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Ayurveda 101: The Five Elements and the Three Doshas

Ayurveda translates as “the science of life” (Ayur = life, Veda = science or knowledge). Said to be over 5,000 years old, it is the traditional healing system of India, though it has been practiced in the U.S. for only about 30 years. It views the human being as an interplay of mind, body, and spirit, and its purpose is to heal and maintain quality and longevity of life.

According to Ayurveda, everyone is unique and treatments should be customized to each individual as opposed to a one-size-fits-all approach. Unlike Western medicine, which commonly deals with symptoms, Ayurveda aims to treat the root cause, taking into account the whole, complete picture of a person. It encompasses diet and nutrition, lifestyle, herbs, exercise, breathing and meditation techniques, and healing body treatments.

Our body is the foundation of everything we do. It should be strong, vibrant, and supple. The five senses are the instruments through which we interact with the external world; they should be clear and sharp. The mind is home to our consciousness; it should be calm, centered, and at peace. The heart is the home of our soul; it should be open and free of anger and resentment. By cultivating such a state of balance and harmony, we can live with vitality and reach our full potential.

Here is a look into the basics of ayruveda philosophy from our latest book, Holistic Yoga Flow: The Path of Practice.

The Five Elements: Maha Bhutas

Ayurveda identifies the human body as a combination of the five vital elements in varying proportions, impacting the Koshas, or the layers or sheaths, to our being, and thus making an individual unique.

Earth: Solid, heavy, dense, and foundational, it is present in the body as bones, nails, and teeth, and the physical sheath of our being (annamayakosha).

Water: Liquid, flowing, and dissolving, it is present in the body as blood, water, and lymph, and the energy sheath (pranamayakosha), consisting of breath and energy.

Fire: Energy, heat, transformation, metabolism, and creation. It is present in the body in the digestive system and with regulation of body temperature, as well as the mental-emotional sheath (manomayakosha), which consists of thoughts, emotions, and obsessions.

Air: Oxygen, breath, motion, and lightness. It is present throughout the body’s respiration process and the movement of nerve impulses, and the wisdom sheath (vijnanamayakosha).

Ether: Space, all-pervasiveness, omniscience, expansiveness, and emptiness. It is present in the body as the space between cells, and the bliss sheath (anandamayakosha), consisting of universal intelligence and our true, innermost nature.

The Three Doshas

From the Ayurvedic perspective, the whole universe is an interplay of the energies of the five elements—earth, water, fire, air, and ether. Ayurveda groups the five elements into three basic types of functioning principles, which also are present everywhere, called the Three Doshas. When they are in balance, they support life, and when they are not, they cause the dissolution of life. Each person has all three Doshas, but usually one or two dominate, determining one's physiological and personality traits.

Vata (Air and Ether): This dosha is associated with movement, and it controls breathing, blinking, and heart pulsation. People who are vata types tend to be light, taller, and thinner. When in balance, they are creative and flexible; out of balance they are unstable, anxious, and fearful, traits that can manifest in poor digestion, insomnia, and psychological problems.

Pitta (Fire and Water): Pitta is associated with metabolism, digestion, assimilation, and body temperature. People who are pitta types tend to have medium, muscular builds. When they are in balance, they are warm, outgoing, excellent decision makers, and great leaders; when they are out of balance, they can be hotheaded, angry, and hostile, which can result in high blood pressure, heart disease, and inflammatory disorders.

Kapha (Water and Earth): Connected with physical structure, it is the “glue” that holds the cells together. Kapha types tend to have heavier builds with larger bones. When they are in balance, they are stable, calm, loving, and forgiving; if not, they can be overly attached, possessive, and greedy, which can manifest in congestion, respiratory issues, or obesity.

Knowing your personal mind-body-constitution is key to making Ayurveda powerful for you. We recommend this online questionnaire to give you a hint about your Prakriti, your individual constitution, so you can start to discover the diet and lifestyle components best for you.

However, an online test is just the beginning, so continue to observe yourself, and consider consulting with a certified Ayruvedic practitioner to deepen your knowledge about your Prakriti.

Photo Credit: Mitch & Brittany Rouse