Of all the elusive goals we strive for in our daily lives, -œbalance- is definitely a biggie. From the energy bars at the supermarket to the yoga classes at the gym, the B-word consistently crops up as an ultimate, fundamental need. But while it may seem that this constant drive for harmony is motivated by our hectic, nonstop, email-obsessed lives, humans, in fact, had the desire for stability long before iPhones and conference calls. Ayurveda, considered the oldest healing science, was being practiced as a means towards balance over 5,000 years ago. And this ancient – but well-respected – approach to health can be an integral part of our modern life, too.
What is ayurveda?
Considered by many to be the oldest healing science, Ayurveda originated in India more than 5,000 years ago. Combining the Sanskrit words ayur meaning “life,” and veda meaning “science,” Ayurveda is a medical system classified in the West as a form of complementary and alternative Medicine (CAM), but considered a traditional practice in India, where there are more than 150 undergraduate and 30 postgraduate colleges for Ayurvedic medicine. And while our frenzied, 21st century lives are begging for some much-needed balance, healers from India’s ancient Vedic culture desired the exact same thing. They created Ayurveda as a system to integrate body, mind and spirit, and balance all three according to one’s individual needs and viable lifestyle changes.
How to incorporate ayurveda into your life
Understand your life forces
Ayurveda specifies three life forces, or doshas: vata, pitta, and kapha. Each dosha is comprised of two of the five basic elements: space, air, fire, water, and earth. Ayurvedic medicine asserts that each individual possesses qualities of all three doshas, but one is usually predominant, one is secondary, and the third is least prominent. These life forces control the activities of the body (vata is associated with movement, pitta with digestion and metabolism, and kapha with structure), and disease is thought to be a result of an imbalance in one’s doshas. “I’ve been learning about Ayurveda since 2003 when introduced to it by my yoga teacher at the time,” says San Francisco yoga instructor Kate Lumsden. “I had just been diagnosed with psoriasis, a type of skin rash, and asked if she knew of a natural means to help it. She pointed me in the direction of a great book by Robert Svoboda.” (Dr. Robert Svoboda is a well-known Ayurveda doctor and author of many books on Ayurverda.)
Determine your dosha
While an Ayurveda practitioner can evaluate your health through direct questioning and examination of the tongue, eyes, pulse and physical form, a simple test can help you identify your dosha constitution, and get you started. Many online resources offer assessment quizzes, such as The Ayurveda Holistic Community and the Ayurvedic Institute. Once you’ve established your unique dosha combination, you can begin to apply Ayurvedic knowledge and guidelines to optimally balance your mind, body and spirit. “Discover what doshas dominate your constitution by taking an online quiz or doing a bit of reading,” says Lumsden. “Our constitutions govern our bodies and minds over this lifetime, so make sure you think about your natural tendencies over your life, not just the season, when answering questions.”
Describing your dosha
After evaluating your dominant doshas, read up on each one’s basic characteristics and Ayurvedic methods for reaching a healthier state of equilibrium. Below are general summaries of each dosha, and lifestyle changes intended to balance out unstable constitutions:
Combining elements of space and air, vata is the life force that provides essential motion for all bodily processes. It is most prominent in fall, and at the change of seasons. A person whose constitution is predominantly vata is quick-minded, restless and very active. These people tend to have less willpower and confidence, and may become fearful, nervous or anxious if out of balance. Vata-dominant people have variable appetites and digestion, and are often attracted to foods like salad or raw vegetables. To balance their constitution, vata types should eat warm, cooked foods and sweet, sour and salty tastes. Vata people can have addictive personalities, however, and should avoid sugar, caffeine and tobacco. Vata types are more prone to develop diseases involving the air element, including emphysema, pneumonia and arthritis. They often need grounding activities to balance their space and air elements, so having a routine is important. Vata-dominant people should keep warm, find ways to relax, and avoid exposure to cold, over-stimulation and noise.
Pitta is the force that combines fire and water, and controls hormones and the digestive system. The pitta season is summer, which typically brings warmth and light. People with pitta-dominant constitutions are intelligent and have good comprehension, but can be easily agitated and irritable when out of balance. Pitta types have strong metabolisms and good digestion, and tend to crave hot, spicy foods. However, to balance an over-dominant pitta, people should incorporate sweet, cooling and bitter foods. Coffee, alcohol and tobacco should be avoided, as should hot spices. Because of its fire element, an overabundant pitta can lead to fevers, inflammatory diseases, skin rashes and sore throats. Pitta types should avoid excessive heat, and exercise during the cooler part of the day.
Kapha is associated with winter, and combines the elements of water and earth. It is the energy of the body’s structure, and kapha-dominant people are generally strong, sweet and grounded. Kapha types may gain weight easily and have slow metabolisms, and when out of balance, can exhibit greed and lethargy. Bitter, pungent foods balance kapha. Heavier foods should be avoided, while leafy greens and fruits like apples and peaches are preferable. While kapha types want to avoid sweets and cooling foods, honey is a good option because it is thought to be heating. Kapha types can benefit from the occasional cup of coffee or tea because of their stimulating effects. Kapha-dominant people are susceptible to ailments based in the water element, like the flu, diabetes and headaches. Kapha types should avoid heavy foods and dairy, get plenty of exercise, and find ways to vary their routines.
Before you eat, consider your foods
“Ayurveda regards food as medicine, so in the same way that different medicines make you feel different ways, so does the food based on what you’re trying to â€˜treat,'” says Lumsden. “When I feel lethargic, my food helps perk up my body and mind. When I feel eager, competitive, or critical, my food helps me feel more peaceful.”
Listen to your body
Though Ayurveda is a system based in prevention, not disease, various internal and external factors can disturb our constitutions, causing imbalances that may lead to disease. Stress from work, relationships, emotions and diet can all have an impact on our natural states. “Being a pitta-vata, my health challenges — mental and physical — have been manifestations of overly dominant pitta or vata in my person,” says Lumsden. “I’ve experienced these in psoriasis, a mild rash that sparks when pitta is too strong and anxiety that arises when I feel my vata carrying me away from a grounded space. Ayurveda has given me the tools to treat these ailments and a general lifestyle that hinders them from arising.”
Use ayurveda to transition into seasons
With the winter frost finally beginning to thaw, Ayurveda can even help you transition into a spring state of being. “In the spring, we develop our pitta, the fire,” says Lumsden. If a person overdevelops a dosha in one particular season, he or she may carry that dosha into the next season, causing physical, mental and spiritual problems. “For instance, if we eat too many heavy foods at the end of winter, building kapha, we find kapha imbalance in the spring: lethargy, runny nose, unhealthy weight retention and head colds. Naturally, our bodies, and minds too, have gone into a bit of a winter hibernation.”
Embrace change to embrace health
According to Lumsden, the best way to counteract these seasonal build-ups of various doshas is to change one’s routine as the year progresses. For the onset of spring, she recommends lightening up one’s diet with smaller portions, but adding warming foods, including honey. “Eating foods that increase our inner fire, the pitta dosha, help to burn away excess kapha.” Lumsden also advises mixing up one’s exercise plan to make the winter-spring transition a smooth one. “It’s an excellent time to find a routine challenging enough to produce a moderate amount of perspiration, helping us shed, not only our â€˜winter-layer,’ but also heaviness and dullness of mind,” she adds.
Bring ayurveda into your life with baby steps
While a full-on commitment to Ayurveda may seem daunting, Lumsden advises newcomers to begin with small steps. “Start with what you know,” she says. “Learn what you do already that’s good for your doshas and make that a more regular part of your routine.” Once you’ve determined which doshas dominate your constitution, Lumsden recommends incorporating a few changes into your regular routine. “I started by just eating oatmeal for breakfast three days a week. Then I started eating a lunch that wasn’t a cold sandwich — much later did I start using new herbs and cooking techniques. My advice is to take it slow and with commitment to something small, you’ll notice big results.”