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August 30, 2020

How Ayurveda is useful in modern life. An image of a wooden spoon on a bench beside a some sliced turmeric root and a small bowl of yellow powder and some fresh stalks of green herbs.

Last month we were singing the praises of Pranayama — a series of breath control techniques that form part of yoga — and this month we're focusing on the 5,000-year-old Indian medicine system known as Ayurveda. 

We'll be coming at you soon with some scrumptious Ayurvedic skincare recipes, but first we thought we'd better give a bit of a background on what Ayurveda's all about. 

We spoke to our legendary friend Jemima Kerr, Ayurvedic practitioner, to get a bit more of an insight into this ancient modality.

Ayurveda is often referred to as a "sister science" of yoga, but it's not just a science — it's a life philosophy. Jemima says she fell in love with Ayurveda through yoga. 

How Ayurveda is useful in modern life. A dark-skinned woman is on a beach wearing white yoga clothes and practicing a yoga pose where she is lunging with her arms above her head.

"The more I learnt about it, the more it resonated with me. The more I heard, it felt like coming home. It made sense of the world for me."

Ayurveda has been practiced in India for millennia, despite being banned during colonisation. These days it's making a comeback — partly because people resonate with the idea of preventative healthcare. 

"All over the world and in Australia we’re going to see people turning more to alternative ways of caring for their health because we’re realising we can’t just look at symptoms, but need to look at the root causes of disease," says Jemima. 

One of the most useful aspects of Ayurveda is the concept of the doshas. Basically, the way Ayurveda sees it is that there are three doshas, or constitution types. These types influence not just our physical attributes, but everything from our emotional responses and mental strengths to what kinds of food and exercise agree with us. Each of us is a unique combination of the three doshas, but most of us have one or two dominant doshas. 

How Ayurveda is useful in modern life. A diagram showing the three doshas: vata, pitta and kapha, with an explanation at the top that shows that vata is made up of space and air, pitta is made up on fire and water, and kapha is made up of water and earth.

Vata, made up of air and ether, is characterised by dryness, coolness, mobility, lightness and roughness. It governs the nervous system, breathing, muscles and blood vessels. People with a vata dominance tend to be thin with dry skin and hair and small eyes. Their characteristics are flighty, creative, fast-moving and fast-talking. If you have a vata imbalance, you might become nervous, anxious or unable to sit still. 

Pitta is comprised of fire and water, and pitta-dominant people often have fair hair, skin and eyes, plus reasonable muscle development and an athletic build. Pitta looks after the digestive system. The defining attributes are ambitiousness, competitiveness and sharp logic. Pittas have a penetrating gaze. If your pitta is out of balance, you might find yourself becoming fiery, aggressive and jealous. 

How Ayurveda is useful in modern life. A profile image of Jemima Kerr, Ayurvedic practitioner, looking at the camera with a half-smile.

                                                                                                                 Jemima Kerr

Kapha is a combination of earth and water. Kapha types tend to have good muscle development, large eyes with thick eyelashes, thick and oily hair, and supple skin. Their natural tendency is towards being overweight. They move slowly. Personality-wise, kaphas are patient, peace-loving and calm. Kapha is responsible for lubrication, energy and stability in the body. Unbalanced kapha could involve sluggishness, greed and attachment.  

While each of us could experience an imbalance in any of the three doshas, we're more likely to go out of balance in our dominant dosha/s.

"As humans we’re constantly going in and out of balance – the aim in Ayurveda is to achieve balance, or homeostasis, through understanding the doshas and our own constitution," says Jemima. 

The doshas apply not just to human types but also to the seasons and times of the day. Mid-winter to early spring is the season of kapha, while late spring to early autumn is pitta season. Autumn to early winter is vata. 6am - 10am in the morning is kapha time; 10am - 2pm is pitta time and 2pm - 6pm is vata time — then the cycle begins again! 

How Ayurveda is useful in modern life. An image of some silver spoons containing powdered herbs in various colours. There are some legumes scattered on the table beside the spoons.

The guiding principles of Ayurveda are that like increases like and that opposites balance.

"If you're someone who has a lot of vata in your constitution, you’ll already have a lot of those qualities… and say in autumn you go outside and it’s really windy and the weather is getting dry… and then you’re eating salads all the time… Like is going to increase like. Your vata is going to increase to the point where it goes out of balance," says Jemima."

Similarly, if a pitta-dominant person went out into the sun at the hottest part of the day, in the middle of summer, consuming fried foods, meat and alcohol, they'd probably find their pitta going out of balance. If a kapha type spent an entire winter's day eating heavy, oily foods and not moving from the couch... Well, you get the idea. 

In terms of the doshic cycles of the day, the same principles apply. Jemima says it's best to get out of bed before 6am, as sleeping too far into the kapha phase of the day might lead to sluggishness. To balance the heaviness of kapha, the morning is a great time to exercise. The middle of the day is pitta time, meaning it's a good time to rest and not over-exert yourself (it's also when we should consume our larges meal, according to Ayurveda, because our digestion is at its strongest). When vata time rolls around, it's a good idea to practice grounding activities such as meditation, pranayama and Abhyanga (self massage).  

How Ayurveda is useful in modern life. An image of a pie graph titled "Times of day" that shows the "kapha" time of day (6am - 10am); "pitta" time of day (10am - 2pm); and "vata" time of day (2pm - 6pm).

The Ayurvedic approach to illness and disease is to notice and correct imbalances before they get too out of control. 

"Understanding Ayurveda and incorporating it into your everyday life will mean that the state of imbalance is less extreme and that we can recognise when we’re going out of balance and do small corrections. And those imbalances won’t progress into disease. Disease is a progression of an imbalance."

At the same time, Ayurveda recognises that we shouldn't become too fixated on getting it right all the time. 

“In Ayurveda we say that ‘Too good is not good’ – especially for the pittas. They want to do everything perfectly!" says Jemima. 

And while this might sound like a lot of information to take in, Jemima is quick to point out that a lot of Ayurvedic wisdom is actually just common sense. 

"We live Ayurveda," she says. "When it’s cold, we crave warm food. In summer we want more of that cooling watermelon or coconut water, or we crave salads more. Our body does, to a certain degree, know how to bring itself back into balance."   

Ultimately, Ayurveda is an empowering system that can give us the tools to know ourselves better. 

Want to know your dosha and not yet ready to visit an Ayurvedic practitioner? Jemima recommends taking this quiz