Ayurveda is an approach to healthcare that developed in India thousands of years ago. The word Ayurveda is derived from the Sanskrit words ayur (meaning life) and veda (meaning science or knowledge). The literal translation is therefore ‘the science of life’. In normal use, Ayurveda is understood to mean the science of a healthy life.
Although Ayurveda has been practiced and taught in India since ancient times, invading forces took a toll. Centuries of Muslim occupation introduced different medical practices to India, and this was followed by European invasion. The British colonial forces declared Ayurveda to be a black magic practice, outlawed it and closed down schools of Ayurvedic education.
Fortunately, there were areas deep in rural and remote India where Ayurvedic medicine persisted. Thanks to those who continued to practice and teach Ayurveda, we still have much of the ancient knowledge. How much wisdom was lost entirely due to the invading forces, we will probably never know.
What is Ayurveda: The Key Principles
The entire knowledge, science and practice of Ayurveda is based on one foundational concept: the theory of five primal elements. These five elements are the building blocks of the entire universe, and of all life including our human bodies.
The five primal elements are:
- Space or ether
Sages in ancient times understood the five elements and their role in the health of our body and mind. They developed Ayurveda as a science to balance these elements in our bodies.
The second key principle of Ayurveda, and the aspect that sets it apart from most medical practices, is that Ayuveda’s main purpose is the maintenance of good health. Ayurvedic medicine does offer treatments for health problems, but treating disease is a secondary function. The primary intention of Ayurvedic practice has always been to prevent disease or health problems arising in the first place.
The three doshas in Ayurveda
Although dosha is commonly used to talk about body type or constitution, it translates more accurately as fault.
This means that when you identify your body’s dosha, you are identifying the element or elements that tend to become unbalanced in you. The element becomes unbalanced because you have a natural tendency to accumulate that element. This will be explained in more detail below.
The three doshas
Our tendencies to accumulate different elements result in three doshas. Each dosha is based on a pair of elements. The first element is considered the primary (most influential) element of the dosha. The element you most tend to accumulate is the primary element of your dosha.
- Vata – dosha of air and space (ether) elements
- Pitta – dosha of the fire and water elements
- Kapha – dosha of water and earth elements
Your dosha is neither good nor bad. It is simply your characteristics, and understanding your tendency to accumulate an element will help you stay balanced and healthy.
Nature gave people these tendencies for good reason - your dosha is determined by the environment your ancestors called home. If your ancestors are from northern Europe, you will have a tendency to retain the element of fire (heat), to help you survive the cold weather. People from hot or dry areas are likely to retain the element of water, to help them cope with that environment.
Many people now live in places that are different to their ancestral home, so their tendency to accumulate a certain element might become a problem instead of a useful trait. You can learn to manage your dosha, but you can’t change it. Your dosha is carried in your genes and would take many generations to adapt to a new environment.
Doshas and accumulating elements
There are two important points to understand about doshas:
- Elements are continuously replaced in our bodies. If we don’t release the old and replace it with the new, this is a fault that will lead to health problems.
- Balance does not mean all elements are equal. It means all elements are constantly renewed, and you stop accumulating an element when it isn’t required.
We naturally renew elements in our bodies all the time. We drink water to replace the water we sweat out or pass as urine. We breath in fresh air and breath out used air. We are constantly in a cycle of bringing new elements into our bodies and ridding ourselves of old elements. If this cycle is disturbed, it creates a fault that leads to disease in the body.
As a simple example of how this process works, consider a water bottle. If the bottle is regularly emptied and refilled with fresh water, you can use the water bottle for years. But if the water bottle is left to sit without replacing the contents, the water soon becomes stale. Over a few months it will start to smell dank and grow bacteria. A few more months, and the bottle itself starts to deteriorate as the bacteria start to cause microscopic damage to the surfaces. Because the element of water has accumulated and not been renewed, the bottle becomes stained and damaged.
The same thing happens in your body if elements are allowed to accumulate and are not renewed.
There is also a link between our accumulation of elements, and our chakras. One of the main reasons for an imbalance in the chakras is an imbalance in the five elements within the body.
Understand Your Dosha and What You Accumulate
In order to keep the elements of your body balanced, you need to understand what your dosha is and therefore what primary element you tend to accumulate. Doshas are not hidden secrets, you simply need to learn how to see them.
How to recognize Vata dosha
Vata has the primary element air. To visualize the Vata dosha, you might picture a mouse. Creatures with Vata dosha are associated with being lightweight, dry and cool. A person with Vata dosha has a light and thin bone structure, and finds it difficult to gain weight. Their skin and hair tend to be rough and dry, because air makes things dry. Their skin has a brownish tone and their hair has lighter colors such as gray, white, or light brown. Their body will feel cool, and because of this they won’t like cool weather.
Vata people provide dentists with a lot of work, as their teeth often need braces, and the lightness of their bone structure means their teeth chip easily. They have dry gums and also dry eyes, so they blink a lot. Their eyes appear small and curious and are light-colored, with the whites having a tint of brown or blue. Vata people tend to glance around a lot, making less eye contact than other people.
People with Vata dosha have a natural tendency to snack a lot and prefer light crackly airy foods. Their tendency to eat at random times and multitask with other activities while eating can easily become an unhealthy behaviour. When the air element is accumulating without renewing, Vata people have a very disturbed appetite and often have food allergies.
When the Vata element accumulates, the likely health symptoms are constant pains that may be in different places each day. The person will be prone to headaches, migraine, eye problems, anxiety, and panic attacks. They’re likely to suffer from constipation, with a slow transit through the gut resulting in dry, dark, unpleasant stools. They tend to pass bowel motions only once each day, or every second day. They tend not to notice feelings of thirst, and often become dehydrated.
The behaviour patterns of a Vata person tend towards quick activity. They are always busy, but their business might not be productive. They have difficulty being still or sitting quietly, and will probably try to do multiple things at once instead.
How to recognize Pitta dosha
Pitta has the primary element of fire. The fire element is not literally about flames, but more about heat. An animal example of Pitta dosha is a lion. A Pitta person, like a lion, has a moderate bone structure and body weight. Their skin is soft, warm and oily. Their coloring is fair and bright, with blonde, light brown or reddish hair. Their hair is beautifully soft and silky, but they do tend to go gray early. They have bright and colourful eyes of green, blue or grey, while the whites of their eyes will have a yellow tint. They have piercing eyes and make eye contact well.
Matching their moderate bone structure, Pitta people’s teeth will be medium size and well-shaped. The teeth will be yellowish, and their gums red and sensitive with a tendency to bleed easily.
Pitta people like to eat regularly, at set times. They eat very quickly, and prefer colourful healthy foods. They enjoy large meals, and will focus on eating and pay little attention to anything else, including the people they are with. If they get hungry, they become angry and potentially unreasonable. They feel thirsty often because of their heat, and are always drinking water.
If the Pitta element accumulates, disease tendencies often relate to digestion. They tend to pass bowel motions two or three times a day, so it’s easy for them to progress to issues with bowel motions being too soft or loose. They may experience stomach problems, rashes, fevers, and infections.
Pitta behaviour typically involves physical and outdoor activities. They like to be busy, and are very good at planning their activities. They keep diaries and enjoy ticking off task lists. They like to enjoy time for themselves, so they will include it in their plan.
How to recognize Kapha dosha
Kapha has the primary element of water. A typical animal representing Kapha is the elephant. Just like the elephant, a Kapha person will have a large strong frame. They will tend toward heavier body weight. The skin of a Kapha person is thicker, oily, and will feel cool to touch. Their skin color is pale, but their hair is dark and wavy. They tend to lose hair volume quickly as they age, so they are the dosha most likely to have thinning hair and balding patterns.
Because of their strong frame, Kapha people have strong teeth and gums. They have large, dark eyes with thick eyelashes. The whites of their eyes have a reddish tint, and their gaze tends to be dreamy rather than alert.
Kapha people enjoy their food, can eat anything and rarely suffer food allergies. Their natural eating habits include predictable meal sizes and slow steady eating.
When the Kapha element accumulates, the resulting problems develop more slowly or are more hidden than other elements, but they are still there. Disease tendencies often relate to mucus problems and sore throats. Because of water accumulation they don’t feel thirsty, but the result of not drinking enough can then lead to both dehydration and perpetuating the problem of the water element not being renewed and refreshed in their body. Kapha people tend to take a long time on the toilet as their bowel motions are slow to pass even though they are regular. The motions are heavy and dark and may be sticky and have visible mucus.
Kapha people are easy-going. Their behavior patterns are slow and steady, and they are a little lazy when it comes to physical activity. They are organized and precise in completing tasks, but they aren’t quick. A Kapha person does not multitask.
Identifying your dosha
Many people will have easily identified their dosha while reading the descriptions above. However, some people have more than one dosha. Others may find it easier to see traits in others than in themselves.
If you are looking for more guidance in identifying your dosha - or just to have a little fun while becoming more familiar with doshas - we have created a useful Dosha Assessment file to help you.
Discover your Ayurvedic constitution (dosha-dominance) with our free self-assessment.
Fill out our specially curated assessment to discover your dosha balance.
Ayurvedic Medicine offers treatment for health issues, but the primary aim of Ayurveda is to maintain health, so health issues don’t occur.
The goal of Ayurveda is to maintain health by ensuring that the five elements (earth, water, fire, air and space) are constantly renewed and don’t accumulate and rot in the body. Balance in Ayurveda refers to a balance of new elements entering and old elements exiting the body. It doesn’t mean all elements are equal.
Ayurveda is practiced by recognizing your dosha - your tendency to accumulate a particular element - and then choosing habits and eating strategies that help you manage any faults and ensure constant renewal of your elements.