Ayurveda (a Sanskrit word that means "science of life" or "knowledge of life") is one of the world's oldest whole-body healing systems. It was developed more than 5,000 years ago in India.
Ayurveda is based on the belief that health and wellness depend on a delicate balance between the mind, body, spirit, and environment. The main goal of ayurvedic medicine is to promote good health and prevent, not fight, disease. But treatments may be geared toward specific health problems.
Ayurveda and Your Life Energy
Ayurveda is based on the theory that everything in the universe – dead or alive – is connected. If your mind, body, and spirit are in harmony with the universe, you have good health. When something disrupts this balance, you get sick. Among the things that can upset this balance are genetic or birth defects, injuries, climate and seasonal change, age, and your emotions.
Those who practice ayurveda believe every person is made of five basic elements found in the universe: space, air, fire, water, and earth.
These combine in the human body to form three life forces, or energies, called doshas. They control how your body works. They are vata dosha (space and air); pitta dosha (fire and water); and kapha dosha (water and earth).
Everyone inherits a unique mix of the three doshas. But one is usually stronger than the others. Each one controls a different body function. It’s believed that your chances of getting sick – and the health issues you develop – are linked to the balance of your doshas.
The Three Doshas in Ayurveda
Those who practice ayurveda believe this is the most powerful of all three doshas. It controls very basic body functions, like how cells divide. It also controls your mind, breathing, blood flow, heart function, and ability to get rid of waste through your intestines. Things that can disrupt it include eating again too soon after a meal, fear, grief, and staying up too late.
If vata is your dominant dosha, you may be smart, creative, vibrant, and your moods change quickly. Physically, you may be thin and lose weight easily, and are usually cold.
When you are out of balance, you can get overstimulated and have anxiety , phobias, and be forgetful. You can also be more likely to have conditions like asthma, heart disease, skin problems, and rheumatoid arthritis.
In ayurveda, like increases like. For this dosha (space and air), you can balance out too much vata by doing things that are grounding like meditation, massage, keeping a regular sleep and wake schedule, and eating warm, mild foods.
This energy controls your digestion, metabolism (how well you break down foods), and certain hormones that are linked to your appetite. Things that can disrupt pitta are eating sour or spicy foods, spending too much time in the sun, and missing meals.
If you are pitta dominant, then you may be goal-oriented, competitive, confident, and a natural leader. Physically, you may have a medium-sized, muscular build and tend to be hot most of the time.
When out of balance, you can be too competitive, cranky, quick to anger, and impulsive. If pitta is your main dosha, you’re thought to be more likely to have conditions like Crohn’s disease, heart disease, high blood pressure, indigestion, and fever when you are out of balance.
To bring pitta (fire and water) back into balance, you can focus on things that are cooling and light, like salads, cucumbers, and practicing moderation and slow or restorative yoga.
Kapha dosha is thought to control muscle growth, body strength and stability, weight, and your immune system. Things that can disrupt kapha include daytime naps, eating too many sweet foods, and eating or drinking things that contain too much salt or water.
If kapha is your main dosha, you may like routine, stick to expectations, and be accepting, calm, and patient. Physically, you are more likely to have a broad frame and easily gain weight.
When out of balance, you can easily get fatigued, avoid taking on new projects, and be possessive, stubborn, and depressed. If you are kapha dominant, you may be more likely to develop asthma and other breathing disorders, cancer, diabetes, nausea after eating, and obesity.
To reduce excess kapha (earth and water) and be more balanced, you can increase the amount of fruits and vegetables in your diet, and do exercise that gets the blood flowing like jogging or sun salutations in yoga.
An ayurvedic practitioner will create a treatment plan specifically designed for you. They’ll take into account your unique physical and emotional makeup, and your primary and secondary doshas. They will use that information to work toward the goal of treatment, which is to bring your mind and body into balance.
There are several tools used in ayurvedic medicine to help you create harmony, avoid disease, and treat conditions you may have. These include:
- Herbal medicine. A key component of ayurveda, it's used in different combinations, depending on your dosha, and includes licorice, red clover, ginger, and turmeric.
- Purification programs. Also known as panchakarma, these are used to cleanse your body of undigested food through practices like blood purification, massage, medical oils, herbs, enemas, and laxatives.
- Counseling. Your practitioner will help you understand your dosha, how it impacts your life, and how you can change your lifestyle to create more balance and harmony.
Other treatments used in ayurveda include oil massage, breathing exercises (known as pranayama), and repeating mantras, or phrases.
Benefits of Ayurveda
As with many alternative therapies, not as much clinical research has been done on ayurveda as on Western medicine. But many practices of ayurveda have been shown to improve health and well-being.
- If you have conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, ayurveda treatments may improve symptoms.
- Ayurveda has also been shown to lower blood pressure and cholesterol.
- An ayurvedic diet focuses on an increase in eating fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and decreasing meat intake, particularly red meat. This could reduce the risk of heart disease.
- Practicing yoga can reduce chronic pain and anxiety and improve circulation and digestion.
- Fenugreek has been shown to lower bad cholesterol (LDL) and increase good cholesterol (HDL).
- Meditation may reduce anxiety, increase focus, help you better manage stress, and improve the quality of your sleep. It may also help you manage symptoms of conditions like chronic pain, cancer, depression, and irritable bowel syndrome.
It is important to note that the FDA doesn’t review or approve ayurvedic products. In fact, it has banned certain ones from entering the country since 2007. What’s more, the FDA has warned that 1 in 5 ayurvedic medicines contain toxic metals, like lead, mercury, and arsenic. These heavy metals can cause life-threatening illnesses, especially in children.
Always talk to your doctor before you try ayurveda or any other alternative medical treatment.
Finding an Ayurveda Practitioner
There is no exact data on the number of people who use ayurvedic medicine, but an estimated 80% of people in India are thought to use at least some ayurvedic treatments. In India, ayurveda is considered a traditional medical system, and some practitioners can perform surgery. In the U.S., it’s considered a form of complementary and alternative medicine.
If you’d like to try ayurvedic medicine, talk with an integrative medicine specialist or functional medicine doctor to make sure any herbal medicines you want to take have been tested for contaminants and approved by an independent laboratory. These doctors can also help integrate Western medicine and ayurveda.
There are a few state-approved ayurvedic schools in the U.S. But there’s no national standard training or certification program for those who practice ayurveda. You can find a practitioner near you at the National Ayurvedic Medical Association.
If you have only used Western medicine, ayurveda may sound exotic. If you’re not ready to visit an ayurvedic practitioner for a consultation, there are many simple ayurvedic practices you can do at home to help balance your mental, physical, and spiritual health.
For sleep/stress relief
Try keeping a regular sleep/wake schedule and adopting better sleep hygiene. (Keep your bedroom quiet, at a comfortable temperature, and dark at bedtime. Keep laptops and phones out of the bedroom at night.)
Set aside time (daily, if possible) for meditation.
Practice deep breathing techniques like box breathing – breathe in for four counts, hold your breath for four counts, breathe out for four counts and hold again for four. Repeat this three or four times.
Try a yoga class. You can go to a local studio, take online classes, or find free ones on YouTube.
Increase the amount you move during the day. Listen to your body – maybe you need a long, slow walk one day and a brisk run another.
Eat fresh, homemade food instead of processed products.
Enjoy your food and eat when you are calm, instead of stressed or angry, for good digestion.
Eat your biggest meal at lunch when your digestion is best. This may also help you sleep at night if you aren't trying to digest a heavy dinner.
Focus on foods that balance all of the doshas, including fruits, vegetables, rice, nuts, and honey as a sweetener.
You can incorporate many herbs used in ayurveda when cooking food. Before taking herbal supplements, check with your doctor to make sure they are safe and won't interact with any medications you are taking. Some of the most commonly used, and easy-to-access, herbs in ayurveda include:
- Ashwagandha, which reduces stress and helps with sleep
- Turmeric, an anti-inflammatory
- Ginger, a root that can reduce nausea
- Cumin, a spice that helps with digestion
- Black pepper, which can be a decongestant
Ayurveda is a complex system that takes into account nearly all parts of your physical, spiritual, and mental health. But there are easy practices you can do at home as well. If you want to find out which dosha is your dominant one, The Ayurvedic Institute has a dosha quiz. Using this can help you understand your dominant energy, or constitution, and follow simple treatments to reach the goal of ayurveda – to bring balance to your life.
What is an example of ayurvedic medicine? If you are a pitta person, whose constitution is made of fire, you should exercise during the coolest times of day, eat cooling foods, like salad, and avoid caffeine and alcohol, which increase your digestive fire.
What are the five elements of ayurveda? Space, air, earth, fire, and water.
What are the benefits of ayurvedic treatment? Ayurveda can:
- Improve your sleep
- Reduce anxiety
- Improve circulation
- Help manage symptoms of chronic diseases like arthritis and chronic pain
- Increase focus