Ayurveda - Understanding the Knowledge of Life

Ayurveda (from ayur meaning “life,” and veda meaning “knowledge” or “science of”) is a system of healing from India that uses nature as medicine, in a preventive and curative sense. It uses food, spices, herbal therapies, bodywork, and lifestyle changes to create the conditions of optimal health. It’s all-encompassing, in that it aims to use your personal story to create a specialized path for healing. It’s quite possible that the most comforting thing Ayurveda has to offer is its ability to understand you as you are, not some hypothetical “you”. It appreciates your uniqueness and knows how to treat you as an individual. It offers explanations for things you’ve always known about yourself but haven’t been able to articulate, implement, or accept.

This adeptness in knowing and interpreting what makes you tick isn’t a magical or psychic phenomenon. Living by Ayurveda doesn’t require converting to a religion, practicing any mystical ceremonies, or even practicing yoga. It is science and arises from nature—both the observation of our external environment and the understanding that we are not separate from it. This is also the most foundational principle in Ayurveda, known as the macrocosm microcosm continuum theory. Simply put, the theory states that we (the microcosm) reflect the universe (the macrocosm), and as such everything that exists outside of us also exists within us. This means that any shift in nature causes us to change, and that our actions can also strongly impact nature.

With our universe being as vast as it is, the continuum theory can be tough to grasp at first, even a bit scary. It’s one thing to know your actions affect you alone, but to have them affect other people—even the planet—is something else entirely. Yet as we divide nature into smaller components, things seem more manageable. When we accept nature’s elements and understand the roles they play, we can lessen our desire to be in control of how we feel. We become responsive to our surroundings rather than resistant.

Elements, or Bhutas

When you attempt to live in harmony with nature, you aren’t connecting with only one large entity, but rather something made up of several smaller parts. Ayurveda defines nature as being comprised of five elements, or bhutas: ether (or space), air, fire, water, and earth. They are present in everything, including us, and we need all of these things to survive. We need space to expand, air to breathe, the sun to transform or grow, water to hydrate, and the earth to nourish. And while the concept of everything being made of the same elements could be suggestive of everyone looking, thinking, and acting the same, the opposite is true. The elements are expressed differently and in varying degrees in each of us, making each thing and being unique. You can easily see this in Earth’s weather, as we have sunny days with more fire, windy days with more air, and rainy or humid days that are full of water.

This is observed in our food, too: Root vegetables that grow in the ground carry a greater expression of earth, whereas you can feel the fire in spicy foods like peppers. And in ourselves and other human beings, the rule of elements is just as present. You’ve certainly encountered people you’d describe as “spacey,” others who are “hot-headed,” and some who are “grounded.” There are those whose mind will change with the wind and others who are more like rocks and unwilling to budge. When someone has more earth expressed in their physical body, they will be taller or have bigger muscles or bones, compared to the presence of air, which produces a more delicate frame and features. Stop to look and you’ll see—the five elements are found in everyone and everywhere. 

Qualities, or Gunas 

Now that you have a grasp on the concept of elements, let’s explore another principle that makes the system of Ayurveda more relatable: the gunas. The gunas are attributes or qualities that are used to describe the elements and are paired in opposites. There are ten pairs, with each descriptor in the pair being at one end of a continuum: dry/oily, light/heavy, mobile/static, rough/smooth, cold/hot, clear/cloudy, hard/soft, liquid/dense, sharp/dull, subtle/gross. Each element carries its own combination of properties—for example; air is dry, light, and mobile, but earth is oily, heavy, and static.  

Since the elements are found everywhere and in everyone, these words are used to describe all things, ranging from the foods we eat and the experiences we have to the symptoms we feel. Did you have a heavy or a light lunch today? Was it a rough day at work, or did things go smoothly? Are you thinking clearly or are your thoughts clouded? Is your skin as dry as your humor? Are you sharp-minded or do you have a sharp tongue? There are so many ways that we use these qualifiers in daily life, but we rarely pause to consider that they are more than just semantics.

The concept of gunas is as important as it is basic, and quite possibly the most empowering concept in Ayurveda. When you can understand where you inherently lie on each of these continuums and what descriptors your imbalances have in common, you hold the key to your own healing. As you’ll learn later, qualities can accumulate and too much of one thing will leave you feeling unwell. Though it almost sounds too simplistic or easy to be true, you feel better by incorporating the opposite quality on the continuum into your life. 

The Three Constitutions, or Doshas

Nature, the elements, and their descriptors are all neatly packaged into Ayurvedic constitutions called doshas. The doshas give a concise picture of how nature is represented in us, while simultaneously giving an explanation of how our physiology works, and providing meaning to why each of us has our own specific strengths, weaknesses, and needs. There are three doshas —vata, pitta, and kapha—and each is composed of two of the five elements. But just as all of the elements exist within us, all of the doshas are within us, too. Each is responsible for governing different tissues, organs, and functions of the body; so, like how we couldn’t live without air or water, we couldn’t live without having each constitution present. Your unique expression of your constitution explains everything about you, from your bone structure to the color of your eyes to the texture of your hair. It tells about the ways your physical characteristics and personal interests are related, and the way you react to stress, or the illnesses you most frequently experience. As you read on to learn about each dosha, begin to think of the aspects of each you see in yourself and which resonates with you most, keeping in mind all are a part of you.


The vata dosha is made of ether and air, and has the qualities of light, subtle, dry, rough, hard, clear, cold, and mobile. Vata governs our nervous system, hearing, elimination, and all movement in the body, including the movement at our joints and the circulation of blood and lymph (fluid that’s a part of your immune system and contains white blood cells and lymphocytes). In our physical traits, vata appears as coarse or curly hair, a small or petite frame, lean or sinewy muscles, and delicate facial features, like thin lips, small eyes, or small teeth. Those with a higher proportion of vata tend to get cold easily and frequently experience dryness, such as in their skin or eyes. In psychological traits, the combination of ether and air enables creative and spontaneous sides, but this blend can also heighten emotions like fear, indecisiveness, or worry. Vatas will gravitate toward such career paths as artists, creators, or jobs that require more movement than sitting. They can love to travel, be known as social butterflies, or generally enjoy change.


Fire and water make up the pitta dosha, which is described as light, sharp, hot, liquid, and dry or oily. It keeps watch over our ability to transform and governs our hormones, enzymes, digestion, blood, skin, and eyes. Physically this constitution has an average-size stature and a sharpness in their facial features, such as a well-defined jawline, pointy nose, or piercing blue or green eyes. Their hair is commonly fine or thin, and is often blond, red, or early to go gray. As for the mind, pittas are known to be the thinkers, problem solvers, goal setters, and leaders. Those with this dosha have a passion that makes them want to do their best, and even the competitiveness to do better than others. But this intensity can also cause them to become frustrated, angry, or irritable more easily that the other doshas. Their focus on achievement means they seek out influential roles in society or careers that require higher education, which is why doctors, lawyers, politicians, and CEOs are often pitta predominant.


The kapha dosha is a combination of water and earth, giving it adequate properties for protection and growth within the body. It’s described as heavy, dense, static, dull, gross, smooth, soft, cloudy, and warm or cool. In our physiology, it’s in charge of our respiratory system, heart, brain, immunity, mucous membranes, cartilage, and synovial fluid. You’d be right to guess this supportive nature means kaphas will have the sturdiest structure, with bigger bones and bulkier muscles.

These qualities also provide them with thick and lustrous hair, milky skin, big, compassionate eyes, and full lips. They appreciate stability more than change, and are non- confrontational people who are like peacemakers, interested in everyone around them being happy. While these stable qualities are desirable, they can also create a heaviness that leads toward depression, sluggishness, or feeling stuck. As such steadfast beings, kaphas are usually in nurturing and supportive roles in our society. Many with a lot of kapha in their constitution choose to become caregivers, teachers, nurses, or social workers.

Though all doshas are present within all of us, and you will relate to each one to some extent, we are each likely to have one or two that are more prevalent. This is called your prakruti, or your inherent constitution, which is said to be determined upon conception. The time, place, and context under which you were conceived, along with your parents’ health at the time, were all crucial in creating your makeup.

Your dosha or constitution never changes. Your tendencies and vulnerabilities as a child are the same ones you deal with now. What does change is whether you are living within a balance of your true self, surfing life’s waves and managing small fluctuations. In this case, balance doesn’t mean equal amounts of each dosha, but rather the maintenance of your personal dosha recipe. So when you set out to achieve “perfect health” according to Ayurveda, you are really aiming to keep the proportion of doshas determining your constitution intact, as your nature made them.

There is great value in knowing your dosha or constitution. However, what is most useful is being able to recognize how a dosha can either support you, or accumulate and block you. While there is an abundance of dosha quizzes online and in books to help you determine your constitution, I have intentionally omitted one from this book. It’s too easy to take a quiz, which may not be reliable, and even easier to allow it to become your identity in a rigid and limiting way. Instead of using your budding knowledge of how you feel to label or categorize yourself, use it to understand more about you in each moment: about your physiology, the reasons you excel at certain things, and how you make decisions each day. Then, in time, you can meet with an Ayurvedic practitioner, who can help you more accurately assess your constitution.  

Like Increases Like: How We Experience Imbalance

It’s important that we appease our constitution, to feed the things that we love and to foster our strengths and talents, but when we take things to the extreme or fail to counter with the opposing qualities, we can experience imbalance. Imbalance comes from an influx—either slow and steady, or sudden and abrupt—of a quality, element, or dosha, and is called vikruti.

Though this can occur from a dosha being subdued or depleted, it is most often discussed as an accumulation or increase. For example, if on one of the coldest days of winter you decided to eat your lunch of a raw salad outside and wash it down with an iced beverage, the excessive cold would start to make you feel uncomfortable. You might be able to mentally override this or eventually feel better after spending time in the air of your artificially heated home, but if you had to sustain this for many hours or for many days, the level of discomfort would begin to increase and be more challenging to resolve, no matter how much you enjoy salads or the winter. Without opposing heating qualities to level things out, the cold will continue to rise and to manifest as symptoms, increasing their severity in time. This is the principle of accumulation, or “like increases like,” which is at the heart of every ailment we have, physical, emotional, and psychological.

No matter what your overall constitution is, you can have an imbalance in any dosha (or quality or element); however, you are more susceptible to the dosha that is already highest in you. Picture it like this: If you have three buckets of water and two of them are only one-third full while the other is filled to the brim, any of them could overflow if you were to add enough water, but the one that is nearest full would overflow the quickest. The doshas are exactly the same. Someone who typically has oily skin (kapha) can still experience dry skin (vata) if they eat an excessive amount of drying foods or are exposed to dry air and wind, but it would take more for them to get to that point than someone who naturally has dry skin in the first place.

Similarly, our dosha also gives insight as to where in our body we might have these imbalances. Remember how each dosha governs certain tissues? You are more likely to have imbalances manifest in the organs that your primary constitution governs. For example, given the right scenario, a vata person could certainly experience a hormonal imbalance, but because pitta governs hormones, the pitta person is typically more readily affected in this way, whereas a vata-predominant person is more likely to first experience problems with their nervous system, joints, or colon.  

These principles of imbalance are part of what makes Ayurveda an accessible system, but understandably, it can be difficult to comprehend at first. Use the above as a guide for getting to know more about how each dosha relates to you and the symptoms you experience. And above all, become an observer of how different foods, activities, and even people make you feel. 

They have dense and lustrous hair, milky skin, wide, caring eyes, and full lips because of these attributes. They value continuity over transition and are non-confrontational individuals who act as peacemakers, caring for the happiness of those around them. While these characteristics are attractive, they may also trigger heaviness, which can contribute to sadness, sluggishness, or a sense of being trapped. Kaphas are normally used in caring and loving positions in our culture because they are such steadfast creatures. Many people with high kapha levels prefer careers as caregivers, teachers, nurses, or social workers.

While all doshas are present in all of us, and you will be able to connect to each one to some degree, we are likely to have one or two who are more dominant. This is referred to as the prakruti, or natural constitution, and is said to be decided now of conception. Your makeup was shaped by the time, place, and circumstances in which you were born, as well as your parents' health at the time.

Your dosha, or constitution, remains constant. Your childhood tendencies and flaws are the same ones you face today. What does improve is when you are living in a state of equilibrium with your true self, riding the tides of life, and handling minor fluctuations. In this situation, equilibrium refers to maintaining the personal dosha formula rather than equivalent quantities of each dosha. So, according to Ayurveda, if you want to attain "perfect fitness," what you have to do is maintain the proportions of doshas that determine your constitution as they were created by god.

Knowing the dosha, or constitution, is extremely beneficial. The ability to understand how a dosha can either help you or accumulate and obstruct you is the most valuable skill. Although there are several dosha quizzes available online and in books to help you decide your constitution, I purposefully left one out of this book. It's all too tempting to take a quiz that may or may not be accurate, and it's much easier to let it define your personality in a strict and restricting way. Rather than using your developing understanding of how you feel to mark or categorize yourself, use it to learn more about yourself in each moment: about your physiology, why you succeed in those tasks, and how you make choices on a daily basis. Then, when the time comes, you can consult with an Ayurvedic practitioner who can help you determine your constitution more accurately.

How We Do When Things Are Out of Control

It's vital to satisfy our constitution, feed our passions, and nurture our strengths and abilities, but when we go too far or struggle to balance out the opposing virtues, we may end up with an imbalance. The term vikruti refers to an influx of a quality, feature, or dosha that is either slow and steady or rapid and abrupt.

Though it may happen because of a dosha being subdued or exhausted, it's more commonly referred to as an accumulation or rise. For eg, if you were to eat your lunch of a raw salad outside on one of the coldest days of the winter and wash it down with an iced soda, the extreme cold will start to make you feel uneasy. You would be able to physically override this or gradually feel comfortable after spending time in the air of your artificially heated home, but if you had to do so for several hours or days, the amount of pain will continue to rise and become more difficult to overcome, regardless of how much you like salads or the winter. Without the presence of competing heating qualities to even it out, the cold will begin to escalate and manifest as symptoms, becoming more severe over time. This is the aggregation principle, or “like rises like,” which is at the root of any physical, mental, and psychological ailment.

You can have an imbalance in any dosha (or consistency or element) regardless of your overall constitution; however, you are more susceptible to the dosha that is already dominant in you. Consider the following scenario: If you have three buckets of water, two of them are just one-third full and the third is overflowing, all of them could overflow if you added more water, but the one closest to the top would overflow first. The doshas are indistinguishable. Someone with oily skin (kapha) will develop dry skin (vata) if they eat too many drying foods or are exposed to dry air and wind, although it will take them longer than someone with naturally dry skin.

Similarly, our dosha will reveal where these imbalances are in our bodies. Remember how each dosha oversees different tissues? Unbalances are most likely to occur in the organs governed by your primary constitution. For eg, a vata person could certainly develop a hormonal mismatch under the right circumstances, but since pitta regulates hormones, a pitta person is more likely to be affected in this way first, while a vata-predominant person is more likely to have trouble with their nervous system, joints, or colon first.

These concepts of imbalance are part of what makes Ayurveda a user-friendly scheme, but they can be challenging to grasp at first. Use the information above as a starting point for learning more about how each dosha affects you and the symptoms you feel. Above everything, learn to notice how different diets, behaviors, and even people affect your mood.