What is Ayurveda?
Once you understand the basics, it becomes clear why and how to use your daily self-care practices to keep yourself healthy and balance.
Ayurveda originated in India over 5000 years ago. It is the sister science to yoga. Where yoga was primarily meditation and movements to stretch the body to make sitting in meditation possible, Ayurveda is everything you do to care for yourself, like what you eat, your dental care, your exercise routine, and even your recreation activities and relationships.
Ayurveda translates to “the science of life”. Note that many of the terms we refer to in Ayurveda are Sanskrit. You don’t have to memorize them, you just need to understand the concepts
The 20 Gunas
A simple principle of Ayurveda is that like increases like and opposites bring balance. The 20 gunas are a set of 10 opposite qualities that can be used to describe everything. When you see yourself in terms of the gunas, it is easier to figure out what you need for balance.
It may seem like common sense , but we often forget to pay attention to these things in our busy lives. For example, If you are always cold, be sure to never leave the house without a jacket or gloves, prioritize taking warm baths every evening, and skip the ice cream & have warm apple crisp instead. If you are feeling a little heavy recently, either because you have gained weight or because you ate a couple of rich and heavy meals, then lighter meals will bring some balance.
As long as you pay attention and actually make the changes to your lifestyle that are required for balance.
Each of these is a scale, not just the opposite poles.
While this is the standard list, I think there are others.
For example, when I think of illness I often think of things like acute vs chronic, or surface level vs penetrating.
The 5 Elements & their Gunas
Everything (including us) is made up of the five elements, but not always literally. Let’s take a look at the human body.
Water and Air are easy because we know our cells are 70% water and we know we pull air into our body with every breath. But what about Earth, Fire, and Ether? Our bodies are clearly not made up of soil, but you can think of earth as your physical substance. You aren’t literally made of flames, but your body does generate a huge amount of heat to keep your body temperature stable. And when it comes to ether/space, think of the open space in your body - your ears, your sinuses, your lungs, your digestive tract, and even the pores of space in your bones.
The 3 Doshas Vatta, Pitta & Kapha
Dosha is not the easiest term to define. A dosha is a specific energy that circulates in the body and governs how we function. Interestingly, the literal translation from Sanskrit means “that which can cause problems”. I believe this is because we tend to notice our doshas only when they get out of balance and the more of one specific dosha we have, the more likely that dosha will go out of balance.
Each dosha is a different combination of the elements. Since we are all made up of all 5 elements, we also have all 3 doshas. However, we tend to have one, maybe 2, prominent dosha that we strongly relate to. If you aren’t sure what your primary dosha is, you can take a simple quiz online. Ayurveda Dosha Assessment
The dosha make-up we were born with
Our dosha imbalance.
The world impacts us and can easily bring imbalance.
When it comes to your dosha quiz, it is important to consider your natural state before the world affected you. I was once convinced I was primarily pitta dosha, but only because my pitta was out of balance. I was working an analytical job, I was in the pitta time of life, and the people around me valued my pitta energy so I embraced it. Therefore, while taking any dosha quiz, I encourage you to answer from your younger self. You will likely get a better feel for your Prakruti. Noting where the answers might be different between your younger self and your current self can help you identify areas you might need to work on (your Vikruti).
Dosha is not just associated with our mind and body. The dosha energies are relevant to the daily clock, the annual calendar, and even the time of life. Let’s take a look a high-level look at the doshas.
We are all made up of a combination of all 3 doshas. However, we typically identify most with 1 or maybe 2 of the doshas. To learn more about the doshas and what it means to you, check out the Dosha Tip Sheets
Dosha Energies Outside the Body
As I mentioned above, the doshic energies exist outside of us. The easiest place to see it is in the seasons.
Vata is cold, dry and unstable. Think of Autumn weather, cold and windy, then warm and sunny. Swinging from day to day until it begins to settle into just cold and dry Winter.
Pitta is hot and fiery. Think of Summer weather, all sunshine and heat.
Kapha is heavy and damp. Think of the energy of late Winter into Spring. The heavy wet snow, melting into the muddy dampness of Spring (and bringing seasonal allergies with it).
It is also evident as we look at the times of life.
Childhood, when our bodies are growing at an amazing rate, that is the energy of Kapha.
Adulthood, when we are doing and accomplishing, that is the energy of Pitta.
Old-Age, when the body literally appears to be drying out and we are often drawn to create and leave a legacy, that is the energy of Vata.
Our Daily Clock & Dosha Energies
6am -10am is Kapha time. If you don’t wake up before this, you wake up to heavy Kapha energy and you might feel unmotivated. This is actually when you body is strongest, so it’s the best time of day for exercise.
10am - 2pm is Pitta time. Digestive fire is hottest. Eat your biggest meal of the day during this time.
2pm - 6pm is Vata time. This is a great time to socialize or do something creative. Keep any evening meal in this time nice and light.
6pm - 10pm is Kapha time. The heavy Kapha energy allows you to unwind and settle in for the evening.
10pm - 2am is Pitta time.
This is the time your body should be deeply asleep. Your body can process waste and heal, and your brain can process all the thoughts from the day.
2am - 6am is Vata time.
Wake up at the end of this window to enjoy the light and airy energy to start your day.
The simplest definition of Agni is or digestive fire. It is our metabolism of food to nutrients to energy and also the metabolism of information to thoughts and knowledge. It is sometimes referred to as the force of intelligence within each cell. You can really deep dive into all the aspects of agni, but I think that is sufficient. Now thinking specifically of our ability to digest food, it might occur to you from reading the dosha descriptions above that dosha energy affects our agni.
Vata people often have very irregular digestion.
Pitta people often have very hot and fast digestion.
Kapha people often have sluggish digestion.
Ayurveda encourages us to pay close attention to our digestion and do what we can to keep our digestion optimal. While understanding your dosha can help you identify where you might struggle with digestion, they don’t always correlate. It is possible for a Pitta to become constipated and for a Kapha to have diarrhea. For that reason, paying attention to your agni might be more important than identifying your dosha.Why do we care so much about digestion? That brings us to the final term we are going to discuss…
Just like agni, we could dive deep into ama, but that isn’t our goal here. Essentially, ama is the toxic by-product, incompletely digested, or unprocessed matter that is created from poor/incomplete digestion.
When you think of poor digestion as causing toxic unprocessed matter to build up in your body, you begin to understand why Ayurveda puts so much focus on digestion.
Caring for your Agni
If you have sluggish digestion, it is important to be hungry before you eat. Proper meal spacing is important. Constant grazing is like constantly throwing wood on a fire without giving the flames a chance to catch.
You can also activate agni before a meal by chewing on a small piece of ginger with a squeeze of lime juice or enjoying a cup of CCF tea (cumin, coriander, fennel).
Avoid drinking a lot of fluids before your meal, as that is going to dilute the stomach acid and therefore dampen the digestive fire. While you’re thinking about drinks, keep your drinks warm. As a rule, Ayurveda teaches us to avoid ice-cold drinks because they have a negative effect on the body.
If you have quick and hot digestion, focus on cooling it down (not putting it out). The best way to do this is by eating cooling foods like cucumber, cilantro, and tzatziki. Maybe start your meal with a little sweet treat to pacify agni.
Avoid spicy foods that just fan the flames. Use spices like cumin and fennel to add flavor without too much heat.
Green tea to drink and a salad of bitter greens will also calm down overactive agni.