Ayurveda is based on the knowledge of five elements (Ether, Air, Fire, Water and Earth) and three doshas that represent different combinations of these elements organized in three biological principles. These participles are called vata, pitta and kapha and they are in charge of our physiology. In Ayurvreda, life itself is defined as a unity of body, senses, mind and soul. Although Ayurveda deals with all four aspects, the care for the body is its priority.
The Indian thought speaks about five subtle elements or principles that make the matrix accounting for the creation of material world. These subtle elements are called tanmatras and they further consolidate into five great or gross elements (panchamahabhutas): Ether, Air, Fire, Water and Earth. Ayurveda says that everything that exists in the Universe is made of these five elements.
The elements should not be understood literally. They should not be confused neither with the elements from the periodic table of elements, nor with the substances they stand for, or i.e. with the names they have been given according to these substances. When we mention, for example, the element of Water, we do not mean water in the usual sense and when we mention the element of Fire, we do not mean flame. The elements actually describe the behaviour of the energy matrix and subtle particles in organizing all material levels, from the most subtle ones to the roughest.
The elements could be described as very subtle principles which describe mechanisms of energy behaviour and its consolidation into matter. However, the elements do not constitute only the matter that is visible or measurable. They also constitute more subtle phenomena such as thoughts or emotions. Therefore, all manifested in the Universe results from different combinations and behaviours of particular elements.
Ether (Akasha) is a field where the manifestation starts and it is the basis for material existence. It is a field of pure potential. The next element, Air (Vaya) is a vibration or movement which symbolizes friction. It creates forces which, when colliding and interacting, create the first prerequisite for the emergence of matter. Fire (Agni) is the third principle which influences the interaction of individual forces and it creates the charge and electricity phenomena, further manifested as light and heat. The fourth phase of the matter consolidation is symbolized by the element of Water (Apas) and it is the basis for the initial consolidation of the above mentioned forces into more stable material form. At its final stage of consolidation the matter is described as Earth (Prithivi).
It is important to point out that the five elements are not necessarily five different forces or principles. They represent different stages of consolidation and directions of action as well as the creation of matter which behaves in specific ways at those stages. Each stage of action or energy behaviour which leads to the creation of material world is described as one of the elements. However, these five ways of action are present in the functioning of the matter at all times and as such they are recognized as five elements.
According to Ayurvedic texts, these five elements form three doshas at the border between material and non-material systems of each organism and nature and they are described as three biological principles. These principles manifest themselves through different structures and functions and they govern our physiology. If we focus on the human body we can say that these three doshas, with the emphasis on their balance and functionalities, are responsible for the individual’s health. The three doshas are called vata, pitta and kapha.
Although all doshas consist of all five elements, particular elements are dominant in each of them.
Vata dosha is a combination of two elements; Ether and Air. It is a moving principle, the power of circulation. Its main functions are movements of nervous impulses, all conscious and unconscious movements within our body, such as complete motoric, heart beat, inflation and deflation of lungs, movement of food through the digestive system etc.
At the emotional and mental levels, vata dosha is responsible for creativity and imagination. On the other hand, it is also responsible for the feelings of fear, lack of self-confidence and uncertainty.
Pitta dosha is a combination of the other two elements: Fire and Water. It governs all chemical and biological changes in our body. It represents the principle of transformation no matter whether it refers to transforming the food we take in or to transforming the impulses we receive through our senses. It governs all functions such as generating body temperature, digesting and assimilating food, sight, hunger and thirst etc.
At the emotional and mental levels it is responsible for intelligence, courage and leadership. However, it is also responsible for anger, aggression and intolerance.
Kapha dosha is a combination of Water and Earth. It gives our cells and tissues stability and structure. Its functions are lubrication, secretion of body fluids, strength, energy and immunity.
At the emotional and mental levels, Kapha gives you stability, compassion, forgiving, and its negative aspects refer to attachment, excessive emotionality, greed and selfishness.
In order to understand the elements and doshas it is important to understand their qualities. We can say that the surplus or lack of some elements results from malfunction of one or more doshas; they overaccumulated or they may be too weak to stimulate the body to function properly. Since doshas cannot be perceived directly, we mainly rely on following the “tracks” doshas leave on our body. These tracks manifest through their different qualities. The qualities can be seen through precise observation or, in other words, Ayurvedic analysis.
In Ayurveda, we say that whatever influences our body simultaneously influences our mind. Therefore, we can say that doshas are responsible both for the individuals’ physical structures and its functions and for their emotional and mental state.
According to Ayurveda, our body consists of three doshas (vata, pitta and kapha), seven tissues (plasma, blood, muscles, fats, bones, nerves and reproductive fluids) and three waste products (urine, faeces and sweat). Doshas are intermediaries between tissues and waste products and their balance is necessary for preserving our health. As long as our tissues receive necessary nutrients for their proper functioning and as long as all waste products are efficiently eliminated from our body, we will be healthy. There are also some external factors which may cause disease and sometimes they can be the primary causes of disease.
The analysis of doshas in the individual’s body is the basis for making a diagnosis in Ayurveda and it defines the process of Ayurvedic treatment. The aim is to put doshas in balance in order to be able to regulate bodily processes and optimal formation and function of body tissues.