When people are just beginning to try to figure out Ayurveda, they’ll often say to me that it can be confusing. My response is that it’s not that Ayurveda is confusing. Modern society has pushed us so far away from what is natural that Ayurveda feels like learning a new language.
But Ayurveda can feel like learning a new language – Sanskrit, to be exact. First-time students encounter strange words, such as dosha, mahagunas or srota. The extensive use of Sanskrit is partially because Western anatomy doesn’t have names for these concepts. But it’s also because Sanskrit words are formed of vibrations that are healing in and of themselves.
At Hale Pule Ayurveda & Yoga, which I founded in 1999, we just launched a 400-hour Ayurvedic health counselor certification program. We instruct our students that they should know Sanskrit terms, but not use it at the expense of their clients’ understanding. It is much better to explain the concepts in terms that the client can use. That way they will be better able to apply Ayurveda to their daily life.
In the same way that a good practitioner should break down Sanskrit terms, they should also break down this vast science into a few simple guidelines. That way, new folks will know why Ayurvedic practitioners make the recommendations for diet and lifestyle that we do.
Here are three basic guidelines to help you figure out Ayurveda.
1. Ayurveda is about understanding cause and effect.
All foods and actions have properties, and those properties have an impact on our bodies under the principle of “like causes like and the opposite brings balance.” Drinking ice water will cause your digestive system to slow, as cold is a constricting energy.
Similarly, cooking with warming spices, such as cumin and asafoetida, will increase heat in your body. Because Western medicine doesn’t teach us to pay attention to the effects of our actions on our bodies, this concept can be strange at first. I have found that, with practice and a little guidance from a good practitioner, people can quickly pick it up and apply it quite easily to their own lives.
2. Your body is the best teacher of Ayurveda.
People often come to Ayurveda looking for “rules.” But your constitution is just as unique as your fingerprints. It was determined at the moment of your conception and belongs to no one else.
Even if an online dosha quiz tells you, “You’re a kapha,” your actual constitution is far more complex than that. We have all three doshas within us, just in different amounts. A dosha can become more prominent in different environments, at different ages and with different lifestyles. In order to understand the true nature of our bodies and minds, we need to cultivate time to study ourselves on a daily basis. This is where a food and wellness journal can be a great ally. Here’s a free version to get you started. When we begin to understand and trust our experiences, we gain power over our own health.
3. Ayurveda is a multidimensional, holistic science.
Western medicine treats symptoms, organs and body systems. Ayurveda treats the whole person. When someone comes to me with chronic gastric disturbance, we will spend as much time talking about food combining as we will about setting up a practice for relieving stress or increasing spiritual connection in meditation. If one side of the triangle of body, mind and spirit is misaligned, the deep joy of true health will remain out of reach. This holistic process can be frustrating for people who are used to a doctor prescribing a pill to treat an issue. While it may take longer than a few days to see changes using a holistic approach, the long-term effect is much more rewarding (not to mention, side-effect free).
Keep in mind that no matter how much you learn about Ayurveda (or your body), there is always more to uncover. More than 20 years after I first began teaching and practicing Ayurveda, I am still learning new things each day. With more than 5,000 years of history, it is impossible to master this science in one lifetime. The point is not to be an expert in understanding the role of every subdosha and srota. The point is only to become an expert in how the law of cause and effect plays out on your body and mind.
So if you’re looking for a black-and-white experience with Ayurveda, remember that life operates in the whole spectrum of color. When you start with this new perspective, you’ll quickly realize how simple this beautiful science is.