Ayurveda: Core Principles & Doshas 102
Welcome to Part 2 of my Ayurveda series. I am so excited to get into some more of the juicy details about Ayurveda with you all. In the previous post, “Ayurveda: The Art of Healing” I delved into what this ancient system of healing is and what it provides within a much broader framework or understanding. I also looked at it within the context of the modern world and compared it to some of the other systems of healing that we have available to us in this day and age. By doing this, I hoped to highlight how Ayurveda goes above and beyond most healing systems in terms of how multi-modal and integrative it is as a whole system: taking every facet of what it means to be a living being into consideration when understanding health, healing, wellbeing and inner harmony.
But now, it’s time to get into some of the key foundational principles of the system itself so in this post I am going to highlight some of those core aspects on which the system is based. In future posts I will explore in more depth specific understandings of things such as: balance, the energy of food, eating seasonally, eating to support your individual constitution; how various lifestyle choices impact your dosha and so on. It is my biggest hope and aim to empower you with the healing knowledge that not only saved my life, but has enhanced it every day since so that you, too, can make choices that best serve your unique blue print and expression of health.
What is AYURVEDA in Practice? (i.e. The JUICY DETAILS …)
Ayurveda recognises 5 basic elements that make up every single aspect of everything in existence (of organic & inorganic matter). These elements, which you may have heard of before in various contexts, are: earth, ether, fire, water & air. Everything that we perceive as matter in the world; all organic and inorganic materials, are simply different ratios and expressions of these basic elements. And since human beings are simply smaller versions of the macrocosm, we reflect this within our own underlying make-up. As such Ayurveda recognises the five elements within each person, too. These elements and their differing ratios are what essentially comprise us as human beings (they are the energetic building blocks of our being). The key thing to note here is that every individual has varying ratios and expressions of these elements. In other words: the five elements are all present in each person but in varying degrees and this, from an Ayurvedic perspective, is what accounts for the prevalence of human variability & individuality. It is for that reason that this principle is core in understanding why balance means something different to every person at any given moment. Different combinations of these elements are what create the “doshas” (more on this further down in this post).
What state our elemental ratios are in in this moment or the next, will determine what we need in order to bring us back to a state of deep harmony. The process of moving towards balance in any given moment is therefore recognised as a journey of giving yourself whatever you need in order to re-establish the balance of your basic elements. Every single thing we are exposed to in our lives influences our basic elements in one way or another (either balancing our elements or causing imbalance, or being relatively neutral), and therefore what is needed in order to re-establish balance in our lives will look different in every moment. But, don’t worry. It is not as complex as it may seem. Once you have come to grips with the core understandings of this knowledge and how each element expresses itself differently within each person (in both balanced or imbalanced states), you will come to understand how you can effect healing change for yourself and be your OWN healer by learning what the bodies expressive language or mode of communication is (example: learning that a symptom of dry skin is a vata imbalance and by learning the principles of what brings the vata dosha back into balance through various techniques and practical lifestyle additions/subtractions you can bring balance to your system once more). The key is learning how to read the signs of your own energy body so that you can support yourself through food, activities, thoughts and other aspects of your lifestyle in order to bring about a deep state of inner harmony.
How are these basic elements present in humans?
Each element has different functions within the being. For example:
· Earth: we nourish ourselves by ingesting foods from the Earth and our physical beings return to the Earth when we pass (note the cyclical nature of existence). Our physical bodies are also of this Earth. Being the physical vessel that carries our soul through this life time therefore, connecting and balancing your Earth element is vital for a supported and fluid experience of being in your physical form.
· Water: the element water, as we all most likely know, comprises about 70% of our physical bodies and allows for the proper functioning of all of our bodily functions. Water also represents emotions, fluidity, impermanence, flexibility and our ability to flow and be at peace with change (both within and without).
· Fire: the fire element provides vital energy, heat, radiance & is at the root of all metabolic processes within the body such as digestion and assimilation of nutrients. You might have heard of the term “digestive fire”? That is referring to your basic fire element! It is also the heat of passion, the impulsive wave of enthusiasm, the temper tantrum and the burst of energy that sets you forth into the day.
· Air: the element of air moves through the entire body fluidly and constantly; without this we would not survive five minutes. It provides oxygen to every cell & fiber & gives energy to important biological functions by keeping the fluidity and dynamic nature of being alive in motion. Air is what keeps us elevated, moving, changing, it keeps our ability to be engaging with life ALIVE. Air is subtle, it is like mist. It is finer, lighter, ethereal even. But, when out of balance it can be the cause of much havoc, so, we want to balance our air element!
· Space: this element is ever-present and enables the other elements to work as harmoniously and synergistically as they need to; space is the subtlest of the elements; it is the underlying principle through which all the other elements function; it is the cornerstone of existence. Space is openness, empty, void, spaciousness, neutral, healing, expansive. This is mirrored in the fact that the idea of matter as being SOLID is not true – it has been found that at the level of the most basic building-block, 99.999999 percent of what comprises an atom (the most basic building blocks of our physical beings) is SPACE.
These elements work on a spectrum of density: Earth is the densest and represents the gross body, the physical form, the matter which we feel, perceive and can touch. Space or ether, on the other hand, is the subtlest (like the vayus in yoga for example). All of these elements have different expressions within the body as made manifest through repetitive imbalance or balance. As demonstrated briefly, each element has a different energetic quality: and THIS is where it gets even more interesting! Because it is the expressions of these different qualities that we see as the manifestation/emergence of diseases/disorders or different states of vibrant health (depending on the state of balance of an individual).
Stick with me … I know you may need to re-read this section a couple of times to let this knowledge really “land” in your cognitive understanding. But, this is where it all gets even juicier (in the application of this knowledge!).
So, this philosophy of the five elements perfectly explains why substances of the natural world are so compatible & harmonious with the human body: in other words, it explains why our bodies function optimally when we eat natural, whole foods. Our body responds well to plant foods, plant medicines, herbs & minerals because in essence they are of the same underlying make-up as our own human form. It is for this reason that Ayurveda recognises food as one of the primary healing tools to re-store balance and maintain deep awareness on a daily basis.
Ayurveda works with coming to understand individuals by recognising 3 different doshas. We all have each dosha (because we are all made up of all of the 5 elements) but they are simply present in different ratios. It is working with your individual ratios of these doshas that enables you to work out what YOU need (in terms of food, exercise, psychological needs, energetic needs etc.) as an individual to bring you into harmony with nature and into your fullest expression of health.
What are the doshas?
“The doshas are biological energies found throughout the human body and mind. They govern all physical & mental processes and provide every living being with an individual blueprint for health & fulfillment”.
Essentially, the three different doshas (namely: Vata, Pitta and Kapha) are derived from different combinations of the above mentioned elements and their corresponding qualities. Due to their subtle energetic nature, the doshas can’t be directly pin-pointed and “located” in the body but are instead visible through very distinct actions, patterns, behaviors, physical appearances and physiological processes. As you are born with a basic & completely unique genetic make-up, so are you born with a completely unique ratio of doshas and their qualities.
What determines your Natural Birth Doshic Ratio (or your Prakruti)?
It is believed that the doshic ratios of your parents at the time of your conception are what merge together and create your individual constitution. How amazing is that!?
There are three states that your doshas can be in:
· Balanced: all three doshas are present in their natural proportions (otherwise referred to as your birth constitution or prakruti)
· Increased: A particular dosha is present in a greater than normal proportion which is also known as an “aggravated” state or an “excess state”
· Decreased: a particular dosha is present in less than its normal ratio also known as a “reduced” or “depleted” state
It is often easier to recognise when we are out of balance because our aches and pains grab our attention more readily than when we are in a state of balance. In a state of imbalance, the aches, pains and grievances grab our attention and beg of us to tune in and understand what is needed to restore balance. In this way, we can actually start to change how we perceive and understand our pains, injuries and illnesses! Instead of viewing them as grievances that are “interrupting” the flow of our life, we can begin to see them as powerful portals into a world of transformative healing if we are willing enough to engage with them that deeply.
Following Ayurvedic principles, in order to come into your fullest expression of balance & health, it is important to support your natural birth constitution through the daily choices you make – in other words, living in a way that constantly aims to bring balance to the individual ratios of these three doshas within you.
Below I give a brief overview of the doshas and their corresponding qualities and characteristics. I plan to do a much more in-depth discussion of each dosha in the next few posts so that you can begin to understand how each element and each dosha is expressed within you individually!
Elements: Ether & Air
A few characteristics: flighty, impulsive, creative, dynamic, drawn to movement & being busy, multi-taskers, spurts of energy, prone to coldness, often slight in frame, prone to anxiety, inclined towards spirituality, prone to hyper-activity.
Elements: Earth & Fire
A few characteristics: fiery, hot, quick-tempered, impulsive, passionate, competitive, type A personality, achievement-orientated, very active, medium-strong build.
Elements: Water & Earth
A few characteristics: calm, soothing personalities, compassionate, relaxed, lethargic, prone to depression, more prone to hypo-activity, inertia, stillness, stagnant energy, prone to phlegm & mucous.
These are just very basic characteristics of some expressions of each dosha. You will likely find (and rightfully so!) that you identify with aspects of each dosha and this is normal because remember, we have all three doshas within us but simply in different ratios!
Because doshas are dynamic energies they are constantly changing as they are influenced by the environments we find ourselves in, the people we connect with, the sensory input we are exposed to, the seasons, the foods we eat, the thoughts we think and the activities we do. Depending on the particular qualities of a dosha, certain things will aggravate or balance it.
A pitta personality might find that in a state of imbalance they experience heart burn, rashes, inflammation, bursts of anger, excess mental activity, compulsive or addictive tendencies (all of which are expressions of excess FIRE). In this case, to restore balance they will need to adopt lifestyle choices that will cool this fiery nature to bring it back to its original ratio. Such lifestyle choices are multiple and varied but food and the choice of activities are two of the major aspects to look into as preventative & curative measures to restoring balance. As a means of taking balancing corrective action this individual might eat a cooling summer salad (or other foods that are cooling in nature: cucumbers, watermelon, etc.) instead of a bowl of spicy food (which would further imbalance the excess of fire they are experiencing). They might do a yoga practice instead of what they might be more drawn to which would likely be a more physically exerting exercise such as running (or some other sport that mirrors their fiery nature like kickboxing or spinning). As mentioned before, the highest point of balance and fulfillment & health for an individual is when their current ratio of doshas is closest to the ratio of their birth constitution.
As you can see, it is a very intricate and complex process of understanding ourselves on a very deep level: physically, mentally, emotionally, energetically & spiritually. But, it is such a comprehensive and fascinating system. It might seem slightly daunting as you start to process this information. But don’t let this deter you. The nuggets of healing wisdom, insight and intelligence that this system offers far supersedes any reason to not investigate it further. Also, remember that I am purposefully going in-depth here. But, to counter-act this depth, I am giving small bite-sized chunks each week so as to give you time to integrate the knowledge and come back to re-read it until it sinks in. In my next posts we will go deeper and deeper each week until you have a rich and comprehensive understanding of this beautiful system.
A sneak peek at some of the posts to follow:
1) An in-depth look into each dosha that will consider the characteristics & qualities of each; their unique expressions of balance and imbalance (psychologically, physically, mentally, etc.)
2) What causes imbalance within each dosha.
3) HOW TO BALANCE each dosha! (YAY).
4) The ENERGY OF FOOD.
5) Eating seasonally & why this is SO vital as a means of maintaining balance throughout the year.
6) The six tastes & healing through food.
7) The phases of the day & of life as seen through the doshas.
8) OJAS – what it is, how to increase it, what depletes it.
9) AMA – toxic build up; what it is both physically & energetically; what causes it and what reduces/prevents it.
10) The process of disease – there are 6 distinct stages of disease as seen through an Ayurvedic lens!
AND, many more delicious topics to come …
Thank you for being here and for taking the time to explore deeper into this healing art & science with me.
Yours in health and healing,