The three Doshas in Ayurveda – Vata, Pitta, Kapha

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As we have seen, each of the three doshas—vata, pitta, and kapha—is associated with a fundamental principle of reality: vata with movement, pitta with transformation, and kapha with stability and sustainability. Vata includes subtle movement like that of prana, thoughts, and emotions. Pitta refers to the transformation of food and fluid into energy and nutrition but also to how we process and digest experiences, thoughts, and emotions. Kapha is the physical structure of our being. It is our muscle and bone as well as our ability to be present and comfortable in the body. It deals with holding, both form and energy, and it is associated with memory.

Without movement there is no breeze, no flow of rivers, no tide, no pollination, no circulation, no respiration, no ambulation. Without transformation there is no heat, no digestion, and no chemical reaction. Without stability there is no medium for these processes to occur, a vessel for them to occur within, or a cohesive force that holds the space for them to function.

Each of the three doshas is a combination of two of the five elements: a dynamic or more yang element, which is the element primarily responsible for the functioning of the constitutional aspect or dosha, and a more yin, static, or passive element, responsible for being the vehicle or substratum through which the dosha operates. This is a major reason that the Chinese and Indian systems aren’t completely aligned in terms of the elements and constitutional factors.

Vata is a combination of space and air. Pitta is composed of fire and water. Kapha is water and earth. Space is inert, and vata moves through space. Think of air moving through the space of the sky or through the space in the intestines. Protective prana, or wei qi, moves through the cou li, the space beneath the skin. Because the more active element, air, best connotes the function of vata, it is sometimes considered the most accurate word to use when referring to the vata dosha. It is important to note, however, that what we normally think of as air is not all of what vata is, and the word is far too limited to express vata completely. Still, it is the best word we have in modern common vernacular, although people also use the terms wind and breath.

In terms of the pitta dosha, fire is controlled by water, yet utilizes it as a medium to protect the tissues from excess heat or inflammation. Without water, pitta is dry fire raging out of control. With too much water, transformative processes are dulled or inhibited. One quality of pitta, or agni, is its ability to spread. The consistency of pitta is more oily than watery. Fire is the word most often used interchangeably with pitta.

The kapha dosha is considered more water than earth in Ayurveda because water carves its way through the earth, and so earth is the vessel for water. Water is naturally cohesive, and because this concept of cohesion is a great descriptor for kapha, water is the element most often used to describe it.

In Ayurveda, there are three single type constitutions—vata dosha, pitta dosha, kapha dosha—which are the predominant types, six dual type, or dual dosha, constitutions, and one type of constitution where the three factors are in equal proportion called the tridoshic constitution. Again, all the elements, and therefore all the constitutional factors are present in every person, but in different quantities and qualities.

Vata Dosha

The vata dosha is movement, and it designates how and where things move. It is responsible for the smooth flow of qi and blood throughout the mind/body complex, and it initiates the heartbeat, the breathing rhythm, and the blinking of the eyes. It also governs the nervous system, circulation, respiration, elimination, energy movement, pranic pulsation through the bodily and mental channels, and transportation and exchange of information. This information exchange can be in any context. It can be information flowing between the brain and body, between people, between cells, or at cell walls. Any time something moves or is transported from one place to another, it is governed by the vata dosha.

In Ayurveda, vata is a combination of air and space. The vata dosha can be said to be elemental air flowing through elemental space. This could be electrons flowing around an atom, nerve impulses streaming through synaptic space, weather patterns traveling through the Earth’s atmosphere, electromagnetic energy surging through the connective tissue, a football flying through the air from the quarterback to the receiver, and gas being passed through the large intestine. Any context in which something travels or moves through or to something else is a situation where vata is present. If you associate movement in your life with vata on a regular basis, you will internalize and clearly comprehend what vata is, and you will perceive ever subtler implications of vata in your body, mind, and in the world.

Remember the twenty gunas, or attributes, of nature? These attributes do not exist separately from the matter they are associated with. The attributes for vata are: mobile, cold, light, dry, rough, subtle, flowing, hard, and clear. These attributes may manifest at times in some ways and not in others, and in some ways more than others. For example, not all vata types will have dry hair or rough skin. Just like a substance of primarily one or two elements may not exhibit all of the attributes of those elements, the same is true for how the doshas may manifest in an individual. Also, like increases like. This means that if there is an increase in any of the attributes of vata in diet, mentality, or environment, the vata dosha will increase in the individual.

Vata individuals tend to be tall and thin, with a fine bone structure, and they are inclined to have dry skin, hair, and nails. Their skin may be rough as well as dry, their hands and feet may be cold, and their joints tend to be flexible. Their energy usually comes in bursts, with alternating periods of fatigue. Vata types are creative and like to be on the go; they love change and movement. They are also creative, airy, social, empathic, and forgiving. A stereotypical vatapredominant individual would be a professional ballet dancer. They are long, light, lean, flexible, agile, and always moving.

Vata folks tend toward changeable moods, cracking joints, and darker complexions. Their faces are usually thin, bony, and elongated, and their eyes are usually small and can be bulging or deep set with thin, scanty lashes and lids that blink frequently. Their teeth tend to come in crooked or protruding, and they tend to have thin, coarse, brittle, or wiry hair that’s dark in color. They may have prominent veins close to the surface of the skin. Vatas have little perspiration. Compared to the other doshas, they tend to have a lower libido and to walk and speak quickly. They are typically light sleepers and usually get only five to six hours of sleep a night. Their dreams often consist of fears, flying, falling, climbing, running, and jumping.

When in balance there is a sense of going with the flow; bowel movements are regular, and digestion is good. Thoughts and emotions come and go with ease, and the body is limber. When out of balance, vata can manifest as muscle tightness or tension, mobility issues, pain, gas, constipation, twitching, spasming, nervousness, fear, anxiety, sleep disturbances, scattered thoughts, a lack of concentration, follow-through, or grounding, and dry hair, skin, nails, and mucous membranes.

Because like increases like, aspects of our environment may increase or decrease the vata dosha. For example, desert environments will increase vata because deserts are dry, rough, and even in warmer climates have an aspect of coldness at night. Likewise, certain times of the year will increase the vata dosha. Doshas accumulate, aggravate, then stabilize at a subtle, yet deep level with the Earth’s journey around the Sun and the change of seasons. Vata begins to accumulate in early summer, from May to July, when the sun’s rays dry spring’s dampness. The body is naturally weakening, and the digestive power has waned considerably compared to its strength in the winter. Vata then fully aggravates in late summer, from July to September. Vata naturally begins to balance back out in the fall from September to November, which is the beginning of the hydration period in the yearly cycle.

This may not make much sense at first glance because the leaves dry out and fall to the ground in autumn, while summer is more associated with warmth and humidity. One may think of vata as aggravating in the fall instead of calming. This is not the case, however, according to what is prevalent at that time of year at the clinic. The Earth itself is hydrated from late summer to late winter and is dehydrated from late winter to late summer. This hydration/dehydration cycle forms the foundation for the accumulation, aggravation, and balancing of the doshas. From mid-January to mid-July, the sun’s rays and the wind’s sharp velocity and dryness absorb the moisture from the earth. The Earth itself, whether through winds or solar radiation, progressively dries through the late winter, spring, and summer. This dryness creates more weakness.

In terms of the time of year from the Earth’s perspective, a gradual drying begins and the days get shorter leading to a decreased sun exposure. Dryness increases vata, as does decreased sunlight. Many factors can cause vata aggravation in other seasons, but in a healthy individual living a balanced life according to the seasons, late summer is the worst time for vata aggravation. Winter’s stillness, naturally occurring tendency toward introspection, moisture, heavy foods, and increased internal fire and appetite help to balance vata at a deep cellular level.

The times of life are also attributed to each dosha, and vata’s time is later in life. Beginning around age fifty, sometimes earlier, vata qualities increase in our bodies. Our hair, skin, nails, and mucous membranes begin to thin and dry. Our muscles, joints, and skin begin to lose their elasticity. Sleep disturbances increase, and the older we get the more varied and feeble our appetites become. Our bones become brittle with the onset of osteopenia, and later with osteoporosis, our memory fades, and we become slower mentally and physically. We lose muscle tone and weight, becoming lighter, and we feel the cold more markedly, another indication of high vata.

As this vata-dosha-predominant drying, decaying process continues, our movements may become involuntary, and we may shake from some type of tremor disorder. High vata in the joints creates pain and cracking, and anxiety, also a vata predominant condition, increases. Later in life we naturally withdraw our senses from the external world to focus on the internal world. It is traditionally a time of self-reflection, awareness, and realization in Ayurveda and in India as a whole. As we age past the childrearing years there is a natural progression toward thinking less about what we can achieve or attain and more about what we are leaving behind as we look toward our own mortality. This can be a difficult process, but if we learn to embrace it, it can provide a great deal of freedom.

We cannot stop this process from occurring, but we may be able to slow or mitigate its effects so that our quality of life is better. Treatments for vata balancing are located in the second part of this book. It is important to note that whichever doshas are predominant in you are the ones most likely to go out of balance. And those that are out of balance are more likely to be more heavily disturbed at those times in life that are dominated by that dosha. For example, the vata time of life will most likely be more uncomfortable for someone of a predominantly vata constitution or with a chronic vata derangement than for someone who is primarily of a kapha or pitta constitution.

The body has a daily clock, and in four-hour increments, twice a day, one of the doshas is predominant. Vata times are 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. and 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. From 2 a.m. to 6 a.m., the nervous system begins to stir. It is the best time to wake up and to tone the nerves and the mind through meditation, yoga, or a good walk in nature. From 2 p.m. to 6 p.m., vata is again dominant, and you are more mentally alert as the nervous system is at its most active. Abundant creative energy flows and is more easily accessible. This is a good time to write, paint, sculpt, and problem solve.

Pitta Dosha

Pitta is the universal law of transformation in Ayurveda. Pitta governs the transformation of food into energy and nourishment, the transformation of thoughts and ideas into knowledge, and the transformation of emotional energy into clarity and inner peace. The gunas, or qualities, that amplify pitta are: hot, light, oily, sharp, spreading, and liquid. Pitta is a combination of fire and water in Ayurveda. The right balance of fire and water needs to be maintained or problems could result. Without enough water, fire can rage out of control and consume bodily tissues. Too much water can put a damper on fire and cause issues like diluting digestive enzymes, which causes malabsorption.

Mentally, pitta types are fiercely intellectual, and they love learning. They have a tendency toward short tempers, frustration, anger, and irritability. They are usually drawn to athletic pursuits, and are the type A kind of personality. Whatever they do, they strive for perfection. They always have a goal and are not shy about moving toward it, regardless of who or what they need to plow through on their way. They are witty and extroverted with a keen intellect and well-formed opinions. Their sharpness can translate into a sharp tongue, meaning they can be overly critical and judgmental. This judgment turned inward fuels their type A tendencies.

Pittas have a medium build compared to vata (thin boned) and kapha (larger boned and sturdier). They tend to have heart-shaped faces and sharp facial features with ruddy complexions. Their noses and tongues tend to be pointy, and their voices tend to be loud and sharp. Their hair is thin, and they tend to go gray or lose their hair early in life. They are prone to skin ailments like psoriasis, acne, rashes, oily skin, and eczema. They can also have an inclination to develop mouth sores and bleeding issues. Pitta types usually have lighter hair and eyes. They also have strong appetites and digestion. Don’t get in their way in the buffet line if it’s past their meal time! They can get pretty cranky if they haven’t eaten.

Due to their fiery nature, pitta types tend to run warm and be prone to any kind of burning disorder, such as heartburn or acid reflux. Any inflammation in the body, including tendonitis, bursitis, colitis, or any other “itis,” can have a pitta imbalance or displacement as a primary causative factor. Other burning sensations can be brought on by their love of all things hot. They aren’t just lovers of spice, but of spicy hot. They may sweat easily and if they do, it may be smelly. Because of their tendency to feel a good deal of stress they may be drawn to alcohol or overexercising to release the pent-up tension. They are passionate people and may also be interested in adrenaline-junky activities to calm their minds and fulfill their desire for a challenge.

Pitta’s seat in the physical body is mainly in the small intestine. This is indicative of its relationship to digestion. Hydrochloric acid balance in the stomach, bile secretions from the liver and gallbladder, and enzymatic activity in the intestines are all governed by the pitta dosha. These are strong, sharp, penetrating substances necessary for cutting through, dissolving, and transforming the food and drink we consume. Pitta types’ strong intellect is just as cutting, clear, and discerning.

In terms of seasonal cycles, the pitta dosha accumulates in late summer, from July to September. It gets aggravated in autumn, roughly from mid-September through mid-November, and calms down in early winter, from mid-November through mid-January. As the watery aspect of the yearly Sun, wind, and Moon cycle increases, so too does the watery aspect of pitta. This can affect digestion negatively leading to the poor breakdown of food and poorer assimilation of nutrients.

Many people teach that summertime is when pitta aggravates, but this is only true if people engage in unbalanced, pitta-aggravating lifestyle activities. The sunlight is strongest at this time, and traditionally people exercised or did outdoor activities very early in the morning to avoid being active in the hot sun. This is not so in our culture these days. Pitta is related to the blood, and sunbathing or exercising in the sun, which we are prone to do to in the West, can aggravate the blood. Also, the digestive power is weaker in the summer than in the winter, and if any meals are eaten improperly in the summertime, it can more easily affect agni.

Proper food combining is largely ignored, and foods that are difficult to digest or that should be eaten alone are often combined during the summer, further taxing the digestion. Being in the sun alone can tap a lot of the body’s strength and cause exhaustion and throwing enzymeinhibiting iced products on top of a naturally diminished digestive capacity only exacerbates the effect. Smoothies, shakes, ice cream, sugar, iced coffee, iced tea, melon mixed with other fruit, fruit mixed with yogurt, alcohol, late nights, early mornings, and being out in the sun all day are all things that aggravate pitta in the summertime. But that doesn’t mean summer is the time of year that pitta aggravates according to ritucharya, or seasonal cycles. Pitta aggravates naturally in late fall and early winter. There are a lot of inflammatory and autoimmune disorders in our culture that seem to peak in the autumn and early winter. It makes one wonder how much of it could be alleviated if we lived in accordance with nature instead of doing the opposite of what we “should” be doing seasonally.

The pitta time of life is roughly puberty to menopause. This hormonal time brings with it many issues related to heat in the body, including anger, frustration, an explosive temper, premenstrual syndrome (PMS), heavy menstrual bleeding, hormonal headaches, sweating, acne, a lack of impulse control, and a strong libido. It is the time of life when we are most driven—learning, working, providing for a family, and setting oneself up for the vata time of life: retirement. People who are of a strongly pitta constitution will have a greater tendency for disturbance and discomfort in the pitta time of life.

Pitta times of day are 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. The best time to eat the largest meal of the day is between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. because digestion is the strongest when the Sun is highest in the sky. The nighttime pitta cycle is a great time to be asleep. It is the time the liver is most active in its role of purification and detoxification. Bodily energy is better used for this purpose at this time of night than for anything else.

Kapha Dosha

Kapha is a combination of earth and water in Ayurveda. Because earth is inert, kapha is mostly associated with the quality of water. Water lubricates, moistens, contains information, and carries the vata dosha’s electrical impulses. At a molecular level, water’s primary quality is cohesion. Similarly, kapha’s watery influence is about holding or drawing together to itself, and the presence of the earth element creates stability. The attributes, or qualities, of kapha are: stable, cool, oily, heavy, cloudy, gross, dull, slow, and smooth. Remember that these qualities in the environment or one’s dietary intake will increase the kapha dosha.

Kapha types tend to be short, curvy, and attractive. They have large, beautiful eyes and lustrous thick hair. Their skin tends to be fair and smooth, and they may have strong white teeth. They have hardy constitutions and a large bone structure. They like order and routine, and are regular in eating habits and elimination. Kapha-dominant people exude peace and stability. They tend to be good, patient listeners, although they can get a little aggravated with someone whose vata is very unbalanced. Their stoic, strong nature makes them solid, loyal friends and trustworthy individuals others feel are “always there for them.”

The stable, heavy, dull, slow nature of kapha can cause laziness, sluggishness, and weight gain. Kaphas love sweets and crave baked goods, breads, and pastas. Unfortunately, they don’t quite have the metabolism to process these things without easily putting on weight or becoming mucusy. They are prone to mucus build up in the head and chest. Kapha’s main seat in the body is the lungs, and they are therefore prone to upper respiratory infections including coughs and colds, as well as seasonal allergies and breathing issues like asthma.

The kapha time of year begins in late winter, from January to March, when it starts to accumulate. It aggravates in the spring, between March and May, and begins to calm as drying vata accumulates in the summer, from May through June. While kapha is accumulating we become more mucusy and may start craving lighter foods. When kapha aggravates, it’s the optimal time to do a cleanse. This is because the toxins that built up all year internally are being pushed out through the mucus membranes along with the increased mucus. If one is properly guided, one can detoxify harmoniously without damaging any doshas or dhatus. This is important as improper attempts at detoxification, fasting, or dieting can unbalance the doshas. Kapha calms down in the hot, dry summer, from mid-May to July.

The kapha time of life is from birth to about age twenty-five. It overlaps with pitta time during puberty. Early life is kapha time because it is a time of growth and development when nourishment is most important. Kapha is viscous, heavy, smooth, soft, and slow. Think of a baby with all that chubby baby fat and all the mucus secretions. Little children are always getting sick with coughs and colds. The focus at this time of life is on nourishment, enjoyment, play, and sleep. Themes that occupy this time of life are contentment, possessiveness, and dependency, and issues may include obesity and difficulty getting up in the morning. Remember kapha’s heavy, slow, dull aspects. At the kapha time of life these are all helpful for nourishing and developing, but they have a flip side if play isn’t active and diet and movement aren’t balanced.

The kapha time of day falls between 6 and 10 a.m. and 6 and 10 p.m. In the morning, it is best to wake before kapha time. Otherwise, because of kapha’s heavy, dull, slow nature, it may be difficult to wake up. If we don’t wake before 6 a.m. we may keep hitting snooze button and feel groggy and crave caffeine when we do wake up. Between 6 and 10 p.m. we should be taking advantage of the qualities of kapha and begin to settle for bedtime. Interestingly, cortisol levels start dropping at this time of day so it is also considered a good time to settle down from the perspective of Western science.

How to identify Doshas

AYURVEDIC DOSHA CONSTITUTION QUIZ

Category Vata Pitta Kapha
Build Thin Athletic Stocky/solid
Height Tall or very short Average Shortish
Eye shape Deep/sunken, small Average/ thin brows Large, attractive
Eye color Dark brown Green, hazel, gray, light blue Soft blue or light brown
Eye movement Darting, nervous Penetrating, sharp Soft, calming
Nose Crooked/uneven, possible deviated septum Long, pointed Short, rounded
Teeth Protruding Medium size, yellowish Strong white
Mouth Small Medium size Large
Lips Dry, cracked Red Full, smooth
Face shape Narrow long Heart shaped Round, full
Hair color Dark brown, black Fair, blond,  red tones Brown
Hair texture Coarse, brittle, easily knotted Fine, straight, soft, gray, bald Thick, lustrous, wavy
Skin texture/ temperature Thin, dry, rough, cool to touch Warm to touch, sweats easily Smooth, thick, cool to touch
Complexion Dark Rosy, freckles, easily irritated, burns easily Pale
Weight Difficult to gain Easily gain or lose Easily gain, difficult to lose
Joints Protruding, crack a lot, hyperflexible Medium, fairly flexible Strong dense
Nails Dry, rough, brittle, breaking Sharp, flexile, healthy Thick, smooth, shiny
Belly button Irregularly shaped, may bulge in places Over, superficial Deep, round
Bowel movements Irregular, prone to constipation Regular, prone to loose Regular, formed
Diet/appetite Can forget to eat, skips meals, grazes Strong appetite, gets cranky fast if hungry Tendency to overeat, can feel heavy after eating
Temperature Cold, cold hands and feet, sensitive to wind, prefers warmth Warm, runs warm, likes cool weather Cool, dislikes cold and damp weather and humidity
Sleep Irregular, light, easily wakened Less than 8 hours but sound Likes to sleep, sleeps deeply, slow to wake
Speech Rapid, quick Penetrating, sharp Slow, deliberate
In conversation Changes topics Intellectual/teaching Supportive, listens
Movement Quick Intentional Take your time
Financial Spends frivolously Pampers self Saves
Negative emotions go to Fear, anxiety, nervousness Anger, jealousy Sadness, clinging, attachment
Reaction to confrontation Flight Fight Freeze
Intellect/memory Quick to learn and to forget Intellectual, loves learning and knowledge Good memory
Natural state Free spirit/creative Keen intellect, motivated, determined Calm, serene, homebody

 

 

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