Beautiful synchronicity has been showing up in my life lately. Teachers, podcasts, books, and new educational endeavors are revealing to me: we can trust in the elements. The air, the water, the fire, the earth and the ether– with observable qualities that exist as the building-blocks of our being. Traditions of philosophy and medicine around the world have for millennia acknowledged these forces as vital factors in the analysis of health, in treating disease, and bringing balance to daily life. Ayurveda has such a system, and it is known as “tridosha”– where the attributes of the 5 elements are grouped into 3 categories known as the doshas: vata, pitta, and kapha.
The literal translation of the sanskrit word dosha is “imbalance” or “disturbance.” But there is not an adequate word to translate the other layers of its meaning, which encompass an aspect of organization. “Dosha,” thus, refers to how patterns of elemental energies appear in all beings.
In popular western-wellness culture, we might hear people ask, “What’s you dosha?” Often what we mean when we say this is, “What’s your constitution?” or, “What’s the elemental-makeup of your being?” As an Ayurveda counselor, when we want to determine a person’s dosha, we look at various distinctions in physical features, personality, and lifestyle that point to which elements are naturally predominant, and also which are appearing out of balance. Knowing this can give us the key to discover what shifts may be implemented to support a maximum enjoyment of health and wellbeing.
So, let’s explore the details of the doshas so we are better able to recognize how they exist in our bodies!
There are 3 doshas: Vata; Pitta; and Kapha.
VATA is comprised of AIR and ETHER (SPACE). It has the qualities of lightness, dryness, brittleness, coolness, and movement. When air and ether energies are in their most benefic expression, they are called Prana— the life force; they are our breath, our clarity, creativity, intuition, communication, and dreaming. When out of balance, air and ether express as the vata qualities of anxiety, worry/fear, scatter-brain tendencies, the feeling of being “ungrounded,” and physical disturbances such as constipation and weak bones. Vata harnesses the elemental power of movement, and this can support us in “thinking outside the box,” “taking a leap,” and “exploring our boundaries.”
PITTA is a manifestation of FIRE and WATER. (Water, in this case, relates to the liquidy nature of oils and acids.) Pitta qualities include hot, sharp, spreading, light, and slightly oily. When the fire element is in balance, Ayurveda refers to this as tejas— the luminous quality we see in glowing complexions; vibrant energy; magnetism; being “on fire” for life. When out of balance, these same elements can express as anger, violence, sharp pain, heartburn, or inflammation. Pitta harnesses the fire of metabolism, and helps us digest not only our food but also information, and supports our learning and quick thinking.
KAPHA is the energy of earth and water. Kapha is slow, smooth, moist, gross, dense, hard and soft, and other such qualities of this nature. The benefic aspect of these elements is known as ojas— luscious beauty; the erotic energy of the ever-unfolding present moment, the nectar of life; the fertility of Mother Earth. When out of balance, kapha shows up as lethargy, sluggish digestion, depression, attachment, and congestion in various senses of the word. Kapha harnesses the energy of structure and lubrication, and brings balance, sweetness, dependability, sexiness, and that grounded-calm vibration.
Using our innate sense of how these elements function in nature, we can apply this logic to our bodies and how we exist in our environment. In order to stay balanced on the inside, we need to consider what’s going on outside of us. Day to day and season to season, we learn to observe the natural cycles that exist, and begin to align our lifestyle choices accordingly.
For example, I grew up in Maryland, where the four seasons showed up distinctly: autumn was chilly and dry; the winters were wet and cold; the spring began to warm us up; and summers were roasting. Naturally, warm soups and spiced ciders appeared as we descended into shorter days and longer nights. And when the sun was high in the sky, we were eating juicy fruits and lounging around in the shade during the heat of the day. When we listen to our bodies, we know instinctively what the body needs to balance the constant flux of hot and cold, of wet and dry, heavy and light, and so on.
These pairs of opposite elemental qualities are known in Ayurveda as “gunas,” meaning “qualities.” It is helpful to consider these when we follow this natural law: “like increases like.” So, doing the opposite will help to reduce a quality that may be running wild. For example, if our skin is dry, flaking, and cracking, we can alleviate our discomfort with warm sesame oil, some self-massage, followed by a bath to support maximum absorption of all the oil’s nutrients into the largest organ of our body (our skin). How wonderful to receive this nourishing prescription to heal an ailment!
Such is the approach of Ayurveda. Yes, Ayurveda does have a branch that involves more invasive approaches through surgery; but these approaches come after other lifestyle changes have been addressed. It is said in Ayurvedic philosophy that all disease comes from “ama.” “Ama” is like a toxic sludge formed from undigested food that can build up and overflow from the digestive organs and into the other tissues of the body– the lymph, the blood, the fat, the muscle, the bones, the nerves, and the reproductive fluids. The more efficient our digestion, the less likely we are to develop disease.
Thus, addressing the health of our digestion comes first and foremost! How does the food we eat and the fluids we drink support the balance of the elements in our body? We can observe when a dosha is signaling to us that a change is in order when we feel physical sensations in our body, or see a change in the color of our skin, or notice a shift in our energy. Ask yourself, “What is my body trying to communicate?” It may start as a whisper, for example, with some tightness in the low back (the region of vata)– physical symtpom that is requesting more moistening foods and diligent hydration. If we don’t heed the call, the signals may get louder, and show up in different places, in chronic ways.
If you grew up in western culture, like me, perhaps you’re familiar with the “quick fix” mindset. You know, “Take a pill to ease the pain.” There’s certainly a place for western and eastern medicine to meet one another; I have great respect for the life-saving potential of modern medicine. But, if anytime we feel discomfort we are inclined to take over-the-counter painkillers, we cut off our body’s channel of communication. Then how can we sense when something is out of balance and requiring a shift in our behavior? This doesn’t mean we have to suffer in pain. Rather, an evolution of our perception toward these sensations must occur. Our pain is requesting our nurturance, our attention. Our body just wants our love. Our response to our body’s request can be another question, “What do you need? What can I give you?” Often the answer is: more love, more self-care.
Well, apparently this exploration of the doshas has turned into a proposal to spend more time loving-up on yourself– with colorful, seasonal, fresh foods and digestive-supporting spices; calm moments in the morning, during meals, and in the evening– to relax the nervous system and allow our bodies to “process” everything we absorb through our 5 senses (see my post about this process here); and to speak to yourself in an attentive, compassionate, and loving way.
The more I learn about Ayurveda, the more I realize I truly hold the key to my own optimal wellbeing. It does take practice, dedication, and discipline. (One nickname for Ayurveda is “slow medicine.”) But day by day, it becomes part of our way of being. Our relationship to healthy eating feels more like magic instead of a restrictive diet. Like, “Wow, if I just sprinkle a bit of this and add a bit of that, my belly feels happier and my skin is glowier!” We’ll be pleasantly surprise that changes happen quickly. With a little curiosity, openness, compassion, and love, we are soon well on our way to vibrant health, joy, and contentment.
Want to learn more? I’d love to hear from you! Email me at CourtneyGyoga@gmail.com