First developed around 5,000 years ago in India, Ayurveda was created in Sanskrit and is still rooted in the ancient language today. That's why, at first glance, a Western eye might find Ayurvedic terms and concepts a bit mystifying. It's important to understand that Sanskrit is no longer a spoken tongue, but is the sacred language of Hinduism — as well as Jainism and Buddhism — and the Vedas, from which Ayurveda stems. So, it is to South Asia and the Hindu faith as Latin is to Europe and Christianity. Interestingly, Sanskrit is believed to have been influenced by the Greek language, which was spoken by many people in the subcontinent at the time of Sanskrit's advent.
On this page, you will find definitions for all the Ayurvedic terms and concepts I reference elsewhere on the site and in my book East by West. If anything is still unclear to you or you'd love to see a definition that I haven't included, please drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or DM me on Instagram @jasminehemsley!
You can't have an Ayurvedic glossary without first defining Ayurveda! At its most elementary level, it is the science of life, based on the Sanskrit terms "Ayur," life, and "Veda," knowledge. To learn more about Ayurveda in general, check out my intro to the practice.
The first meaning of Veda is "knowledge" or "science," but it also designates the Vedas — a body of sacred texts of Hinduism from which Ayurveda derives. So when I tell you to live "la vida veda," I hope you try to incorporate some of the teachings of this ancient, beautiful wealth of knowledge. Every time we incoporate a bit of this into our daily lives, we are working with nature and with our nature for an easier ride — and the great dance of life!
The three psychic energies (Rajas, Sattva and Tamas) correspond to the process of creation of all things — they make the world go round! Essentially, everything that exists is born, lives and dies — then starts over again. These energies apply to everything, including ourselves and the food we consume. This can (and should as often as possible!) inform the choices we make when it comes to our diet.
Rajas corresponds to birth, or kinetic energy. In our daily lives, the Rajasic element designates an excess of unchecked energy, or the “wired” feeling you might get if you drink too much coffee. Speaking of which, Rajasic foods should be largely avoided within an Ayurvedic diet, as they can be overstimulating and cause bouts of stress and anxiety. This includes meat, eggs, tomatoes, onions and, of course, coffee. That being said, these foods can still find their place in an Ayurvedic lifestyle, as long as it’s in the right quantity.
Sattva corresponds to life and maintenance, or potential energy. In individuals, the Sattvic quality might represent a time of day when they feel perfectly balanced. Sattvic foods are central to an Ayurvedic diet. These foods are perfectly ripe, fresh and natural, as well as easily digestible. In practice, this translates to a wealth of delicious soups and stews cooked in simple ways and designed to promote gut health. Sattvic foods are full of Prana, or life force (see definition below).
Tamas corresponds to death and destruction, or inertia. As such, the Tamasic quality designates a lack of energy or motivation. Tamasic foods — which are fried, processed, tinned, refined, reheated, etc. — can make you feel heavy and lethargic. Like Rajasic foods, they should be used sparingly in Ayurvedic cooking.
Ayurveda teaches us to work with our constitution, which is a unique blend of the five elements — Space, Air, Fire, Water and Earth — as is the universe itself. All of us need the right amount of the vital nutrients that make up these elements to ward off disease and maintain balance, while the exact proportions depend on our individual constitutions.
The Ayurvedic idea of body types corresponds to the three Doshas: Air (Vata), Fire (Pitta) and Earth (Kapha). Each of us have a unique blend of all three Doshas within us, with one of them often being predominant over the others. They help us find our unique mind-body balance (Prakriti), and each of them can be adjusted to maintain that balance.
To learn about the Doshas and find your Prakriti, click here.
Flighty Vata is made up of the elements space and air. Vata types are slim and straight-figured, their skin is fine and dry, and they get cold easily. They have an irregular and erratic appetite. Vata types are prone to feeling "wired" and stressed, and may feel tired come late afternoon. They are creative, enthusiastic, active, alert and restless, jumping from one idea to the next.
If this sounds like you, click here to learn more about Vata.
Blazing Pitta is made up of the elements fire and water. Pitta types have a moderate and athletic physique, with soft, lustrous skin and a tendency to feel too hot. They are determined, competitive, ambitious and highly intelligent, with good insight and keen discrimination. They like to be in control and at the centre of attention, they are highly focused innovators with energy levels to match and can be likened to a ‘Type A’ personality. Pitta types, although nocturnal, are deep sleepers and prone to vivid dreams and nightmares.
If this sounds like you, click here to learn more about Pitta.
Grounded Kapha is made up of the elements water and earth. With well-developed bodies, broad shoulders and soft, oily and lustrous skin, Kapha types enjoy a regular appetite with a relatively slow-burning digestion. They are naturally deep sleepers. Akin to mother earth, Kapha types are patient, grounded, caring, stable and supportive of family and loved ones.
If this sounds like you, click here to learn more about Kapha.
Prakriti = Prakriti is your basic mind-body type, i.e. the constitution you were born with, the main characteristics of which never change. This includes your hair colour, stature, etc., but also — and most importantly — refers to the balanced state you seek to maintain through Ayurvedic practices.
Vikriti = Vikriti is your current mind-body type, which changes all the time based on what’s affecting you in that moment. This could be anything from the food you eat to the environment you’re in.
Ayurveda describes everything within and around us through 10 pairs of opposites known as the 20 Qualities (e.g. hard vs. soft and wet vs. dry). We know that being exposed to too much of any one thing in our diet or environment negatively impacts us; in the same way, too much of a given quality (e.g. the cold) causes an imbalance, which we can then remedy by exposing ourselves to the opposite Quality (e.g. heat) to tip the scales back to a balance.
The pairs are as follows:
In Ayurveda, our sensory impressions influence our health and wellbeing in the same way the food we consume does — so what we taste, smell, touch, hear and see has a great deal to do with how we feel on the whole. For example, a hearty thick porridge is heaven for some, and for others it’s a texture no-no! In the same way, the smell of fish might divide a room. It all comes down to each of our senses, constitutions and past experiences, as well as our physical mental and spiritual needs at that particular point of time in our lives.
“Agni” is Sanskrit for “fire,” and designates the Ayurvedic notion of “digestive fire.” It is absolutely central to Ayurveda, whose key teaching is that a healthy, balanced digestion affects our overall wellbeing above everything else.
A balanced, or Sama, Agni is quite rare and exists in the most easygoing of us. These individuals go with the flow, and aren’t easily stressed. They live life in balance.
Vata Agni is unpredictable and erratic. It is often associated with symptoms of constipation.
Pitta Agni is somewhat overactive and makes it harder for our bodies to properly assimilate the nutrients in our food. It produces runny, burning stools.
On the other end of the spectrum, Kapha Agni is slow-burning, too cold and moist to be balanced. It results in large, heavy and soft waste.
Ama is the internal toxic residue produced by a metabolic imbalance, a gastro-intestinal problem or poor dietary choices. Ama impairs the proper function of Agni, and Agni and Ama are opposite in properties. Agni is hot, dry, light, clear and aromatic, whereas Ama is cold, wet, heavy, cloudy and malodorous. To treat Ama, it is necessary to increase Agni. Symptoms of Ama are similar to those that we understand in the West as "feeling toxic" — bogged down with unhelpful substances that quash our vitality, including loss of taste and appetite, indigestion, tongue-coating, etc. It is also understood to be the source of all disease in Ayurveda — health starts in your gut!
The six Tastes as understood in Ayurveda are sweet, astringent (a sensation of dryness as in tea or an underripe banana), sour, salty, pungent and bitter. Each Taste is associated with a specific Dosha and, as such, can balance or aggravate it. The taste of different foods is therefore an intuitive way to eat more of what we need and less of everything else once we are familiar with our prakriti and vikriti.
Our bodies are governed by three essential forces: prana (vital force), tejas (metabolism) and ojas (life, wellbeing and longevity).
Prana is responsible for our breath, circulation, digestion and excretion. It corresponds to the Vata element and can benefit from performing breath work, as well as eating freshly prepared foods and other lifestyle practices such as yoga.
Tejas is responsible for metabolism and must be kept in balance for optimal wellbeing. It is associated with the Pitta element and is the reason we glow (when tejas is balanced) or have dull-looking skin (when it is imbalanced). Tejas feeds off positive thinking.
Ojas is responsible for health, immunity and wellbeing. It is associated with the Water element and its balance depends on our eating patterns — what, how much, when and how we eat.
Definitions of the essential forces adapted in part from Sivana Spirit
A Vaidya is an Ayurvedic practitioner, who can help you understand your Dosha and make the lifestyle changes you need to find your unique balance. To find a certified Vaidya in your area, start here.
Dinacharya is the Ayurvedic daily routine. It corresponds to a series of self-care rituals to be performed at specific times of day according to the Doshas. Sign up to the newsletter to be the first to receive info on this daily routine — and on living la vida veda!
A Panchakarma is a month-long Ayurvedic detox during which you slow your pace down, eat easily digestible foods, and receive herbal treatments and Ayurvedic massages — all of which is designed to reset your body and improve your wellbeing. To get a taste of a month-long Panchakarma, try the day centres listed on my resources page.
An Ayurvedic self-massage performed with hot or warm oil, with benefits ranging from increasing circulation to improving sleep.
A morning milk is a gentle, hot Ayurvedic beverage to be consumed shortly after waking up to ease you into the day ahead. Depending on your current needs, it may be all your need for breakfast, or you can follow it with a heartier bowl. Being gentle and easy to digest, morning milks also make excellent snacks when needed — or even a good substitute for supper when you get in late and need to get to bed ASAP!
Parana means "morning, breaking the fast and enjoyment" in Sanskrit, so it made sense for me to make it a breakfast term in my book, East by West. A parana is a more substantial breakfast and can consist of anything from stewed apples to banana bread (yes, you read that right!).
SURYA AGNI LUNCH
Surya means "fire" and Agni means "sun fire" in Sanskrit. Therefore, a Surya Agni is my term for the hearty lunch which is the main meal of the day within the Ayurvedic lifestyle — eaten around noon, when your digestion is the strongest. It is said that your Agni follows that of the sun when it is at its peak. The higher the sun is in the sky, the stronger the Agni, which is why in Ayurveda we eat our biggest meal of the day at lunchtime, to fit this physiological state.
Pakti means "digestion, dignity, cooked" in Sanskrit. In my book, I’ve adopted it as the name of delicious bowls of goodness, from risottos and buddha bowls to sautéed salads — basically anything that isn’t a soup or stew. For me, Pakti bowls are the new salads: hot and great for your digestion, while still being colourful and full of texture.