· Illustrations by Cliff Alejandro
Why the ancient healing art of Ayurveda is winning modern fans.
Discomfort was a way of life for Kristina Lund. For as long as she could remember, the 37-year-old Minneapolis musician would routinely lie awake at night, her mind racing in the dark. By day, she was prone to digestive distress, experiencing gas and bloating every time she ate. Not feeling well was a 24-hour condition. And she’d gotten used to it.
Then a doctor discovered a large benign tumor on her ovary and everything changed.
After having the growth removed, Lund got serious about taking care of her overall health. Long inclined to pursue natural healing strategies before drugs, she borrowed a book about Ayurveda from a roommate. She was intrigued to learn that, according to the ancient healing system, her various ailments were connected and could be treated together.
Ayurveda is a Sanskrit word that can be translated as “the science of life,” and it refers to a constitutional model of health used in India for more than 5,000 years. Sometimes called “yoga’s sister science,” Ayurveda is used for daily health maintenance as well as intervention in chronic health issues. Its guiding principle is that our constitutions (or prakuti) usually fall into one of three categories, called doshas, which correspond to combinations of the elements air, fire, water, ether (space) and earth.
If your natural inclination is to be unsettled and “airy,” like Lund, Ayurveda recommends ways to become more grounded: eating heavier foods, such as hearty vegetable stews and cooked grains, and getting massages to calm the nervous system. It might also suggest subtler strategies, like staying out of the wind when possible.
While such prescriptions might sound a bit esoteric, Ayurveda is grounded in a fairly straightforward observation: that different types of people are likely to thrive in different conditions, and that knowing one’s predominant dosha can make it easier for each of us to recognize and compensate for our own inherent tendencies.
“The principles of Ayurveda are timeless,” says Sheila Patel, MD, a family physician who directs health programming at the Chopra Center for Wellbeing in Carlsbad, Calif. “[They are] based on the laws of nature, and we are part of that nature. One thing I appreciate about Ayurveda is that it is really individualized medicine.”
Ayurveda’s basic premise is that the human body is made of the same elements as all of nature, and that most individuals’ bodies express a predominance of one element. This results in a particular physical build, appetite and set of personality qualities that constitute one’s dosha.
The three doshas are Vata (mostly air), Pitta (mostly fire) and Kapha (mostly earth). Each type carries its own tendencies — to be comparatively airy, fiery or earthy by nature. If our natural inclinations get overamplified, however, imbalance and health issues can arise.
Pitta types, for example, already have plenty of heat, so spicy food, warm weather or intense conversations are likely to put them over the edge. To cool their fire, Ayurveda deploys opposites — like cooling foods, spices and activities — to restore balance.
Most of us have one or two primary doshas (only a small percentage of people are truly tri-doshic), but everyone contains all three in some measure. This means that we can have imbalances in any dosha from time to time.
“Somebody might be a Pitta or Vata, but because of their diet, environment or daily choices, their Kapha energy gets out of balance,” Patel explains. “As a result, they might start gaining weight.”
The best way to reverse such trends, according to Ayurvedic thought, is to correct the underlying doshic imbalances, thereby returning the individual to his or her natural, healthy state.
For Lund, taking an Ayurvedic view provided immediate relief from her most chronic symptoms and helped her form a healthier, customized set of habits. “I started following an Ayurvedic diet to the letter,” she says of her resolution to improve her mental and physical conditions, all of which are associated with the Vata dosha type.
She avoided cold and raw foods (which had always made her feel ill) and began eating warm, cooked meals at regular times: hot oats and fruit in the morning; a hearty meal of cooked greens, eggs and grains at noon; and roasted root vegetables like beets and squash for evening meals. She took long walks to soothe her racing thoughts and started meditating regularly. Changing these aspects of her daily routine soon allowed her to fall asleep with ease, and her gas and bloating disappeared.
Bhaswati Bhattacharya, MPH, MD, founder and director of the Dinacharya Institute in New York City, says Lund’s story is not uncommon. On the contrary, it’s a classic example of the power that simple shifts in lifestyle choices and attitude can have on health.
While Bhattacharya might also prescribe specific herbal remedies or recommend traditional Ayurvedic treatments like shirodhara (a soothing, centering procedure in which a stream of warm oil is poured steadily across the forehead), she maintains that the foundations of Ayurvedic healing are firmly rooted in its recommendations for daily behavior.
“My goal,” Bhattacharya says, “is to give patients a toolbox they can use to get themselves out of some of their own imbalances.” She believes Ayurveda’s modern value is its capacity to help us take ownership of our health. “One thing that Ayurveda’s reemergence reveals is that people actually want to do more self-care. They don’t want to rely on the doctor for everything.”
While some people see an Ayurvedic practitioner to identify their type (and one should always consult a trusted health professional about serious health conditions), you can get a good sense of your primary dosha by taking an online quiz, like the one available at www.banyanbotanicals.com/constitutions.
Marcia Meredith, a nurse practitioner and Ayurvedic adviser with a consultation practice in Minneapolis, recommends taking the quiz with someone who knows you well, since others can sometimes recognize our central tendencies more easily than we recognize our own.
To learn more about the three doshas and get a sense of how to keep them in balance, check out the following profiles. Whether or not you decide to pursue Ayurveda as a formal healing system, you’ll probably discover helpful strategies for self-care. And that’s something every dosha can use more of.