Let's Talk: The Basics of Ayurveda

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Last week, I wrote about a few simple tips for putting together an Ayurvedic Morning Routine, and mentioned the Ayurvedic doshas, with a promise to dive into the basics of Ayurveda very soon! I've been so excited to talk more about Ayurveda; I love the gentle, healing philosophy, and the tradition of balance in the body, mind, and soul. 

I was introduced to Ayurveda about a year ago, after a winter cold that lingered for far too long, and freezing temperatures that seemed to wear me down more than usual (and that's really saying something, because I love cold weather!). After just a few days of implementing some Vata-pacifiying foods, herbs, and self-care, I felt more grounded. 

But the amount of information online about Ayurveda is overwhelming! The more reading I did, the more questions I had. More than anything, I wanted to study under some wise elder in a warm kitchen somewhere, out of the cold, but since that was probably not going to happen (let me know, though, if you know a wise elder with a warm kitchen who wants an Ayurvedic intern), I kept reading. Seriously, I was obsessed. 

At its most basic form, Ayurveda is simple: we're all made up of some combination of elements and qualities. When those elements and qualities are balanced, our bodies, minds, and spirits reflect that balance. But when there is an imbalance, we not only reflect the imbalance, we feel...off. Maybe you're not physically ill, but there's something that doesn't feel right. Ayurveda works to help us identify those imbalances, regain our centers, honor our bodies, and tap into and strengthen our true selves. 

Read on for a Beginner's Guide to Ayurveda! 

1. Part 1: The Elements

In Ayurveda, there are five elements that make up everything in existence: Earth, Water, Fire, Air, and Ether (or Space). Everyone and everything contains all five elements, though one or two are usually more predominant. 

2. Part 2: The Qualities

Ayurveda uses twenty qualities, or gunas, to describe both substances and experiences. Each quality has an opposite quality, which is used to maintain balance in the body: Heavy and Light, Slow/Dull and Sharp/Penetrating, Cold and Hot, Oily and Dry, Smooth and Rough, Dense and Liquid, Soft and Hard, Stable and Mobile, Gross and Subtle, Cloudy or Sticky and Clear. 

A perfect example of these qualities in action? Last winter, when I (a cold-natured person) was under the weather and worn down by the freezing temperatures outside, I was able to find balance by increasing the heat in my life (through thick stews, Epsom salt baths, soft, warm clothes, and plenty of hugs and snuggles with my pup). Or vice-versa: in the middle of the summer, when it's hot outside and you're feeling overheated, the remedy is cold: icy drinks, jumping in cool water, or turning on the air conditioner. 

3. Part 3: The Doshas

There are three doshas in Ayurvedic medicine: Vata, Pitta, and Kapha. We're all made up of a mix of the three doshas, but the ratio varies for each of us. Each dosha has its own qualities as well: 

Vata

Vata Elements: air and ether/space.

Vata Qualities: dry, light, cold, rough, subtle, mobile, clear.

Vata energy is often related to the wind. It's primarily in charge of breathing, heartbeat, muscle movement, nerve impulses, and the senses. 

Vata Types are usually thin, small boned, and find it difficult to put on weight, with low physical endurance. They tend to be creative and energetic when they're in balance, but when there is an imbalance (or, an excess of Vata energy in the body), Vatas often feel stressed, anxious, afraid, mentally foggy, and emotionally constricted. Physical imbalances can result in a sensitivity to cold, poor circulation, digestive disorders, dry skin, and painful joins.

Pitta

Pitta Elements: fire and water.

Pitta Qualities: hot, sharp, light, liquid, spreading, oily.

Pitta energy governs most of the transformative processes in the body: the digestive system, the metabolic system, body temperature, nutrient absorption, and energy expenditure. 

A balanced Pitta Type is smart, driven, charismatic, and ambitious - sometimes bordering on competitive - but can be short tempered and aggressive, and suffer heartburn, migraines, "hanger," and insomnia when imbalanced. They usually have a medium, athletic build, and can gain weight and muscle with relative ease. 

Kapha

Kapha Elements: water and earth. 

Kapha Qualities: heavy, slow, cool, oily, smooth, dense, soft, stable, gross, cloudy/sticky. 

Kapha energy is often related to stability, nourishment, and structure. It controls growth and nourishment in the body, stamina and regeneration, a healthy immune system, and the ability to feel compassion and contentment. 

A balanced Kapha Type is often compared to a motherly figure: supportive, loving, grounded, and forgiving, but an imbalanced Kapha is quite the opposite. While this imbalance can manifest itself through laziness, insecurity, envy, and an inability to cope with change, it can also cause depression, a slow metabolism, congestion, and heaviness in the mind and body. 

Part 4: Prakriti and Vikriti (Bodily Constitution and Current Bodily Balance) 

Each of us was born with an Ayurvedic constitution (our Ayurvedic Body Type), or prakriti, but since we don't live in an insulated little box from the time of our birth, inner and outer influences can throw off the balance of our doshas. That's why it's not enough to determine and focus entirely on the prakriti; instead, we must consider the current state of balance (the vikriti) in our bodies, which helps us understand which dosha is elevated at that time. 

There are seven basic types of prakriti in Ayurvedic medicine:

1. Vata (greater amounts of Vata, less of Pitta and Kapha) 

2. Pitta (greater amounts of Pitta, less of Vata and Kapha)

3. Kapha (greater amounts of Kapha, less of Vata and Pitta)

4. Vata-Pitta (greater amounts of both Vata and Pitta, less of Kapha)

5. Pitta-Kapha (greater amounts of both Pitta and Kapha, less of Vata)

6. Kapha-Vata (greater amounts of both Kapha and Vata, less of Pitta)

7. Tridoshic/Vata-Pitta-Kapha (equal amounts of the three doshas)

However, someone with a Vata constitution, for example, can have a Pitta imbalance, when Pitta is in excess, resulting in more heat in the body: anger, jealous, inflammation, or heartburn. This is where understanding our vikriti comes into play; it's a constantly moving target, changing with the weather, the seasons, and the stages of life. 

Part 5: Balancing the Doshas

This is my favorite part! I love a step-by-step plan telling me how to make myself (or the people I love) feel better. Ayurveda offers (pretty much) just that, backed by 3,000 years of practice. Read on for a few basic tips. 

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Balancing Vata

To combat the symptoms of a Vata imbalance (anxiety, tremors, dry skin, digestive problems, weight loss, intolerant of cold temperatures and loud noises, difficulty sleeping, mentally foggy and spacey, and overthinking), the best thing we can do is offer ourselves routine, warmth, peace, and deep nourishment, through diet, lifestyle, and herbal supplements. 

Eat foods that are sweet, sour, salty, and - most importantly - warming. Cook your food well, and spice with ginger, black pepper, cinnamon, and cumin (warming, but not extremely spicy). Avoid cold drinks and stimulants like coffee and refined sugar; room temperature water, hot teas, or warm, spiced milk soothe the body and soul from the inside out. Make sure your diet has plenty of healthy fats and oils, and try to eat at regular times, and in a peaceful place. 

Live gently and peacefully, at a slow pace, with a regular routine. Choose gentle exercises, and practice self-massage, and surround yourself with soothing sounds, smells, textures, and company. Most importantly, stay warm! 

Balancing Pitta

Pitta imbalances represent themselves with an excess of heat in the body: inflammation, rashes, joint pain, acid reflux, nausea, anger, impatience, and an overall, uncomfortable feeling of heat. Steps to balance Pitta are cooling, surrendering, and moderating. 

To combat a Pitta imbalance, eat foods that are sweet, bitter, astringent, and cooling, mixing whole, cooked foods and fresh, raw fruits and vegetables, spiced with cooling herbs like coriander, cilantro, fennel, and cardamom. Avoid warming or spicy foods, processed foods, red meat, and stimulants like caffeine or alcohol. Use a moderate amount of healthy fats and oils in your meals, and eat at regular times, taking deep breath and eating mindfully in a peaceful environment. 

Live in surrender, rather than trying to control your life. Form a regular routine, but give yourself times to relax. Exercise moderately - like Vinyasa yoga or biking - but avoid exercise during the hottest parts of the day. In general, stay cool! 

Balancing Kapha

Even the motherly types have bad days! If your Kapha is out of balance, there's a good chance you're feeling heavy, slow, foggy, and lethargic, inside and out: you might have excess mucous, a white coating on your tongue, and high body weight, and just feel blah when you get up int he morning. Emotionally, you may be experiencing feelings of possessiveness or attachment and complacency, and trying to tend to those feelings through emotional eating. The best way to pacify an imbalanced Kapha is to provide stimulation and lightening to the body and mind, exercise, and increasing warming and drying qualities. 

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To pacify an overabundance of Kapha through food, try to incorporate pungent, bitter, astringent, warming, whole foods into your diet, and feel free to use heating prices such as chili, cayenne pepper, ginger, cinnamon, and cumin. Avoid anything sweet, sour, and salty, or anything cooling, heavy, or processed. Cold and raw food and drinks are not your friend in this scenario; drink room temperature or hot drinks, avoid eating fresh fruit with any other food, and use the smallest amount of high-quality healthy fats, like coconut or sunflower oil, in your diet. 

Most importantly, create a routine that is energetic and varied; avoid anything that makes you feel mentally or emotionally stagnant, and stimulate your mind and body. Jogging, hiking, biking, and Bikram or Ashtanga yoga help pacify Kapha energy (and provide an excellent workout!). 

Whether you're Vata, Pitta, Kapha, or a mix of the three, one of the best ways to maintain balance within the body is to create an Ayurvedic Morning Routine. I wrote about a few simple steps you can take to incorporate the Ayurvedic art of self care (or dinacharya) into your everyday life! Click here to find out how to start an Ayurvedic Mourning Routine. 

Let me know if you have, and how they're working for you, in the comment section below!