Over time, ama can also end up in other places in the body. It is the building block of disease and creates fatigue, body aches, brain fog, poor appetite, and a bad smell in the mouth, sweat, and feces. Ama in the stomach can be spotted as a thick, opaque coating on the back of the tongue that does not scrape off.
So what’s the first line of defense for making sure Agni is doing just fine? A healthy diet.
You might be wondering what foods are approved for Ayurveda. You might be surprised to find out that this isn’t exactly how it works. A food is not approved by Ayurveda or not approved by Ayurveda.
Rasa (or taste)
There are, however, 6 basic tastes in Ayurveda: Sweet, Sour, Salty, Pungent, Bitter, and Astringent.
Sweet is made up of Earth and Water. Examples are bananas, peaches, carrots, sweet potatoes.
Sour is made up of Fire and Earth. Examples are sour cream, lemon, hibiscus, and coriander.
Salty is made up of Water and Fire. Examples are sea vegetables, sea salt, and seaweed.
Pungent is made up of Air and Space. Examples are garlic, onion, hot peppers, and mustard.
Bitter is made up of Air and Fire. Examples are coffee, kale, and leafy greens.
Astringent is made up of Air and Earth. Examples are cranberries, basil, and honey.
Let’s use sweet as an example. Since it is made up of Earth and Water, these are also the properties of Kapha. Therefore, eating something that is sweet will increase Kapha and decrease Vata and Pitta.
Now, when I say increase, you can think of that as aggravation. So, since I am Vata, if my Vata is aggravated and unbalanced, then I want to decrease Vata and therefore eating something sweet, for example, is the way to go.
Given the properties of Doshas and the properties of tastes, a Vata type should eat foods that are sweet, sour, and salty. Pitta should eat foods that are sweet, bitter, and astringent. Kapha should eat foods that are pungent, bitter, and astringent.
This is not to say that this is ALL they should eat. In fact, a balanced Ayurveda meal will consist of all 6 tastes.
Putting it all Together
From a very basic point of view, one can think of Ayurveda as a total mind, body healing protocol. It involves things like daily routines (ex, tongue scraping, dry brushing, oil pulling, oil massage, Yoga, specific nutrition for doshas, and more) and mind care. Learn more about the specific health benefits of yoga for women!
If you are interested in making some changes and implementing some Ayurveda principles, be sure to check out my easy (and basic) Ayurveda Daily Routine.
Just remember, it is not a pill or a prescription and it is not a short term thing. As with most good things in life, it is a lifestyle.
Weis-Bohlen, S. (2018). Ayurveda Beginner’s Guide. Althea Press. (Can be purchased here)
O’Donnel, Kate. (2020). The Everyday Ayurveda Guide to Self-Care. Shambhala Publications Inc. (can be purchased here)