by Carrie Demers, MD

One of the most helpful concepts in Ayurveda is the premise that each of us has a particular constitution or “type” and that good health comes from living in harmony with it. Ayurveda sees all of creation as being made of five basic elements: earth, water, fire, air, and space. These elements condense and combine into what are known as the doshas, or elemental energies. Earth and water create the kapha dosha, water and fire make up the pitta dosha, and air and space merge to create the vata dosha.

Each of us has a particular combination of vata, pitta, and kapha that gives us our specific talents, strengths, and vulnerabilities. This unique nature is called our ayurvedic constitution, or prakriti in Sanskrit. Understanding our constitution and how to keep it in balance enables us to improve our health and well-being. We’ll explore the gifts—and the challenges—each of the doshas brings, and we’ll provide a dosha quiz to determine your own constitution.

Vata Dosha – Air & Space

If you consider the qualities of air and wind, you describe the characteristics of vata. Think about it: “What does wind or air do?” The characteristics of vata are cooling, drying, mobile, and changeable. It is also sensitive, light, and expansive. Therefore, those of us who have vata strongly in our constitution are likely to have the following qualities:

● Tend to be cold, and prefer warmer weather
● Overall dryness; may need lotion and to get plenty of water
● Like change, and can be averse to schedules
● Very mobile (e.g., love to travel or may have flexible joints)
● Lightweight and thin bodies
● Creative and open-minded
● Sensitive nervous systems or may experience outside stimuli as magnified

When vata dosha is in balance, it guides all of the movement in our bodies—blood flow, peristalsis (movement of food through the GI tract), nervous system activity, and train of thought. When vata is imbalanced, or in excess, its own natural qualities are amplified—we become colder, drier, and more unstable. This can manifest in the following symptoms:

● Creaky, stiff, or painful joints
● Chronic pain (such as neck or back spasms)
● Irregular digestion with tendencies towards bloating and constipation
● Bone loss
● Incontinence
● Insomnia
● Anxiety

Vata excess happens more easily to those who have a vata predominance in their constitution. However, it can occur in any of us as a result of stress, lack of sleep, overstimulation, travel, seasonal changes, dehydration, or aging. When our nervous system is disturbed by any of these, vata rises. If the imbalance is short-lived, we may experience a temporary bout of insomnia, anxiety, or back pain. But when the vata imbalance becomes entrenched, symptoms can become chronic and we may find ourselves with diagnoses such as arthritis, osteoporosis, or IBS (irritable bowel syndrome). Vata is the most common dosha to become unbalanced because it is inherently unstable by nature; the majority of diseases involve a vata imbalance of some kind.

Pitta Dosha – Fire & Water

Those of us who have a lot of “fire” qualities are predominantly pitta in our constitution. Think of a campfire and the qualities of that blaze—heat, light, intensity, and pain if you get too close. Ayurveda calls these qualities “sharp” and the following characteristics are likely to be strong in us:

● Hot or easily overheat and sweat
● Oily, fair skin that usually burns in the sun
● Strong appetite; can be irritable when hungry
● Focused and intense mind (organized, efficient, quick-witted, and ambitious)
● Medium and athletic build
● Impatient or sharp when things don’t go right

When pitta is balanced and healthy, it governs digestion, immunity, and all enzymatic transformation. It ensures focused attention, determination, and assimilation of life experiences. When it is out of balance, the heat of pitta accumulates to create more of itself which manifests as inflammation. Common symptoms of pitta excess include:

● Acidity or heartburn
● Diarrhea
● Inflamed joints or joint pain
● Headaches
● Rashes and fevers
● Bleeding tendencies (nosebleeds, heavy menses)
● Irritability

Like all dosha imbalances, pitta excess can be inherent in us or imposed upon us by our family or work situation. In general, our society rewards overworking, success-oriented pitta energy, so it is easy to become more “pittic” than nature intended. Pitta rises in hot weather, at midday, in midlife, and from hot spices. It also increases when we are under pressure or stressed. Temporary pitta imbalances can manifest as any of the above symptoms for a short period of time in response to a stressful event. Long-term pitta aggravation can lead to diagnoses such as rheumatoid arthritis, gastric ulcers, hepatitis, migraines, PMS, or anger issues.

Kapha Dosha – Earth & Water

Imagine putting your hands into rich, moist topsoil—cool, heavy, stable, and nourishing. These are the same qualities often found in those who have kapha as their dominant constitutional dosha. Additional qualities include:

● Cool, oily skin
● Large eyes, thick hair, and white, even teeth
● Inherent stability and good health
● Good memory
● A tendency to look younger than they are
● Resilient to stress and calm under pressure
● Nurturing, loyal, and loving

When kapha is balanced it governs stability of the body and mind, including durability, cohesion, and a sense of groundedness. When out of balance, excess kapha has the potential to cause:

● Excess weight or obesity
● Physical accumulations such as tumors and cysts
● Excess mucus
● Colds and sinus congestion
● Tendency to swell in ankles or other joints
● Complacency and depression
● Possessiveness; a tendency to hold onto things, people, and money

A kapha imbalance is more likely to occur in people with kapha dominance in their constitution and during times when “kaphic” qualities are found in our external world, such as winter, when it’s cold and dark. A temporary kapha imbalance can manifest in the form of congestion, weight gain, or swelling. Long term imbalance can lead to obesity, depression, or chronic sinusitis.

Doshas & You

As you explore the world of the doshas, you may find that you see their qualities clearly in yourself, in others, and in nature. It’s fun to see the inclinations that each dosha imparts to us in terms of our likes, dislikes, behaviors, and even our careers. For example, folks with vata dominance tend to make excellent film producers, graphic or interior designers, and artists in general. They thrive with support for their creative abilities. Pittas typically end up with jobs that require strong linear thinking, such as finance, medicine and other sciences, and law. Kaphas are steady, methodical, and detail-oriented. We think of them in service-oriented jobs where their desire for stability and nurturance is met, like social work, nursing, and management.

When you begin to see the world through this ayurvedic lens, a new understanding of yourself and how you relate to the world will begin to unfold. This post only scratches the surface of doshas; stay tuned for future posts on each dosha and how we can manage the doshas to stay in balance. In the meantime, you might be wondering, “What is my dosha?” Download our dosha quiz to find out which doshas are prominent in you. Already think you know your dosha? Tell us in the comments below.

For Further Reading:

Dey, S., & Pahwa, P. (2014, January-March). Prakriti and Its Associations with Metabolism, Chronic Diseases, and Genotypes: Possibilities of Newborn Screening and a Lifetime of Personalized Prevention. Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine, 5(1), 15–24. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4012357/?report=printable

Hankey, A. (2005, June). A Test of the Systems Analysis Underlying the Scientific Theory of Ayurveda’s Tridosha. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 11(3), 385–390. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/15992219

Hankey, A. (2010). Establishing the Scientific Validity of Tridosha Part 1: Doshas, Subdoshas and Dosha Prakritis. Ancient Science of Life, 29(3), 6–18. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3336287/pdf/ASL-29- 6.pdf

Patwardhan, B., & Bodeker, G. (2008, June). Ayurvedic Genomics: Establishing a Genetic Basis for Mind-Body Typologies. Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, 14(5), 571–576. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/18564959

Purvya, M. C., & Meena, M. S. (2011, January-March). A Review on Role of Prakriti in Aging. Ayu, 32(1), 20–24. Retrieved from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3215411/

Credits:

Featured image by Ryan McKean
Vata clouds by Kaushik Panchal
Pitta sun by David Law
Kapha trees by Filip Zernzevic