Trying to explain Ayurveda in an “elevator pitch,” that is to say, in one or two minutes, is nearly impossible.
But as an Ayurvedic teacher and practitioner, I’ve been asked to do so many times. It’s hard to encapsulate a discipline like Ayurveda, which by its very nature is all-encompassing.
Given that, here’s my best shot.
You may have heard of traditional Chinese medicine, things like acupuncture, chi and the like. This tradition has made its way into Western culture more than Ayurveda, which is essentially the Indian system.
Ayurveda categorizes everything–our minds, bodies, interactions, natural world, food, energy–as comprised of a mix of five basic elements. Earth, water, fire, air and space (sometimes called ether).
Each person has a unique constellation of these elements in his or her body and mind, a pre-set constitution determined at the moment of conception that remains in place throughout one’s life. This is your dosha, or Prakriti.
Essentially, this means that if you already have more fire in your make up, it will probably be the first element to go out of whack.
This is particularly true when you combine an understanding of those five elements with the seasons.
As you might expect, summer is fire/Pitta season (think hot, humid days); fall and early winter are air/space or Vata seasons (think: windy and cold), late winter and spring are earth/water or Kapha seasons (think: heavy, wet snow and ice).
So if I’m a Pitta person, summer is likely to be a challenging time for me, as the fire in the external environment is increasing, the element of fire already present in overabundance in my body/mind will ramp up too.
This can leave you feeling high Pitta symptoms: irritable, quick-to-anger, envious, gossipy and really competitive. In the body, you might feel a front of the head: acne, headaches, an acid stomach, or diarrhea, to name a few.
The elements in an individual’s constitution can also be affected by lifestyle, diet, exercise and essentially all the variables of life.
So in Ayurveda as in life, there are no hard and fast rules. (Rats! That would make it so much easier, huh?) Thus, bringing your body and mind into balance, Ayurvedically, is always a moving target. You never “arrive,” a good notion to give up anyway.
A basic tenet of Ayurveda is “like increases like.” Therefore, to balance your mind/body, applying the opposite quality will bring you more toward the center line. Think of qualities as how they represent the elements.
For example, if I am a Pitta (high fire) person by nature, sweating and pushing through a super hot Bikram yoga class in the middle of the dog days of summer is not going to bring balance to my body or mind. It will only increase the fire element that is already there.
This is where it gets tricky. Though an intense physical practice (or whatever your equivalent is—a long, hard run; a competitive sport; a hot, spicy meal; a heated debate) may feel good, it is working to increase fire, which, as a Pitta, I need to rein in.
In that way, a Pitta during summer particularly will find more balance by steering away from hot, super-rigorous yoga, and find more balance with a practice with poses to calm and cool the body and mind (twists, forward bends emphasizing long, fluid breath).
Same goes with what foods you’re eating and stimuli or lifestyle you expose yourself to. It all affects the elements, because everything is made up of the elements.