What is Ayurveda?

Principles of Ayurveda


Ayurveda suggests that there are three primary principles in every human body called doshas.  These principles, or “biological humors,” as they are called in some texts, derive from the five elements that constitute everything in the universe: Vata dosha is associated with air and space, pitta with fire and water, kapha with earth and water. Every living body—animal as well as human—is a product of all three doshas. At any given time, however, one dosha is almost always predominant in an individual, and each dosha has its own constellation of traits, affecting everything from metabolism to mental acuity, from complexion to emotional pitch.

When the doshas are balanced, we experience good health, vitality, ease, strength, flexibility, and emotional well-being. When the doshas are out of balance, we experience energy loss, discomfort, pain, mental or emotional instability and, ultimately, disease. Many of the problems we experience as we start to age can be managed with food, lifestyle choices and herbal remedies that keep the doshas balanced and healthy.


Vata, the dosha that is most challenging to keep in balance, is composed of the air and space elements. Ayuvedic literature describes vata as cold, rough, dry, astringent, light, subtle and mobile. Vata is necessary for all movement in the body, both gross and subtle—from blinking the eyes and expanding and contracting the lungs and heart to the more subtle movement of nerve impulses throughout the nervous system. Since vata is the principle of air, it acts to dry out the moisture in both the skin and the internal organs, much as a brisk wind dries a puddle of water.

People with predominant vata tend to be thin. They think, move and often speak quickly. They often have an irregular appetite and digestion; something they were able to digest easily one day may cause problems a week later. When vata is in balance, people have great enthusiasm and energy. Because they like to stay in motion, they often accomplish a great deal. Balanced vata is the foundation of joy, happiness, creativity and imagination.

When vata is excessive, a person may experience an exaggeration of these attributes, which manifest as one or several kinds of discomfort or disease. Vata imbalances include cold extremities, dry skin, tremors, constipation and intestinal gas, osteoarthritis, joint pain, muscular pain, irregular heartbeat, difficulty with focus and falling asleep, anxiety and depression, hearing loss, and more.

Signs of Vata Imbalance

• Restless sleep and difficulty falling asleep
• Constipation and intestinal gas
• Dryness of skin and mouth; cracking joints
• Arthritic degeneration of joints and spine
• Body and joint aches, pains, and stiffness
• Osteoporosis
• Difficulty concentrating or maintaining focus
• Lack of mental clarity; confusion; feeling ungrounded;
• Short-term memory loss
• Anxiety, fear, phobias
• Depression; lack of enthusiasm, motivation, vitality and stamina
• Chronic fatigue
• Dizziness
• Inability to maintain weight
• Tremors, ticks
• Heart palpitations
• Urinary incontinence
• Irregular appetite
• Hypothyroidism; low endocrine system function

Looking over the list of vata imbalances, almost anyone over forty—and certainly over fifty—will likely recognize the connection between vata imbalance and aging. Even those of us who are in generally good health naturally experience some of the signs of increased vata as we grow older.


Pitta dosha comes from the elements of fire and water, and its qualities include hot, oily, spreading and sharp. The pitta dosha is the seat of digestion, absorption and assimilation, including the digestive enzymes and amino acids that metabolize food into energy. This dosha also regulates body temperature and complexion. Pitta types have a medium build, and they often have oily skin. Their hair often grays prematurely, and they have a tendency toward baldness.

Healthy pitta produces a strong intellect and understanding. It generates ambition, courage, energy and the motivation to achieve goals and overcome obstacles.  Pitta types usually have great organizational skills and leadership capacity, and they are competitive in nature. When pitta is out of balance, a person tends toward perfectionism and sharp criticism of self and others. The colors red and yellow are also associated with pitta. This means that red hair and ruddy cheeks are signs of a pitta constitution, for example.

When pitta becomes too high, it erupts in a number of physical and emotional symptoms. Disorders related to imbalanced pitta include skin problems, such as acne, rashes and inflammation, which Ayurveda considers the “spreading” quality of pitta. Hyperacidity and acid reflux, vomiting, diarrhea, difficulty staying asleep, irritability and aggression are all outcomes of high pitta. Know anyone who is hot-tempered?  You can bet that person’s pitta is out of balance!

Signs of Pitta Imbalance

• Anger; jealousy; irritability; aggression
• Overly controlling, judgmental and critical; easily frustrated
• Acidity, ulcers, acid reflux
• Nausea
• Migraine and other headaches
• Skin problems such as acne, eczema, psoriasis, rashes and boils
• Excess sweating
• Burning pains
• Hot flashes, sensitivity to heat and hot climates
• Dull, yellowish complexion, jaundice
• Hair loss and premature graying of hair
• Foul body odor
• Excess thirst
• Diarrhea
• Loss of eye sight; conjunctivitis
• Excess appetite
• Bleeding disorders


All of our cells, tissues and organs are comprised of the kapha elements, water and earth. Kapha dosha gives solidity,  structure and fluids to the body and provides lubrication for the joints.  Among its qualities, kapha is heavy, dense, cool, slow, static, oily and damp. People with kapha constitutions usually have large bone structures and thick, shiny hair. They often have damp skin. They move slowly and tend to need a lot of sleep. They also tend to resist change or intense activity, and they are often slow to make decisions.

When this dosha is in balance, people with kapha constitutions are physically strong; they have great physical endurance and a strong immune function. Although they have the slowest metabolisms of all the types, their digestive capacity is regular and strong. People with predominant kapha are calm, steady, loyal, loving and compassionate. When a loving relationship is absent, kapha types are prone to replace love with food, and they are often attracted to sweets. So, anyone with a kapha constitution has to be careful not to put on weight.

Other disorders related to kapha imbalance, include weak kidney function, water retention, and a susceptibility to colds, sinus and chest congestion, and ear infections.

Signs of Kapha Imbalance

• Excess attachment to people, feelings and possessions
• Lethargy; overly complacent, lack of motivation
• Excess sleep
• Excess weight
• Sluggish digestion and sluggish bowels
• Mucus, congestion, colds, productive cough, allergies
• Swelling (edema)
• Sweet taste in mouth and crave sweets
• Fibroids,  cysts
• White discolorations of eyes, skin, and/or stool


Since ancient times, Ayurveda’s primary tenet has remained the same: Good digestion is the secret to sustaining good health. For this reason, it is helpful to understand the basis of good digestion and the result of poor digestion—agni and ama.

Agni means “fire” in Sanskrit, and in the context of Ayurveda it means “digestive fire.” The term refers both to the digestive enzymes and to the metabolic process whereby food is chemically transformed into energy. When agni is strong, we can digest almost anything without suffering negative consequences. Even toxins, microorganisms and foreign bacteria are destroyed by strong agni. People who suffer from allergies in the spring and fall tend to have weak agni, and so their bodies are unable to eliminate the pollens to which they are exposed.  When the digestive fire is strong, our energy is strong—we are healthy and we live longer.

When agni is weak, our health is likely to be more fragile, our energy decreases and our immunity is compromised. If we have a low digestive fire, even our emotions start to become unstable. People with weak agni have noticeable digestion problems, but these are not always initially apparent. On a subtle level, weak agni is unable to complete the chemical work of digestion, and this means that undigested food is trapped in the large intestine, where it ferments and decays. It is this undigested food that ultimately becomes the sticky, foul-smelling mucus that Ayurveda calls ama or aam.

This toxic, undigested food travels outside the colon via the circulatory system. Deposits of  ama can create obstructions in joints, organs or hollow channels—the veins, arteries, glands, lymph nodes and nerves.  The ama—accumulated toxins—is the fundamental cause of disturbance and imbalance of the doshas, causing health problems by blocking various bodily systems.  As Dr. Smita Naram explains, by blocking:

• Mental channels, causing confusion, frustration and feeling stuck in life
• Circulatory channels, creating heart problems, obstructed circulation, paralysis, and cellulite
• Endocrine system, leading to hormonal imbalances and aging
• Muscles and joints, causing arthritis, pain, stiffness, and chronic fatigue
• Digestive system, leading to sluggish digestion, bloating, indigestion, excess cholesterol and triglycerides, malabsorption, bowel dysfunction, halitosis, lethargy, weakness, heaviness, and low immunity

We can avoid most health problems by maintaining strong agni and taking steps to limit the build-up of ama.  Please refer to Ayurveda: Eating for Optimal Health, and to Ayurveda: Lifestyle Choices for Optimal Healthfor specific, practical recommendations that support  strong agni and reduce ama (toxins).

Excerpted from Sacred & Delicious, Celebrating the Healing Power of Food and Spices, copyright © 2009 by Lisa Joy Mitchell with all rights reserved. Scheduled for publication in late 2009. This information may not be reproduced, in whole or in part, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, whether electronic, mechanical or otherwise, or used for any purpose other than the individual reader’s personal use without the expressed written consent of the author.

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