Ayurveda (pronounced AH-YER-VAY-DAH) is an ancient health science from India that has been practiced by millions of people around the world for over 5,000 years. Most known for things like yoga and meditation, Ayurveda is actually a multi-pronged health science with rich insights into how to eat, breathe, move, think, and respect one another and the planet for optimal health and balance.
- Spiritual Work to help others
- Astrology and gems
- Diet and cleansing practices
Why study Ayurveda the ancient health science from India? Because it gives us a practical window to wellness. Keep reading to learn more about Ayurveda and how to adopt its wisdom into your own life.
The History of Ayurveda
Like other ancient traditions, Ayurveda was passed down orally and in the Vedas, philosophical writings, as early as 3,000 BCE. Ayurveda resembles Tibetan medicine and European medical practice that originated with the four “humors” of Hippocrates. They were black bile aka melancholy (Greek: μέλαινα χολή, melaina chole), yellow bile choleric or angry (Greek: ξανθη χολή, xanthe chole), phlegm (Greek: φλέγμα, phlegma), and blood (Greek: αἷμα, haima). Each corresponded to one of the traditional temperaments. In Ayurveda they became wind, bile and phlegm (Vata, Pitta and Kapha)
Early Greek doctors/scholars were aware of medicinal traditions from Asia. The Christian Bible contains herbal advice, including herbs such as frankincense and myrrh, acacia, fig (Ficus carica), nard (Nardostachys jatamansi), hyssop (Origanum syriacum), balm of Gilead (Commiphora gileadensis) and mandrake (Mandragora officinarum.) Frankincense and myrrh were used by Egyptians for preserving mummies. Jatamansi, known as “tapaswani” in Ayurveda, acts as a brain tonic to improve memory and brain functions by preventing cell damage due to its antioxidant property.
The Three Energies of Ayurveda: Vata Pitta Kapha
In Ayurveda, we see the world (and its people) as having 3 different types of energy. These energies are constantly moving, and nobody and no thing is 100% either energy––but more so a mixture of two or three. Either way, there is always one or more dominant energies that could use tending too. It is understood that when we know our unique energies, we can know how to bring balance to each of them to harmonize the whole.
To Ayurvedic practitioners, these three energy types (called doshas) are easily observed. Walking on the street a block away, it is obvious who is Vata, Pitta or Kapha. Knowing the doshas, you observe a person’s addictions and which foods best suit their health needs. But it is more than a shorthand: Ayurveda, the science of well-being, offers a comprehensive lifestyle approach for physical and emotional health.
If you’ve never visited an Ayurvedic practitioner before, it can be a helpful lens from which you can view your life: your healthy and unhealthy habits, and what might bring more balance into your life. If you do visit one, the first thing they will do is take your pulse, look at your tongue, and ask many questions. They will observe your vital energy in order to analyze the origin of your discomforts. In that way they will determine which doshas are involved.
Vata is like the wind, dry, light, moving through us, our nerves and thoughts. It is also the fatigue we feel after physical and mental overwork, the pain we feel from anxiety, fear and loneliness. The Constitution of Vata is slender, fragile. It includes the arthritis of the elderly, also dry skin, insomnia, and hyper-energy with a poor appetite that is made worse from stimulants such as caffeine, alcohol, chocolate and cigarettes.
What to Be Mindful Of
The addiction of Vata is stress and speed. They thrive on it until they drop from exhaustion.
Without Vata, we lack new ideas and direction, desires that drive us. If Vata is stuck or excessive, we have only desire without completion, we go from project to project, place to place, partner to partner rushing through life without tasting the flavor of our experience.
How to Nourish and Ground Vata
How is Vata grounded? With warm, sweet, oily foods and herbs that quiet our nerves and moderate metabolism and improve sleep. Warm soups, broiled, roasted and stewed foods with ginger, pepper, and cooking with ghee; teas adding clove, cardamom, and star anise. Warming spices increase “digestive fire” known as agni. That “fire” cooks our foods and turns raw materials into blood, muscle, joints and nerves. Ashwagandha is an excellent tonic herb for the elderly as well as for athletes who want to build muscle or persons with nerve problems such as paralysis or neuropathy. Warm milk with ghee, almonds and honey or warm green or chamomile tea with bee pollen are sweet, grounding and nourishing for Vata. Vata is more prevalent in Autumn when the weather changes from hot summer to cooler temperatures and shorter days.
Pitta begins with the digestive process. It is hot and oily. When excessive, it can reach out toward the periphery to trouble our nerves, joints, blood, brain and skin.
What to be mindful of
Acidity and heat are the hallmark of excess Pitta: Acne, boils, inflammatory illness are Pitta. So is a sharp Witt, strong critical thinking and sometimes aggressive behavior.
The Pitta Constitution is athletic, with developed muscles, an appetite for spicy foods, a taste for fun, adventure, movement, travel and experience. Without Pitta we lack enthusiasm and drive. With too much hot spicy foods and overwork we develop dryness, fevers, rash and inflammation, thinning hair and dry eyes.
How to cool excess Pitta
Cooling, moistening foods, cool showers and early morning walks in cool weather refresh Pitta and help prevent burnout. Bitter greens, steamed or sautéed with a minimum of hot spice and garlic or onions. Sweet fruits and sour foods such as grapes, lemon, pear, fig and fish, shellfish, green vegetables, squash, laxative foods and green tea, white tea, redbush tea sweetened with monk fruit. Mushrooms such as reishi and shiitake help to balance the immune system.
Auto-immune illness is often related to excess Pitta that wastes joints, muscles and nerves. Drinking excess water may be cleansing however moistening foods keep moisture inside vulnerable organs–lungs, stomach, liver and kidney. They include asparagus, organic oatmeal, Solomon’s seal herb tea. Cooling spices include cumin, coriander and fennel, mint, dill and tarragon.
Cooling Blood Tonics
Cleansing herbs that nourish liver and reduce excess acid from blood are often necessary for excess Pitta that results in hair loss, blood-shot eyes, cloudy vision, dry skin and acne. Eclipta (han lian cao in Chinese medicine, bhringraj in Ayurveda) is helpful for hair loss and liver health. The foundation of clear skin and healthy hair is blood, related to liver health. Eclipta, twigs and leaves cooked as a decoction is a cooling blood tonic that helps correct liver damage from drugs, alcohol and pollution.
Manjistha is another Ayurvedic herb used to clear troubled skin and add moisture to correct parched skin. It is reddish in color and semi-sweet often made as a tea or ingredient in herbal combinations for skin health. The season associated with Pitta is summer heat, however, people who smoke and overindulge in hot spice are too hot year round.
Kapha is our flesh, fluids that support flesh and phlegm. Our flesh holds us together and a form of phlegm moistens and protects internal organs and skin.
What to be mindful of
Excess phlegm (Kapha) is congesting and leads to slow metabolism, swollen joints, edema, obesity and asthma.
Rich foods, dairy foods, sweet foods, highly refined foods such as white rice and white flour create more phlegm and quickly turn to sugars that stress digestion, especially the pancreas. Fat foods, red meats and organ meats are higher in cholesterol which leads to fat congestion in the blood vessels, a path to stroke and heart trouble. Cancer and lung infections are also more an issue for Kapha. Congestion, phlegm, troubles breathing, causes swelling in joints and waistline and slows heart action (chronic heart failure.) Heavy, sticky emotions that may trouble Kapha include sadness and obsession about past painful experiences.
Exercise improves the heart because it causes sweating which reduces watery phlegm and tones metabolism. It improves Kapha.
How to Balance Kapha
Foods that increase sweating and urination and speed metabolism, tone muscles and detoxify the body improve Kapha. Adzuki bean, barley, millet, raw foods and sharp drying and heating herbs and spices are stimulating. For example ginger, pepper, radish, clove, star anise, curry, garam masala. We need these when digestion is slowed with bloating, indigestion, nausea, and the tongue has a thick creamy coating.
With excess Kapha we sleep long and deep, breathe and think with difficulty. Without Kapha we would never finish what we start. Vata would drive desire, Pitta would inflame ambition and action, but Kapha is needed to carry through, pay attention to detail and care about other people.
Using Ayurveda in Your Life
Ayurveda uses foods, herbs, yoga, meditation, prayer and spiritual work to enhance wellness and further our path to enlightenment. If you’re interested in learning more about this ancient Indian science, there are many different paths you can take. Below are a few suggestions.
- Book an appointment with an Ayurvedic practitioner
- Read a book on Ayurveda (a few of our favorites include Ayurveda the Science of Self-Healing by Dr. Vasant Lad and Karma Herbs by Letha Hadady)
- Learn the practical healing principles of Ayurveda in Academy Healing Nutrition’s holistic health coaching program