The Essence of Yoga & Ayurvedic Health Science

If you have never heard of the term ayurveda, or you have, but are not sure what it is exactly, you might be interested to understand a little of the philosophy and thought behind yogic health and ayurveda, its sister science. Just as Traditional Chinese Medicine offers natural alternatives towards better health outcomes, ayurveda is the ancient Indian science of self-healing. Ayurveda teaches us how to understand ourselves better; to tune in so that we can use the appropriate preventative measures to avoid illness and dis-ease. A vaidya is an ayurvedic physician. And if you visited a vaidya because you were tired and foggy, feeling stiff and run down, the vaidya would not listen for a while and then write you a script for anti-depressants and send you on your way, instead, he or she would ask you many questions to determine exactly who you were. They would have observed your posture, your gait and the tone of your voice. They would check your tongue, pulse and eyes and do a thorough assessment before offering any type of prescription. Provided your condition was not life threatening, that prescription (based on the symptoms above) would no doubt include things like making sure to get in amongst nature, quiet time, limiting technology, incorporating meditation and yoga practises, as well as advice on diet and lifestyle in accordance with your constitution (dosha or prakruti).

Importantly, vaidyas have always understood that physical and mental / emotional health are one and the same. Perhaps even more importantly (and indeed topical), is the fact that yoga and ayurvedic health has always been based upon the notion that illness  and dis-ease of all types has its origins in the belly. This concept goes back thousands of years and finally, modern science is catching up….


Your dosha – vata, pitta or kapha

In ayurvedic philosophy, your dosha relates to your ‘prakruti”, your essential “nature” as well as your constitution. Working out your dosha type is important when considering your plan, your diet or daily routine (dincharya). A person with a dominance of vata for example, would need a different routine to a kapha or pitta dominant person. Vata dominant people can be compared to greyhounds or whippets. They are generally small boned, high energy, think fast but fall flat and fatigue fairly quickly as they can easily overdo things. They are prone to pain conditions due to excess tension and air in the joints, as well as anxiety, so it is important that vatas make time to create inner space, to rest and relax and to eat properly. I imagine that most politicians and Olympic athletes would have a dominant pitta dosha. Hot-headed pittas tend to have more energy and need less sleep. They may be perfectionists and high achievers but can cope with stress better so are often competitive and driven. When a pitta dominant person is out of balance they may suffer heat conditions such as skin rashes, heartburn and things like pancreatitis. Personality wise they have high expectations – particularly of themselves! – and may have bad tempers and be prone to outbursts.

Those with a dominance of  Kapha tend to be slower in their undertakings. Their body type is generally solid and strong and they may be prone to putting on weight because they find it hard to stick with fitness plans. They may take longer to do things but will always do them carefully. Similarly, they may take longer to learn something but will probably never forget it! Kapha types tend to be characterised by oil and generallyy have thicker hair and lush skin. Because they may suffer from lethargy, lack of motivation and sinus problems, they need to avoid heavy or rich, mucous forming foods and make sure they get regular exercise which can be difficult for kaphas as it is not their thing!

It is important to remember that everybody’s prakruti will consist of elements of all three doshas but most people will be dominant in one or two. During our lives we could say that as young children we are kapha – full of mucous, always congested but with lush skin and shining eyes. Between our late teens and early forties is our pitta time – the time when we are more likely to have the fire in the belly and the energy and drive to succeed with whatever it is that we do. The later stage of our lives is dominated by vata; fine bones, air in the joints and thinner, dryer skin.

This is another reason it is important to rethink and adjust what we “used to do”. Certain things may have suited our lifestyle and our constitution when we were aged between 20-40 but as we get older, we all go through physical and hormonal changes. If we want to stay well for as long as possible, our lifestyle program may need retuning.

Ayurveda dictates that when your lifestyle is not in tune with the needs of your particular constitution, your gastric fire (jatharagni) diminishes and food, thoughts and deeds will not be digested properly. Consequently, ama (meaning ‘unripe, immature, undigested, or simply ‘toxins’) develops.

What I love most about the ayurvedic philosopy of self-healing and preventative health measures is that it is essentially defined by common sense, awareness and logic. In our world where we need to work and to be able to live well for longer, our health is all we really have. We can do or be very little without it and yet, so many take it for granted until it is too late.