Introduction to Ayurveda

Ayurveda is an ancient system of preventative health care and medical treatment that has been practiced in India for thousands of years.  The term Ayurveda comes from the root words ‘ayus’, meaning ‘life’, and ‘vedas’, which means ‘divine knowledge.’  Traditional practitioners of Ayurveda believe that it is a divinely inspired practice that teaches us to live in harmony with the natural world by observing and following natural rhythms.

The Concept of Quality (pp. 12-13)

“The theoretical basis of Ayurveda rests primarily on the Samkhya darshana, one of the six teachings of the Vedas.  It is so ancient that many scholars have suggested that it may predate the Vedic period in India, emanating as an ancient theme that underpins the entire basis of traditional Indian knowledge.  The term ‘samkhya’ means ‘to number’ or ‘enumerate’, and in this sense Samkhya delineates the fundamental aspects of reality in a way that can be easily understood.
As part of its structure, Samkhya postulates five elements that underlie all physical reality called earth, water, fire, wind and space.  These ‘elements’ are not chemical elements in the scientific sense of the word, but rather, energetic vibrations that underlie the very fabric of matter.   Earth element relates to inertia, water to cohesion, fire to radiance, wind to vibration and space to the absolute pervasiveness of emptiness.
Since the elements relate to function rather than structure, Ayurveda states that they can only be recognized by the qualities they emanate:

• Earth is heavy and dry
• Water is cold and wet
• Fire is hot and light
• Wind is light and dry
• Space is light

This concept of quality is key in Ayurveda, and underpins the relationship between theory and practice.  It is through ascertaining the quality of things that we truly come to understand their essence, not in any intrinsic sense, but in the way that one thing relates to another.  Nothing is absolutely cold, hot, wet, dry, light or heavy, because all matter contains all the elements and thus all the qualities in varying proportions. According to both the Indian and Chinese schools of philosophy, no thing can ever truly be understood because each contains within it the property of the infinite.  Thus rather than trying to base its conclusions on the incomplete knowledge of a thing, Ayurveda is directed to the observation of the relationship between things, and the qualities of interaction.”

The Three Doshas (pp. 14-15)

“Ayurveda states that a human is mostly comprised of earth and water, which like mud, forms the grounded earthy structure of the physical body.   It is perhaps no coincidence that in many traditions it is said that humans are formed from clay by the hands of the divine.    Within this concretion of mud rests the element fire, called agni, that mobilizes the natural inertia and heaviness of the body, awakening and stimulating bone, muscle and fat.   But as we all know fire cannot burn without air, and so agni depends upon the element of wind or prana to fuel the fire, regulating just how quickly or slowly it burns.   When the fire and wind elements are in balance the body is filled with vitality or ojas, which provides for strength, stamina, energy and resistance to disease.
In a world where nothing changes agni, prana and ojas would exist in a perfect balance, but since we live in a world of constant change they are each subject to alterations in their function.  When agni or digestion is disturbed it is called pitta (pronounced ‘pih-tah’), which manifests as imbalances characterized by hot, wet and light qualities.  When prana or neuroregulatory activity is disturbed it is called vata (pronounced ‘vah-tah’), manifesting as imbalances characterized by dry, cold, and light qualities.  When ojas or the innate resistance of the body is disturbed it is called kapha (pronounced ‘kah-fah’), manifesting as imbalances characterized by heavy, wet and cold qualities.  Collectively, these three aspects of physiological dysfunction are called tridosha, or the ‘three doshas’.
There is a natural tension between the inertia and heaviness of kapha and the fiery pitta aspect that wants to stimulate, awaken and transform the body.   The element of wind, regulating how quickly the fire burns, in turn regulates the dynamic interplay between pitta and kapha, like a conductor in an orchestra, or perhaps more simply, like the air-intake on a wood stove.  To promote good health Ayurveda states that we want to maintain an optimal balance of all three doshas, and hence, all five elements and their respective qualities.  The manifestation of this is good digestion, a happy mind and abundant vitality.
Given the natural cold, heavy and wet qualities of the body the natural tendency is for the fire element to become diminished and weak.  In Ayurveda this corresponds to a kapha increase in which heavy, wet, sticky and congesting qualities begin to dominate.  Left unchecked this weakness of the fire element impairs the physical process of “cooking” in the body, including digestion and the biotransformation of nutrients.  Thus instead of creating physical constituents of the body that promote good health, a kind of toxin is produced, called ama (literally ‘undigested food’) (see p. 210).  Figured by Ayurveda to be one of the major components of illness, the presence of ama sets up a predictable cycle of congestion, inflammation, and degeneration in the body.  Along with the maintenance of the digestive fire, the elimination of ama through detoxification (p. 207) is one of the major therapeutic goals of Ayurveda.”

Disease (Vikriti) (pp. 18-22)

“While associated with the word ‘disease’, the term vikriti actually means ‘change’, and in medicine refers to any kind of change in body or mind that is different from normal.   In a broader sense, vikriti is the existential fact enunciated by the Buddha thousands of years ago, that no thing, no state of being escapes the winding and twisting road of impermanence and change.   Ayurveda is very practical in this way.   While it is important to know oneself, we must also be very aware of this cycle of change, realizing that our bodies and the world around us is in a constant state of flux.  According to Ayurveda it is this dynamic interplay between life and death that gives rise to illness, disease and suffering.
Kapha, pitta and vata represent the dynamic of change, the ceaseless cycle of birth, life and death that all living beings must undergo.  It is a cycle that is replicated on many levels. In the seasons, kapha relates to the emergence of spring after the death of winter, when life is born in the newly green earth, excited by the warm sun that melts the nourishing mountain snow.  Pitta relates to summer when the fire element reaches its maximum and the brilliance of the sun calls forth the full blossoming of life, resplendently radiant and powerful.   Vata relates to autumn, when the sun begins its slow descent on the horizon towards winter and death, the energy returning to its roots, to the substratum of life, to be called forth again next spring.  The daily rhythm reflects this universal cycle as well, with morning relating to kapha, midday to pitta, and vata the late afternoon.  In the same way, the first part of the evening corresponds to kapha, midnight with pitta, and vata with early morning before sunrise.  Not just the seasons, but our very lives also follow this cycle, with childhood manifesting the softness and sweetness of kapha, pitta the blossoming of full maturity, and vata the slow retreat of aging.
For the practitioner of Ayurveda the cycle of kapha, pitta and vata also relates to discrete elements of physiology and disease.  In digestion, kapha relates to the chewing and swallowing food in the upper part of the GI tract, pitta to digestion and assimilation in the stomach and small intestine, and vata to elimination by the large intestine and bladder.    In acute illness, kapha represents initial (prodromal) symptoms, pitta the acute manifestation, and vata the chronic illness.   In chronic disease, kapha represents the initial stages, as an obstructive, congesting function that impairs normal physiological activities.  Pitta represents an immunological response that seeks to restore this balance, inducing the mechanisms of inflammation to remove this obstruction.  Vata is the result of chronic inflammation, leading to a loss of tissue integrity, weakness and degeneration.  In this way do all things begin, flower and end.  Ayurveda exists for the purpose of understanding this, and how best to preserve and protect life.
Like the constitution, disease patterns can also be classified according to tridosha.  The specific characteristic of these patterns however is that they refer to pathological, or disease-promoting factors – not constitution.  Sometimes the disease is of the same or similar quality as the constitution, but sometimes not.  The following provides an overview of the basic disease symptoms associated with each dosha.  Combined doshas will display their respective symptoms together, or in an alternating fashion.

Kapha disease symptoms
• Skins feels moist and cool
• Whitish discolorations of the affected area
• Whitish discolorations of the face, nail, eyes or mouth
• Symptoms worse with sweet, sour and salty flavors
• Symptoms worse during the beginning stages of digestion, when the food is passing through the mouth, esophagus and stomach
• Whitish discoloration of the urine and stool
• Congestion and swelling
• Itching sensation
• Dull aching pain
• Pain neither worsens nor improves when pressure is applied to the affected area
• Symptoms worse during the morning or evening
• Symptoms worse with cold and wet weather
• Symptoms worse during spring and winter
• Laziness, lethargy
• Radial pulse feels wide, deep and rolling; swims like a swan

Pitta disease symptoms
• Skin feels moist and hot
• Yellow, green or red discoloration of the affected area
• Yellow, green or red discoloration of the face, nails, eyes or mouth
• Bitter flavor in mouth
• Symptoms worse with pungent, sour and salty flavors
• Symptoms worse during the middle stages of digestion, when the food is passing through the lower stomach and small intestine
• Yellow, green or red discoloration of the urine and stool
• Inflammation (redness, heat)
• Burning sensations
• Severe colicky pain
• Pain worsens when pressure is applied to the affected area
• Symptoms worse mid-day and mid-night
• Symptoms worse with hot weather
• Symptoms worse during spring and summer
• Driven, irritability, anger
• Radial pulse feels strong and bounding; jumps like a frog

Vata disease symptoms
• Skin feels dry
• Pale or bluish discoloration of the affected area
• Pale or bluish discoloration of the face, nails, eyes or mouth
• Astringent flavor in mouth
• Symptoms worse with bitter, pungent and astringent flavors
• Symptoms worse during the latter stages of digestion, when the food is passing through the large intestine
• Pale discoloration of the urine and stool
• Debilitating pain
• Muscle spasm
• Severe colicky pain
• Pain improves when pressure is applied to the affected area
• Symptoms worse early morning and late afternoon
• Symptoms worse with cold or dry weather
• Symptoms worse during autumn and winter
• Exhaustion, anxiety, restlessness
• Radial pulse feels thin and weak; slips like a snake