by Greta Kent-Stoll, CAS
BALANCE IS RELATIVE
Have you ever wondered why some people run warm and some run cold? Or why one person loves spicy food and another one can’t stand hot spices? Or why some people are always mellow and calm and others are prone to nervousness and stress?
The Ayurvedic answer is easy–it’s because we are each a unique balance of the three doshas or mind-body types. Ayurveda is the ancient healing system of India, and rather than being one-size-fits-all, it is highly individualized. Since no two people are exactly alike, it follows that no two people should eat exactly alike. By teaching us to better understand ourselves and our true nature, Ayurveda gives us the tools to live in greater health and harmony. In this article we will explore some of the basic underpinnings of this ancient life science.
All things in nature are made of the five elements: earth, water, fire, air, and ether. This teaching is shared by both yoga and Ayurveda and is a qualitative understanding of ourselves and the world around us. The five elements combine to form the three doshas, or constitutional types: vata, pitta, and kapha. Understanding the underlying associations of the five elements helps us in understanding the doshas and most importantly, what the doshas mean to us. The five elements exist in a very real way, and they represent certain qualities within us and in the world around us.
THE FIVE ELEMENTS
Ether is perhaps the most elusive element, but in many ways, it is the most important because it is the container for the other elements, and represents that which connects. Ether is the space between. In yogic thought, ether is also connected to our sense of hearing. Someone who is etheric demonstrates qualities such as being imaginative, expansive, subtle, dreamy, and perhaps elusive or passive at times. Ether is the lightest and most subtle of the five elements. It represents connection and possibility.
In many ways, earth is on the opposite spectrum from ether, as it is the heaviest and most tangible element. A person who demonstrates a lot of earth element is someone who is methodical, reliable, stable, and perhaps stubborn. Earth represents the qualities of solidity and stability and relates to the sense of smell.
Water represents receptivity and flow. It corresponds to our sense of taste, as one cannot taste properly without adequate saliva. People with a lot of water in their constitution strongly show traits such as compassion and empathy, as water is also connected to the emotions.
Fire represents light and transformation. It is illuminative and purifying, which benefits people with a predominantly fire nature in their ability to be perceptive and logical. Fire also relates to vision. It gives us the power of sharp vision on a physical and mental level.
Air is the principle of motion and it correlates to our sense of touch. People with a lot of air element in their constitution like to move, and they tend to move quickly and easily. They are also quite bubbly and enthusiastic by nature.
THE THREE DOSHAS
The five elements are the building blocks of our constitution and when they combine, they form three unique forces called the doshas. Dosha literally means ‘fault’ or ‘mistake,’ but the doshas are not problematic in and of themselves. They are only problematic when they accumulate to excess. We each possess all three doshas, and we are each made up of a unique balance of the three. The exact balance varies a bit from person to person, but generally, each of us predominates in one or two of the doshas.
VATA: LIGHT AS A BUTTERFLY
Vata is composed of air and ether. Since air and ether are light, dry, mobile, subtle, and cool by nature, vata manifests these qualities. These qualities show through both psychologically and physiologically in people with a vata nature. Lightness and mobility of mind coalesce to create enthusiasm, inspiration, and creativity. These are some of the healthy and positive aspects of a vata mind. However, when vata becomes out of balance or excessive, symptoms such as anxiety, nervousness, and insomnia abound.
Furthermore, a typical vata body is also light, mobile, dry, and cool. This means that vata types tend to have skin, hair, and eyes that run on the dry side. “V types are usually thin and have trouble gaining weight…Their bodies are usually narrow in the shoulders and hips and their joints often make a cracking noise when they move them” (Svoboda, 1999, p.45). Vatas typically like to move but don’t have very good stamina, and their build is usually on the lighter side, with less muscular development. Some other issues related to excess vata include constipation due to internal dryness, poor circulation, tremors, and any type of degenerative illness.
PITTA: DETERMINED AS A BULL
Here we liken pitta dosha to a bull because there is an inherent fierceness and determination to pitta types. Pitta is made of fire and water, but this dosha is definitely fire powered! “They apply the same intensity and competitiveness to everything they do, in work or play…” (Svoboda, 1999, p.46). Pittas are hot and fiery and this shows up in their physique, speech, and personality. Some other qualities that describe pitta are sharp, oily, and intense. Sharpness shows up in terms of angular features i.e. well-defined cheek and jaw bones, as well as in sharp speech and a sharp intellect. Pittas can be quite intense as well. They are often very driven by their careers and hobbies and are not afraid of competition.
Since pittas have the fire element on their side, they tend to have a warm and robust circulation. a rosy complexion, and a strong appetite. The upside of pitta dosha is personality traits such as courage, leadership, discipline, and friendliness. However, when the fire runs too hot, pittas may become sharp-tongued, judgmental, and hot-tempered. Other health imbalances related to excess pitta are acne, inflammation, rashes, and any condition that involves redness or infection.
KAPHA: PATIENT AS A TURTLE
Kaphas certainly have patience on their side. Of the three doshas, kapha types are less prone to stress and tend to be slower moving, stable, and methodical in their approach. This is because kapha dosha is comprised of earth and water, so it is stable, moist, smooth, and heavy.
Kapha types tend to have thick, smooth skin, abundant hair, strong and sturdy teeth and bones, and large, attractive eyes. “K eyes are large and liquid, sometimes blue but more often milk chocolate in color. Their calm, cool, stable strength made the Ayurvedic texts compare them to the eyes of a deer or the petals of a lotus” (Svoboda, 1999, p. 36). Kaphas can certainly boast stress resilience and good endurance. They are also generally nurturing, compassionate and maternal/paternal. However, when kapha becomes excessive some resulting problems include lethargy, excess mucus, low-motivation, swelling, and weight gain.
Reading over the above description of vata, pitta, and kapha, you may particularly resonate with one or two of the doshas. It is important to know that we all possess all three doshas. Your unique constitutional makeup depends on which dosha(s) predominate in you. As an Ayurvedic practitioner, I regularly give Introduction to Ayurveda talks in my community, and one question that attendees commonly ask is, “Do I want to be an equal balance of the three doshas?” The answer is no.
You want to be exactly who you are, with the caveat that it’s best if you seek to be a pure, clear reflection of your natural self. So, if you are a vata type, it is not advised to try to become a kapha. However, if you have excess vata which is causing nervousness, dryness, constipation, and insomnia, that excess dosha needs to be addressed. This principle holds true regardless of the aggravated dosha.
YOUR BODY HAS AN AMAZING CAPACITY TO SELF-HEAL
A key Ayurvedic principle is that your body has an amazing capacity to self-heal. This means that your physiology naturally seeks health and homeostasis. However, depending on how you treat your body and what you feed it, you have the ability to either assist or inhibit the natural healing process.
Dovetailing this principle is the idea that harmony leads to health and disharmony leads to disease, meaning that if you live and eat in a way that is harmonious, the net result will generally be good health. However, if you make choices that take your body and mind out of harmony, the result will be ill health sooner or later, particularly when those transgressions are repeated over time.
“So, what does it mean to live in harmony?” you may be wondering. There are some ground rules that apply to everyone, such as eating meals without distraction, not overeating, and getting enough sleep. Yet, Ayurveda is also highly
individualized and though all things in nature are right for someone, nothing is right for everyone. A food that is medicine to one person may be like poison to another. I am speaking a bit in hyperbole, but since Ayurveda helps us to understand our unique nature, it teaches us the foods, herbs, and practices that are most balancing for our particular constitutional type or dosha.
HOW TO EAT FOR VATA DOSHA
Since vata dosha is light, cool, and dry in nature, it naturally follows that those of predominant vata nature should focus on a diet that is warm, heavy, and moist. As one of my dear Ayurvedic teachers, Mary Thompson taught us, the mantra for vata is “warmth, oil, and regular routine.” Foods such as ghee, dates, oatmeal, and root vegetables will help ground vata and balance out their light, dry, cool, and sometimes erratic nature.
Vatas are also prone to nervousness and digestive irregularities such as gas and bloating. Making sure that they eat regular meals, eat in a calm setting, and have mostly well-cooked food will help prevent disturbances to both their digestive and nervous systems. Taking a little Digestive Ghee with their meals is an especially good idea for vata. Ghee helps balance agni and increase food absorption, and cinnamon, cardamom, and ginger are all great for balancing digestion and calming gas and bloating.
HOW TO EAT FOR PITTA DOSHA
“P people should avoid sour, salty, and pungent, the ‘hot‘ tastes, and should concentrate on sweet, bitter, and astringent, the ‘cold‘ tastes. If [vata] should especially avoid caffeine and sugar, [pitta] should especially avoid meat, eggs, alcohol, and salt” (Svoboda, 1999, p. 60). Since pitta is hot and fiery by nature, it is especially important for them to focus on a diet cool in energy. Pitta friendly foods include cucumber, cabbage, cilantro, aloe, leafy greens, avocado, and coconut.
Coconut Ghee and Indian Dessert Ghee are both especially nice choices for pitta dosha. Coconut is quite cooling and the spices in the Indian Dessert Ghee are also cooling and pitta pacifying. Fennel is great for pitta because it stimulates the digestive fires (called agni) without overheating pitta. Saffron in particular is one of the best blood and liver purifiers for pitta dosha (Lad, 2009).
HOW TO EAT FOR KAPHA DOSHA
Since kapha dosha is cold, heavy, and moist in nature, the kapha diet should be light, dry, and spicy. Kaphas typically do not require as many calories as vata and pitta. A healthy kapha may do well to eat just one or two square meals per day and sip on spicy teas or room temperature spicy vegetable juices between meals. Some kapha balancing foods include popcorn, black pepper, cayenne, buckwheat, spinach, turnip greens, lentils, and thin, brothy soups (Lad, 2009).
One of the beautiful things about ghee is that it is tridoshic, meaning that it works well for vata, pitta, and kapha. Garlic Ghee and Italian Ghee are two good choices for kapha dosha, as all of those spices are quite warming and stimulating, which kapha dosha needs.
REMEMBER THE BIG PICTURE
In conclusion, there are few key points to take home. First of all, it’s important to remember that we are each a unique balance of the three doshas. Rarely is someone a pure stereotype of one dosha. Finding perfect balance is a dance and a journey that is meant to be enjoyed! In this article, I have given you a glimpse into Ayurveda and the three doshas, but Ayurveda is an ocean of wisdom and full of nuance. It is always helpful to consult with an Ayurvedic practitioner to get more insight into your particular constitution.
Lastly, there is a saying in Ayurveda that “how you eat is as important as what you eat.” No matter what is on your plate, always eat with a sense of awareness and gratitude, and your body will be better prepared to enjoy and assimilate all that it is taking in. Food is just the beginning. You can start to explore the qualities of all that you take in through your five senses, remembering that with every bite, breath, and action, you have the chance to move toward deeper well-being.
Halpern, M. (2012). Principles of ayurvedic medicine. Nevada City, CA: CA College of Ayurveda.
Lad, U. & V. (2009). Ayurvedic cooking for self-healing. Albuquerque, NM: The Ayurvedic Press.
Svoboda, R (1999). Prakriti: your ayurvedic constitution. Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.
Greta Kent-Stoll’s mission as an Ayurvedic practitioner is to inspire, educate and heal through the wisdom of Ayurveda. Her practice, Asheville Ayurveda, is located in downtown Asheville, North Carolina. As an avid student and practitioner of Iyengar yoga, Greta recognizes the deep and inseparable connection between yoga and Ayurveda. She received her training and title of Clinical Ayurvedic Specialist through the CA College of Ayurveda, and is also registered at the Practitioner level with NAMA, the National Ayurvedic Medical Association. Greta has published in the Ayurvedic Journal of Health, is on staff with the American Herbalists Guild, writes monthly for the Herbal Academy’s Herbarium, and is an intern supervisor with the CA College of Ayurveda. For more on Greta’s Ayurveda practice, please visit http://www.ashevilleayurveda.net/.