What Is Ayurveda?

Tracey Kelley
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Hilary Garivaltis, dean of the School of Ayurveda at the Kripalu Center

Ayurveda is an ancient healing art. Originating in India 5,000 years ago, Ayurveda is built on the philosophy that humans are influenced by the same rules as nature. Once people adopt and understand this philosophy, the mind, body and spirit will be in balance.

LoveToKnow Yoga asked Hilary Garivaltis to explain the power and potential of this healing method and how easily people can incorporate its basic principles into their life. Garivaltis is the dean of the School of Ayurveda at the internationally renowned Kripalu Center for Health and Yoga in Massachusetts.

Interview with Hilary Garivaltis of the Kripalu Center

How do you explain the basic principles of Ayurveda to someone for the first time?

I always start with the idea that is it a system of the study of nature and the same laws as other natural beings govern us. If we choose to ignore these laws, then imbalances will begin to appear. These imbalances result in disharmony and disease in the mind and body.

Through our language in Ayurveda, everything is expressed as energy. This is the foundational piece of Ayurveda. The elements that we refer to are:

  • Ether (space or consciousness)
  • Air (movement)
  • Fire (transformation)
  • Water (universal solvent)
  • Earth (structure and form)

All of these elements are present in us and in nature. Nature is always seeking balance, as we are. What I see Ayurveda doing is bringing this philosophy into the conscious realm for us directly and helping us work with these energies so we understand when they begin to get out of balance.

This system of medicine understands our deepest connections with the whole universe and the influences of the energies that make up this universe.

Can you give us an example?

Of course. In Ayurveda, fire is a hot, bright, heat in our bodies. When out of balance, it will cause inflammation and emotionally, it will bring up aggravation. If we're begin to see these things happen in our bodies and in our psychology, then we can examine what has caused a rise in fire: is it environment, food, a conflict or a fiery relationship or aggressive interaction that brought up that fire inside of you? These circumstances are not easy to let go of, and that residual energy is hard to get rid of.

Through the language of Ayurveda, we can identify it and then do something about it. As consultants in this work, we work with people to figure out and anticipate these things themselves. We all have little weaknesses, which may be determined by our underlying constitution, or dosha.

Yoga at the Kripalu Center

What is a dosha?

There's a balanced place for all of these things, but dosha are the tendencies that we might be more inclined to have. It is believed that these qualities are instilled in us at birth.

  • Vata is based on the qualities of ether and air.
  • Pitta follows the elements of fire and water.
  • Kapha is composed of earth and water.

Determine your dosha.

When did you first become involved with Ayurveda, both personally and as a profession?

Like a lot of people, I started doing yoga and transcendental meditation in college in the 1970s. I was given Deepak Chopra's Perfect Health: The Complete Mind/Body Guide and it blew me away. My background has always been involved in agriculture and plant and soil science, and I just understood the book completely. At that time, there weren't a lot of schools that taught Ayurveda except maybe in India or New Mexico, but a few years ago, I attended workshops in India and Boston to pull pieces together. Then I went through a program to do consultations.

Kripalu developed their Ayurveda program in 2001 combined with other healing arts training and we just graduated our first class from our specialized 18-month program for anyone who wants to become an Ayurvedic Lifestyle Consultant.

Incorporating the practice of Ayurveda is obviously not a diet, but a complete change in lifestyle. What have people told you about the impact it has had on their lives?

Oh, there are stories upon stories, and it's often some of the simplest things that we've talked about that make the difference. I take a snapshot of someone's life and draw the correlations between habits, or a particular food or the challenges of a job. Or I've had people call me and say "getting up early made such a difference to me." There are biological rhythms that we all need to align to be our best, and when we connect with those, the transformation can happen overnight. Or we might identify an eating pattern that doesn't work for someone, such as skipping a meal or eating erratically and they may have never known that it's affecting their balanced sate. But we open that up for them and what they had been complaining about shifts.

We focus mainly on those things to begin with, because sometimes, that's enough. If not, we might go deeper into the foods they eat or some more of the psychological challenges.

How does the practice work in conjunction with Western medicine?

That's an excellent question and something we're very attentive to in our program. There is a part of our population that doesn't want to go to a doctor, and come to a practitioner like myself wanting alternatives to what the doctor recommended. We're not here to replace that; what I see us doing is being able to augment what someone is able to do for themselves, working very much to really support and strengthen their immunity and physical strength and outlook. It's more of a preventative wellness measure and how we set ourselves up for that helps us get through the adversity.

In India, however, it's used as a full medical system, but in the United States, we're not licensed to take it to that level. It will eventually come about, similar to acupuncture and Chinese medical schools, but at the moment, we're here to help people in a preventative, positive way and teach people to create harmony.

It seemed that the primary message of Ayurveda in the tips listed on the Kripalu Web site was, essentially, slow down, and be more mindful of what you're doing at the time.

Well, our modern world is not a slow world. Everything is fast and getting faster. We lose connection with ourselves, with the messages our body is sending us. You have to slow down to do that. This is why doing yoga is so important, especially in conjunction with Ayurvedic practices. Yoga provides an opportunity for a meditative "inwardness", a concentration on breathing, an invitation to deeper messages from the consciousness, a grounding.

Tree pose in Namaste

Please tell us what someone would experience taking a workshop or program at Kripalu.

The majority of the people that come to Kripalu are curious. They want to improve their state of health and learn about other methods for a balanced lifestyle. And there's so much more than just yoga and Ayurveda going on at Kripalu. Basically, we start in the center and work out. There are general introductory courses and R&R programs for people to immerse themselves in for a few days, a more intensive program of cleansing called Panchakarma, retreats. We also have lectures that anyone can sit in on and individual consultations on many different health and wellness issues. There are a lot of wonderful tools to learn, and we have a lot of doorways for people to enter into.

What other resources you'd recommend to our readers interested in this change in lifestyle?

I mentioned Chopra's book, and another good one is The Science of Healing by Vasant Lad. There are also great books by many of our faculty members who have their own institutions and resources. Those can be found on the Kripalu Web site.

External Resources

What Is Ayurveda?