Understanding the Doshas: the Basic Building Blocks of Ayurveda

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Recently I received an email asking if I would explain more about the doshas, Vata, Pitta and Kapha. In answer to that request, this week’s blog will be a review of these fundamental principles of Ayurveda.

Ayurveda refers to five basic elements that make up all of nature: space, air, fire, water and earth. These five elements combine in different ways to create the building blocks of physical creation, the three doshas: Vata, Pitta and Kapha. Vata is a combination of air and space. Pitta is a combination of fire and water. Kapha is a combination of earth and water.

We can think of the three doshas in terms of broad functions: motion, energy production and structure. Vata is the dosha that is expressed in all motion. Pitta is the dosha that is expressed in metabolism, heat production, digestion and energy production. Kapha gives solidity and structure, and balances the fluids.

If we consider our own physiology, we know that we have numerous systems that involve motion: impulses traveling through the nerves, the circulation of the blood, and the progress of food through the digestive tract, for example. Those are the Vata aspects of our body. Our physiology also has its energy components: the metabolic processes, the enzymes (which digest the food and extract energy from it) and the cells’ energy-producing chemical reactions. These are the Pitta aspect of our physiology. And finally we have our solid physical structure: the bones, muscle, fat and flesh: the Kapha aspect.

More specifically, let’s look at a single cell in our body. The cell wall and all the fluids that make up the cell are the Kapha aspect of the cell. The movement of nutrients and information that comes to the cells, sustaining the cell and making it function properly, can be seen as the Vata aspect of the cell. And what the cell does with those nutrients or information, the chemical reactions within the cell, those are the Pitta aspects of the cell.

Obviously, everyone needs all three of these principles in order to sustain life. However the balance of these three, the ratio of Vata, Pitta and Kapha, can differ in each individual. Ayurveda recognizes that not all individuals have the same doshic balance. Just as we know that different types of plants require different ideal growing conditions, in the same way, different body types require different diets and lifestyles to maintain perfect balance and health. The disruption of one’s inherent internal balance plays a basic role in the formation of disease. If one’s natural balance can be maintained, immune strength is maximized and degeneration is minimized.

The three doshas operate throughout nature:

The food that we eat has qualities of Vata, Pitta and Kapha. Ingesting those foods will bring their predominant quality of dosha into our physiology.

There are Vata, Pitta and Kapha times of the day. Every 24 hours we cycle through the influence of the doshas in 4-hour increments. Each time period is dominated by one of the doshas and is influenced by the qualities of that dosha. For example, between 6 and 10 in the morning, Kapha dosha predominates. The qualities of Kapha include heaviness and structure. If you are up, exercising or active during this time, you are making best use of the qualities of that moment. If you sleep into this time period, you may wake up feeling sluggish and heavy and your internal systems will not be as effective throughout the day.

There are Vata, Pitta and Kapha seasons, or times of the year: Summer increases Pitta dosha, dry cold weather increases Vata dosha, and cold, wet weather increases Kapah dosha. Eating hot, spicy foods in summer can boost the already increasing qualities of Pitta and could lead to imbalances such as skin rashes, acid indigestion, or inflammation.

Environments reflect qualities of the doshas. In an ecosystem, Vata is expressed in the wind and motion of water currents. Sunshine and fire are obvious examples of Pitta. Kapha is expressed in the solid structures—rocks, earth and even bodies of water.

Even the times our lives are influenced by doshas. Early childhood is all about structure. Therefore, Kapha needs to be the dominant dosha at that time. Bones are growing, muscles and organs are expanding. This explains why children tend to produce more mucus and why we have the term “baby fat”. But when we reach puberty, there is a marked shift toward a more Pitta dominated functioning. When we reach our 50s, Vata begins to dominate. The body produces less oil, there can be a lessening of flexibility and the bones can become more brittle.

When consulting with any individual, an Ayurvedic expert first determines one’s natural balance and whether one dosha (or combination of doshas) is out of balance.  Recommendations will then be made in order to normalize the imbalance. This imbalance in the doshas, combined with any accumulation of toxins in the body (referred to as Ama), is seen to be the root cause of disorders and disease. By attending to these underlying distributions in the balanced functioning of the physiology, one can produce lasting improvements and strengthen the system as a whole. This approach supports the prevention of recurrences, as well as eliminating current problems. For example, for certain individuals, if Kapha can be balanced, allergies will not return.

Traditional Ayurvedic texts associate each dosha with specific qualities based on the elements that constitute the dosha. Vata is associated with “cold, dryness, speed and lightness.” Pitta is associated with “heat, sharpness, and acidity.” Kapha dosha is associated with “cold, heaviness, oiliness, and slowness.” Ayurveda recommendations are based on the principle that similar factors cause an increase in the dosha and that opposite factors cause its decrease. For a Vata disorder such as lower back pain, one might be recommended to use, among other treatments, warm oil on the back to reduce the cold, dry qualities of Vata. For a Pitta problem such as hyperacidity, one might be told to avoid hot spicy food and to use other Pitta-reducing treatments.

The first question an experience Ayurveda expert asks in not, “What disease do you have?” Rather, the primary question is, “What predominant balance of the doshas is natural for you? And how far away from that nature balance have you gone?” In the same sense, there are few “bad” foods in Ayurveda. It is more a question of how does a particular food affect your balance of doshas and does it help or hinder your goals to maintain vitality and good health.

Panchakarma treatments, the traditional purification and detoxification therapies of Ayurveda, are always prescribed individually. The Ayurveda expert has to take into account the doshas that are out of balance and also the build up and location of impurities in the body. While sesame oil is often the preferred oil for massage (because its penetrating quality carries the herbs deep into the tissues of the body) it also has a heating quality that may aggravate Pitta dosha. In cases where Pitta is out of balance, a more cooling oil may be used. In the same way, certain treatments may be more apt to pacify one particular dosha. The ultimate goal is to remove blockages that disrupt the proper functioning of the body’s own healing mechanisms and to help return the doshas to their natural balance.

At  The Raj Ayurveda Heath Spa, we have seen guests find relief from a variety of different disorders. It is not that Panchakarma treatments “cure” specific disorders, but rather that when the body’s own healing mechanisms are no longer blocked and the doshas are balanced, the physiology becomes free to do what it does best: heal itself.

For more information on consultations and Panchakarma treatments, visit The Raj Ayurveda Health Spa web site:

www.theraj.com

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