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Ayurveda: In Spirit and Practice
Ayurveda is a system of natural medicine that originated in India over 5000 years ago. It encompasses not only science but also philosophy, whereby the whole of life’s journey is considered sacred. Ayurveda draws on a system of scientific and practical knowledge, which is rooted in the ancient belief systems about the constitution of the human body, and its close relationship with the environment it exists in.
Within the practice of Ayurveda, all matter is believed to be made up of five elements: Prithvi (Earth), Agni (Fire), Jal (Water), Vayu (Air) and Aakash (Ether). They manifest in the human body as three basic principles: Vata (Ether and Air), Pitta (Fire and Water) and Kapha (Earth and Water). These three principles - vata-pitta-kapha – govern all the biological, psychological and physiopathological functions of body and mind. Disease and bodily discomfort is considered to be created from an imbalance in these principles.
Western medicine often relies on the rule of numbers to cure, in that what is common to a majority of people constitutes the norm, and hence has universal applicability. Ayurveda dictates that every human constitution has its own particular and spontaneous temperament and functioning, and hence must be evaluated individually. The key to understanding one’s own or another’s constitution is often acceptance, observation and experience. Traditional medicine primarily relies on questioning, analysis and logical deduction – which may explain why it is sometimes difficult for practitioners of traditional medicine to comprehend the methodology of Ayurveda.
A core teaching in Ayurveda is to go beyond the division between subjectivity and objectivity, and to embrace practical experience, while getting connected deeper with our bodies and understanding our individual constitutions. Some questions, while inevitable, are not always answerable by anything but practical experience of relief. Even within western medicine, some questions are not fully understood. Ayurveda is truly a holistic science, in which the sum of its many elements comprises its truth. Early practitioners may sometimes need to briefly suspend disbelief and accept some departure from accepted norm, while trusting the practical relief their bodies are experiencing, from the integration of this powerful, ancient form of natural healing into their regimen.
There are some diet and lifestyle recommendations in Ayurveda that apply broadly to all doshas. Routine is considered very important to individual health within Ayurveda. Waking early is encouraged, (how early depends upon your dosha: Kapha types are encourage to wake at dawn, vata types can sleep in a little longer!) as is morning exercise, breakfast before eight, lunch before noon and dinner before sundown. Additional lifestyle additions to create balance in the elements are: drinking warm water in the morning, cleaning the tongue, and oil massages prior to the morning shower. Ayurveda and Yoga are often considered sister sciences, in part because of their focus on holistic equilibrium of the mind and body – and understanding your dosha and body can give you vital clues on which exercises – or even breathing meditations (called pranayama) are more beneficial for your constitution type. Diet plays a very important role within Ayurveda – and in an interesting departure from a lot of contemporary thinking or fad diets – Ayurveda doesn’t really advocate for certain "superfoods" or against "universally villainous foods". Depending upon your dosha – some foods can be balancing or aggravating; e.g., vata types do very well with widely-proclaimed-"superfood" avocado, but Kapha types are best suited to eat it only in moderation. Here is a handy guide on Ayurvedic eating by your type.
In addition, Ayurveda believe that your environment can have a profound influence on the balance of your doshas and overall well-being. Seasons also have dominant doshas (e.g., summer is the season of Pitta) – and that is the time your pitta is most likely to come out of balance. Similarly, late winter is the season of Kapha (read about our winter guidelines here). Accordingly, lifestyle and diet habits should change to correct for the likely imbalance caused by seasonality. As you understand and internalize these principles, you’ll start to find that many of the answers are intuitive and will often come to you naturally when you listen to your mind and body.
Eager to integrate some of these 5000-year old pearls of wisdom in your life? Start with this Easy One Day Ayurvedic Cleanse:
- The night before, try one of the following Ayurvedic laxatives (mildest to strongest): a cup of hot milk with two teaspoons of ghee, a teaspoon of triphala powder with warm water, or two teaspoons of castor oil with a cup of warm water (castor oil being the strongest; pregnant women should avoid the last two)
- Wake before 7 am and start your day with a cup of warm water with lemon squeezed in. Eat breakfast before 8 am, ideally consisting of a large quantity of fruit. If eating cantaloupes (melons in general), do not mix these with other fruit. Also, be sure to avoid dairy with any fruit.
- Try a cup of ginger tea around 10 am.
- Eat lunch at noon. Prior to eating, consume a teaspoon of freshly grated ginger with a pinch of salt or cumin. Try plain basmati rice with yogurt or ghee, or a light grain such as tapioca or millets. After eating drink a cup of warm water with lemon juice and a pinch of baking soda added.
- You can have another cup of fruit mid-afternoon (before 4 pm), with a cup of ginger tea.
- Eat dinner before 6 pm. If you have the time to cook, try this ancient Ayurvedic recipe for kitchari. Cook equal parts of basmati rice and split lentils until they are soft (20-30 mins of boiling, typically). In a large pan, add 2 teaspoons of ghee with about ½-1 tsp each of cumin, coriander powder, turmeric and optionally, mustard and asafetida (if available). Season with salt according to taste. Eat on its own or with a cup of non-fat yogurt (with cumin powder mixed in). Learn more about this beloved Ayurvedic food kitchari here.
- Do not eat after 6 pm.
- At bed time, consume a cup of chamomile tea and optionally laxatives from step 1!
Keep in mind that Ayurveda is a lifestyle and a journey. It requires moderation and patience. If often takes a very individual approach to elimination of disease, and we would encourage you to understand your individual constitution deeper as you explore this practice to find solutions even more customized and powerful.