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What is Ayurveda?

 

Ayurveda is an elaborate, comprehensive, holistic healing system that began approximately 5,000 years ago in India and has been continuously practiced since then. Translated to mean "the science of life", Ayurveda is a practical day to day guide on how to live a long and healthy life. Ayurveda acknowledges that no two people and no two lives are the same, and its brilliance is that it can be specifically tailored to your individual needs, rather than being a "one size fits all" approach to diet and exercise. Ancient texts cite that Ayurveda's main goal is "maintaining the health of the healthy", and it offers abundant common sense practices that encourage you to move in rhythm with the natural world, awakening your innate inner intelligence and alignment with your surroundings. 

For the curious amongst you, read further for some fundamental Ayurvedic theory to set the stage for how it is used, practiced and applied. Please note: Italics are used to highlight Sanskrit words. 

Five Great Elements (Pancha Mahabuhta) and The Doshas 

 

According to Ayurvedic philosophy, the entire cosmos is an interplay of the five great elements: ether, air, fire, water and earth. Various arrangements and combinations of these elements create everything in the universe (the macrocosm), including the human body (the microcosm). Ayurveda theory combines the five elements together into three pairs, calling them doshas. Dosha literally translates as "that which can be aggravated", but it's easier to understand that dosha describes two things. First, they identify which elemental characteristics govern certain biological functions in the human body. Second, they identify the unique composition of the individuals mind-body-personality type.

Here's how the five great elements pair up:

 

  • Ether + Air elements = Vata dosha.

Vata represents MOVEMENT in the biological body. For example, the nerves transmit signals in the nervous system, the respiratory system moves air in and out of the body and the blood circulates to and from the heart. Some traits of a Vata mind-body-personality type are: they are creative thinkers (mind) - they have lighter skeletal frame (body) - they love to travel and be on the go (personality).

 

  • Fire + Water elements = Pitta dosha.

Pitta represents TRANSFORMATION in the biological body. For example, the digestion and metabolism of food into smaller particles to nourish the body. Some traits of a Pitta mind-body-personality type are: they are sharp, clear thinkers (mind) - they have a more muscular look (body) - they are well organised, ambitious and are natural leaders (personality).

 

  • Earth + Water elements = Kapha dosha.

Kapha represents STRUCTURE and stability in the biological body. For example, the internal organs, the fascia and joint lubrications. Some traits of a Kapha mind-body-personality type are: they have a stable temperament and reliable long term memory (mind) - they have good stamina and a robust physiology (body) - they are reliable and nurturing (personality).

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Prakriti (innate nature) and Vikriti (current imbalance)

 

Dosha has two sub categories within the mind-body-personality type. The first is prakriti which is your innate nature. It refers to the fixed combination of the five great elements at your conception, think of it as your DNA. The second is vikriti, which translates as your current state of expressed imbalanceYour health is in constant fluctuation, affected by everything you encounter from moment to moment from the food you eat, your activities, the time of day, the weather, the season, your work, your age, your relationships, stress levels, and so on. When you are experiencing imbalance the mind or body will show signs or symptoms of dysfunction. The goal of the Ayurvedic Health Counselor (AHC) is to identify the clients vikriti and suggest diet and lifestyle recommendations to reinstate your natural sense of harmony and your unique state of balance, or prakriti.

The 20 Qualities or Gunas

 

Ayurveda has 20 gunas which are divided into 10 pairs of opposing qualities. The gunas are a language used to describe everything in existence and give us a system to understand the range of qualities within our bodies, our minds, our environment, our food and our activities. Crucially, the gunas give an infinite range of possibilities within each of the pairs, which can be used as a guide to indicate which quality needs to shift and in which direction in order to find your unique point of balance between the two extremes. The gunas help us see that being in balance is not a fixed point, but more of an on-going conversation.

 

Read the list below and think about which gunas describe a lemon? Which qualities describe the weather today? Which gunas describe your digestive tract or reflect your state of mind? With practice, the gunas become a non judgemental guide and tool with which to build self awareness and plan your responses.

  • Heavy v's Light

  • Hot v's Cold

  • Smooth v's Rough

  • Soft v's Hard  

  • Subtle v's Gross

  • Dull v's Sharp

  • Clear v's Cloudy

  • Oily v's Dry

  • Solid v's Liquid

  • Stable v's Mobile

The Theory of Cause and Effect (Karya Karana Siddhanta)

 

A simple but profound theory in Ayurveda is that of cause and effect. Ayurveda asks us to be like detectives regarding our health - it's not just about what the imbalance is, but also why it has happened. I am fond of the way my teacher, Veronica, explained this entwined relationship to my class. "If a bear is whimpering in pain because there is a thorn wedged into her paw (the cause), you have to extract the thorn before you attend to the broken skin (the effect). Just putting a bandaid over the broken skin with the thorn still inside will not solve the problem". To address the health concern of an individual (or a bear), first you have to remove the root cause of the problem, then second, you treat the effects. 

Sometimes though the cause of the issue cannot be removed for a variety of reasons. The gunas are then a useful way to identify what you are experiencing as an outcome of the cause, and what therapeutic actions will re-balance the effects. For example, residing at altitude in the mountains of Colarado you might notice increased dry qualities in the skin, eyes and colon. You identify that the cause is stemming from the increased cold, dry and rough characteristics of the environment. With no plan to relocate (remove the cause), the guna scale would indicate increasing the warm, unctuousness and smooth qualities in your diet and lifestyle which can be done by adding ghee or oil consumption in your cooked, warming foods and doing daily oil massage to off set the impact of the high elevation. 

How can Ayurveda apply to you?

 

Ayurveda's aim is to nurture and sustain good health. Easier said than done, of course, but that's when an Ayurvedic Health Counselor (AHC) can be of service. It's inevitable that we all experience symptoms of imbalance in the body or mind. In some instances you might have lived with discomfort or dis-ease for years and have learnt to live with it believing there was no solution. Ayurveda has a diagnostic roadmap to methodically investigate and address your individual health concerns. Through meeting one to one for an extensive consultation, an AHC will take the time to learn about your unique life and circumstances. After the consultation, the AHC will guide you through diet and lifestyle recommendations to address your dosha or guna imbalances, and suggest ways to renew your sense of whole-ness and vitality. Please note, Ayurveda is not a quick fix. Through self awareness and empowered choices you will introduce simple changes that feel supportive for your whole being, one day at a time. The benefits? You cultivate balanced health, build resilience and experience true holistic well-being. With results like that, it's worth a try, don't you think? 

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