The essentials of Ayurveda

Author: Jessie Shafer, RD

Delicious Living caught up with Heather Baines, an Ayurveda practitioner at Roots of Wellness Ayurveda in Boulder, Colorado. She has been practicing and teaching Ayurveda for five years. We asked Heather to introduce us to the basics.

Delicious Living: What is Ayurveda?

Heather Baines: Ayurveda is one of the world’s oldest systems of medicine, and the word Ayurveda itself is the combination of two Sanskrit words: 1) Ayu, which is often simply interpreted as “life,” and 2) Veda, which means “knowledge.”

Ayurveda is a time-tested system of medicine aimed at the totality of health—a healthy mind, a healthy body and a vibrant spirit.

DL: What are the pillars of Ayurveda health?

HB: The three pillars of Ayurveda health are as simple as a grandmother’s advice: Get sound sleep, feed yourself well and cultivate healthy relationships (with yourself, your environment and others).

DL: How is food regarded in Ayurveda?

HB: Food is medicine, and the pantry is as good as the medicine cabinet to manage and reverse illness and disease. Ayurveda recognizes that anything and everything in the universe can be used as life-giving elixir—or can become poison, depending on the context of its use, quantity and timeliness.

Fundamental tastes describe all medicine, and food therefore has medicinal qualities according to the six tastes: sweet, salty, sour, bitter, astringent and pungent (spicy). We have an overabundance of sweet and salty flavors in American cuisine. The goal with using food as medicine is to introduce the balance of bitter, astringent and pungent flavors as preventive medicine to ensure longevity and vibrant health.

DL: We’ve heard that our dosha should guide our food choices. What is a dosha? And how does our dosha relate to food?

HB: As food is composed of the six tastes, the six tastes themselves are made up of a combination of five indivisible elements: Earth, Fire, Water, Air and Space. These five elements make up everything—and everyone—in various proportions. The balance, or proportions, of these five elements are expressed in a person’s constitution, or makeup, in terms of three doshas: vata, pitta or kapha.

Vata dosha is a function of the elements of Air and Space. It is dry, cold and rough. Pitta dosha is primarily defined by its heat, a quality of the element of Fire. Kapha dosha is a combination of the elements Water and Earth.

Foods that have the qualities of vata (Air and Space) increase the body’s vata qualities. Similarly, foods with the qualities of pitta (Fire) increase pitta in the body. And heavy, moist, dense or sweet foods with the qualities of kapha (Water and Earth) increase kapha in the body.

Without this understanding, we can easily get carried away with eating too many foods with one kind of quality, and thereby disturb the balance of the doshas in our bodies. Practicing Ayurveda teaches you about your body, how to observe and identify the balance of the doshas that are unique to your constitution, and how to choose foods with qualities that support your health.

DL: What are some good food choices for each dosha?

HB: When vata dosha is out of balance, one would experience dryness and disturbances in mobility (stiffness, for example), leading to feelings of being ungrounded, and emotions such as anxiety or worry. Insomnia and constipation are classic signs of vata imbalance. As the only dosha with the quality of movement, vata is considered the body’s prime mover; it is the first dosha to go out of balance and is the great aggravator—if vata is out of balance it will push pitta and kapha out of balance.

Ayurveda recommends that all food be prepared and served warm, and that it be seasoned deliciously and served with plenty of healthy fats. Food enjoyed this way will, by its very nature, balance vata dosha—and when vata dosha is honored this way, the body will not experience disease.

Vata dosha prefers warm, soupy, creamy, easily digestible foods, and foods well-seasoned with healthy fats. Savory soups; roasted vegetables; and juicy, sweet fruits that are served warm balance vata dosha, as do the flavors sweet, salty and sour. Vata dosha must be respected year-round, but especially when temperatures fluctuate wildly in late winter and spring, or when the winds blow during autumn and winter.

Pitta dosha prefers food cool and easily digestible, and is balanced by the flavors sweet, bitter and astringent. We are most concerned with balancing pitta dosha in summer and autumn, when I recommend eating the abundance of ripe, garden-fresh vegetables, raw if desired. Otherwise, and in other seasons, raw foods tend to imbalance vata. As the old adage goes, enjoy all things in moderation.

Kapha dosha prefers food that is warm, light, easily digestible and perfectly moist (not too dry nor too soupy). Pungency adds heat to food, while bitter and astringent flavors help dry out heavy, wet textures. Salty and sweet foods, by their heavy, moist nature, tend to imbalance kapha. To balance kapha, eat tender spring greens and asparagus in spring; fresh peppers, dark leafy greens, and tomatoes in summer; and light, nourishing grains such as quinoa and amaranth in late summer and fall.

Listen to your body—it will tell you about the digestibility of your food. You should feel light, energized and well-nourished after eating.

DL: How can Ayurveda eating be inspiring for someone new to it?

HB: Food is medicine, and delicious food is delicious medicine. The complexity of flavors in India’s culinary traditions arises from incorporating all six tastes in every meal, in proportions that sustain health and longevity. Cultivate an appreciation for all six tastes, and learn about the foods you eat, where they come from, how they are grown and how to prepare food in your own home with love.


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Jessie Shafer RD