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An Intro To Ayurveda

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ayurveda medicines

Most of us are familiar with yoga poses and practices, but this physical and spiritual focus is just one side of the coin; for the medicinal aspects, there is an ancient Indian holistic healthcare system called Ayurveda.

What is Ayurveda about?

'Ayur' translates to life, and 'veda' is knowledge. The basis of yoga and Ayurveda philosophy is energy, or prana - similar to the Chinese concept of Qi. When energy flows well and evenly through our body we have good health, if it stagnates, is blocked or flows too quickly, it can lead to illness. Everyone has an individual energy pattern, therefore treatment plans can differ from one person to the next.

To balance our energy, Ayurveda looks to purification processes and natural healing therapies such as the food we eat, massage, lifestyle choices, meditation and yoga. It also takes into consideration previous illnesses and stress - such as trauma - and environmental factors that can affect our health such as seasons and relationships.

While this may seem a far stretch from most Western medical practices, these systems of natural healing and illness prevention have evolved and been studied over thousands of years, and are considered the norm in their countries of origin.

Let food be thy medicine

In Western society we have a saying 'you are what you eat'. Ayurveda is more along the lines of 'you are what you digest' (just because we eat something doesn't mean our body is able to use it or process it effectively which can lead to poor digestive and cellular function).

To this effect, herbs, spices, and food and the way we eat it is an integral part of Ayurveda. Just because a food is generally considered to be healthy doesn't necessarily mean that it is healthy for us as an individual if we are unable to digest it properly or we react poorly to it.

What are the doshas?

Ayurveda and yoga philosophy consider that everything in the universe (including people) is made up of varying degrees of five key elements - fire, water, earth, space and air. Knowing your constitution is important for helping to balance your energy.

Here is a brief summary about the three constitutions, or doshas. These are generalisations, if you would like to learn more, there is a lot of information available.

Pitta (fire and water)
Qualities: Oily skin - typically with red, yellow or olive tones. May have moles and freckles. A medium build. Intelligent, organised and focused. Strong metabolism and appetite. Typically on time, methodical and strive for achievement. May be annoyed if a task is too difficult and they can't do it. Needs to hear evidence rather than opinion. 
Out of balance: Digestive problems, inflammation (such as eczema, hayfever, PCOS, other inflammatory conditions), skin and eye problems, liver issues. May become irritable easily.
Balancing practices:
Think along the lines of cool and soothing to balance the fire. Fresh, cooling foods like green salads and raw vegetables. Adding bitter spices to food such as cumin and coriander. Coconut or lime-infused water. Spending time outdoors in nature.

Vata (space and air)
Qualities: May have dry, rough, cold, combination skin. A light build. Mentally alert, creative, active - potentially restless and constantly on-the-go but as a result may fatigue easily and feel ungrounded.
Out of balance: Issues with constipation, anxiety, nervousness. Physical and emotional depletion. More prone to air-related issues such as pneumonia and bronchitis, gas, dry hair and skin.
Balancing practices:
Having routine and structure to help feel more grounded and stable. Massage, steam baths and self-care. Avoid overstimulation. Warm, heavy, well cooked nourishing foods and warming spicesv (think soups, casseroles and stews, porridge). A warming environment.

Kapha (earth and water)
Qualities: Smooth, well hydrated, cool skin - usually paler skin tones. Typically a heavier, strong build. May have a slow metabolism and gain weight easily. Graceful and slower moving. Caring, patient, understanding and with a good memory. Tends to love social occasions.
Out of balance: Slow digestion, lethargic, weight management issues (often as a result of social eating), fluid retention/bloating, sinus issues, diabetes, headaches, prone to depression.
Balancing practices:
Warm, light and dry foods. Stimulating spices to kickstart the digestive system such as ginger, pepper and mustard. Eat light and dry foods. Avoid daytime naps and cold foods. Strong exercise and plenty of activity.

A balancing act

Essentially, look at the elements involved and they are a clue to what will aggravate conditions or balance things out. For example, Pitta is a fire constitution, adding more heat through food (chilli peppers, warming foods), an activity like hot yoga, or simply being in a hot environment may trigger imbalance. Focusing on cooling methods across all lifestyle areas to counteract the fire heat will have a balancing effect.

Everyone has a bit of all three doshas, but typically one is dominant that you will identify with - possibly have another as a close second. They can also shift and change with the seasons, our lifestyle choices, experiences etc. - like balancing on a tightrope, it's unlikely we will ever experience sustained perfect balance. An experienced Ayurvedic practitioner will be able to help you determine your constitution and form an individualised action plan.

Ayurveda can provide great guidelines for holisitic general health, however, if you have any specfic concerns, conditions or illnesses, it's recommended to discuss treatments with your doctor prior to undergoing Ayurvedic therapy.

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