What is Ayurveda? My Experience
Ayurveda translates to the science of life. Along with Traditional Chinese Medicine, it is arguably the oldest medical system in the world with 5000 years under its belt. What sets it apart from conventional western medicine is that it includes mind, body and spirit in healing. Ayurveda prides itself on being a complete wellness system that includes disease prevention, diagnosis, observation, and then personalized treatment. It is an instruction on how to enhance your life!
I was first introduced to Ayurveda when I visited India for a yoga and meditation retreat. I fell in love with how this ancient medicine system still was quite relevant today. My biggest impression came with my consult with some Tibetan doctors who promptly informed me that I needed a liver cleanse. It was so urgent, in fact, that they said if I had been staying longer they would have done a more active cleanse with observation! This confirmed my suspicion that I might have a struggling liver as my liver enzymes had returned a point higher than the normal reference range earlier that year. I was given 25 different herbs rolled up into a ball from the Tibetan docs, which I still take today. The most memorable part of this whole experience for me, however, was HOW the docs came up with my diagnosis. There were no labs or handy gadgets used in my evaluation. They simply felt my pulse, looked at my eyes and tongue, and asked very detailed questions. But it was right on the money.
Ayurveda is very similar to Chinese medicine in that it uses very “bipolar” terms in its descriptions. Rather than saying Yin and Yang as in TCM, it uses Shiva and Shakti. These are very similar to masculine and feminine. What I found out is that I had too much fire, or yang, in my liver and gallbladder. It was affecting my blood and circulation as well and going on to compromise my digestion. My spleen, whose job it is to make antibodies that lovingly protect our immunity, was struggling too!
This makes perfect sense to me. How can you be diseased in one organ but not in another? When we think about it, western medicine knows this on a partial level, but seems to disregard it in the big picture sense. If blockages or plaques are found in the heart, you can bet they are likely in the brain too as the same process goes on throughout the whole body. This why heart attacks are a risk factor for strokes.
Modern medicine is flawed because it views the body in parts rather than teaching that it functions as a whole. As a result, the doctors aren’t properly educated and this view is funneled into patient care. We don’t realize that our improper digestion can affect blood toxicity which can then affect the kidneys and adrenals. This throws the entire hormone cascade off. Our bodies do not function in specialized parts. Quite the contrary actually, everything affects everything else.
It is a shame that medical students are forced to specialize and pick a certain organ group to be experts in as this affects how patients are seen and treated.
The Tridoshas in Ayurveda: How Knowing Yours Can Empower You to Make Better Choices
In Ayurvedic medicine, although the total system is quite complex, there is a dominance of the three dosha (tridosha), or mind body types: kapha, pitta, vata (also called vayu). Ayurveda also likes to describe transformation of food in the body and focuses on how the ingested food is broken down and converted into the essential building blocks that comprise the body.
Although all of us carry all three doshas with us, there is usually a predominant one in most people. The doshas can also become too Shiva or Shakti, or imbalanced if our mind or body is sick. Here is a description of our three dosha:
- Pitta: Pitta represents the fire and water elements. It is hot, sharp, oily, and often represented by bile. This is because this constitution oversees digestion and transformation which includes biles that emulsify fats needed for proper nutrient absorption. Fiery pitta is in charge of all catabolic physical and chemical activities. When functioning and properly balanced, pitta maintains proper digestion, bodily warmth, visual acuity, hunger, thirst, skin luster, intelligence, determination, and bodily softness. Its most positive mental attribute is courage and determination while in its most negative attributes when imbalanced include anger and inappropriate audaciousness.The Primary seat of the pitta dosha is the liver/gallbladder, and small intestines. (You will notice that all three doshas have the digestive organs as their seats-thats how important digestion is!) Its flavor is pungent or spicy and is often more yang. It is strongly associated with all digestive secretions including acids and bile.I am a predominant pitta all the way. This explains why my liver was so damaged. I was overworked, competitive, angry and totally imbalanced. I know my fire element was imbalance due to work and poor dietary choices. I craved spicy and salty food all the time. Pitta can also become askew due to excessive sexual activity, acid, salty and pungent flavors, hot, indigestible foods, fish, buttermilk, whey, fasting, acidic fruits, alcohol, meat and fatty, oily foods. It is also harmed by excessive exposure to sunlight, summertime, noon, midnight, injuries and blood toxicity. Often, symptoms that manifest approximately one hour after the digestion of food are caused by Fire imbalance.Other symptoms include bleeding, jaundice, yellowing of the feces, eyes and skin, boldness, excessive hunger, thirst, burning sensations and insomnia. In addition, symptoms of fever, infections, inflammation, cold sores, burning sensations such as ulcers and acid stomach, hepatitis, thirst, excessive perspiration and restlessness may be associated with a Fire imbalance. Mentally, this translates to anger, heat, impatience, frustration, jealousy and reactivity.If the pitta mind body dosha is deficient, it is balanced by foods and medicines that are spicy and moderately cool as well as moderate physical exercise. For excess fire or Pitta, we would use uncooked, bitter, astringent and sweet flavored foods with mild physical activities. Once I learned that I had a Pitta excess, I began solely doing yoga and taking the herbs that were given to me in India by the Tibetan doctors. A couple of the ingredients were Amla, a fruit high in vitamin C as well as Indian Triphala or gooseberry, that is a natural laxative. In excessive Pitta, you want herbs that are cooling, soothing and laxative-like in nature so that the heat is being removed. Constipation is often a problem. When there is no constipation, one can use alterative or cholagogic herbs such as red clover, sarsaparilla, oregon grape root, barberry root and dandelion root. What should you eat in your Pitta is imbalanced? Think raw! Fruits, veggies and kitachari or rice are acceptable. You definitely want to hold off on aggravating spices, oils, peppers and fried foods. If you lack Pitta, then look for herbs like ginger, cayenne pepper or turmeric.
Pitta constitution rules the late spring, summer, and indian summer. During that time, you would want to eat food that calms the body like more salads, raw fruit and veggies and chilled soups. During colder months, avoid these foods which can cause cold/dampness in the body. Pitta’s oversees digestive fire and this explains why our biggest meal should be at noon when the digestive fires, or agni, are the strongest. Therefore this constitution rules 10am to 2pm and should definitely be asleep by 10pm as this is when liver detox and processing is occurring Ayurveda is all about eating with the seasons!
2. Vata or Vatu: Vata represents the air and ether elements. It is represented by anything with movement in the body like the colon, nervous system, and ears. It helps to also MOVE or push things through the system so it oversees bowel movements, the blood pumping heart, the kidneys and urination, each breath, and even childbirth. Just like wind, Vata is responsible for CHANGE. The primary seat of Vata is the colon-see how important digestion is? This constitution is dry and cold and can become especially problematic in the winter, when it is colder and drier! In its most positive aspect, Vata is sensitive, sweet, malleable, and joyous. In its negative, imbalanced aspect, Vata can become fearful, indecisive, anxious and flighty. Activities and foods that aggravate Vata include raw foods, chilled soups, fasting, excessive juicing, traveling, overextending yourself, sex, fighting, staying up too late, skipping meals and cold weather/rain. Symptoms that occur immediately after eating are an indication of Air imbalance as are feeling cold, sleepy, fatigued, constipated, irritable, and having abdominal distention.
If you are deficient in Vata, you would want to seek out herbs/foods that are spicy, bitter and light in nature. For excessive Vata, meaning too much “wind,” you want grounding and soothing foods and herbs that have a sweet, salty or sour flavor and come from the earth, such as healthy grains and even clean animal products occasionally. A person who has too much Vata is lanky, sometimes very thin or frail and seems hyper anxious. They often have cold hands and feet due to poorer circulation. They do not tolerate cold, wind or rain very well and often need extra rest to feel well. It is extremely important for these individuals to set a proper schedule of sleep, eating and routine activities as irregularity seems to exacerbate their symptoms.
Vata constitution rules the autumn/winter months. During that time, you want to eat soothing, warming foods like warm soups, cooked sweet vegetables, and herbs that encourage grounding. Avoid processed sugary foods, skipping meals and try to curb these foods during the summer. Vata constitutions fair very well with castor oil on the body because of how viscous it is, which helps to ground the air imbalance. Herbs like slippery elm bark, comfrey and marshmallow root are all help to soothe excess Vata. Seek out herbs that are bitter, drying and pungent. Vata oversees the time from 2am to 6am and from 2pm to sunset. This should be a time for task making lists and exercise (movement, get it?) So any issues during these time frames can link back to a possible Air deficiency or excess.
3. Kapha: Kapha represents the water and earth elements. It is cold, wet, heavy, slow but steady and often cloudy. It oversees weight gain/loss, stability, tissue repair and growth. Since it is a water element, it is responsible for lubricating the joints and organs. This dosha’s primary seat is in the lungs, but the stomach, pancreas, throat, and sinus cavities also are included. (Digestion again!) This means that if you have consistent sinusitis or bronchitis, your kapha constitution is likely askew! Kapha predominant people often eat when they are upset, they are loyal and sweet and quick to forgive. In its most positive aspect, it is responsible for the qualities of forgiveness, patience, altruism and generosity. However, when imbalanced, Kapha can lead to coveting, laziness, obesity, greediness and clinginess. Physically an imbalance looks to cause indigestion, mucus/bronchitis, sinusitis, heaviness, coldness, breathing issues, coughing, pneumonia, congestive heart failure (you are literally drowning in your own fluid excess), goiter, obesity, depression, constipation, and edema. These symptoms often manifest while still eating.
It is aggravated and made imbalanced by excessive cold and damp climates, heavy and rich foods like breads and pastas, fatty foods, excessive sleep and laziness, dairy, sugar and sweets, and salts.
If deficient, Kapha should be balanced with heavier and sweater foods from the earth. If in excess, avoid rich, fatty foods, dairy and refined grains/wheat/sugar which increase mucus production. Seek out Kapha balancing herbs that are light, spicy, and bitter. Kapha predominant people should also try more vigorous exercise as you want to counteract the heaviness feeling that can be so much worse in the colder months. Please seek out herbs and foods that are warming, stimulating, expectorant, produce dieresis and mildly laxative are appropriate for this type. You want to be motivated to get out and do things in the colder months.
Ayahuasca helps the Kapha dosha immensely by inducing vomiting which is the prime way to remove mucus and phlegm from the body.
Kapha constitution oversees the winter/spring months. During that time, you want to eat light and spicy foods that do not weigh you down. Avoid heavy oils, dressings, sauces, pastas, dense meats, and breads. Try not to indulge in too many sweets. I feel this is why we feel so down after overindulging in holiday treats; our Kapha becomes imbalanced! Seek out herbs and foods like light fruits, millet, honey, ginger, turmeric, tulsi, peppers, cardamom, and lots of veggies. Kapha oversees time from 6am to 10am and from 6pm to 10pm during which you should be enjoying time with family/friends, producing tasks and eating light meals/snacks.
This is a very brief discussion of the Ayurvedic Dosha. Of course, it is too detailed to cover even a fraction here. However, above all, it is necessary to protect the Agni, or digestive fire, above everything else. This fire assimilates our food into nutrients and if there is weak physical digestion, it will lead to weak mental digestion (brain fog) as well. Avoid EVER drinking liquids that are too hot/cold (no ice water especially in the winter/kapha months), improper food combining, disturbance of sleep or eating patterns, and especially negative thinking patterns. Remember that feelings such as envy, fear, greed, anguish, misery, shame and anger can be stored in the body and lead to malfunction of organs/doshas and eventual disease.