Ayurveda is the knowledge of life.  Time has many meanings and plays an important causative role in this science of life. The V.S. Apte Sanskrit Dictionary states that time means transformation.  Thus it is synonymous with change and may be considered the CAUSE of change. It’s an important consideration in understanding the development, stage, and cure of disease. Diseases tend to occur at certain times of the day or in a particular season. For example, the incidence of heart failures tends to increase in the morning hours when platelet aggregation has been observed to increase. Allergies tend to occur in certain seasons. Boils need time to “ripen” before they can be effectively treated. Age, as an element of time, affects the type and extent of treatment options--infants, young adults, and the elderly must be treated differently. (There are two reference points for time—solar and lunar phases. In this article we will not discuss the impact of the lunar phases-based effects.)

Another aspect of the Ayurvedic conception of time is that it is a marker of change and is experienced as cycles. On the one hand this means that time has no beginning or end. But on the other hand we observe changes such as seasons. This theme can be connected to life itself. Our perceptions tend to lead us to conclude that life starts at birth and ends with death. Ancient Ayurvedic authorities believed that life is a continuum, eternal. They asserted life is much more than matter in action--it is a field of non-material intelligence and awareness expressing its notions in a way we call material existence.  This material reality is continually changing but, according to the ancients, in a predictable cyclic fashion. The ancients held that the continuity of life was carried on in spirit form, which re-incarnated. We will ignore re-incarnation even though it is important to the Ayurvedic conception of life.

One way to view these cycles is through the dynamic interaction of the three principles of life—vata, pitta, and kapha--motion, transformation, and structure, respectively.  Each of these represents a bundle of qualities that describes a style of action or functioning.  For example, vata is said to be light, cold, dry, rough, moving, pervading, clear, and subtle (see Chart I).  Any time we experience something that can be described by one or more of these qualities then vata is said to be at work--governing and influencing.

Ayurveda says that during the course of a day the principles of motion, transformation, and structure increase and decrease in an orderly and repetitive way.  This means that at a certain time of day we would expect the physiology to express certain qualities more than others, thus promoting certain functions or processes. At noon, for example, the quality of heat is more lively than its opposite--cold.  Heat is involved in digestion, metabolism, and all forms of energy transformations.  Knowing that heat is lively at noon and that it is the basis of digestion leads to an important fact--digestion is strongest around the noon hour.  In summary the physiology attends to different needs at certain times of the day.

There is a purpose for the changing qualities of the day, month, and year that affects health. Recall that vata and kapha are cold while pitta is hot (See Chart 1). Vata and pitta are light and kapha is heavy. Vata and pitta are mobile while kapha is static. Vata is dry while pitta and kapha are oily and liquid.  As the heat of pitta reverses the cold of kapha so are the other qualities increasing and decreasing as time passes. So what we see is a cycling which permits a quality in the environment to build then release or reduce. Nature provides for this over time as a way of restoring balance of quality and action—it purifies itself in an ongoing way. In the body the same ebb and flow of qualities is taking place—always providing for balancing.  



Ayurveda advises that life is easier, smoother, more fulfilling when we acknowledge, honor, and make use of these biorhythms of nature. There are two themes of activity:

  1. Activity which goes against natural tendencies and is balancing (This is more important and common )
  2. Activity which goes with the direction of nature and is balancing

There is an important understanding of Ayurveda —It is not enough to do the right thing, one has to do the right thing at the right time. This makes sense from the angle of limited resources. The energy from food can be used to digest, to breath, to work etc. But if we work and eat simultaneously then energy resources will be diverted to the work and away from digestion--digestion will suffer.

Let’s explore the first kind of activity—going with nature’s tendencies and balancing. We are familiar with the cycle of change associated with the rotation of the earth on its axis--day and night.  This is an important cycle because the rise and setting of the sun in large measure dictate the qualities that predominate at different times of the day, as suggested above. Rest and activity take place during the night and day, respectively. Also, we know that the revolution of the earth around the sun causes seasonal variations of daylight periods—longer days during the summer and longer nights during the winter.  Thus in the context of seasonal variations of day and night hours we should experience and honor a tendency of the body-mind to want to go to bed earlier and even to sleep longer in winter months. This expresses the dynamic interaction of the environment and body-mind.  The body reflects what is happening in all of nature because the body is never separate from nature.  We point out, however, that the intellect dictates to the body the nature and timing of activity, which does influence what takes place in the body-mind.  Therefore, it is important that the mind always be aware of the body's needs so that the body-mind can function most effortlessly by not being compelled to do things excessively or at the wrong time. The concepts of Daylight Saving Time and "time zone" are unnatural because they direct our attention away from the internal signals of nature to the external fiction of "hour."  We force our bodies to ignore natural tendencies in favor of economic considerations, etc.

So let us now look at the daily cycle of vata, pitta, and kapha and discuss what nature suggests will make life fuller and happier--balanced. Loosely described the times of increased activity or influence in physiology for the triad--vata, pitta, kapha are excerpted below from Chart 1 above:

These periods may extend or shorten according to season, longitude, and latitude on the globe.  The body-mind will "know" these variations and will adjust its own functioning accordingly--if we "don't allow" the intellect to interfere. (It is important to understand the concepts of sunrise and sunset to relate to the times above 6 AM and 6PM, respectively. They are not merely clock times but natural times (based upon the observations that the sun is, in fact, rising at 6 AM and setting at 6 PM), and which vary according to the seasons, longitude, and latitude.

Vata is responsible for elimination, movement, locomotion, speech, enthusiasm, creativity, breathing, and nervous system functioning.  Recent research has confirmed that the vata period is more about mental activity than about physical work.  The Russians discovered that muscle strength is weakest during the vata (afternoon) period.  On the other hand, researchers have found that mind-body coordination (dexterity) is greatest about 4 p.m.  During the early morning vata time nature is alert yet quiet--this time is the best time to have profound meditations.  Also, because vata controls elimination this period favors elimination of wastes removed from the tissues and accumulated in the bladder or colon during the night--it's important to void the bowels and bladder first thing each morning for this reason. Because vata is about lightness and motion it is really an essential ingredient of achievement in life.  If we get up during the hours when the body is alert, rested, clear, light, energetic then the entire day will take on the theme of these qualities and activity will be more effortless and productive. Many people report that their creativity and mental clarity are especially lively during these early morning hours. Ayurveda supports the old saw:  "Early to bed and early to rise makes the old man healthy, wealthy, and wise."

Pitta functions to control digestion, metabolism, transformation, intellection, courage, enthusiasm, skin and other tissue colors, and vision.  At noon digestive capacity is greatest, therefore, this is the meal of the day which should be the largest.  Above we noted that the afternoon period is best suited for mental activity and we can see how nature provided for this by calling for the main meal at this time which when digested nourishes mental effort--discriminative and creative.  It is interesting to note that many cases of high blood pressure are attributed to skipping the noon meal.  The habit of eating a large evening meal forces pitta to become active during a time the body wants to slow down--this degrades both the quality of digestion and sleep.  On the other hand, the evening pitta period is more about house cleaning than digestion.  Research shows that liver and small intestine activity increase around 1am - 3am. Many people report that mental clarity increases after 10 PM and this is natural because pitta is about the intellect.  However, forcing the body-mind to be dynamic at this time compromises its internal cleansing efforts.  Ama (stress, toxins, etc.) accumulates if this function is disturbed.

Kapha governs structure, fluid balance, secretions, binding, growth, potency, patience, heaviness, compassion, and understanding.  Because its qualities are heavy, dull, slow, etc. the evening period of kapha is particularly suited to sleep.  Research confirms that if sleep starts in the hour or two after sunset then rest will be improved—probably because deep sleep has been shown to be deeper and longer.  Rest is about rebuilding, cleaning, etc. so it makes sense that we should honor this aspect of our biorhythm by getting to bed early (especially before 10 PM). Ayurvedic practitioners often report that getting the person to get to bed before 10 PM can cure chronic insomnia.

The second theme of activity is also important—that which goes against natural tendencies but is balancing to physiology. There are many strategies including diet, herbs, exercise, as well as, daily routine. The principle is to counter an undesired bodily tendency with opposite instructions. Remember instructions to the physiology are given by every experience we have—mental, emotional, and physical. The qualities we experience are the keys to the kinds of actions produced in the body. Thus for an imbalance or predominance of vata’s qualities we could use an oil massage during its time--the qualities of oil balance the vata qualities. One could eat heavy, warm, and oily foods. We could take more rest in our daily schedule to counter jittery nerves. We could incorporate more regularity in our routine also. For pitta imbalances we would want to avoid exercise during the mid-day time, the time of maximum heat. We could take cooling foods or activities at this time also. For considerations of kapha recall its qualities of heavy, dull, slow, hard, (stiffness) etc. increase around sunrise. If one rises during this time these qualities will grow and become the theme of the day.  One will feel less inclined towards activity--mental or physical.  The habit of "sleeping in" may be viewed as digging a hole (stiffness, dullness, etc.) from which one has to climb out each morning before one can become really effective in activity. Therefore, the morning kapha time is the best time for dynamic activity. Activity at this time balances the body tendency to be slow, heavy, dull etc. Because the body-mind has rested it is most able to perform at this time. Exercise is especially useful for eliminating ama, producing lightness, building capacity for work, and promoting balance.

We have discussed the Ayurvedic notion of biorhythm.  Qualities and functions increase or decrease in a regular, rhythmical manner.  By honoring these biorhythms we facilitate proper physiology.  Also, by understanding the nature of the ongoing changes in the body-mind we can select activities that promote balance when done at the proper time of day.  Ideally, all activities will be spontaneous, or at least they will be done with awareness of body-mind conditions. In this respect, living in the present will promote awareness of bodily needs and states such that a process of balancing can operate moment to moment. Living in the present will promote happiness and contentment with what is and what has gone. This mental state of happiness is crucial to proper physiology as evidenced by the last several decades of research concerning neuropeptides. It has been shown that we produce certain chemical when a given mood or emotion is being experienced. These chemicals lead to proper immune functioning, digestion, elimination, hormonal secretions, and so on when the person is content or happy.  More typically, however, we make changes and adaptations reluctantly and at wide intervals—usually based upon desperation or inspiration. In the former case, health is so poor and life so unfulfilling that we are desperate for any improvement. On the other hand some are inspired by example to improve their life. Unfortunately, these intervals do not reflect the on-going changing needs of life—minute to minute, hour to hour, day to day, year to year. It’s also important to understand that balance and happiness are not goals of life.  Rather they are the expression of a way of living--concerning both how, when, and what to do.  So, in conclusion, our discussion has intended to inform the intellect, that entity which is trying to figure out everything and direct everything, that life doesn't need to be figured out--it just needs to be experienced through on-going self-awareness—living in the now/present.

The ideal day might look like this:


(C) Copyright 1994 Michael Dick All Rights Reserved