An Introduction to Ayurveda
by Pia Fish
People who have practiced yoga may have heard of Ayurveda – one of the traditional Indian approaches to living a life full of health and well-being. The word combines two Sanskrit terms: “ayur” (life) and “veda” (knowledge, science). Ayurveda is a very long tradition, like many Indian systems – more than 5000 years old, like yoga – and is still practiced today because the basic concepts make sense to anyone interested in wellness. Ayurveda is also called ayurvedic medicine, as it deals with all aspects of health and disease, but more than Western medicine, ayurveda considers nutrition a key aspect to achieving or maintaining well-being. It is estimated that more than 80% of the population in India uses ayurveda.
Ayurveda relies on the principle that there is energy (prana) underlying all life. (“Chi”/”qi” is what the Chinese call this life force, as in t’ai chi or qi gong.) In ayurveda, this energy exists in all people, things, entities, emotions, and actions. Prana consists of three different elements (doshas), which are known as vata, pitta and kapha. As humans, we have to be aware of these different elements, and try to ensure they exist in balance with one another. The tradition of ayurveda is balancing the elements to maintain or restore our integrity, harmony and groundedness.
What do these unfamiliar words of vata, pitta and kapha mean? They represent different combinations of the elements of life. Vata combines air and ether. Pitta combines fire and water. Kapha combines water and earth. Here are some of the qualities in each of the doshas (from Morrison's The Book of Ayurveda):
Ayurveda sees these concepts underlying life. The role of vata in the body is stimulatory, involved in processes of moving the life force (prana), circulation, and emotional expression. Pitta is about transformation (digesting, absorbing, assimilating, processing). Kapha is about longevity, strength, binding, lubrication, and protection.
In diet, ayurveda has six tastes, which help balance the doshas. Sweet, sour, salty and bitter are all familiar to Westerners; the other two are pungency and astringency. Pungent increases vata and pitta, sweet balances them. Sour and salty increase pitta and kapha, bitter mitigates them. Astringent increases vata, balances pitta and kapha. Food has these energies, your body has these energies, and your diet can support your constitution to keep the elements in balance.
There are lists of foods available for each constitutional type, and there are specific recommendations. For example, vata is decreased by eating sweet, sour and salty, but that increases kapha. Pitta can be unbalanced by too much salty, sour and pungent. There are whole cookbooks devoted to ayurvedic cooking, but in general the diet is primarily vegetarian, flavorful and fresh, with attention to quality of food and seasons.
Ayurveda is much broader than just diet and food; it is an entire system of bodily health, which is why some people, including myself, first heard about ayurveda in a yoga class – yoga is a complementary way to keep the body balanced, exercised and full of vitality. Ayurvedic concepts may be useful to explore if you are feeling out of balance and in search of well-being. An ayurvedic diet, being mostly vegetarian and with many fresh ingredients, will always be a healthful choice.
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by Amadea Morningstar and U. Desai
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by Judith H. Morrison
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by Miriam Kasin Hospodar