By Karen Evennett
'Ayurveda' translates as 'science of life', and involves using healthier habits to prevent ill health. Spices, sleep and meditation are key to this ancient system, practised in India for over 5,000 years.
Ayurveda is attracting increasing interest in the West, and one of its key recommendations – regular meditation – has been endorsed by the American Heart Association as a possible aid to cardiovascular risk reduction.
Pitta, vata and kapha doshas
"The basic Ayurvedic principle is that ill health can be prevented when we maintain balance in the body, mind and spirit – paying equal attention to our so-called 'three pillars': nutrition, sleep and brahmacharya (a form of self-regulation through yoga and meditation)," explains Dr Prasanna Kerur, Ayurvedic physician at the Ayush Wellness Spa in Jersey.
"The other fundamental tenet is the notion that each of us is a mix of three basic constitutional types (known as 'doshas'), with one of these doshas – pitta, kapha and vata – usually dominating."
According to Dr Kerur, the doshas each have recognisable physical and emotional characteristics. For example, vata is classically fast-moving and quick-thinking; pitta is usually fiery of temper and prone to inflammation; and kapha is slow, steady, plodding and patient.
Stress – whether psychological or physical (lack of sleep or a poor diet) – can cause our dominant dosha to spiral out of control, impacting our wellbeing and increasing our risk of dosha-related conditions.
For example, uncontrolled pitta is linked to inflammatory conditions and skin complaints, too much kapha leads to sluggish digestion and excess vata is synonymous with nerviness, anxiety and low mood.
"The way we apply the three pillars of health to ourselves is therefore tailored to pacify and balance our dominant dosha," explains Dr Kerur.
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The three pillars
Whatever our dosha, we should try to avoid processed foods as far as possible. "When we are in balance and in tune with nature, we naturally know how to regulate our diet in a way that is good for us," says Dr Kerur.
"However, the body's natural intellect can become confused, causing us to overeat or seek out foods that will not benefit our health. The more processed a food is, the more likely it is to confuse and impact our appetite and food choices."
Additives and processing can trigger cravings, tricking us into thinking we're hungry when we shouldn't be. Ayurveda recommends eating fresh, seasonal and whole foods. According to Dr Kerur, the amount we eat, and the regularity of our meals, will be customised to bring our individual dosha into balance.
"For example, a predominantly vata dosha will have a tendency to eat irregularly, erratically, and unpredictably," he explains. "Some days they'll eat very little, other days they'll eat a lot. This tendency is tamed and regulated – with balance restored – by eating small portions of food four times a day, instead of the two meals a day (not three!) generally recommended for pittas and kaphas."
Although a typical Western pattern is to eat three times a day, Ayurveda recommends two meals a day. According to Dr Kerur, this allows better digestion of the previous meal, reduces the accumulation of toxins and also prevents a dominant dosha from building up unhealthily.
In addition to dosha-guided brahmacharya and dietary, sleep and exercise regimes, Ayurvedic practitioners in India use 'rasayana' – a group of herbs and spices – to restore physical balance, particularly in our immune, digestive and metabolic systems. Some of the best known include turmeric, fenugreek, ashwagandha, black seed oil and boswellia, and different herbs will work to balance different doshas.
Although your predominant dosha may lead to an urge to oversleep (very kapha), or let you believe you can get away with just a few hours a night (typically vata), Ayurveda recognises that a good night's sleep benefits us all.
Sleep is fundamental to health and balance. Vatas must not resign themselves to a lifetime of insomnia, while kaphas are more balanced when they manage to stick to more regular hours. Of the three doshas, pittas tend to wake up the most refreshed when they're in balance.
Brahmacharya is a form of self-awareness. It is about having an understanding of who you really are, and what you need in order to maintain your healthiest equilibrium. This is the part of you that only you truly know. It is not the label that others have applied to you. It is not the professional you, the parental you, or the sibling or child.
"We can think we know who we are, because we buy into the images of us that other people have created," say Dr Kerur. "But, through brahmacharya ('brahma' means universal consciousness; 'charya' means actively enhancing the universal consciousness), we stay connected to the truly authentic, and mentally, emotionally and physically balanced 'best' version of ourselves."
This is the inner, spiritual self that is nurtured by a healthy lifestyle that includes meditation and yoga. When well nourished, this is the part of you that helps to keep other important aspects of your lifestyle (how well you eat, sleep, and exercise) in check.
"We balance this aspect of our psychological constitution with three 'gunas' (energies): 'sattva' (harmonious and constructive balance), 'rajas' (which can lead to a chaotic, anxious mind when it's in excess), and 'tamas' (which is clouded and lethargic, and linked to withdrawal and depression)," explains Dr Kerur.
"Once we understand these gunas, we can see when we are getting out of balance, and that is when we know to work at heading off any problems an imbalance may bring. For example, an excess of rajas attracts us to the very things we should be avoiding. We may recognise this when we either reach for comfort foods, or start skipping meals. It is a red flag that the fight and flight response is kicking in.
"To restore a sense of calmness, we recommend yoga, meditation and breathwork – for example, breathing deeply and slowly while focusing on a candle, a mantra, or some absorbing music for at least a few minutes a day. Yoga postures (asanas) help too, by improving the flow of 'prana' (life energy) and oxygenation through your body."
To learn more about Ayurveda and how it could help to balance your health, talk to a practitioner.
Karen is a freelance health journalist and author/editor of 14 health books. She is a member of the Medical Journalists' Association and her features have appeared in various publications including Woman's Own and the Guardian.