Basics of Ayurveda

Ayurveda, the Science of Life

Ayurveda is the classical health care system of India, originating in the ancient Vedic civilization of 3,000 B.C.E. Ayur-Veda means Science of Life. It is a natural, preventive approach to health that emphasizes

1) a diet appropriate to one’s body-mind type and basic principles of nutrition.
2) proper digestion, elimination, rest, relaxation, and mental attitude.
3) the use of herbal medicines, pranayam, and meditation to balance the doshas.
4) the use of fasting, oil massage, and panchakarma treatments
for eliminating buildup of ama, or toxins.

The basis of Ayurveda is prevention--strengthening the body’s defense system and self-repair mechanisms so the individual has the ability to naturally resist disease.

Like Chinese Medicine, Ayurvedic medicine is especially valuable to people who perceive spiritual health and physical health as inextricably intertwined.

Origins of Disease in Ayurveda

Life-force in Ayurveda is called Prana. From the center of the being Prana controls the functioning of the bodies organs and physiological processes. Channels, called srotas, similar to the channels of Acupuncture, facilitate the circulation of prana. Disease is caused by blockage of these channels, and by pranic insufficiency.

Ayurveda describes individuals according to their constitutional or body-mind
types, called doshas.

The three basic doshas are vata, pitta, and kapha. Vata governs bodily and mental functions concerned with movement and metabolism. Pitta governs bodily and mental functions concerned with heat, catabolic break-down of things taken into the body-mind, and energy production.
Kapha governs bodily and mental functions concerned with the building up and maintenance
of structure and fluids.

Each individual has aspects of each dosha as well as a specific doshic proclivity, which is apparent in one’s physical features, lifestyle tendencies, and psycho emotional or spiritual temperament. The doshic proclivity helps determine the illnesses you are prone to, and so can be used to prescribe methods to avoid disease.

In the natural course of living, the doshas may become imbalanced, and when they do, this leads to the blockage of the channels by Ama, the accumulation of toxic substances within the bodymind. Ama increases if physical and mental digestive fire (agni) is weak, if foods contraindicated for your dosha are eaten, especially to excess, if spiritual consciousness is not cultivated, if sensible lifestyle practices are not followed, or if fecal waste is not properly eliminated.

Ayurvedic Treatment

Ayurvedic treatment focuses on rebalancing the doshas. First one’s natural dosha is determined
through intake and exam. Then one’s doshic imbalance is determined by a combination of pulse and tongue diagnosis, questioning, and observation. Ayurvedic therapy focuses first and foremost on eradicating the lifestyle and dietary errors that are creating doshic imbalances. This is root treatment. Secondly, the Ayurvedic physician may prescribe breathing and meditation exercises to eradicate mental ama, specific foods and dietary regimens to correct your particular doshic imbalance, herbs to treat the doshic imbalance and its specific disease symptoms in the tissues.

Panchakarma treatment is often recommended, both for serious illness and periodic cleansing.
This involves therapeutic monodiet fasting, oil massage, sweating, purging, and warm oil enema. The goal of Panchakarma therapy is to mobilize the Ama out of the tissues and channels into the center of the body where it can then be more easily discharged through the digestive tract.

Understanding the Doshas

Radiant health, according to Ayurveda, is simply a state in which you experience a zest for life and feel integrated and whole. Your appetite, digestion, and elimination are good, you breathe deeply and easily, your skin is radiant, you sleep well, and you experience the full range of human emotions in a manner that is congruent with your experiences. How each of us achieve this state of integration and wholeness, as well as how we experience physical and mental disease and suffering, is a function of our individual and unique, by degree and manifestation, bodymind type or dosha.

While there are three doshas, they combine into ten types,

a) the three monodoshics: in which one dosha strongly predominates, and the other two are equally secondary.

b) the six bidoshics: in which one dosha strongly predominates, the next dosha is of secondary strength within the bodymind, while the third is of weakest influence. These are:

c) Tri doshic: Those in whom the three doshas have equal value.

Each of the ten doshic types have specific characteristics, some of which are as follows:

Vata types are light and thin in build, move quickly in speech, activities and thought, tend towards dry skin, are averse to cold, dry weather, have irregular appetites, digestions, and schedules, tend to worry, become constipated easily, and sleep lightly and with easy interruption. Their eyes are light colored and can be nervous. Hair is thin and dry.

Pitta types have a moderate build with prominent tendons. They have penetrating intellects, are enterprising and sharp in character, good public speakers, with a tendency toward quick anger and irritability. They have intense hungers, can’t skip meals, are averse to hot weather and prefer cold drinks and foods. They tend toward reddish hair, moles, and freckles with oily and easily inflamed skin. Their eyes are sharp and penetrating. Hair is wiry.

Kapha types have a solid large boned heavy build. They have good strength and endurance, are slow and methodical, can be steady and tranquil with oily and smooth skin. They have mild hunger, and slow digestion and can gain weight very easily. Their eyes are large and like water and their sleep is heavy and long. They tend towards plentiful thick wavy hair.

As you can imagine, how each of these types combine in any one individual has a near infinite number of permutations and gradations, however, certain very generalized observations can be made about the nature of a dosha when balanced or imbalanced.

Balanced Vata is mentally alert with strong sleep, immunity, and exhilaration with life.
Imbalanced Vata has dry rough skin, insomnia, nervous disorders, anxiety and worry, underweight, intolerant of cold, and dry hard stools. The nervous energy of vata imbalance leads to exhaustion and non-specific fatigue.

Balanced Pitta has normal heat and thirst mechanisms, strong digestion meaning the ability to consume and digest physical and mental things easily, a lustrous complexion born of its natural fire element, a sharp intellect and sense of contentment.
Imbalanced Pitta suffers easily from inflammation of the skin or emotions, excessive bodily heat and heat in the digestive tract yielding disorders like ulcers, gastritis and hemorrhoids. They grey and bald early in life, develop hot-type visual disorders, and can be unnecessarily argumentative or irritable.

Balanced Kapha is possessed of above average muscular strength, good vitality and stamina, with good immunity and stability of mind and also joints.They are capable of strong affection, generosity, courage and dignity.
Imbalanced Kapha suffers from slow digestion, cognition, obesity, lethargy and dullness. They develop disorders of phlegm easily, like allergies and sinus congestion.

As you can now see, a Pitta-Vatta, for example, will have a combination of attributes and or imbalances that reflect Pitta having the primary role, Vatta the secondary, and Kapha the tertiary.
Can a PittaVatta type have an imbalance in Kapha? Absolutely, but their Kapha imbalance will tend to affect them less profoundly on both physical and spiritual levels than an imbalance in their predominant dosha.

For example, a PittaVatta type with a Kaphic imbalance might suffer some exacerbation of lethargy in the winter, which is the Kapha season, but would suffer much more from a Pitta imbalance in Summer, the Pitta season. Here their tendency towards heat and inflammation, if their Pitta were running wild, could lead to skin and digestive disorders, especially if the climate were tropical.

On the other hand, if a KaphaVatta were in Kapha imbalance during winter, they might develop full scale seasonal affective disorder, rather than just mild lethargy, particularly in a long, cold, wet, dark northern winter.

The role of the Ayurvedic physician is to accurately describe the patient’s dosha proclivities and imbalances, and then to give the proper dietary, lifestyle and herbal regimens to correct imbalances and promote radiant health.

There are specific diets to “pacify” each of the doshas, which means to keep them from becoming imbalanced. There are specific lifestyle recommendations to promote the most healthy physical and spiritual expression of each dosha as well. These recommendations extend from types of exercise, pranayam and meditation, to daily routines regarding when and how much to sleep and eat. It also involves responding to the rhythm of the seasons according to your individual doshic tendencies. Finally it involves an awareness of how the doshas transform through the ageing process.

For example, in the above case of KaphaVatta with a Kapha imbalance and seasonal affective disorder, the treatment would begin with a Pitagenic diet, that is a diet to strengthen digestive fire (agni) and Pitta so to warm and stimulate the cold damp Kapha. This would center on warming spices like cayenne, black pepper, ginger, cinnamon, nutmeg, cardomom, and clove. It would involve lightly cooked vegetebles and soups with emphasis on lots of colorful and slightly bitter green vegetebles. Certain foods, like dairy products and wheat, especially pasta, would be avoided. Sweets would need to be minimalized, and green tea and bright stimulating herb teas like peppermint or fresh ginger would be useful. Meditation at the ajna chakra or eyebrow center is particularly helpful for the despondency and immobility that characterizes Kapha-type depression.

Full spectrum lighting would be recomended, and fast exercises, like aerobics, with intense music to push one out of one’s Kaphic imbalance. Staying up a bit later and doing something creative or exciting like an art project or music concert would be recommended. On the other hand, getting out at high noon (maximum pitta time) in whatever sunlight is available, doing something like cross country skiing, would be beneficial. Bring hot spicy tea with you.

Sauna, not steam, vigorous massage with warming mustard seed oil and essential oils like eucalyptus, tea tree, thyme, oregeno, jasmine, and sandalwood would be useful, as would walking meditation and breath of fire style pranayam breathing exercises. Warm intense bright colors would be useful in the home as well as clothing, for example crimson red, burgundy, turqoise blue and gold. This would be a case for fresh cut flowers, regardless of cost. Even fiery gems would be useful in jewlery, like rubys and fire opal. Gold is stimulating while silver is calming

In this case the healthy expression of feelings would be encouraged, perhaps in a safe therapeutic environment, so as to ensure that kapha, with its long memory, is not turning anger inwards, and that the free and open movement of emotions (like fear, sadness, attachment in its many forms, loneliness, and its inverse selfishness) is not inhibited by Kapha’s sluggishness or Vata’s fear.

This person will benefit from volunteer work, dance class, playing a musical instrument, taking previously unacceptable prudent risks, and making friends with some PittaKaphas. (Please note, this is just an example, and not meant as medical advice to the reader. If you have a medical problem, please consult a licensed professional.)This is just a keyhole glimpse at the kinds of recommendations that are made in an Ayurvedic consultation. As you can see, they tend to cut to the heart of a problem, and do require a commitment for change on the part of the patient. It is very different than taking a pill, but well worth it if you are interested in long lasting, profound levels of change.

I have used Ayurvedic medicine for the past 34 years in my own life, including three years studying in India and Sri Lanka. Since 1991 I have used Ayurvedic herbs, dietary and lifestyle counseling techniques to help many people resolve their illnesses and progress towards radiant health.

I have found Ayurvedic medicine particularly valuable in the treatment of skin disorders such as Eczema, Psoriasis, and Acne; for digestive and respiratory disorders such as Chronic Constipation, IBS, Ulcerative Colitis, Allergies and Asthma; in gynecological problems like painful period and pms; and for all the stress disorders like tension headache, and functional disorders like Fibromyalgia.

Eyton J. Shalom has been in private practice in San Diego since 1992. A magna cum laude graduate of UCSD, he began his study of Yoga in 1972 with Kriya Yogi S. A. Ramaiah. The next 12 years involved intensive Yogic practice, including 3 years in India and Sri Lanka, where he also began his study of Ayurveda. Eyton became licensed in the practice of Chinese Medicine in 1992,
and has been the owner of the Mission Hills BodyMind Wellness Center, in San Deigo, since 1997. He can be reached at or 619.296.7591