This article is the first in a series leading us into the Ayurveda Immersion at Yoga Center of Columbia beginning in January.
The word Ayurveda means the knowledge of life. Ayur means life or vital power, and Veda means knowledge or science. It offers a way of approaching life that encourages good health and well-being. I think of it as a handbook for living well. Ayurveda is considered a sister-practice of yoga because they both developed around the same time, several thousand years ago, in the same place, India. Yoga and other meditative practices are a part of Ayurveda, and there is so much more.
So, how does it work? In Ayurveda, one tries to align oneself with the rhythms of nature, and nature consists of five basic elements: earth, water, fire, air, and space. These elements are the stuff of the universe and therefore are within our own bodies as well as in animals, plants, and everything we experience in life. Our senses perceive these elements in different forms, we smell the earth, we taste with liquids, we feel warmth, we see color, and we hear vibration. Ayurveda wants to find balance in all that we perceive, think, and do.
If all things are made of these five elements, then so are our bodies. Earth represents the density of our bones, and any physical tangible part of us that we can see, touch, and smell. Water is in the fluids of our bodies, blood, lymph, saliva, sexual fluid, gastric juices. Fire is found in body heat, and in the act of processing and digestion. Gastric juices are fluid but they also contain acids which are a type of fire that help us digest food. There are many types of fire, called agni, within the body, and each one is responsible for some type of processing or transformation. Think: once we take in some kind of sensory information, then we have to make sense of it, the making sense is the processing. Of course we breathe air and it provides vital life force for us to live — one can go weeks without food, days without water, but only minutes without air. And space is more ephemeral, it is more difficult to recognize, but space exists, and if we did not have space we would not be here.
In our bodies, these five elements dance together in different ways and each of us has one or two predominant elements that provide our constitutional make-up. There are three main constitutions that arise and they may combine in seven different ways to describe one’s particular essence and predilections. The three main constitutions are known as doshas. Dosha literally translates as “that which darkens,” or even “defect,” but this is referring specifically to the qualifying of the infinite, universal stuff that according to yoga is our True Nature. So, we all come from this infinite, expansive, universal consciousness, but Consciousness, or Light, chooses to embody, and it does so through the elements, appearing in the manifest world by way of the doshas, that which darkens the Infinite Light, so to speak. Here they are:
Kapha (kahp’-ha) – predominantly water and earth; kapha is nourishing, soft, related to the emotion of love, and a kapha person is someone you want to hug; some of its qualities include heaviness, coldness, tenderness, and slowness
Pitta (pit’-ta) – predominantly fire and water; pitta is a driving force that makes us competitive and compels us to do more, a pitta person gets things done; pitta metabolizes, and some of its qualities include hotness, moistness, sharpness, and of a spreading nature
Vata (vah’-tah) – predominantly air and space elements; vata is highly mobile, all movement in the body is because of vata, creativity is associated with this dosha; some of its qualities include dryness, lightness, coldness, and volatility
There are also subtle essences of these doshas. When a person is in balance, a more subtle form of these qualities or doshas arise, and that is typically when one feels healthy, vital, and connected to others in community. Stay tuned for another blog post on the subtle essences.
Life is centrifugal – as we live and grow, things tend to expand and change, nothing stays the same. We gain more life experiences and therefore (hopefully) we gain wisdom. Inevitably, life circumstances will pull us out of balance. Ayurveda looks at the five elements and how they are found in nature and offers ways to maintain balance within your own constitution. One of the ways it does this is by identifying six tastes. I will list them here:
Sweet – made of earth and water; builds bodily tissues; examples include of course sugar and honey, but sweet taste is also found in butter, cream, grains like wheat and rice, some beans and fruits like mangos or bananas
Salty – made of water and fire; builds bodily tissues; examples will include salt itself, sea salt, rock salt, and also sea vegetables like seaweed and kelp; foods like nuts, chips, and pickles have plenty of salt added to them also
Sour – made of earth and fire; builds bodily tissues; sour taste is found in citrus fruits like lemon and lime; sour milk products like yogurt, cheese, and sour cream; and fermented foods like sauerkraut, vinegar, wine, and soy sauce
Bitter – made of air and space; depletes bodily tissues; examples of foods with bitter taste are leafy green vegetables like kale, spinach, and cabbage; herbs and spices like turmeric, fenugreek, and dandelion root; and coffee
Pungent – made of air and fire; depletes bodily tissues; pungent taste makes food spicy — garlic, onion, and chili peppers for example and also spices like black pepper, ginger, and cumin
Astringent – made of earth and air; depletes bodily tissues; this taste is more difficult to discern, but think of kidney, black, or navy beans, or lentils; vegetables like artichoke, broccoli, cauliflower, and turnips; and grains like rye or quinoa
So the principle in Ayurveda is that “Like increases like and opposites balance each other.” When you have too much fire element within you, which might manifest as heartburn, then back off of the fiery tastes. Eat more cooling foods like sweet juicy melon or leafy green vegetables. If you feel too ungrounded or your mind is spacey or racing, eat more root vegetables. This is an over-simplification but the examples do hold.
We can work with foods, herbs, and spices in Ayurveda to restore balance, but there are other daily practices that also help to bring equanimity too. In my upcoming Ayurveda Immersion, co-taught with Debbie Martin at the Yoga Center of Columbia, we will go into more detail on many of these practices. The Immersion is a great way to learn in community with others; the conversations will be interesting and stimulating, and the community support will help you to change unwanted habits for the better. If you would like to learn more, I hope you will join us!