What is Ayurveda?

Ayurveda is one of the oldest medicines known to man, originating over 5,000 years ago. Ayurveda emphasizes re-establishing balance of the elements in the body through diet, lifestyle, exercise, and body cleansing. When the elements are balanced the body is healthy.

What are the Doshas?

Everything in our body and in our world is composed of five elements: air, water, fire, earth, and space. These elements combine to form the three doshas, vata, kapha, and pitta. When these elements/doshas are out of balance disease can occur in the body and the mind.

The Vata dosha is a combination of space and air. It controls movement and is responsible for basic body processes such as breathing, cell division and circulation. Vata body areas are the large intestine, pelvis, bones, skin, ears, and thighs. People with vata as their main dosha are believed to be quick-thinking, thin, and fast, and are susceptible to anxiety, dry skin, and constipation.

The Pitta dosha combines fire and water. Controls hormones, metabolism, and the digestive system. Pitta body areas are the small intestines, stomach, sweat glands, skin, blood, and eyes. People with pitta as their primary dosha are thought to have a fiery personality, oily skin, and are susceptible to heart disease, stomach ulcers, inflammation, heartburn, and arthritis.

The Kapha dosha represents the elements of water and earth. Kapha is believed to be responsible for strength, immunity, growth, and structure. Kapha body areas are the chest, lungs, and spinal fluid. People with kapha as their main dosha are thought to be calm, have a solid body frame, and are susceptible to diabetes, obesity, sinus congestion, and gallbladder problems. 

An imbalanced dosha is believed to interrupt the natural flow of prana, or vital energy. The disrupted energy flow is then thought to impair digestion and allow the build up of body waste, or ama, which further impairs energy and digestion.

Prakriti and Vikriti

It has become common to associate Ayurveda just with superficial body-typing, based on the fact that every individual is born as a combination of one or more of the three doshas described above. Asking What is your dosha? or Are you Vata, Pitta or Kapha? is just barely scratching the surface of Ayurveda. It is much more important to go beyond introductory body-typing or finding out the Prakriti of an individual to determining what imbalances exist in a person's physiology (Vikriti) -- and then finding out how to restore balance.  Balance is the key: When the three doshas are balanced according to Ayurveda, then perfect health can occur - a state where mind, body and spirit are working in unison. All activities of the mind and body are governed by three biological principles or doshas -- Vata, Pitta and Kapha, each of which is made up of some of the five elements of creation or mahabhutas. 

Vata is mainly air and space, and governs movement in the body-the flow of blood, for example, or elimination, or breathing or thoughts flitting across the mind. Since the other two doshas, Pitta and Kapha, cannot move without Vata, Vata is considered the lead dosha.  Pitta, mainly fire and water, governs heat, metabolism and transformation. Digestion is an important Pitta activity.  Kapha is made up mainly of earth and water, and, accordingly, is linked to structure and moisture balance in the physiology. Among other things, Kapha controls weight and lubrication in the lungs, for example.  Each of the doshas is also related to a season of the year -- Kapha with Spring, Pitta with Summer and Vata with Fall and Winter.

 When all of these doshas are perfectly in balance in an individual, it means that all the systems and activities of mind and body are functioning at optimal levels, and the individual, therefore, enjoys perfect health. When one or more of these doshas goes out of balance, disorders result. Some of many factors that can cause these doshas to become imbalanced are improper diet or eating habits, stress, travel, pollution or the weather. Then, to restore good health, the dosha that has become imbalanced needs to be restored to its original make-up in that specific individual.

The Science of Herb Combining and Processing

Although single Ayurvedic herbs and spices such as Brahmi, Turmeric and Ashwagandha are popular, one of the most significant contributions offered by Ayurveda is the science of herbal combination -- formulations that personify sanyoga, the fortuitous blending of a variety of herbs that results in a formulation offering the dual benefits of synergy and balance. An Ayurvedic formulation can often contain twenty or more herbs and spices -- primary herbs that target the area of imbalance, supporting herbs to enhance the benefits of the primary herbs, balancing herbs to counter any possible side-effects from the actions of the main herbs, and bio-availability enhancers to expedite the transfer of the benefits of the formulation to the parts of the physiology. The most complex of the traditional Ayurvedic herbal combinations are an elite group called rasayanas, extolled at length in the Ayurvedic texts for their positive impact on the physiology.

The second principle, sanskar, refers to the way the herbs are harvested, used and processed. Ayurvedic formulations traditionally use the whole herb instead of extracting the active ingredient from the plant. Nature's healing wisdom is perceived to reside best in the plant in its entirety. Using the whole herb rather than the isolated ingredient also contributes to a balanced formula less likely to have side-effects, because according to Ayurveda, each medicinal plant has both the primary effect and the antidote present in it in its natural state. At the best Ayurvedic manufacturing facilities, the natural intelligence of the plants is carefully preserved in the final product by using traditional processing techniques that eschew chemical solvents and damaging high temperatures. Following the harvesting and processing techniques enunciated in the traditional texts results in a potent, balanced formulation.

Ayurvedic herbs and formulations are increasingly catching the attention of researchers all over the world. In a heartening trend that seeks to blend the best of the ancient and the modern, not only individual Ayurvedic herbs such as Brahmi and Guggul, but even proprietary rasayanas such as the antioxidant formula Amrit from Maharishi Ayurveda have been and continue to be extensively researched at independent institutions to scientifically validate and document their beneficial effects.