While modern medicine is largely limited to treatment of ailments and dealing with manifest symptoms, Ayurveda as a way of life runs much deeper, looking at individuals not just as made of carbohydrates, amino acids, and minerals, but also as mental and spiritual beings with prana or life energy that sustains life. An individual owes its existence to the five great elements.
The ancient science of Ayurveda is vast and based on insightful principles that don’t just help you stay healthy and live longer but also make this journey more beautiful and full of vitality and dynamism. Food and medicine, social behavior, seasonal changes, and the impact of everything we do on our nervous system and brain—the Ayurvedic approach takes all of this into account in crafting the appropriate treatments.
In addition to sustainable and healthy living, Ayurvedic principles also give beautiful glimpses of the basis of creation. In fact, the core of Ayurveda is Sankhya philosophy, which says that in the entire universe there are only two ultimate entities that exist—namely the Prakriti, that is the primordial matter and the Purusa, which is the universal spirit.
The Five Elements
One of the ways in which primordial matter reveals itself in the perceivable universe is through the five primary elements. Our body also is made up of these five elements and upon death dissolves back into these five elements in nature. Our five senses of sight, touch, sound, smell, and taste are based on these five primary elements—fire, air, space, earth and water respectively—and therefore our respective sense organs—eyes, skin, ears, nose, and tongue—function based on them.
The Fire Element
Fire has the power to transform the state of any substance. In the human body, it is the fire element that leads the conversion of food into energy. Digestion, absorption, and assimilation of food are taken care of by this element in addition to regulation of body temperature. An imbalance in the fire element manifests in the form of metabolic disorders, mental ailments, skin diseases, and fever.
The Air Element
Air is mobile in nature. In our body, it is the air element in the form of oxygen that keeps cells alive and functioning. Our movement, respiratory system, and nerve impulses are governed by the air element. Dry and light in nature, the air element is formless and transparent. Its imbalance leads to nervous system related disorders, respiratory issues, abnormal blood pressure, and pains in muscles.
The Space Element
Space is the medium for sound to travel. In addition to governing our auditory senses it is responsible for our intuition and wisdom. An imbalance of space elements in the body can manifest as thyroid issues, or problems related to speech or hearing, etc.
The Earth Element
Earth forms all the solid mass in our body—bones, tissues, teeth, nails, skin, and hair. The nature of earth elements is hard, stable, slow, dry, heavy, and thick. Imbalance of the earth element leads to weight gain or loss, weakness, increased cholesterol, or bone density changes.
The Water Element
Water is present in our body in the form of all bodily fluids, including saliva, blood, sweat, and semen. It is water that governs our emotions and also makes cohesion possible in everything including tissues.
The Tridoshas and Their Roles
The five elements combine with one another to form intelligent life principles called tridhatus that govern all the processes in the body and are responsible for certain physical and behavioral traits. These tridhatus are vata, pitta, and kapha; in vitiated form they are referred to as doshas. Each of these doshas is dominant in different time periods of the day and night, in different seasons of the year and in different areas of the body. The ritucharya, meaning seasonal regimen, and the dincharya, the daily regimen suggested by Ayurveda, are based on living in accordance with nature and performing daily activities in accordance with the dominant dosha at the specific time of the day or year. Such a lifestyle helps keep doshas in balance. The regimens take care of cleansing and detoxification of the body in addition to modifying one’s diet and lifestyle in accordance with seasons.
Ether and air elements combine to form the vata dosha. Vata is mobile and hence governs all bodily movements, nervous system, respiratory system and takes care of the elimination of waste material and toxins from the body. The primary site for vata dosha is the lower part of the body including lower back, thighs, large intestine and pelvic regions. Vata also dominates the nervous system, skin and ears.
There are five different types of vata that govern different types of movements in the body:
- Prana Vayu is the kind of vata that governs respiratory system and mental activity.
- Udana Vayu governs speech and movement in the upper body.
- Vyana Vayu takes care of nourishment and circulation in the whole body and movement of body parts.
- Samana Vayu helps in secretion and movement of digestive juices and in absorption of nutrients.
- Apana Vayu takes care of downward movement which is needed for elimination of urine, feces, menstrual blood, semen and for giving birth.
Fire and water elements combine to form the pitta dosha. Responsible for the metabolism, pitta mainly impacts the blood, eyes, skin and middle part of the body including liver, stomach, spleen, small intestine and gallbladder.
Pitta also has five sub-types:
- Sadhaka pitta governs intellect and memory, and drives the transformation of words to knowledge.
- Alochaka pitta takes care of perception from visual senses to the mind, drives creativity and intuition.
- Pachaka pitta mainly deals with digestion and assimilation of food and regulation of body temperature.
- Ranjaka pitta is responsible for formation of blood.
- Bhrajaka pitta imparts luster to the skin and regulates the temperature and color of the various body parts.
Water and earth elements combine to form the kapha dosha. Kapha provides protection and lubrication to the body organs such as mucous lining of stomach, cerebrospinal fluid for brain and synovial fluid in the joints. The upper part of the body is where kapha mostly resides. The sites for kapha include the respiratory tract, upper stomach, mucous membranes, joints and head.
Kapha has five subtypes:
- Trapaka kapha nourishes and lubricates the brain cells and nervous system and is responsible for carrying stimuli to the brain.
- Bodhaka kapha takes care of perceptions like taste
- Avalambaka kapha takes care of the chest region.
- Kledaka kapha works in the gastro-intestinal tract.
- Shleshaka kapha lubricates the joints.
The Constitution of Your Body
The five elements can combine in innumerable different proportions to form different body types, or constitutions. This constitution is determined by which of the three doshas are predominant in an individual and is the outcome of conditions that prevail at the time of conception and during the gestation period. The constitution of an individual generally remains the same throughout one’s lifetime and plays an important role in determining his physical appearance, nature and behavior patterns.
A vata body type is more prone to problems caused by gas in the gastrointestinal tract and hence needs to limit the intake of foods that are difficult to digest like millets and corn and might find wheat more suitable whereas for a kapha type person millets and corn might be more suitable than wheat. Ayurveda has different sets of guidelines for the different constitutions. Knowing your constitution can help you maintain better health by understanding what lifestyle and food will be best for you and what are the situations and food that might cause trouble for you.
Nadi Pariksha (Pulse Diagnosis)
This ancient non-invasive method of determining one’s constitution by analyzing the person’s pulse behavior yields surprisingly accurate results. Apart from determining the constitution, pulse diagnosis method is also used to find out what doshas are out of balance and hence diseases resulting from imbalance of those doshas can be prevented even before they manifest.