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What Is Ayurveda?

The name “Ayurveda” is derived from two words in Sanskrit, “ayuh” meaning “life” or “longevity” and “veda” meaning “science” or “sacred knowledge.” Ayurveda’s definition therefore roughly translates as “the science of longevity” or “the sacred knowledge of life.”

At its root, Ayurveda is a holistic tradition and way of living that can help each of us to claim and celebrate our capacity for wellness. Ayurveda can help us:

  • Sync up with our truest inner nature
  • Honor and develop our strengths
  • Hone in on our challenge areas
  • Redirect detrimental tendencies
  • Maintain balance in the face of adversity

In other words, Ayurveda is not simply about taking an herbal formula and waiting for the results. Instead, Ayurveda encourages you to be an active participant in your own journey toward healing.

This involves learning about your relationship with the elements and the unique combinations they create called doshas, which we will explore below. First, let’s take a look at Ayurveda’s background.

Ayurveda: A Brief History

The practice of Ayurveda as a medicine is believed to date back to over five thousand years, during the Vedic period of ancient India. The earliest known references to Ayurveda and its sister science, Yoga, appeared in scholarly texts from the time called “the Vedas.”

Ayurveda experienced a period of prosperity as the Vedic texts were taught and shared, but this was followed by an almost thousand-year struggle to remain relevant in the wake of India’s political struggles with various invading countries—most notably the British Empire.2 

Despite this, those who practiced Ayurveda on the fringes of society kept the tradition alive until India gained independence in 1947. Ayurveda then resurfaced as a major system of healthcare that endures in India to this day.1

During the New Age movement of the 1980s, Ayurveda started to make its way westward, helped along by the expanding popularity of yoga and Eastern spiritualism.

Thanks in no small part to the teachings of respected physicians and herbalists like Drs. Vasant Lad, Deepak Chopra, and David Frawley, Ayurveda has gained notoriety among a growing population of health-conscious individuals in the United States and around the world.2 

Ayurveda’s Definition of Health

The Sanskrit word for health, svastha, is a state in which the mind, soul, and senses interact harmoniously to experience a feeling of Self, wellness, and even bliss. Achieving this may seem like a lofty goal, but Ayurveda provides a treasure chest of elegant and insightful tools to help us get there.

Discover Your Dosha

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Ayurvedic Principles

Before you learn how Ayurveda can help you, you must first learn how to see yourself from an Ayurvedic perspective. The first step is to understand some key Ayurvedic principles, lenses through which Ayurveda views the universe.

These Ayurveda basics are foundational tools for:

  • Interpreting the laws of nature
  • Identifying various states of health or imbalance
  • Charting a course toward improved well-being

Examining these core principles will also help illustrate what makes Ayurveda such a timeless art and science.

The Five Elements

Ayurveda recognizes five elements as the fundamental building blocks of nature:

  • Earth
  • Water
  • Fire
  • Air
  • Ether (Space)

Every substance contains all five of these elements. That said, in a given substance, one or two elements are typically predominant over the others.

The Twenty Qualities

Ayurveda also identifies twenty qualities (gunas) that can be used to describe every substance or experience. These qualities are organized into the following ten pairs of opposites:


Heavy Light
Slow (Dull) Sharp (Penetrating)
Cold Hot
Oily Dry
Smooth Rough
Dense Liquid
Soft Hard
Stable Mobile
Gross Subtle
Cloudy (Sticky) Clear

The gunas are essential to understanding the Ayurvedic principle that like increases like and that opposites balance.

For example, a person who is particularly cold natured, living in a cold climate, in the middle of winter, is likely to be experiencing an aggravation of the cold quality.

The remedy? Heat—in the form of warming foods, hot drinks, heating spices, soothing baths, snuggly warm clothes, and if possible, an abundance of heart-warming experiences.

The Doshas and Your Ayurvedic Body Type

Then there are the three doshas (bodily humors): vatapitta, and kapha. The doshas, or some combination of them, can be identified in various seasons, climates, landscapes, activities, plants, and animals.

Each of them embodies a combination of elements and qualities to create a functional entity—an energetic force of nature.

All three doshas are present in everyone, but the ratio between them varies a great deal from one person to the next.

We will get to that in a moment, but first, here is an overview of the essential nature of each dosha.


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