“Ayurveda is about the delicate harmony of our mind, body and spirit, and tuning into the natural ebb and flow of nature and of our own true nature — something we could all do with a bit more of in this world of fast-moving technology!” – Jasmine Hemsley
AYURVEDA IN A NUTSHELL, OR A GOOD PLACE TO START
When I first discovered Ayurveda, in 2001, it wasn’t nearly as popular in the West as it is today. Now, in a world where we are beginning to reconnect with ourselves on a deeper level — as a necessary reaction to the madness of modern life — this ancient practice has earned its place in many of our daily lives with its more intuitive and romantic approach. If you’ve heard of Ayurveda already, you may not know where and how it originated or what exactly it encompasses. Although even a basic introduction to this holistic lifestyle could fill volumes, I will try to pare it down here and leave you with an essential understanding of the practice.
THE ORIGINS OF AYURVEDA
Composed of the Sanskrit “Ayur,” meaning life, and “Veda,” meaning knowledge, Ayurveda is the science of life. This holistic system of wellbeing developed in India some 5,000 years ago as a way to help people sync with nature and thrive in an ever-changing environment. This knowledge was passed down as an oral tradition until around 1000 BC, when it was inscribed as part of “the Vedas,” an ancient body of texts that are still sacred today. Ayurveda is often considered to be one of the oldest medical systems, and is certainly the most developed.
In some parts of India, Ayurveda has been the only system of healthcare since it was first developed, although it was banned under British rule between 1835 and 1947. Thankfully, the tried-and-tested practice survived underground until India reclaimed its independence, when Ayurveda became recognised as a medical system in its own right.
“Ayurveda is an intuitive everyday language to help navigate our world and our bodies. It’s much more romantic than macros and micros, but in many ways no less effective.” – Jasmine Hemsley
The principle behind Ayurveda is to find and keep a perfect balance between mind, body and spirit. All three of these areas are inextricably linked, meaning that an imbalance in one will affect the others. As a holistic practice, Ayurveda strives to prevent illness, and to treat disease by observing its causes and reversing the imbalances that have caused it in the first place.
As an energetic system, Ayurveda aims to remedy the internal imbalances that prevent us from being the healthiest we can be. It is founded on the idea that each of us has a distinct Dosha, or body type (but not as body types are understood in the West), which in turn has individual needs that must be addressed accordingly through how we eat, move and live in our space.
What, how and when we eat is at the heart of Ayurveda, which teaches us to nourish and satisfy our bodies — a clear departure for those of us in the West who have been taught that the way to a healthy life is a low-cal, low-fat diet. Digestion and gut health are central to our wellbeing and, like all other parts of an Ayurvedic way of life, are specific to each individual. If you retain only one thing from this system of health, know that by eating the delicious foods that suit your body best, you can begin to feel great in all areas of your life.
Ayurveda is the ancient Indian art of living a more healthy, wholesome life, through our diets, our routines, rituals, and even through the thoughts and intentions we choose to concentrate on — there are so many ways, big and small, to make Ayurveda a part of your everyday life. It evolved alongside yoga, which is why you will find both disciplines practised together in holistic health centres today.
The beauty of Ayurveda is that you can incorporate as few or as many of its teachings into your life as suit you, and still notice its benefits. By becoming aware of the ways your body, mind and spirit interact, you can enjoy a renewal of energy and an all-around wholesome life. Ayurveda is by no means an all-or-nothing discipline — because it is based on honouring the needs of the individual, you are free to include it into your life in a way that uniquely suits you. I hope you will find it to be as much of a revolution as I do.
YOU AND THE UNIVERSE
When we say that we feel “part of something bigger than ourselves,” we are more right than we know. Both science and Ayurveda remind us that humans are made of the same atoms and energy as everything else around us. The energies within and around us feed into each other to create a balance, and we must learn to harness this energy in order to live in harmony with our environment. Both humans and the world they inhabit operate in cycles; as such, our job, according to Ayurveda, is to live in sync with the cycles of the natural world and try to move in opposite directions as little as possible.
THE THREE PSYCHIC ENERGIES
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. As such, Rajas designates birth, Sattva is life or maintenance, and Tamas is death or destruction.
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. Ayurvedic cooking concentrates on Sattvic foods, which 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.
In contrast, Rajasic foods — meat, eggs and onion, for example — can be overstimulating and lead to stress and anxiety. Tamasic foods — i.e. processed, refined or reheated fare — can make you feel heavy and lethargic. As such, Ayurvedic recipes contain as many Sattvic foods as possible, while incorporating small amounts of Rajasic and Tamasic elements to maintain the balance.
In individuals, the Sattvic quality might represent a time of day when they feel perfectly balanced, whereas the Rajasic corresponds to feeling wired, overstimulated and anxious, and the Tamasic designates a lack of energy or motivation.
THE FIVE ELEMENTS
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 THREE DOSHAS
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.
THE 20 QUALITIES
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 FIVE SENSES
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 taste of fish or seafood 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.