What's your constitution? The Ayurvedic key to healthy living

If you've been interested in yoga very long, you may have heard of Ayurveda, the sister science of yoga that focuses on maintaining health and longevity.

As a science, Ayurveda is based on thousands of years of observing patterns in nature and human behavior and their impact on health. It looks closely at the relationship between a person and his environment, and recognizes that although there are patterns, each patient is a complex individual and should be treated as such.

Knowing how to be healthy begins with knowing what "balanced" means for you.

To treat the individual, Ayurvedic practitioners begin by assessing a person's constitution to determine what lifestyle, diet and medication/supplement recommendations will best maintain health.

The assessment process is based on a Tridosha (three element) system that observes the presence and activity of three qualities in a person's behavior, physical attributes, and symptoms. Each individual has a "constitution," or prakriti, an essential nature which is the particular balance of elements that maintains steady health for them.

The three elemental qualities are Vata (air and space), Pitta (fire and water) and Kapha (earth and water). Each individual has a natural balance of these elements which is unique to them, and at which they enjoy good health and energy levels.

Vata, the quality of air and space, is light, free and subtle. It influences movement, and is the element of clarity and creativity.

Pitta, the quality of fire and water, is hot, sharp and penetrating. It is the transforming force, and handles digestion (of food and information), metabolism and perception.

Kapha, earth and water, is steady, calm and serene. It is the force of stability, structure and heaviness.

Each element is present to some degree in everybody, and understanding your unique make-up of these elements, your prakriti, is the first step to finding the correct lifestyle, diet and medicine recommendations that will keep you in balanced health.

You can find tests to determine your own prakriti online and in books on Ayurveda. The chart below gives a description of the characteristics each element has. Take a moment to look through the qualities given for each feature. You may find that you predominately match one element, or perhaps you are split between two or even all three.

Table of Prakriti Types & Their Characteristic Features:

 Accessed from: Subhojit Dey and Parika Pahwaj. "Prakriti and its associations with metabolism, chronic diseases, and genotypes: Possibilities of new born screening and a lifetime of personalized prevention." Journal of Ayurveda Integrative Medicine. 2014 Jan-Mar; 5(1): 15–24.

Accessed from: Subhojit Dey and Parika Pahwaj. "Prakriti and its associations with metabolism, chronic diseases, and genotypes: Possibilities of new born screening and a lifetime of personalized prevention." Journal of Ayurveda Integrative Medicine. 2014 Jan-Mar; 5(1): 15–24.

An important thing to remember is that prakriti describes the balance of elements in which you are healthy. However, your environment, habits and proclivities can influence you in a different direction, taking you out of balance. The description of how you are out of balance is called vikruti. So, you might have a Pitta prakriti, with a Vata vikruti. The work of an Ayurvedic practitioner would be to suggest activities which reduce Vata symptoms, while keeping your natural Pitta state balanced.

For example, travel tends to exacerbate Vata, and may bring about symptoms like anxiety, faster breath, and decreased immune response. So if you have an upcoming trip, an Ayurvedic practitioner would likely recommend drinking warm water, eating warm, heavier foods, and doing a grounding yoga and meditation practice to prevent Vata increase.

Ayurveda is based on the very simple principle that like increases like, meaning that you can choose activities, habits, and foods that have qualities you would like to promote, and avoid things that have qualities you would like to reduce.

Once you know what being balanced looks like for you, you will be able to take a personal approach to supporting your health with appropriate diet, exercise and lifestyle choices.

Ready for more?

Check back next week for a Guide to Winter Wellness, full of tips to balance your health and keep your immune system strong and energy level all season long.

In the meantime, here are some helpful resources:

Prakriti Test from Ayurveda Dosha

Prakriti Quiz from Banyan Botanicals

Ayurveda: A Complimentary or Alternative Medicine?