The basics of Ayurveda are well described in many books and online resources. The basics include the gunas, doshas, elements, Prakriti, and cause of disease. In this article we do a deep dive into these basic foundations of Ayurveda.
This underlying field of intelligence and energy that creates life can be separated into three distinct categories called the gunas. The gunas are a subtle layer of nature that has been described by physics and is part of the creation story of many ancient traditions. The gunas seek to explain why things are they way they are. It is an objective look at the inherent truths of life. The three qualities of every life are birth, life, and death. This is similar to the gunas. The guna of Sattva is birth. A new, innocent, clear, pure life comes into existence. There is also a certain amount of helplessness. Although Satva sees things with clarity it has no ability on its own to create and is only able to experience with purity.
Rajas is represented by life. Life is characterized by activity. Tamas is death and relates to anything that can die. Tamas like sattva has no ability to create something new but is still and silent. Life contains all three and we can use the gunas by looking at our intentions. If our intentions are motivated by purity then they are guided by Sattva. If what we intend for our life is motivated by desire then we are aligned with Rajas. If the darkness and inertia that characterize death are the primary motivators of our life then Tamas predominates. What is your life’s intention?
Next we have the elements. Understanding the elements condenses the science of chemistry into a form that anyone can understand. Remember that the ASL developed over 5000 years ago long before the technology that has allowed us to understand atoms and molecules had been developed. The five elements are earth, water, fire, air, and ether. There is some overlap with the primary ingredients for life in these secondary ingredients. They are often associated with states of matter, solid, liquid, ether, gaseous, and space. This can be a helpful metaphor so that we are not bound by our minds conceptualization of them as natural elements, but can see the existence of these elements in everything.
The five elements are earth, water, fire, air, and ether.
Earth – When sun and water ignite the intelligence in a seed, it begins to grow. In the beginning it is fragile and small. As it becomes more solid, it developed a defined structure and becomes more resilient to stress. This process is what we are calling the earth elements.
Water – All life depends on the molecule H2O known as water, because of it covalence and properties. Life also depends on a multiplicity of liquids to sustain itself. Liquid transports vital nutrients in the form of blood and it is used to lubricate important structures in our body such as our body and brain. The water element represents these many liquids.
Fire – As the sun is the source of heat on the planet, this warmth can be found in every living organism. For example cold blooded animals depend on external warmth where warm blooded animal’s metabolism has adapted to be able to generate internal heat. Fire is hungry and depends on fuel so the metaphor or fire extends into our minds and our thirst for knowledge or wisdom. The fire element is a transition from the solid elements of water and earth to the subtle elements of air and ether. Fire can be seen unlike air and ether, but is too subtle to touch like the preceding elements.
Air – Wind or gas cannot be seen by themselves they are seen through their effect on the things around them. Everything in the world must be transported. Examples of this transportation are: food from one area of the country to another, blood from the heart to the toe, sensation from the knee to the central processing unit of the nervous system, and emails from one person to another. Transportation, communication and activity are the domain of air. How is air related to transportation, communication and activity? When we travel we move through the air. The molecules of our body speed up and move. When we communicate verbally we use air to vibrate our vocal cords to create sound. When we are active we begin to breathe harder trying to bring more air into our lungs. These are all ways that we relate to the element of air.
Space – Space is the most subtle of all the elements and has been explored in detail by quantum physicists. Life requires space. In the under-story of a forest plants compete for water, light, and space. Those that have the most space are able to thrive and the densely crowded growth becomes tangled and chokes itself out. Life requires space. It requires a place for us to grow into.
The Nature of Life
Life as defined by western science as what is observable with the naked eye, atoms, molecules, cells, and more. Life as defined by Ayurveda is based on consciousness.
Life as defined by western science as what is observable with the naked eye, atoms, molecules, cells, and more. Life as defined by Ayurveda is based on consciousness. This obscure word has no easy definition. The basic quality of consciousness is awareness. Consciousness describes what we are aware of. If we are aware of the body, the mind, the emotions or our intuition it is that understanding that will guide our life. The “life” that Ayurveda refers to is based on a fundamental premise that all of creation is birthed from the same infinite source. We are all children of the same parents. Our Nature or genetic code is determined by the intelligence and energy that our divine parents impart into our mind and body.
I know this sound far out, but through a deeper understanding of physics we have determined that when we magnify our body we find that it is composed of space permeated by oscillating fields. Fields are explained in detail in physics, but we use it here to prove our inter-connectivity. If we recognize that we are all part of the same human family and that the ways in which we behave have a clear and measurable effect on the underlying field that we are all swimming in. Then all of our behaviors and actions have an exponential importance and the smallest change in the way we think, act, or live will have a profound effect on our lives and the lives of every human on the planet. This responsibility is intimidating for many, but the premise of connectivity is necessary for a deeper understanding of Ayurveda. On a microcosmic level this means that each part of the body affects every other part and that nothing within the body happens in isolation.
When we choose a model that is not reductionist and specialized but is instead expansive and connected it may dissuade many people as interpreting it is complicated. Our minds want things to be easily defined as black and white and un-moving or static. Although that is what we want a static and mechanistic model of the body is not true as our bodies are dynamic and constantly in the process of self regulation. Ayurveda understands this inter-connectivity and dynamism and has developed a conceptual framework called the Dosha’s to categorize certain concepts to facilitate the understanding of this complexity.
The Dosha’s are the primary physiological principles within the body that coordinate functions of the body with intelligence. Tridosha theory is the idea that there are three basic principles that rule our tendencies and are responsible for our health. These guiding physiological standards keep all of your bodily functions balanced and healthy. It is these three aspects that unify our physiology instead of dividing our body into separate parts.
Each one of us incarnates into the world with definite tendencies, proclivities, and desires. These manifest themselves in different ways depending on the life we choose to lead. This fact is seen with identical twins. They grow up in a similar environment, they are born from the same egg, and they have similar genetics. So why are they completely different people? In ASL life does not begin when we are born. As Newton’s first law of thermodynamics shows that the world is a closed system and that energy is not lost but changes form this leads credence to the concept that the energy of life is transferred from the body into another place when the body dies. As the world is a closed system the energy of life cannot leave and so this energy eventually will reinvigorate a new body. This energy of life carries with it mental tendencies that were gathered in the previous body and those unique patterns of intelligence will manifest in the new body. As many of us are very attached to our bodies and believe that we are our bodies and that when the body dies the animating force that keeps the body alive dies with it this concept may be difficult to stomach. This concept is the necessary premise for understanding ASL as it relates to the Dosha’s.
The Dosha’s have a predetermined proportion that predisposes us towards health. As the body is wired for survival it would never consciously perform activities that would harm itself. However, the mind is based on beliefs and if the perspective of the mind is limited and makes friends with inappropriate rituals we will separate ourselves from the body’s innate intelligence and the disease process begins. In ASL our Nature or Constitution is called Prakriti and can be determined by self study and personal reflection. Each one of us has different strengths and weaknesses, different things we crave and avoid and these are our guideposts to seeing our Nature. Through understanding ourselves and developing our intuition we find a sense a balance and joy that is unique to our lives.
As Vata governs the physiological functions of transportation, movement, flow, circulation and communication a Vata Prakriti is defined by the cells expression of those functional relationships. When Vata is balanced within the body there is: mental alertness, proper formation of body tissues, normal elimination, sound sleep, strong immunity and enthusiasm. Vata governs circulation and manages the environments of the arteries, veins, lymphatic’s, intestines, esophagus and nerve pathways. Vata also coordinates the movement of the body and orchestrates the movement of fluids within the body. In addition to this Vata guides the body’s adjustment to change by governing the secretion and delivery of hormones. The Vata Prakriti has a tendency to accumulate vata more readily than other body types. This may lead to imbalances such as: dry skin, insomnia, constipation, common fatigue, tension headache, intolerance of cold and degenerative arthritis. If you find that the functions of Vata are compromised implement these three strategies.
As Pitta governs the physiological functions of metabolism, digestion, transformation, energy production and enzymatic action a Pitta Prakriti is defined by the cells expression of those functional relationships. When Pitta is balanced within the body there is: normal heat and thirst mechanisms, strong digestion, sharp intellect, contentment, generosity. Pitta governs our internal combustion engine and manages the metabolism in our cells, organs and tissues. This process of energy transformation detoxifies the body of chemicals and impurities it transforms light into visual images, and manages the emotional and intellectual metabolism of experiences. As the Pitta Prakriti has a tendency to accumulate more easily than other types this may lead to imbalances such as rashes, ulcers, vision problems, excess body heat, premature graying, hostility, hot flashes and inflammation. If you find that the functions of Pitta are compromised implement these three strategies.
As Kapha governs the physiological functions of substance, structure and immunity a Kapha Prakriti is defined by the cells relative expression of these qualities over any of their other functions. The shape of our body is its most defining attribute but our body is actually a dynamic flowing metabolizing work in progress. Kapha governs the substance and the underlying intelligence that guides its formation.When Kapha is balanced within the body there is: muscular strength, vitality, immunity, affection, generosity, stability of mind and healthy joints. Kapha governs our bodily substances such as our cells, tissues, organs, muscles, bones and fluids. These substances provide lubrication, cohesion and bodily structure. As the Kapha Prakriti has a tendency to accumulate Kapha more easily than the other Dosha;s this may lead to imbalances such as: colds, flu’s, diabetes, obesity, congestion, complacency, a heavy heart, greed and lack of motivation. If you find that the functions of Kapha are compromised implement these five strategies.
The Cause of Disease
If we guide our lives not from this internal intelligence but based on the external stimuli around us and believe that something besides our deepest nature will bring us happiness we can get off track. When we become imbalanced this is called “Vikriti.” The primordial cause of disease is internal and it is called Pragna parad. This is when we over identify with the needs of the body and mind and lose track of the meaning and purpose that connects us with the root of our life and our soul. This desire leads to stress and it has been determined by medical science as the primary cause of disease. Stress is created when our external desires are unfulfilled. Our choices revolve around our cravings and aversions to external stimuli which creates a groove in the mind that limits our responsiveness to situations. As we are constantly hustling to try and receive more pleasure and reduce pain we can’t see the big picture of our lives and our choices are limited to only a few options. Each one of us will have a unique way in which we react to stress based on our elemental makeup. The three primary ways to respond to stress are fight, flight, and freeze. These short sighted responses would never arise if the connection to our soul had not been broken. This cause of disease comes from within in that we have created disease but not honoring our internal environment and connecting with what serves our highest good.
One additional cause of disease is the allurement of the senses. When we consciously choose bad food, bad water, and bad company or are exposed to trauma or an inappropriate climate each of these factors can create imbalance from the outside in. Each one of these five factors disrupts the digestive fire which is the primal line of defense within the body that determines how we digest and process our external environment. Often you will hear that the heart of health lies in digestion and this is the reason why. By cultivating healthy digestion or Agni our bodies and minds can easily adapt to the stress we are exposed to.
Ultimately ASL aligns us with the underlying intelligence and energy of the body called prana. When we come into a deep relationship with the pranic intelligence we begin to respond to stress through the intelligence and are no longer caught by our beliefs, perceptions, and senses. This alignment with prana allows us to experience and recognize our own divinity. It is through this recognition of the soul that we become established in ourselves and resilient towards disease. Ayurveda cultivates and restores prana which is health promoting. By seeing the ways in which prana is obstructed in the body and mind the primary cause of disease can be determined and we can begin restoring ourselves back into health.
How Disease Affects our Prakriti
Prakriti is our nature and it is the default setting with which we perceive and respond to reality. There are a million ways in order to describe our nature.
The place where the two causes of disease: external influences (allurement of the senses) and internal influences (crimes against wisdom) meet is in our emotions. The movement of prana transforms awareness into perception, perception into feeling, feeling into thought and thought into emotion. When awareness is transformed into thought the mind will judge the experience as either good or bad based on memory. Thus emotions is a reaction born of memory to the present challenge that we are facing. The memory comes from within and the internal and external influences merge with the emotions created by the situation. Three primary emotions correlates to a Dosha’s and it is these emotions that determines our physiological development and influences the strengths and weaknesses in the body.
- Vata is ruled by fear
- Pitta by anger
- Kapha by depression
Because the primary belief that creates a Vata mind or body is fear Vata tends to expend energy in order to try and maintain balance. It is natural for Vata’s to use movement and activity to try and buffer themselves against the underlying fear that they feel. They have active minds and are extremely inventive because they are constantly looking for ways to manage the underlying fear that they feel. This activity also expresses itself as taking on new projects and interests, always thinking and insulating themselves against the world by living in their heads.
Vata in the body is defined by active metabolic state as the entire body is on constant alert trying to balance out the fear that is felt. Because of this excess activity the body fatigues quickly and so their response to stress is variable based on the amount of energy available to use. This variability disrupts their digestion and Vata individuals tend to have a thin frame and movements motivated by uncertainty.
Pitta is motivated by anger and thus their mind and body are strongly influenced by this internal state. They cope with stress and desire by taking control and trying to manage the situation. Their minds are full of projects and plans that will meet their needs so that they don’t feel the burden of not being successful. The Pitta body is also managed by anger and so they tend to have strong muscle tone so that they are ready to fight when the encounter adversity.
Kapha’s primary belief of depression leads them to a state of mind that is reluctant to expend any energy to motivate them into a different behavior. The status quo for most Kaphas is a calm caring disposition, but if it is not then it takes a significant amount of stimulation in order to change their behavior. Likewise their bodies store energy instead of utilizing it leading them to have large frames, endurance and stamina.
Additional Doshic Types
Although these are the primary emotions many people express each one of these emotions in very distinct quantities which leads to additional constitutional types such as vata-pitta, pitta-kapha, vata-kapha, and tridoshic types.
Internal and external factors can lead to imbalances within every individual and these imbalances are what are looked at first in an Ayurvedic assessment.
Ayurveda can be used as an owner’s manual to our body, mind and spirit. In this Ebook we first familiarized ourselves with the parts and processes that make up the different aspects of our being. Then we looked at some recommendations to keep our body and minds running smoothly. Although this presentation was brief the tools and language to be able to fix any damage that may occur through living can be found in these concepts.
John Gribbin (1998). Q is for Quantum: Particle Physics from A to Z. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson. p. 138. ISBN0-297-81752-3