Five elements theory
Ayurveda bases its theory on the existence of five basic principles or building blocks, which are the basis of life of the whole universe (the macrocosm), as well as our body (the microcosm), and are known as the five great elements:
- space/ether (ākāśa)
- air/wind (vāyu)
- fire (tejas)
- water (jala)
- earth (pṛthvī)
Without them, life is not possible. Everything that exists occupies a space; wind is identified with the movement, ie. pulse – a basic feature of life; fire, heat or the sun are an indispensable prerequisites for life, like water and earth, also. The entire material universe that surrounds us is made by combining these elements in different proportions.
Ayurvedic sages condensed these five principles into 3 constitutional types – doshas, which are called: vata (a combination of the elements of space and air); pitta (a combination of fire and water) and kapha (a combination of water and earth). These principles govern our entire physiology.
Parallels with this approach are found in modern medicine. Vata principle (wind) operates communication and movement of the body – it deals with the nervous system; with joints – where the movement takes place; with the elimination of waste and so on. Its main seat is the colon. Pitta (fire) relates to the metabolic processes in the body. Using the vocabulary of allopathic medicine, it is responsible for the endocrine system (hormones) and digestive system (enzymes). The main organs of pitta are the small intestine, liver and duodenum, while kapha (earth) is related to the structure of the body – 7 bodily tissues, bones and muscles.
Most of the disorders in the body are caused by vitiated vatta, which is the only mobile dosha. The temptations of modern life put a great pressure on the nervous system. When a disorder of the nervous system happens, it directly affects all other systems. Disturbed vata, disperses pitta and kapha from their seats to the places where they should not be located, and causes disturbances in these places.
Ayurvedic approach to health consists of holding the 3 doshas in balance, which is primarily achieved by abiding to Ayurvedic recommendations for a healthy life, which is why Ayurveda can be considered the cheapest system of treatment. The goal of Ayurveda is that the disease does not even appear, whereas allopathic medicine treats the symptoms and not the cause, which leads to chronic diseases, that, in terms of allopathic medicine, can be characterized as incurable. At the same time, the Ayurvedic approach treats chronic diseases with great success.
The 5 elements also form the framework for determining tastes and properties of herbs and foods. Ayurveda adopts an organoleptic approach to matter, which means that it classifies the properties of matter using human sense organs, because they are not detectable by instrumentalized analytical methods and exact measuring tools. Once we know the taste and the properties of matter, we also know its function or pharmacological action.
Prakriti & Vikriti
When we are born, our energetic constitution is in balance and that state of original wholeness is called prakriti. Prakriti represents our true nature. Opposite to prakriti, there is vikriti – our current energetic constitution, brought on by life’s trials and tribulations, which represents a degree of deviation from our wholesome energetic state.
Ayurvedic methods of prevention and cure strive to bring our bio-physiology back to its primordial state because, according to Ayurveda, the imbalance of doshas results in disease.
Tissues – dhatu
Discrepancies in our original energetic constitutions, called the imbalances of doshas, have a negative effect on 7 supportive tissues of the body called dhatu (plasma, blood, muscle, lipids, bone, marrow, sperm/ovum). By impeding their development and their ability to transmutate nutrients, the imbalances disrupt the elimination of mala – wastes.
Digestive fire – agni
Ayurveda basics describe all metabolic functions in the body through the concept of digestive fire or agni. The strength of agni is vital to the quality and quantity of tissue produced. An agni that is too high will result in deficient tissues due to hyper-metabolism and an agni that is too low will result in an excess of low quality tissue due to lack of use.
When agni is in balance,the physiological functions are also in balance and we feel positive emotions. When it’s out of balance it causes accumulation of wastes in our body and our emotions turn destructive.
Three constitutional types – doshas
Each individual has the characteristics of all 3 doshas, but in different proportions and it is these proportions that determine our physical and psychological traits.
The basic doshas are: vata, pitta and kapha.
Prevailing elements of vata constitutional type are ether & air, so vata is the driving force responsible for everything in the body that moves, like breathing, emotions, absorption and secretion… Because of its mobility, vata represents the life energy that influences other 2 doshas, that’s why aggravated vata is responsible for most illnesses.
People with the vata dosha have very active minds and bodies and are often on the go. The vata is seated in the colon and one of the main symptoms of vata aggravation is excess gas in the lower bowel. Other symptoms of excess vata include dry skin and hair, wrinkles and cracking joints. Aggravated vata causes different problems with female reproductive organs, such as ovarian cysts and menstrual cycle issues.
On the mental plane, aggravated vata is visible as bad moods, nervousness and depression. Low self-esteem is present, as well as loss of memory.
Vata can be calmed down with large amounts of water, light physical exercise such as walking, warm foods, drinks and clothing and by actively interacting with other people.
Pitta combines seemingly contradictory elements fire & water, but as it is responsible for metabolic activity in the body, those two elements complement each other, keeping each other in line when needed. Its primary function is transformation.
Pitta is the force that controls the endocrine system, hormones, digestion, body temperature, immunity, hunger, thirst and skin quality. Mentally it defines our intelligence, that is how we perceive the world that surrounds us.
Its primary site is in the small intestine, then in the eyes, blood and lymph. The common signs of aggravated pitta are skin rashes, heavy sweating, cardio-vascular diseases, ulcers, fevers and inflammations.
Pitta types are characterized by strong will and a certain level of nervousness and impatience, but when imbalanced they can be downright unbearable. Aggravated pitta types are easily recognizable – the eyes are reddish, the face is pale and they are prone to conflicts.
People with the pitta dosha should exercise regularly, in nature if possible. It is essential for them to spend time with their families which brings them peace.
Kapha, as it combines water & earth, is the most stable of the 3 energies. It is immensely powerful and resistant. The kapha is primarily seated in the lungs and it is responsible for lubricating and moisturizing tissues, organs and joints. It defines our health and sustains our organism.
Kapha types have calm tempers – they are tolerant and pleasant. They tend to be overweight, they sleep deeply, they are prone to books and are overall characterized by an easy-going attitude. When kapha is aggravated, they are prone to lethargy and weight-gain, respiratory problems, headaches and digestive issues. Constipation is very common as they tend to ‘heal’ themselves with inappropriate food.
It is of essential value for kapha types to mind their food consumption, as they are in possession of great appetites, but sluggish digestion. Daily active exercises are a must for them and they should at any cost avoid the afternoon naps as that can result in diabetes. As a rule, their food intake should be moderate if not ascetic. People with the kapha dosha should include warm drinks, regular fasting and sauna in their routines.
Each person has its individual energetic imprint in form of different proportions of doshas. To stay healthy it is our duty to maintain our original energetic constitution – prakriti.
Online tests for determining constitutional types aren’t usually effective, because when we take the test we are already in the state of imbalanced doshas – vikriti. For the same reason, we state that this text is only informative. It is necessary to consult an Ayurvedic physician who will determine any real imbalances and your prakriti and vikriti by the pulse diagnosis method.
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