In general terms, Ayurveda literally means science of life. Originating in India more than 5,000 years ago, Ayurveda is a holistic philosophy of wellness and natural health care that includes herbs, diet, environment and exercise as means to restore balance in the body. The system rests on its understanding of the three doshas, or types, defined as the dynamic forces that comprise the universe, ourselves included.
It turns out, though, that one of the most ancient systems of medicine is also the most personal, with specific advice tailored to your unique body type, constitution and personality. This approach, similar to the precision of genetic coding, makes Ayurvedic practices surprisingly relevant today.
“It's never a one-size-fits-all approach,” says Claudia Welch, an Ayurveda practitioner based in Calais, Vt., and author of several books on Ayurveda, including Balance Your Hormones, Balance Your Life: Achieving Optimal Health and Wellness through Ayurveda, Chinese Medicine, and Western Science. While it's impractical to categorize 7 billion individuals, says Welch, Ayurveda simplifies constitutions to several types and subtypes, all of which can be influenced by one's lifestyle choices.
Get to know your dosha
The doshas in Ayurveda—vata, pitta, and kapha—are what maintain order and harmony in the tissues and organs of your body. Vata is governed by air and space, pitta by fire, and kapha by water and earth. The qualities of each dosha correspond to their element. A person with too much vata may be a little spacey, too much pitta might translate as prone to blow-ups, and too much kapha may make for entropy.
Each person has a unique blueprint, in which one dosha dominates the body and often needs to be balanced so as not to disrupt the body's equilibrium. Additionally your dosha may fluctuate due to extenuating circumstances, such as your environment, diet, the season, climate and age. The balance of forces in your body not only affects your health, but also can have a profound effect on your mood and energy level.
For example, if you're a lean, wiry type, tending to pace, fret and suffer from insomnia, eating a lot of raw foods—hard to digest from a vata standpoint—might aggravate those tendencies. Or if you are a blustery, fiery sort, intense and passionate about everything and intolerant of people who operate on a different wavelength, creating some kind of routine that encourages stability is key. If kapha predominates, you are probably slower on the uptake, a tad lethargic, but strong and steady to the core. For this dosha, spontaneity and surprise may be just what the doctor ordered.
Using your dosha to find balance
Here's a more detailed description of each dosha, plus a few tips on how to maintain balance.
Vata is all about movement and change. In the body, vata governs the central nervous system, circulation and elimination. The attributes associated with vata are cold, light, dry, irregular, rough and quick. Physically, those whose main dosha is vata are lean and agile. To balance vata, bring routine and rhythm into your life. Make life more stable by having a consistent bedtime, mealtimes and exercise routine.
Pitta dominates metabolism, including digestion and energy levels. The task of this dosha resides in transformation. Pitta qualities are hot, light, pungent and sharp. People with a pitta dosha are of medium build, tend to run warm and have glossy hair and a lustrous complexion. To balance pitta's fire, think soothing and cooling. Follow a daily routine, but allow some time everyday for spontaneity. Spending time in nature decreases stress and helps pittas regulate their intensity.
Kapha's domain is structure, fluidity and protection. In the body, kapha governs the bones, tissues, joints and muscles. Its qualities are heavy, cold, oily, steady and soft. The key to balancing this earthy energy is fighting torpor, so kaphas need to get up early in the morning and avoid taking naps.
Ayurveda's sophisticated, non-reductionist approach to health is currently experiencing something akin to a renaissance. “The principles at work in Ayurveda are recognized by wellness luminaries such as Drs. Andrew Weil, Dean Ornish and Mehmet Oz, as well as scholar Michael Pollan,” says Welch. “Eating whole foods, avoiding processed foods, moderate exercise and regular stress management—basic Ayurveda tenets—are being held up wherever you look.”