Ayurveda the three doshas and the five elements

Ayurveda is translated as the “knowledge of life” (ayus: life, veda: knowledge). The Indian holistic medical system first mentioned Ayurveda with yoga in the Vedas around 3,500 years ago. It is considered the healing side of yoga, and the practice of yoga is the spiritual side of Ayurveda. Both strive to help us stay connected to our true natures.

Ayurveda draws on all six of India’s classical schools of philosophy: Samkhya, Nyaya, Vaisheshika, Yoga, Mimamsa and Vedanta, but is mainly rooted in Samkhya, namely that everything stems from purusa (self/soul) and prakruti (matter/energy).

Samkhya means “system of enumeration” and consists of 24 principles, tattvas, which explain all of creation. These principles include the five elements, panchamahabhutas (ether, air, fire, water and earth). The elements relate to the five senses, tanmatras (sound, touch, sight, taste and smell), which Ayurveda uses to treat disharmony and disease.

Both Ayurveda and yoga share the philosophy that the state of our intelligence and consciousness is governed by three subtle qualities of nature, the universal gunas known as sattva, rajas and tamas. Sattva is the nature of our existence, bringing spiritual purpose, right actions, purity, illumination and balance. Rajas is the nature of activity, change, motion, energy and movement. Tamas is the nature of stability, darkness, dullness and inertia.

According to Ayurveda, creation expresses itself through the five elements. These manifest in our bodies as governing energies called doshas. The three doshas, Vata, Pitta and Kapha define our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual states. Each of us has a unique proportion of all three doshas, established at conception, which creates our constitution, prakruti.

The five element theory is based on 10 opposite qualities found in our environment. These are known as the physical gunas: hot/cold, wet/dry, heavy/light, mobile/stable, clear/cloudy, gross/subtle, dense/flowing, dull/sharp, soft/hard, smooth/rough.

Ayurveda understands the doshas in relation to these physical gunas, but it also considers our mental health and well-being in relation to the three universal gunas. The Caraka Samhita (an ancient Ayurvedic text) explains that Vata, as air and ether elements, is mainly associated with rajas and sattva, with the qualities of movement, clarity, creativity and expansiveness. Pitta, as fire and water elements, is mainly associated with sattva and rajas, with the qualities of transformation, focus and energy. Kapha, as water and earth elements, is mainly associated with tamas and sattva, with the qualities of heaviness, dullness and stability.

Ayurveda believes that our true nature is spirit, and that when we lose our presence and connection we create a state of imbalance, vikruti, which is understood by its short-term symptoms, tendencies and characteristics.

There are many factors that can cause imbalance, including change of season, our physical location, what we ingest, and the mental/emotional influences in our lives. Ayurveda treats imbalance by employing the opposite qualities of the physical gunas. For example, if the air element is too high in the body, we might experience constipation, dryness, and swirling thoughts and emotions. To bring balance we would incorporate the opposite physical qualities of warmth (fire), wetness (water), heaviness and stability (earth).

Ayurveda uses lifestyle changes and the five sense (tanmatras) therapies to treat imbalance and disharmony. These include: mantras, kirtan and music (sound – ether element); massage, Asana, Pranayama, nasya and marma therapy (touch – air element); color therapy and gemology (sight – fire element); food, spices, herbs and beverages (taste – water element); and essential oils, aromatherapy, spices and herbology (smell – earth element).

Below is a summary of each dosha, with its physical and mental qualities, and an example of how to bring balance, bearing in mind that we each have a unique proportion of all three doshas.

Vata dosha (air and ether) has the qualities of being cold, dry, light, and mobile. The air quality contributes to overall dryness, with a lot of of mobility. People with a predominance of this physical nature are mentally creative, artistic and spiritual. When out of balance they can be mentally scattered, overwhelmed, have difficulty sleeping, and change their minds often. The Vata dosha is balanced by incorporating the qualities of: warmth (fire), moisture (water), and heaviness and stability (earth). A Vata Asana and Pranayama practice should be warming, systematic and introspective, to bring presence and focus. Yoga poses that compress the pelvis and engage the lower back and thighs are beneficial, because the seat of Vata is in the colon, which needs warmth. Ayurveda recommends “So Hum” meditation, which incorporates a pointed focus, bringing presence to a busy mind.

Pitta dosha (fire and water) has the qualities of being hot, wet, light, and mobile. The fire quality relates to transformation, metabolism, and digestion. These qualities govern physical digestion but also control transformation and assimilation of the five senses. People with a predominance of this physical nature are mentally focused, passionate and intense. When out of balance, they can have acid reflux, indigestion and diarrhea and can be short-tempered, impatient and angry. The Pitta dosha is balanced by incorporating the qualities of: coolness (earth and water), dryness (air), and heaviness and stability (earth). A Pitta Asana and Pranayama practice should promote coolness and openness while releasing heat in the small intestine, liver and the mind. All standing and seated twists and cooling inversions are beneficial. Ayurveda recommends “Empty Bowl” meditation, which is unstructured and promotes openness and coolness.

Kapha dosha (water and earth) has the qualities of being cool, wet, moist, and stable. It is responsible for structure and lubrication of the body, providing stability, stamina, and strength. People with a predominance of this physical nature often move, think and speak slowly. Their mental natures are unconditionally loving, calm, consistent and dependable. When out of balance, they are prone to upper respiratory illness, obesity, diabetes, and they can be lethargic, depressed and over-attached. The Kapha dosha is balanced by incorporating the qualities of: warmth (fire), dryness (air), and lightness and mobility (air). A Kapha Asana and Pranayama practice should be energetic, stimulating and warming. All standing poses, inversions and backbends are beneficial, and repeating and holding poses with conscious breathing is helpful. Ayurveda recommends Tartaka (to look, or to gaze) meditation, using a warming visual image, like a candle flame or ghee lamp, which is warming and energizing.

We all have many choices each day that can affect our physical, mental, emotional and spiritual states. Once we understand our constitution (prakruti), and the state of our imbalance (vikruti), we can make healthy and logical choices to bring harmony to body, mind and spirit.

According to Ayurveda, we create and recreate our state of health each day based on how we interact with the world in terms of our beliefs, perceptions, thoughts and feelings, which ultimately determines our actions. Disharmonious actions create a state of dis-ease and dis-harmony. Actions performed with awareness, discernment and intelligence that are in harmony with our true inner nature, our spirit, create a balanced state of health.