A Beginner's Guide To Ayurveda & Balancing The 3 Doshas
Ayurvedic medicine is much more than just medicine. This 5,000-year-old practice began in India and has since spread across the world, shaping and improving many lives.
The core of Ayurveda is focused on prevention. It's based on the concept that general health and wellness rely on a delicate balance between mind, body, and spirit.
If you've been searching for a holistic and balanced approach to your overall health, you're in the right place.
The history of Ayurveda.
Ayurveda dates back thousands of years. The earliest recorded texts on the practice, known as "The Vedas," describe the transfer of knowledge and wisdom from gods to sages and then from sages to doctors.
The Vedas detail extensive preventive care approaches as well as treatments, even highlighting surgical procedures like nose jobs, kidney stone removal, and stitches.
The Vedas detail how to treat issues like dry skin, fever, diarrhea, tumors, seizures, heart disease, and beyond, using over 700 Ayurvedic herbs.
Ayurvedic medicine thrived until India began to experience political conflict and invasion, notably by the British Empire. Plenty of people weren't dissuaded by the Western influence and continued to practice on the fringes of society.
When India gained independence from Britain in the middle of the 20th century, Ayurveda found its place again as a major medical system and practice that continues to thrive in India and now is recognized around the world.
The health benefits of Ayurvedic medicine.
Ayurvedic medicine focuses on holistic health and wellness, and is the opposite of a "one-size-fits-all" approach.
It employs a wide variety of practices—each with its own benefits. Here are just a few of the physical conditions it may be able to help with:
1. It can promote heart health.
A 2015 study1 suggested that Ayurvedic medicine can have positive effects on people with coronary heart disease.
This isn't all that surprising since the practices of yoga and meditation have been shown to help regulate high blood pressure2.
2. It can reduce inflammation.
By now you've probably heard that inflammation plays a role in many diseases. It can be caused by a lack of sleep (or just poor-quality sleep), digestive issues, and unhealthy diets.
Ayurveda's focus on nutrition, sleep, and mindfulness has the potential to reduce inflammation by addressing its underlying causes.
One study even shows that Ayurvedic herbs like turmeric can help treat inflammatory conditions3, such as metabolic syndrome, arthritis, anxiety, and hyperlipidemia.
3. It can improve sleep.
Processed snacks, caffeine and alcohol, and ever-present electronics are just some of the modern vices that can disrupt sleep.
Ayurveda's more balanced, time-tested approach to healthy eating and mindfulness has the potential to get you a good night's rest.
Beyond that, simple practices such as rubbing an Ayurvedic oil like jasmine or coconut on your temples has a calming effect that could lull you to sleep.
4. It can promote weight loss.
While Ayurvedic medicine isn't focused on dieting, it can be helpful for maintaining a healthy weight. Here is an overview of Ayurvedic eating principles.
Specific Ayurvedic herbs like triphala4 and guggul5 have been associated with weight loss, and exercise and movement like yoga paired with mindful eating can promote a healthier all-around lifestyle.
An introduction to the 3 doshas: Vata, Pitta & Kapha.
In Ayurvedic medicine, balance is everything—and it's achieved by harmonizing the three doshas: Vata, Pitta, and Kapha.
"The doshas are 'health types' used in Ayurvedic medicine to specify how certain people should eat, sleep, exercise, and what their emotional strengths and weaknesses may be," explains Taz Bhatia, M.D., an integrative medicine physician and mbg Collective member.
The three doshas are represented in everybody but in different amounts. Some people may have a health type (or constitution) that is more dominant in pitta, while another may skew toward vata-kapha dominance.
Think of each dosha like a two-way scale, and when the scale is out of balance, it can cause physical and emotional distress.
The goal is to get all of your doshas back to the levels at which they naturally exist in your body.
Here's a brief introduction to the three doshas and the diet and lifestyle tweaks that can help balance them out. To determine your constitution, you can check out this quick dosha quiz.
Vata dosha characteristics.
Vata is all about the energy of movement, and it's often associated with the wind.
It's an energetic dosha linked with flexibility, creativity, and free-flowing spirit. It's associated with bodily movements like breathing, muscle contraction, and heart function.
Someone who is Vata dominant might be thin, feel cold often, have dry skin, or experience racing thoughts.
An imbalance in the vata dosha can result in anxiety, fear, and digestive issues like constipation.
Exercises to balance the vata dosha.
Anything that brings stability and grounding will be helpful when Vata energy takes over.
Maybe it's being more rigid about your morning and nighttime routines, practicing a grounding meditation with your feet in the earth, or setting limits on your use of technology.
Food and drinks to balance the vata dosha.
People with a Vata imbalance might benefit from "more protein and fat, along with warming foods," according to Bhatia.
Root vegetables, warm, creamy drinks, and a variety of meats can also be nourishing and grounding. Staying well-hydrated is also important since this dosha tends to skew toward dryness.
Pitta dosha characteristics.
The pitta dosha is linked to fire and is thought to control the endocrine, metabolic, and digestive systems.
People who are predominantly pitta can have a medium build, feel cold often, and have acne-prone skin. They tend to be busy, high-achieving, and always on the move.
An imbalance in Pitta can also lead to anger, overexertion and burnout, as well as skin irritation and rashes.
Exercises to balance the pitta dosha.
Unsurprisingly, those with a Pitta imbalance will benefit from cooling activities. Think: taking cold showers and walking next to a body of water (but not while it's super hot out).
The opposite of Vata in many ways, Pitta-prone people should consider loosening their tight schedules and saving room for spontaneity.
Food and drinks to balance the pitta dosha.
Avoid anything hot, spicy, or fermented, and gravitate toward more cooling foods—especially in the summer months.
A few pitta-pacifying foods and beverages include sweet fruits, coconut water, and plenty of grains.
Kapha dosha characteristics.
Kapha is associated with earth and water. It is a stabilizing energy thought to supply water to the body and maintain the immune system.
Someone who is Kapha dominant is calm, grounded, and forgiving. But an imbalance in Kapha can lead to jealousy, sluggishness, and weight gain.
Exercises to balance the kapha dosha.
If Kapha is out of whack, some serious self-care is in order. Mental stimulation, plenty of exercise, and mindful activities like meditation and breathwork are essential for those with a Kapha imbalance.
Food and drinks to balance the kapha dosha.
Those who are Kapha dominant should avoid oily foods and heavy, dense carbs like pasta and rice. Instead, go for bitter, astringent ingredients and plenty of fresh fruits and veggies.
Incorporating ayurvedic wisdom into modern life.
In Sanskrit, the word Ayurveda translates to "the science of life." In Western medicine, Ayurveda is classified as complementary and alternative medicine (CAM).
CAM carries a stigma, as many Western medicine practitioners believe it's not based in science and provides treatments that are unproven and ineffective. However, recent data show that around 38% of adults in the United States use CAM treatments like acupuncture, massage, reiki, and—you guessed it—Ayurveda.
The National Institutes of Health even has an entire department dedicated to the scientific validation of CAM, and many of these modalities have achieved scientific support, including Ayurveda.
While scientific research into Ayurvedic medicine may be less prevalent than research on Western treatments, it's not nonexistent.
In the 1970s, the World Health Organization conducted research that detailed the safety and efficacy of Ayurveda for treating rheumatoid arthritis. That study found that the treatments provided relief for arthritis 6symptoms with no harmful side effects.
A more recent study found that Ayurvedic medicine can be helpful in determining a patient's risk of developing Parkinson's disease.
Ultimately, while Western medical practice primarily focuses on the treatment of disease, Ayurvedic medicine is focused on the prevention of disease. Ayurvedic practitioners focus on maintaining the balance of energy through diet, exercise, and mindfulness that they believe is essential to overall health.
If you think Ayurveda could be a fit for you, do additional research before making any drastic life changes. Talk to your health care provider before stopping any medication and before starting any treatments, and consider seeking out a medical professional with a strong background in both Western and Ayurvedic medicine.
Elsbeth Riley is a writer and editor living in Oakland, California. She is an ACE certified personal trainer, and holds a B.A. in literature from the University of California, Santa Cruz. As a content creator specifically in the health and wellness space, she enjoys living the values of the articles she puts together. She's a marathoner (running cures her writer's block) and a hiker (she summited Mount Kilimanjaro in December 2018). She's also on a life-long hunt to find the world's best hot tub.