Vedic wisdom teaches that the entire manifest universe is an interplay of qualities & elements. The relationship between this manifest reality and the unmanifest, primordial reality from which it springs is detailed in Samkhya philosophy. For the purposes of Ayurveda we can begin by understanding that the material world is composed of building blocks known as the five great elements or the Panchamahabhutu. The five elements are Ether, Air, Fire, Water & Earth and combine in different proportions to make up everything in the material universe. In Ayurveda they form the basis of understanding the three constitutional humors & the seven tissues.
THE FIVE GREAT ELEMENTS
Earth is the idea of solidity and stability. It emerges as the solid form of matter and provides the principle of stability and structure in both our body and mind. Its qualities are Cold, Dry, Heavy, Stable.
Water is the idea of flow and liquidity. It emerges as all the fluids of the body as well as the gentle, loving and compassionate emotions of the mindIts qualities are Cold Moist Heavy Stable.
Fire is the idea of light, heat and transformation. It is the force of evolution, converting who we are into who we are becoming. It governs the fire of digestion as well as the perception of the mind. Its qualities are Hot, Dry, Light, Unstable.
Air is the idea of motion and the force behind all movement. It emerges in our body as the movement of nerve impulses, the breath, and the limbs. In our mind it is the movement of thought itself. Its qualities are Cold, Dry, Light, Mobile.
Ether is the idea of the space that exists between things, connecting everything together. It is the space that contains all the other elements and the fabric of creation itself. In subtle form, it emerges as the cavities in the body such as the mouth and ears. In the mind it represents consciousness. Its qualities are Cold, Dry, Light, Unstable.
THE TEN PAIRS OF OPPOSITE QUALITIES
You probably noticed that each of the five elements is described with specific qualities. There is a great lesson in here to understand in that if something has the quality of warmth or heat, the we know it contains a predominance of the Fire element. If something has the quality moisture or dampness, then we know it contains a predominance of the Water element. If something is heavy then we know it likely has some amount of the EARTH or WATER element. If something is light and dry then we know it likely has some amount of the AIR or ETHER element. These qualities are not random, and like many things are outlined quite specifically in many Ayurvedic texts. While there can be some subtle difference of description, most of the following qualities are regarded as that which describes the five elements and makes up all of creation:
HOT/COLD … LIGHT/HEAVY … DRY/MOIST …
MOBILE/STABLE … FLOWING/DENSE …
SHARP/DULL … ROUGH/SMOOTH … HARD/SOFT …
SUBTLE/GROSS … CLEAR/CLOUDY
Utilizing these qualities, and understanding what they implicate is the cornerstone of Ayurvedic Diagnosis.
THE THREE BIOLOGICAL HUMORS / DOSHAS
The 5 elements manifest physiologically as the three doshas. Each dosha is the confluence of two elements which produces a functional process that either sustains, regulates or recycles energy in the body. The physiology of the human being is governed by these three main forces and when functioning normally, they guide and regulate all normal physical processes.
Vata emerges in the body and mind as the combination of Air and Ether. Vata contains the qualities of cold, dry, light subtle, sharp and clear. Vata dosha is that which moves things. It governs all movement and catabolic activities in the body. It can be found in the peristaltic activity of the large intestine, the pelvic cavity, the porosity of the bones, the touch receptors of the skin, the nervous system and the ears.
Pitta emerges in the body and mind as the combination of Fire and a little Water. Pitta contains the qualities of hot, slightly moist, light, subtle, flowing, sharp and clear. Pitta is that which digests things. It governs primarily our digestion and metabolism. It can be found in the gastric secretions of the lower stomach and small intestine as well as the blood, liver, spleen, sweat glands and eyes.
Kapha emerges in the body and mind as the combination of Earth and Water. Kapha contains the qualities of cool, moist, heavy, gross, dense, static, dull, soft, smooth and cloudy. Kapha dosha is that which holds things together. It governs all anabolic functions of the body as well as lubrication, stability and immune strength. It can be found in the stomach, chest, mouth, throat, head, lymph as well as all liquids of the body and synovial membranes.
When the three doshas exist in a healthy quantity and quality, the remain unfelt and unseen, like a shoe that fits, a road without traffic or a bath with perfect temperature. When the doshas become excessive or deficient, they emerge as pathology, affecting the digestive fire and infiltrating the tissues and channels of the body.
An Ayurvedic Doctor is trained to look at all the physical and functional parts of the body in conjunction with the mind, emotions and lifestyle habits to determine the predominant qualities that are giving rise to disease and suffering. By understanding the qualities inherent in the patient, the physician is able to formulate a comprehensive treatment plan that can not only alleviate primary symptoms but also form the basis of a transformational journey that can give rise to a richer, fuller life.