Find balance by understanding the five elements, doshas, and how they correlate to form a healthy body.
Eat your way to increased energy, balanced emotions, and an overall state of calm and relaxation. In Ayurveda, India’s ancient healing system, food plays a central role in physical and mental well-being. Everyday Ayurveda Cooking for a Calm, Clear Mind: 100 Simple Sattvic Recipes (Shambhala, 2018) by Kate O’Donnell, a national certified Ayurvedic practitioner, lays out in tasty detail how a healthy diet can promote lucidity and how unwise food choices can compromise mental awareness. Profound experiences of Ashtanga yoga and Ayurveda, as well as an avid interest in the healing powers of food, have inspired O’Donnell’s study and practice of the ancient arts for the past twenty years.
While Ayurveda, India’s indigenous health system, is a vast and ancient subject, much of its common-sense wisdom is applicable today. My favorite thing about Ayurveda is the central role that food plays in well-being. Whether you like to cook or not, food is medicine for the mind, and a little intention in your diet can truly change your perspective on life. Harmonizing the energies of the mind can relieve stress, increase joy, and foster spiritual connection. What’s not to love?
To ensure success, we’ll be keeping our discussion simple in both theory and practice. This brief introduction will set the stage for our exploration of the mind, how food affects the mind, and how you can apply Ayurveda in your own life to create mental balance.
Ayurveda (pronounced “EYE-yer-VAY-da”) may be the oldest continually practiced health system in the world, dating from two thousand to five thousand years ago. The earliest information on Ayurveda is contained in the Rig Veda, one of four bodies of ancient scripture that were orally transmitted in lyrical phrases called sutras (threads). The Vedas are believed to originate from the rishis, sages in deep states of meditation.
Ayurveda can be loosely translated as the “science of life.” The classical text the Charaka Samhita describes Ayur, or “life,” as being made up of four parts: the physical body, the mind, the soul, and the senses (sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste). Contrary to Western models, which have traditionally focused mostly on the physical body, Ayurveda has always given attention to the health of all four of the fundamental aspects of life. The system looks at the whole person — using diet, biorhythms, herbal medicine, psychology, wholesome lifestyle, surgery, and therapeutic bodywork to address the root cause of disease. Ayurvedic hospitals and clinics abound in India, where Western medicine is often used in conjunction with the traditional methods. Whereas Western medicine excels at resolving acute situations, Ayurveda stands out as a preventive medicine — seeking to halt the progression from imbalance to disease by addressing the underlying causes early on.
I will occasionally quote from classic texts to remind us that this information comes from thousands of years ago and was collected over millennia by both scientists and sages. Most commonly, I use the Charaka Samhita, a seven-volume set that describes pathology and treatment for thousands of ailments, as well as a philosophical background for Ayurveda. Information on the texts quoted — the Charaka Samhita, the Ashtanga Hrdayam (a compilation of teachings from the Charaka and Sushruta Samhitas), and the Bhagavad Gita.
Ayurveda recognizes that every human being is a microcosm (a small part or reflection) of the macrocosm (the big picture or universe). Our minds and bodies are made up of the same elements that make up everything around us, and we are moved by the same energies or forces that move the oceans, the winds, the stars, and the planets.
The philosophy behind Ayurveda is simple: just as the cycles of the sun, moon, tides, and seasons ebb and flow, so do we. The introduction of artificial light, global food transportation, and a busy schedule make it easy to get out of sync with nature’s rhythms.
Ayurveda and Yoga actually stem from the same philosophical roots and have a shared goal of creating a union between microcosm and macrocosm. Yoga is a pathway for navigating the connection of the mind and body with the larger world around us. The sattvic diet, sometimes called the yogic diet, is a part of this path. In these modern times, when many suffer in body and mind due to a lack of connection, the shared goal of Yoga and Ayurveda to unite mind, body, and spirit couldn’t come at a better time. Ayurveda often uses the movements and breathing techniques from yoga to access the energy body, promoting the smooth circulation of energy throughout the body and mind, which is especially helpful for managing stress and restoring the body’s natural rhythms.
If you get out of sync with natural rhythms — for example, by eating tropical fruits in winter or processed foods, staying up all night, or working all day without a break — your body and mind will become out of whack. The link between the mind and overall health is clear — imbalance in one will lead to imbalance in the other. Like a fish swimming upstream, going against natural currents will slow you down. Inevitably, you will start to feel tired, anxious, or depressed, and over time, you will end up “out of order.”
Healthy digestion is the most fundamental aspect of overall wellness in Ayurveda. The complete digestion, absorption, and assimilation of food nutrients create the building blocks of the body, called ahara rasa, or “the essence of food.” When you chew and swallow your food, it mixes with water, enzymes, and acids, and the end product is the essence or juice, which is used to make tissues. In this way, healthy digestion makes a healthy body. Digesting food properly connects us to the essence of the food we eat every day and to our planet that provides this food. This explains why diet is a profound aspect of Ayurvedic healing.
Complete wellness, however, takes into account not only physical digestion in the stomach, but mental digestion as well. The digestion of ideas, experiences, and emotions is a key function required for our overall well-being. The right amount of input and enough space to process it result in a calm, steady mind and nervous system. This sustainable, low-stress reality underlies the health of the physical body as well.
The body and mind are interdependent systems affected by parallel influences: the physical world of the five elements, and the energetic world of stillness, movement, and change. It can be easier to recognize tangible elements in the body first, so let’s look at body basics before we dive into the topic of mind.
In Ayurveda, human anatomy starts with the five elements — ether (space), air, fire, water, and earth. The elements create three compounds that govern specific functions and energies in the body, namely, movement, transformation, and cohesion (holding things together). According to Charaka, when these compounds, known as doshas, are in balance and working harmoniously, you will enjoy smooth-moving processes (digestion, circulation, and so on), clear senses, the proper elimination of wastes, and happiness.
Each of these five elements manifests as qualities in the body that can be recognized simply by paying close attention to physical sensations. For example, air and space are cold and light, fire is hot and sharp, and earth and water are heavy and moist. Imbalance is brought on by too much or too little of any of these qualities. Too much dryness, say from living in the desert and eating dry crackers, will result in a symptom like dry skin. These elements can have corresponding effects on the mind, such as the heavy, moist qualities of earth and water resulting in brain fog, or the light, mobile qualities of air and space inhibiting focus. Ayurveda manages these imbalances by introducing opposite qualities and reducing similar qualities. For example, in the case of brain fog, introducing light, dry foods like barley and reducing heavy, moist foods like wheat will begin to alleviate the symptom.
Everyone requires all five elements, but they occur in different amounts in different bodies. Understanding your individual elemental makeup can take some time. By paying attention to your body over the course of changing seasons, you’ll begin to recognize the major players. If dry skin, scalp, stool, and so on are a part of your world, it’s likely there’s a good deal of space and air elements in your body. Once this becomes clear, start feeling for the subtle qualities of these elements in your mind and moods. Space and air, for example, can manifest as an anxious, sometimes spacey, ungrounded, or sensitive mind or mood due to the porous nature of these elements.
Here’s where you will find the five elements (Pancha Mahabhutas) in your body.
Space: Intestines, ears, center of the bones
Air: Anywhere there is movement, including belching, gas, and cracking joints
Fire: Stomach acid, bile, enzymes in the small intestine, red blood cells, metabolic processes
Water: Mucous membranes, lymphatic fluid, digestive juices, saliva, synovial fluid
Earth: Fat, muscle, bone
While it is important to understand how Ayurveda views the physical body, here we will be looking mostly at the mind. Ayurveda considers the functions of body and mind to be so interconnected that balance and imbalance are rooted in both physical and mental spheres. It is important to our overall well-being to understand both.
You have probably heard of the doshas. According to the Ashtanga Hrdayam, dosha literally means “that which is faulty.” But doshas aren’t a problem until imbalance has been hanging around awhile. These energies, each a synergy of two elements, can hurt or help you, depending on whether or not they are in a relative state of balance. That’s why it is more important to understand how to maintain balance than it is to dwell on doshas as the “bad guys.”
There are three doshas, known as vata, pitta, and kapha. These are the compounds that arise naturally when the five elements come together in the human body. Each performs a specific function in the body and manifests as a recognizable group of qualities. While the primary energies that affect the mind are different from the three doshas, when one or more of the doshas accumulate in your body, you are likely to notice the same qualities in your mind.
Vata (“VA-tah”) is the energy of movement.
Pitta (“PITT-ah”) is the energy of transformation.
Kapha (“CUP-hah”) is the energy of structure and lubrication together; cohesion (think glue).
Where there is space, air begins to move, and together these elements manifest as cold, light, dry, rough, mobile, erratic, and clear qualities. Think of vata as the currents of the body. The body knows the food goes in the mouth, then down and out; vata ushers it along. Vata also moves the attention and is responsible for the movements of the five senses and the activity of the brain and nervous system. The expansive nature of its qualities makes for a creative, mobile energy. There is nothing problematic about the qualities of space and air, or their function, unless your body has accumulated too much. Too many vata qualities can result in signs of imbalance such as gas and constipation, increasingly dry skin, and racing thoughts and anxiety.
• Consistent elimination
• Free breathing
• Good circulation
• Keen senses
• Gas and constipation
• Cold hands and feet
• Anxiety/feeling overwhelmed
Where there is fire, there has to be water to keep it from burning everything up. The resulting compound is firewater, a liquid, hot, sharp, penetrating, light, mobile, oily, smelly grouping of qualities. (Think acid or bile.) When food gets chewed, pitta moves in to break it down, liquidize it, metabolize it, and transform it into tissues. It does the same with raw information, breaking it down, understanding it, and organizing it. The sharp, motivated nature of pitta makes for quick, focused energy. This is great, unless things get too hot or too sharp, resulting in signs of imbalance such as acidy burps or reflux; diarrhea; skin rashes; inflammation; or mental states that include irritability, obsession, and jealousy.
Pitta in Balance
• Good appetite and metabolism
• Steady hormones
• Sharp eyesight
• Good complexion (rosy skin)
• Acid indigestion, reflux
• Painful, heavy menstrual cycle
• Red, dry eyes; the need for glasses
• Acne, rosacea
• Tendency to overwork
• Overly competitive
Without water, you wouldn’t be able to get sand to stick together to build a sandcastle. The earth element requires water in this same way to get things to stick together. Kapha is like glue: cool, liquid, slimy, heavy, slow, dull, dense, and stable. This group of qualities provides density in the bones and fat, cohesion in the tissues and joints, and plenty of mucus so we don’t dry out. Its gentle, soft, sticky nature makes for a mellow, sweet energy and a strong memory. Great!
Unless things get too heavy and too sticky, which can result in signs of imbalance such as loss of appetite; slow digestion; sinus troubles and allergies; weight gain; or mental states like heaviness, brain fog, and sadness.
Kapha in Balance
• Strong bodily tissues
• Well-lubricated joints and mucous membranes
• Hearty immune system
• Excessive weight gain
• Water retention
• Sinus or lung congestion
• Sadness, heavy heart
In an ideal world, we would all have a decent dose of all of these qualities and a balanced, well-functioning system. One person may be more fiery and prone to arguments, another may be more spacey and prone to forget things — that’s the fun of variation in nature. The body’s constitution, or makeup of the elements, is genetic. Understanding your constitution can help you understand which of these compounds is likely to get out of balance so you can make choices in your diet and lifestyle to keep potential doshas in check.
It’s easy to focus on dosha, that which gets out of balance. But categorizing yourself as a dosha (“I’m so vata”) or identifying yourself with states of imbalance is not the aim of Ayurvedic wisdom. It may be more helpful to understand and manage the general causes of imbalance first. For instance, if you notice you often feel overheated and irritable, and your imbalances tend toward characteristics on the pitta list, practice eating calming foods and making time to relax.
While the physical activity of the doshas certainly affects our mental state, Ayurveda is specific about subtle, energetic tools for understanding balance in the mind. There are three energies: sattva (the clear essence of the mind) and the two energies that act on it, rajas (restlessness) and tamas (stagnation). The Charaka Samhita considers rajas and tamas to be “doshas of the mind.” The three mental energies can be balanced in the same way vata, pitta, and kapha are — by noticing imbalances early on.
Ayurveda is a lifelong exploration and a path to self-realization. Please keep in mind that this is a very basic introduction to these ideas, which have layers of meaning. I wanted to give you just enough information so that we have a simple, common language to illuminate the body/mind connection. It took me ten years of studying Yoga philosophy before I began to feel glimmerings of understanding. I hope to inspire you, with this straightforward cookbook, to enjoy the journey.
From Everyday Ayurveda Cooking for a Calm, Clear Mind: 100 Simple Sattvic Recipes by Kate O'Donnell © 2018 by Kate O'Donnell. Photographs © 2018 by Cara Brostrom. Reprinted by arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO.
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