Ayurveda has made its way into popular Western culture, though by and large, it is still a mystery to most. For those of us who have not been raised a culture where Ayurvedic philosophy is at the core of our perceptions and practices, it can take a lifetime to comprehend. Typically, in Western societies, Ayurvedic practitioners take a two-year certification course. In Eastern traditions, though Ayurveda is part of the collective consciousness, most practitioners have been trained at doctorate levels, or have studied with masters through classic oral traditions of unbroken lineage. To really know and embody Ayurveda, we would have to travel to the East and spend incalculable amounts of time in deep study with the masters of ancient traditions, which is scarcely the reality for many of us.
Outside of renouncing our Western lives for a medical school-length period of time with the masters of yore, how can we both learn Ayurvedic principles and inculcate them within our lives? Take an online quiz to determine our dosha (body constitution)? Self diagnose and treat perceived imbalances with herbs from our local health food store? Invest hundreds, maybe thousands of dollars on Ayurvedic treatments from a certified practitioner, only to find that such remedies are subtle, and require months, if not years of implementation to soothe our ailments?
Perhaps the most prudent course of action is to expand our perception to include a new vantage, a new point of view. Let’s compare the science of Ayurveda to the color spectrum. Just as there are three primary colors that combine to create all colors visible to our eyes, so to are there three primary aspects to Ayurveda. The three basic elements of Ayurveda are the prakruti, our original state of being, the vikruti, our current state of being, and the gunas, the elemental qualities of being. These states, though separate and integral, come into flux with one another in the creation of our body constitution and senses.
The prakruti is the essence of our being in balance, determined upon conception. The prakruti is the balance of the three doshas (vata, pitta, and kapha), along with the fixation of our unique psychology and physiology. The prakruti is our inherent tendencies towards certain attributes, such as our body type, emotional proclivity, and our intellect. These attributes generally remain consistent throughout our lifetimes, with each of the three doshas present in varying degrees. Our body constitutions are as unique as a fingerprint, and are defined by the ratio of the three doshas in relation to one another.
An interaction between the environment and ourselves occurs from moment we are conceived. This is the interaction with all manifestation, both within the womb and out, including, but not limited to: nutrition, seasonality, day-to-day weather, social interactions, contagions, and exposures. Health and wellness depends on maintaining the ideal ratio of the three doshas in relation these factors. If one or more of the doshas become vitiated, imbalanced, symptoms of disease can present themselves. This dis-ease may be subtle, displaying itself within the intellectual or emotional body, or gross, manifesting in sickness of the physical body. The variance away from the prakruti is known as the vikruti, meaning “after creation” in Sanskrit. The main work of the Ayurvedic practitioner is to establish the display of the vikruti, the variance of the doshas, in relation to the prakruti. In ideal health, the prakruti and the vikruti are equal.
The basis of Ayurvedic practice is to identify environmental disturbances within lifestyle practices, and derive a treatment that balances the current state of the doshas. Qualities of being, known as the gunas, range from gross to subtle. Just as there are three distinct doshas, there are three specific gunas: tamas, rajas, and sattva. Tamas is most gross, and is associated with kapha (earth and water). Its qualities are dull, inert, and heavy. Rajas, the intermediary guna, is associated with pitta (fire and water). Rajas is the quality of transformation, heat, and activation. Sattva, the subtlest quality, is associated with vata (air and ether). It is the quality of illumination, purity, and clarity. The display of the gunas indicates the vikruti. For example, a kapha constitution in a tamastic state may be overweight, sluggish, and have difficulty remembering. Before moving to a sattvic state, the kapha constitution must first apply rajastic practices, such as yoga asana, waking up earlier, or eating spicy foods. A kapha constitution, having moved through a rajastic state, may display sattvic qualities, such as stability of character, physical stamina, and maternal or paternal love. It is important to note that the gunas should not be associated with moral constructs like positive or negative, rather, they should be assessed as independent qualities that are expressed throughout creation.
The science of Ayurveda is vast and complex. It is difficult to assess our own prakruti or vikruti at a glance, or with a quiz from a magazine or website. Ayurvedic assessment is best left to the knowledgeable insight of an experienced practitioner. However, once the dosha has been established, lifestyle changes can be implemented to maintain optimal health and wellness. By gauging the guna of a food, for example, you can make positive changes to your diet. For comparison’s sake, a bag of Cheetos is tamastic, whereas fresh lettuce is more sattvic. Then, go deeper. What is the guna of conventional lettuce from the grocery store compared to that of the homegrown, organic lettuce from your garden? Through this perspective, you can begin to apply Ayurvedic principles to your life without the need of herbal supplements and on-going treatments from a practitioner. While it may take a lifetime to comprehend Ayurvedic philosophy, viewing your environment from an Ayurvedic vantage may bring your dosha into a more balanced state of being naturally.