Discomfort was a way of life for Kristina Lund. For as long as she could remember, the 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 things changed.
After having the growth removed, Lund got serious about taking care of her 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 five millennia.
Sometimes called yoga’s sister science, Ayurveda is used for daily health maintenance as well as an 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 esoteric, Ayurveda is premised upon a fairly straightforward observation: that different body types are likely to thrive in different conditions. Knowing your predominant dosha can make it easier to recognize and compensate for your own inherent tendencies.
“The principles of Ayurveda are timeless,” says family physician Sheila Patel, MD, chief medical officer for Chopra Global 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.”
A key premise of Ayurveda is that the human body is made of the same elements as all of nature, and that our individual bodies usually 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 has its own tendencies — to be comparatively airy, fiery, or earthy. When our natural inclinations get overamplified, however, imbalance and health issues can arise.
Pitta types, for example, already have plenty of heat, so spicy food, hot weather, or intense conversations are likely to put them over the edge. To cool Pitta’s fire, Ayurveda deploys opposites — like cooling foods and calming activities — to restore balance.
Most of us have one or two primary doshas; only a small percentage of people are all three, although we all contain the 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.”
Likewise, in summer, hot weather can make us short-tempered, a Pitta trait. Or flying, which involves air and movement, can aggravate Vata dosha, making us spacey and disorganized.
The best way to reverse such trends, according to Ayurvedic thought, is to correct the underlying doshic imbalances, thereby returning individuals to their balanced state.
For Lund, adopting this perspective soon provided relief from her chronic symptoms and helped her form a supportive, 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 Vata dosha.
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.
Lund’s story is not uncommon, says Bhaswati Bhattacharya, PhD, MD, MPH, founder and director of the Dinacharya Institute in New York City. On the contrary, it’s a classic example of the powerful effect that simple shifts in lifestyle choices and attitude can have on health.
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). But 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 ongoing value lies in 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 you 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 this one: kripalu.org/content/whats-
Marcia Meredith, a retired nurse practitioner and longtime Ayurvedic adviser 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 adopt a full complement of Ayurvedic strategies, you’ll probably discover useful strategies for self-care — something nearly all of us, regardless of dosha, can use more of.