This clear, nicely written introduction to Ayurveda originally appeared here in Elephant Journal on January 27, 2012. It is written by Emily Alp, who studied ayurveda with Balance co-owner Jessica Blanchard.
When I start describing them, so many people become instantly intrigued about Doshas. Yet there is always a moment where I just trail off and can’t really give a person a solid takeaway. Through this article, I aim to share some analogies that might stick just enough to open your doorway to a science that is well worth learning about, especially if you regularly practice Yoga.
One caveat: I’ve taken two Ayurveda intensives, both under Ayurvedic practitioners. While I’ve learned and read a lot on this subject, I do not claim to be an expert. Yet, this is on target since Ayurveda is not about relying on an expert over the long haul. It is a science based on observation, and it encourages people to take more responsibility for their health based on a sense of empowerment about how to approach it. These are my observations of myself and others as filtered through what I have learned.
The literature on Doshas is extensive. Some writers, like Robert Svoboda, are absolutely genius at taking a reader’s hand and walking them back into the sensitive recesses of the Ayurvedic collective mind to where the concept of Doshas began. And in these recesses is where the seeker finds the power that Ayurveda grants anyone willing to take it up.
Yet still, how can you describe it to someone who doesn’t have time or the faith to pick up a book about it? Here’s a start.
You will find the definitions of the Dosha “types” to be generalizations, because they are. Just as multiplication, division and fractions are simplifications of math when you consider calculus, Doshas are simple, yet highly-practical, entry points to a complex and sophisticated approach to health. To take this journey, you must start somewhere.
While you favor one Dosha or perhaps two, it’s impossible to categorize yourself as one alone. You and everyone represents a very unique interplay of a specific Tri (3) Doshic constitution and your life is a constant fluctuation of these Doshas, inspired by environment, behavior, diet, and your Prakriti (see last Ayurvedic definition, inborn tendency in favor of one or two Doshas). The seasons, the times of day, the people who you surround yourself with will all affect this Doshic ecosystem. One thing is almost always certain however: Everyone has a predominant Dosha (and usually a sub-Dosha that is almost, if not, as influential if aggravated) and this, once identified, is a good place to start looking inward. Ayurveda provides guidelines about this ecosystem; it is a Sanskrit word that means “The study of life,” which encourages everyone (not just doctors) to start studying their own, unique life!
The idea for this analogy came when I was practicing Tratak one night before bed—the exercise where you gaze at the flame of a candle.
I sat there looking at the candle and realized that it was the best example I had seen of what Doshas are. (I’m pretty sure I’m not the first person to come to this conclusion.) Essentially, Vata is air and ether (space) which is surrounding the flame and embedded in the dry wick that carries the fire (Pitta), which is sustained and fed by both Vata and the solid oil pillar (Kapha).
When you think about the interplay of these three elements in a candle, it is much easier to get your head around what is happening with the Doshas when they swing out of balance. What happens for instance when the winds and air movements (Vata) pick up around a flame? Depending on its strength the fire (Pitta) can become more intense, somewhat out of control, or it can be blown completely out. What happens to a fire (Pitta) when you burn the candle down to the metal at the base of a pillar? It starts to die down. What happens when there is too much wax (Kapha)? The flame can dull because the wick becomes so saturated that it won’t light.
Vata (“I Move”)
Vata is considered the master Dosha because it governs air and space and essentially allows for and exists as movement. When you encounter big changes, when you (are female and you) have your period (as hormones encourage a movement of substances down and out of the body), when you are overworked, when you travel (excessive movement across time zones), when you eat foods that contain a lot of air (beans) or are dry (dried fruits, chips, etc.), this Dosha can become aggravated.
What does this mean, Vata is aggravated? A description of a predominant Vata constitution is in order. Someone with predominant Vata is described (generally) as always moving (in thought or action), rarely able to keep a routine (for eating, sleeping, sex, work, anything), thin and wiry, dry in their skin, hair and nails and often close to burnout! They say yes a lot because they hate confrontation (blocking movement). They say yes to external demands so much that they forsake a routine. What happens then? They become depleted. They become sick. They become resentful but rather than confront it will instead allow it to weather them. They tend to age prematurely. Their biggest need is for routine but it is something that they’ve become allergic to, to the chagrin of their (weak) inner fire (Pitta) and lost (low-weight) sense of groundedness (Kapha).
Pitta (“I Burn”)
Routine, sustenance, self-care, are all essential to keeping the flame (Pitta) burning bright. Predominant Pitta types are the masters of routine—they intuitively know that if they skip a meal, that flame will be compromised. They become grouchy when hungry, aggravated when pushed off schedule. They need breakfast as soon as they step out of bed. They know their exact energy limits days in advance based on the schedule they’ve created. They tend to be pointed in their words, frank. Commander types.
When Pitta is pushed out of proportion, through any combination of hot foods, meats, overwork (excess Vata/wind in the form of unstoppable mind chatter), competition, excessive and overblown attachments, the person’s temperament is not unlike a ready flame on a candle, jumping to bonfire proportions. Pita types can easily lose their identity in achievements, anger, activity, approvals.
The weight of a Pitta type is steady without much fluctuation over time. They have a hard time achieving a twiggy-model look because it is against their energetic build: Their digestive fire is hot and requires regular fuel replacement so they can’t forget about food easily. However they are also much less prone to balloon out or retain a lot of fuel, given that strong fire and the activity level that is its natural outgrowth.
A Pitta type has a hot temper; they burn things that interfere with their trajectory. But this heat, this flare, is very quick to die down again, and you will often find this person apologizing (for what a Vata and Kapha type would consider quite a swing off the handle) and seemingly forgetting the magnitude of what happened. The feeling, the whole scenario is way in the past by two hours on! But not everyone is like this; some are prone to hold a grudge to their graves …
Kapha (“I Sustain”)
Predominant Kapha types are prone to grudges and even depression. They are the most grounded, steady, conservative members of the Dosha family with endurance both Pitta and Vata could only dream about. They are solid, dependable, manager-types because they don’t overspend their energy. Yet, just the same they tend to retain or hold on to weight, grudges, possessions, beliefs, goals, institutions, relationships, etc. Indeed, for all this stability is the tendency to get too static, to settle in a bit too much and run into a cycle of hording and self-comfort, eating fatty foods, meats and dairy, all of which exacerbate the Dosha (overflow the wax) more!
The flame is greatly reduced in the overweight types, and the Vata can become a mistaken form of movement (recycled thoughts and patterns)/identity—the person lives in their mind, without proper digestive or initiative fires to help them move, refresh incoming information, and integrate into the real world.
Delight for an excess Kapha depends on external comforts—food, sex, drugs—all of which are temporary highs that degrade the individual in the long run, burying a wick of life until it’s two inches deep in the wax!
Your Own Candle
With this analogy, you can start to take a look at your Dosha profile. There are numerous websites with Dosha tests out there. I like this one in particular as it gives you a pie chart after you answer all of the questions. I encourage people to take this test every few months for a year, especially if you live somewhere that features a lot of seasonal climate fluctuation. You might be surprised to see that one Dosha rises in response, depending on the season.
If you can find a good Ayurvedic practitioner, it’s worth it to go to them early one morning and ask them to assess your constitution. Early morning is a time when you are most natural. Your voice pitch, your pulse, your tongue, your fingernails, these things and more will be looked at as well as how you conduct conversation. A good practitioner will pick up on your Prakriti right away .
Looking at your predominant Dosha, you can start to fold some of the above information in and see if it resonates. Look then to the second most prominent Dosha in your makeup. See what resonates there. Then consider them mixing, in terms of the candle analogy. Just as important, consider them affected by different elements of your environment: the food you eat, the weather, the company you keep, the stress of your job or lack thereof, the time of day (Doshas dominate four-hour stretches of time in rotation, two times each per 24-hour period). These are all very important factors that constantly change and, while it might seem a lot to monitor, your self-care response to these will become more intuitive as your awareness rises.
Example of mixed Dosha, generalized: If you are a Pitta type with a Vata sub-type, you run less of a chance of burning out and more of a chance of burning up, losing your temper more often, ect., since Pitta is really instilled and Vata is more influential upon it. If you are Vata with sub-type of Kapha, you need to watch your flame, make efforts to incorporate activity. Computer programming for endless hours might be what you want to do but try to jump in the pool or go for a jog to stoke the fire.
Everyone wants to know about diet. According to Ayurveda, food can either be sustenance, medicine or poison. This has a lot to do with quantity consumed and time food is consumed. Cold foods in general are discouraged but may be taken in moderation. High noon is the time on the clock which is governed by Pitta so lunch is advised as the biggest meal of the day and the one meal that may contain any kind of animal protein. In the morning and at night, the governing dosha is likely to be Kapha so meat and heavy foods are discouraged. Everyone says breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but this is a gross generalization that does much to perpetuate the idea that we are all exactly alike, physiologically, which is, frankly, wrongheaded!
Ayurveda helps illuminate your body and your life as it is. If you are a Kapha type, you likely don’t want to eat breakfast until about 10 a.m. (mid morning), and that is encouraged as it is part of your natural rhythm reflecting the time when your inner fire is strong enough to break down the food. Pitta, again is hungry close to awakening, and a nice light, but substantial, meal is suggested. Pitta types are not advised to snack; this really dampens their fire. Vatas are advised to eat lighter meals throughout the day, snacking but according to a routine. My sister is a Vata type and I call her my little bird.
As for which foods are appropriate for which Doshas, the best thing to suggest on this front is that you go online and search the foods appropriate for your Dosha (Google “foods and doshas”). Note: these aren’t gospel so much as guideposts, and if you study further the basis for the food suggestions, the process of selecting what is right for you becomes more intuitive and accurate. Massive changes to your diet are not in order and would do more to confuse your sense of reflection than anything. Imagine yourself a scientist. You decide “hey, bananas are heating and aggravate Pitta if eaten daily, let me cut down and see what happens.”
Test different foods in different seasons as well. Weather changes, job changes, partner changes, these things can all affect your Doshas. Notice how you feel when you eat at different times of the day.
Couple examples of what I’ve noticed in me: I can’t eat soy during my period—it’s Vata aggravating and upsets my stomach. It’s also full of natural estrogen, which could be another issue. I really can’t snack, because I get indigestion and feel toxic. I am predominant Pitta with a Vata sub dosha. If Vata is quite aggravated, I can have light fruit snacks or (cooling!) nuts to build myself back up and feel more grounded. Certain fruits and milk products cause water retention and weight gain in me, as they aggravate the Kapha I do have. Seasonal changes to cooler, dryer weather throw my Vata off; Yoga workshops (wherein a lot of talking takes place and I’ve usually skipped over five or so time zones) do too.
I love this underrated topic, and I’ve learned so much, and changed so much, along these lines due to Ayurvedic teachings. I used to do the Master Cleanse (no solids for ten days), which I can totally back for some Doshic constitutions … and discourage highly for others. I did it four times. I mean I really gave it everything. But I always felt I was hanging on by a string of dental floss by day 10. In reality, nobody with a Pitta-Vata or Vata constitution should do such an intense, i.e. no solid foods, fast for more than a few days. They simply transition to quickly into a wasting-away state.
To clear up the system and brighten the flame, appropriate fruit and vegetable fasts are good for Pittas for a few days as long as is tolerated. Kitcheri fasts are good for Vatas to neutralize the system and bring it into balance. Kaphas are the only ones who can tolerate the Master Cleanse, at length, and who actually benefit most from it. They do well to shed the waste they’ve conserved and some of the extra pounds they may have as well. And this is akin to clearing away that pool of wax that has saturated the top of the wick. You can then find the flame grow up again, the activity level rise, the depression lift, what have you.
In the End
Ayurveda is born from thousands of years of observing the lives of countless people in different environments. This article barely scratches the surface in terms of principles and terminology associated with how food and environment impact individual ecosystems. In essence, Ayurveda is an information ‘gold filter’ that you can put into your consciousness and use with ever-increasing precision as you observe yourself and research your health over the years, through the seasons and changes. The priceless bits of insight are what you capture when your experience passes through this filter. Use them, and they will make adjustment to change, and adaptation to life, more automatic.
An important phrase in Ayurveda (just as it is in Yoga): “Try the modification and see.” The greatest thing I ever learned in an Ayurveda lesson was that the wise doctors say: 80 percent of the time, try to follow the rules and the other 20 percent throw them out the window, because the stress of trying so hard will kill any benefit! I must also quote a beloved Indian thinker, Jiddu Krishnamurti, and say: “I feel that no one can lead another to truth, because truth is infinite; it is a pathless land, and no one can tell you how to find it.” I am just sharing thoughts; if they resonate with you, they were yours to begin with, so you own them.
My Favorite Resources (I am not getting any payment or any kind of kickback to endorse these, or any article or resource linked above; I’ve just found them very useful!)
Prakriti: Your Ayurvedic Constitution by Robert Svoboda
Eat-Taste-Heal: An Ayurvedic Cookbook for Modern Living by Thomas Yarema, Daniel Rhoda and Johnny Brannigan
My Teacher, Jessica Blanchard, who runs a Yoga and Ayurveda center in New Orleans and is informed beyond my imagination on this topic
For kicks: What’s Your Dosha, Baby? by Lisa Marie Coffey, with a forward by Dr. Vasant Lao