There’s a part of Ayurveda that doesn’t have the glam of the doshas. They are the gunas or 20 qualities that exist as 10 pair of opposites. See, even the description doesn’t sound as magical as vata, pitta, kapha. But to me, these gunas are everything. These descriptive terms can not only describe our food, behavior and experiences, but they also catalog our symptoms. Now that’s exciting–in the jump up and down and wave your arms kind of way.
One of the big Ayurvedic principles that explains why we don’t feel good has to do with accumulation: Like increases like. Or in other words, if you excessively consume food that is of one quality or continually engage in experiences of a certain quality, you will end up with a symptom of that same quality. To understand this further, you need to know what these mysterious 20 qualities are, so here you go. As they exist in opposition, they are hot/cold, dry/light, subtle/gross, mobile/immobile, liquid/dense, cloudy/clear, soft/hard, rough/smooth, dull/sharp and dry/oily. Now let’s go back. Like increases like and too much of one quality will create a symptom that has that same quality. Consumption of drink or food that digests as cold will make us cold. If we move through too many activities in a day our minds will also move excessively. Getting it? How about some bigger examples?
Do you ever get constipated when you travel, especially by air? Constipation is considered a dry condition. Traveling can be described as a vata or air provoking activity, both of which are also considered to be dry. You know this because the moment you are on the airplane you need to pull out your water, lip balm, rose hydrosol, nasya oil and… well, maybe that’s me. But I don’t think I’m the only one who feels like my eyeballs are going to shrivel up. The point is, travel puts us in the pole position to accumulate the quality of dryness. And if we then proceed to do other things that accumulate rather than counteract the dryness, we become constipated. Let’s move on to another example, while we forgive that my examples revolve around digestion primarily. We’ll take spicy food and the urgent BM or excessively soft stool for our next instance (and why wouldn’t we?). This type of digestion is considered to be hot or oily and heating foods, such as those with a kick, increase our digestive fire. This can move food through too quickly, before it is properly broken down and packaged. Not sure what I mean? Check out what happens to Ben Stiller’s character Rueben in Along Came Polly after going out for some Indian food. Yup. Increased digestive fire. And though spicy is the obvious example because we detect the heat on our tongue, heat is also associated with acidic things like coffee or fermented things like alcohol. Both of which when consumed in excess can create the same effect.
The gunas simplify everything! They make understanding Ayurveda possible without having to talk in Sanskrit. They make it easier for anyone to take a panoramic view of the day-to-day and then zoom in on those things that happen with frequency. They allow us to put our symptoms into categories that are all based upon the same quality. When we know the quality of the symptoms that we are experiencing, we then do the opposite to balance it. Digestive fire too hot? Reduce spicy, acidic, fermented, salty, sour food. Add cooling spices such as cumin, coriander/cilantro, fennel or coconut to reduce the heat. Dry digestive tract to the point of constipation when you travel? Add more oil to your diet and kindly refuse to have dry airplane snacks or carbonated drinks. While not always easy, it’s really that simple.