An Introduction to Ayurveda


This introduction aims to give you a very straightforward account of the central concepts of the tri-doshas, prakruti, vikruti, agni and ama.



The Tri-doshas: What they are and how we can work with them?


When you begin to explore Ayurveda the first thing you will no doubt encounter is the concept of the three doshas although at first this can be a challenging concept to understand! In part this is because we are used to seeing ourselves as a physical being which can be divided into its various parts so we can learn about each distinct part. As for the mind this is more difficult for us because is is more subtle and cannot be seen, so for the large part we are unsure as to what the mind is except we know we have thoughts and emotions and that we can be conscious or unconscious, i.e. aware or unaware.



Ayurveda has a very different way of looking at the body and mind and it also takes great account of how the body and mind are inter-related with the outside world. It recognises how the body and mind are comprised of the five elements, i.e. space, air, fire, water and earth, where all parts of the mind and body consist of varying degrees of these so for instance thoughts being very subtle and in motion possess more air whereas the synovial fluids providing protection to our joints possess more water and earth, and the liver is functionally allied to fire as its main function is to metabolize substances. It also sees how all substances in the outer world are also comprised of the five elements meaning that we can increase or decrease the elemental balance of the body through our interaction with our environment. 


So keeping in mind this view of the mind and body what are the doshas?



Ayurveda looks at the functioning of the body and mind through the lens of the three doshas, considering the doshas, vata, pitta and kapha to be the three intelligent forces responsible for the functioning of our physiology and psychology. They are easiest to understand when we consider that the three doshas are composed of different elements and that each element due to its specifc nature possesses different qualities. 



Vata dosha: is composed of space and air

Pitta dosha: is composed of fire and water

Kapha dosha: is composed of earth and water



To understand the doshas we must at look at the elements they relate to and think about what qualities each element will possess, for example space gives the qualities of lightness, coldness and subtlety whereas fire gives qualities of heat, sharpness and penetration. So the key to truly recognising and working with the doshas are the gunas, their attributes or qualities. The gunas for each dosha are:


Vata (air and space): Cold, dry, rough, irregular, mobile, light, subtle, clear

Pitta (fire and water): Hot, unctuous, liquid, sharp, penetrating, spreading, subtle, light, smooth

Kapha(earth and water) : Cool, heavy, slow, soft, cloudy, smooth, gross, dull, dense



So if someone is for instance experiencing increasing dryness and a feeling of being cold then we can determine vata dosha has increased or if there is a feeling of heaviness then it is likely kapha dosha has increased.






Each dosha is also responsible for various functions within the body and mind, as each dosha has a natural affinity to different functions.


So if we consider the properties of each of the elements we can see vata dosha, being comprised of space and air possesses the quality of movement, lightness, subtlety etc. and it is responsible for the movement of air within space; as such vata governs all communication systems and cycles within the body, systems where substances are being propelled around the body as well as giving the energy for the movement of thought within the mind. In this way it rules the functioning of the respiratory system, the cardiovascular system, the nervous system and is in charge of the functioning of the eliminatory systems. 


Conversely pitta dosha possesses the quality of transformation as it is composed of the elements of fire with water, where in modern terms it is responsible for all metabolic activities where one substance is transformed into another; in this way it governs digestive secretions within the gastrointestinal tract, enzyme and hormonal functions. It regulates digestion and the assimilation of nutrients, controls body temperature and the complexion; mentally it gives us mental focus and perception, with the ability for metabolizing thoughts and emotions; in particular pitta dosha gives us fire in our belly giving us courage, passion and desire.


Finally kapha dosha possesses the primary qualities of cohesion and lubrication as it is composed of the elements of earth and water. As such kapha dosha governs growth and sustenance of the body, controls the integrity and interlinking of different cells, protects the body from wear and tear, gives strength and immunity as well as the capacity for reproduction. Mentally it gives stability to the mind, aids memory and gives the feelings of contentment and calm. 


Of the three doshas vata dosha is the most important as it rules the communication systems and cycles of the body and the major form of vata is prana, the vital force. Prana is the innate organising intelligence which flows through the body enabling our body and mind to harmoniously function so that for example each cell possesses its own intelligence allowing it to carry out it's own specialized job and each cycle harmoniously functions with respect to other cycles; prana is a natural intelligence which is a type of consciousness, carried into the body by the breath and through our water and food. This means vata dosha which includes prana is the most significant of the three doshas as when prana, the life force, is reduced, disturbed or blocked then illness will follow, also as the movement of the mind is governed by vata when our mind is disturbed then this can easily disturb the functioning of the body. In modern terms we can most easily liken prana to a kind of electrical energy which moves through us and of course upon death as prana leaves us our body will begin to disintegrate. 


So we have seen how the elements of each dosha provide a natural link to various functions with the body and because of this Ayurveda recognizes this means each dosha has natural affinities with particular systems and organs. For this reason often when we are in a state of imbalance and a dosha has increased this imbalance will be seen to manifest within its allied areas. So Ayurveda outlines primary sites and secondary sites for each dosha.



The primary sites are where each dosha first shows imbalance when it has increased in quantity But what does this mean? Well each of the doshas manifests as a physiological substance meaning when vata dosha increases there is an increase of wind in the body, when pitta dosha increases there is an increase in bile and when kapha dosha increases there is a corresponding increase in mucous. (If you are are studying yoga texts you may recognize these terms from texts such as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika when there is a discussion on the shatkarmas and on the benefits of different asana and pranayama etc. and how these various practices can reduce each dosha, i.e. the increase in wind, bile or mucous!) 



The primary sites for each dosha are:




Vata at the colon, pitta at the small intestines, kapha at the stomach




Secondary sites are locations where each dosha has an affinity meaning the secondary sites for vata (space and air) are the hair, bones, skin, ears, kidneys, bladder, lower abdomen, thighs, pelvic girdle; for pitta (fire and water) they are the liver, spleen, gall bladder, blood, sweat glands, eyes; for kapha (earth and water) they are the lungs, sinuses, nose, mouth, tongue, throat, lymph nodes, synovial fluids.




Although sometimes this can become quite complex as for example the lungs are rules by kapha dosha in their ability to produce mucous but by vata as an organ of respiration.


So to summarise so far, imbalance occurs when a dosha(s) increases and which dosha has increased can be primarily determined by the gunas present and the sites at which the imbalance has occurred. 



In the initial stages there are many typical signs that a dosha has increased and if you take a look through the following lists hopefully you will be able to see how the gunas of the diferent doshas underlie the various signs: 



Signs of increased vata include:

  • Grayness on tongue or in complexion
  • Emaciation
  • Dryness
  • Feeling cold
  • Desire for warm things
  • Tremours
  • Increased gas
  • Abdominal distention
  • Constipation
  • Ringing in ears
  • Loss of strength
  • Insomnia die to a busy mind
  • Giddiness
  • Feelings of anxiety or timidity
  • Irrelevant speech


Signs of increased pitta include:

  • Yellow, green, bright red discolouration in stool, skin, eyes, tongue, urine
  • Burning sensations
  • Diarrhea, loose stools
  • Excessive hunger or thirst
  • Desire for cold things
  • Fever, inflammation, infection
  • Rashes
  • Restless sleep
  • Feelings of irritation or anger


Signs of increased kapha include:

  • White colouration in tongue, stools or urine
  • Suppressed appetite
  • Increased fluids such as saliva
  • Inability to clear throat
  • Feeling of heaviness
  • Excessive eating eating leading to weight gain
  • Loosening joints
  • Expectorating type cough
  • Tiredness and lethargy
  • General aches
  • Excessive sleep
  • Feelings of sentimentalism

So what can we do when we experience an increase in a dosha? Well there is a very important Ayurvedic rule where we treat by introducing opposites.








To do this we can introduce opposite gunas so:



To reduce vata dosha introduce: hot, heavy, unctuous, regular, liquid, gross

To reduce pitta dosha introduce: cool, dry, clear

To reduce kapha dosha introduce: warm, mobile, light, sharp, rough, clear




In a way there is normally a natural, commonsense response to any small imbalance we experience so for instance when we are hot we take a cold drink or when we are cold we wrap up more warmly although this natural intelligence is often lost as a situation becomes chronic and we end up wanting more of that which increases!



When working to redress imbalance significantly we can introduce the opposite gunas through many mediums. For instance we might make changes to our diet, so for example to reduce vata we might introduce more warming cooked foods avoiding dry, cold rough foods, ensuring we eat at a regular time, or to reduce pitta we might avoid heating, acid forming foods. Oftentimes there are simple spices or herbs which can be used to balance digestion and act as antidote to the effects of the foods we eat, such as asafoetida (hing) which can be used as a carminative, dispelling wind or turmeric which can be used a blood cleanser when bile is increasing.



But more than this Ayurveda recognises that the outer world and all of the activities we can do will also directly affect the doshas as they too possess the qualities or gunas of the elements. So for example we might  change our activities to reduce kapha by starting to walk in the early morning or perform some warming sun salutations creating warmth, mobility etc., or to reduce pitta we might need to introduce some fun activities as down time to compensate for excess intensity, competitiveness or workaholic tendencies.



Certainly when any doshic imbalance is in its initial stages we can always return to balance simply through dietary and lifestyle changes although later it may become more complicated meaning we have to be a detective to work out the doshas involved, and treatment will become more complex.




We should however never forget that the cornerstone of good health is always diet and lifestyle and this will always be important whatever our state of imbalance, whatever the disease!




"A man may esteem himself happy when that which is his food is also his medicine"

Henry David Thoreau




Agni and Ama: What is optimal digestion and how can we dispel metabolic waste?



It is important for us to realize that even if we eat the best organic, whole food diet available but our digestion is poor then we will still not function at our best, equally if we choose to eat a raw food diet thinking it will be cleansing for us if our digestion is not strong enough we will become weak and unwell.




Our agni is our ability to digest, absorb and assimilate the food we eat. There are 13 primary sites of agni, which are in modern terms the primary locations of different enzymes. These are the jathara agni i.e. the small intestine, the five bhuta or elemental agnis in the liver and the seven dhatu agnis within the seven types of tissue of the body. Agni is equated to fire and in a way this is very appropriate as these are primary sites of transformation where the dosha of pitta, with it's element of fire reigns.




Sama agni or balanced agni is when we have a smooth digestion with no signs of indigestion such as gurgling, nausea, bloating or acidity; there will be a well formed stool, sometimes described as a 'ripe banana' which floats just beneath the surface of the water line; there will be a feeling of lightness and good energy having eaten. This is the ideal situation for all of us. 




However because we all have a different prakruti or innate constitution, i.e. a different mix of the doshas, this means that there are several different types of agni according to which doshas are predominant for each us. This means we have three distinct categories:




Vata type agni is: small digestive capacity, variable appetite, often likes four small meals per day, hunger builds slowly and is satiated quickly; those with this type of agni may easily miss meals, simply forgetting to eat; they are more prone to digestive difficulties; variable metabolism




Pitta type agni is: medium to high digestive capacity, a constantly good appetite, typically hungry three times per day, hunger builds slowly and is satiated slowly; those with this type of agni must eat when it is time to eat and may get irritable and feel weak when a meal is late; they can usually eat anything with few digestive difficulties although this can change on reaching age 40 as metabolism changes: strong metabolism




Kapha type agni is: medium digestive capacity, regular moderate appetite, typically hungry two to three times per day, hunger is very slow to build and satiated slowly; they may easily eat more than real hunger dictates; low metabolism




This means for each constitution to stay in balance we must adjust our diet accordingly so for example someone who naturally has a vata type agni must try to eat more smaller meals so s/he does not exceed their natural digestive capacities, they will also benefit from eating at regular times; if you think back to the vata gunas then they will also benefit from choosing foods which warm, unctuous etc. to counterbalance their natural gunas of cold, dry, rough etc. More about this later!






The importance of maintaining a good balanced agni is extremely important because when digestion is unbalanced ama is produced. Ama is material that has not been digested, assimilated or eliminated and can be seen in modern terms as metabolic wastes or toxic waste. Ama is a smelly, sticky, whitish material that will sit within the gastrointestinal tract inhibiting the proper assimilation of nutrients and providing a breeding ground for different pathogens. In a way then we can say that agni and ama are mutually exclusive meaning with good agni ama cannot be created. 




At first ama within the gastrointestinal tract will inhibit proper digestion, absorption and assimilation of nutrients, in particular it can sit between the finger-like villi of the small intestines meaning the absorption of macro-nutrients through the wall of the small intestines is inhibited. This is the source of many diseases and is certainly at the root of the very common condition of IBS. Then as ama becomes chronic and increases in quantity it will be carried out of the gastrointestinal tract via the lymphatic and circulatory systems to become lodged in other tissues of the body meaning the production and circulation of ama within the tissues of the body is an extremely important causative factor for many disease conditions, and is certainly the major causative factor in diseases such as CFS, ME, Sinusitis, Rheumatoid Arthritis and many auto-immune diseases. The bottom line is ama is bad news!




So how you tell if you have ama? Check to see if some of the following signs are present:


  • Tongue is coated
  • Indigestion such as nausea, bloating, etc.
  • Stools are foul smelling and sink
  • Generalized aches and pains
  • Congestion such as sinusitis
  • Feeling of heaviness
  • Lack of mental clarity
  • Difficult to wake in the morning
  • Low energy
  • Lack of enthusiasm


It is always very important to remove ama and regulate agni to prevent any more ama being produced and certainly this will be one of the first things a practitioner will do. There are many ways in which to do this some of them being gentle but taking a little longer, and others are more intensive and work with ama which is situated deeper within the tissues meaning as always one size does not fit all!




Prakruti v Vikruti: How can we differentiate between balance and imbalance?



Each of us has a natural doshic balance or innate constitution, known as our prakruti, formed from a particular mix of of our parents' constitutions, modified according to the circumstances surrounding our gestation and any karma we have brought into this life.



So whilst all three doshas function within us each of will have a certain predominance of one or two, or more rarely three doshas. For instance if we have strong, thick bones and broad features with large eyes then we are likely to have a large percentage of earth i.e. kapha in our innate constitution; if we have long, fine bones and a long oval face we are likely to have more air and space i.e. vata within our prakruti; conversely if we have a mixture of two doshas dominant there will be a mixture of structural and physiological pertaining to two different doshas.




The same is true for our psychology where for instance if we have determination, passion and great focus, being a natural list maker, but are easily moved to irritation, anger and being overly critical we are likely to have more fire i.e. pitta in our constitution. However if we are more easy going, enjoy routine and are prone to being lethargic and overly sentimental we are likely to have more earth i.e. kapha in our constitution. To see some of the main morphological, physiological and psychological factors determining the dominance of each dosha please check out the prakruti questionnaire.




Our vikruti is our current state of imbalance where one, two or even three doshas have increased meaning they are disrupting the natural functioning of our body and mind. Often it is a dominant dosha which increases and leads us to imbalance but generally speaking vata dosha is usually involved and is often the causative factor. Indeed the ancient texts tell us vata dosha is responsible for the vast majority of diseases, although this is not always the case. This is largely because vata dosha is responsible for the functioning of the mind, the senses, the nervous system and all communications and coordination, so in modern terms, stress in all it manifestations is a powerful disease factor and certainly if there is a break down between the different functions of the body and mind, i.e. there is disharmony of the whole, disease is likely to follow.



More specifically Ayurveda considers most disease to come from Prajnaparadha which means to make decisions against our nature so that even when we know what it is right for us, we choose otherwise!


If you can remember the lists of the initial signs of doshic increase we saw above then these will help you see how you can determine which dosha has increased and if your situation is more complex then have look at the gunas for each dosha and see which ones best apply to you. It is however always important to recognise prakruti as when addressing vikruti, i.e. the increased dosha(s) we need to ensure that the inherent prakruti or dominant doshas are not imbalanced by the choice of treatment, for example is someone has a vata imbalance and requires treatments which reduce cold etc. but have a pitta constitution then long term use of this treatment may cause pitta type imbalances to occur so any practitioner will tread carefully choosing the correct treatments and correct timing.



In essence a practitioner will use all of his or her experience to help determine your prakruti and your vikruti, so that it is possible to remove vikruti and return you to your prakruti!