In this section I want to take a more detailed look at the doshas and the constitution. Understanding your constitution is central to understanding Ayurveda and your health. The details below are metaphorical descriptions of nature that relate to your individual and unique health.
THE DOSHAS: The three humours: Friend or Foe?
“ Vata, pitta and kapha move in the whole body producing good or ill effects upon the entire system according to their normal or provoked states. Their normal state is prakriti and their abnormal state is vikriti” Charaka Samhita
What is a dosha?
You read the term dosha in the press quite frequently these days. There seem to be lots of body care products, teas and therapies for the dosha, but what on earth are they and how can they help you?
Dosha is the Ayurvedic term that generically describes our inherited traits, individual characteristics and tendencies. This refers to such things as the body frame, eye colour, digestive capacity as well as emotional balance. We all have a different balance of the doshas. For example, some of us are tall others short, some can’t bear the cold and others dislike the damp. The constitution is fixed at birth but some traits have a tendency to accumulate. If this accumulation does not leave the body through the normal routes (stool, urine, sweat), it increases. This, according to Ayurveda, is the cause of most disease. Despite this tendency to veer out of balance the doshas offer much potential for health and vitality, if they are cared for properly!
The doshas are not physical entities but subtle by-products of the cosmic evolution of the five elements- see the section on the introduction to Ayurveda.. You cannot see them. You can only know them through inference as they manifest through the products of disease; such as phlegm, swellings, inflammation, bleeding, nervous imbalance and dry skin. In perfect health they remain blissfully out of sight.
The meaning of ‘dosha’
‘Dosha’ is described and translated in many different ways; ‘constitution’, ‘functional principle’, ‘humour’. I am going to call them ‘humours’ as it is the nearest English word that describes them. ‘Humour’ comes from the Latin ‘umere’ and as the doshas are semi-liquid and all flow and this is an apt description. There are three humours (tridosha: vata, pitta, kapha) that we will discuss in detail below. Your constituition is described in terms of the doshas.
Your constitutional make-up means your inherent nature (prakriti). You have a mental nature (manas prakriti) as well as a physical humoural constitution (dosha prakriti). When the humours are balanced the dosha prakriti brings you health and support. Conversely, when there is an accumulation of a particular dosha (or doshas) an aggravated state of the humours (dosha vikriti) arises. This brings ill health. It is important to note that it can be easy to confuse vikriti with prakriti as many health imbalances are appear on the surface. We will look at this further below.
The literal meaning of dosha is ‘fault’. This comes from the Sanskrit ‘dush’ meaning error and relates to the prefix ‘dys’ (from the Greek), as in dysfunctional, dysentery or dyslexia. The word dosha is commonly used to refer to the three humours of vata, pitta and kapha. It is also occasionally used to describe other physiological functions such as disrupted tissues, wastes as well as specific disorders.
It may seem ironic that the constituents of an individual’s physiological constitution should be referred to as destructive ‘faults’. Yet Ayurveda clarifies this irony through its broad approach to understanding the processes of the body-mind.
THE THREE DOSHAS: Tridosha
VATA: The vata dosha is comprised of ether and wind. Each dosha contains aspects of all the five elements but space and wind are predominant in vata. Vata is the air element that is held within the confines of ether. It shares qualities familiar to each element. So, vata is cold, light, rough, mobile, subtle, clear, dry and astringent. When vata manifests these qualities are apparent. The primary site of vata is the colon. It also resides in the bladder, thighs, ears, bones and the sense of touch. The root ‘va’ means ‘to spread’ and it is responsible for all movement in the body; the flow of breath and blood, elimination of wastes, expression of speech, it moves the diaphragm, muscles and limbs, regulates the nervous system and it also stimulates the function of the intellect. It is like a current of electricity and is responsible for regulating all electrical impulses in the body-mind. It is the messenger. In fact without vata the other dosha are inert. As it is said in the Sharangadhara Samhita “pitta is lame, kapha is lame. They go wherever the wind takes them, just like the clouds.’ Because of this dynamic function an aggravated vata is often involved in the movement of the other dosha around the body.
There are five sub-categories of vata, called the five winds (panchvayu):
These regulate inhalation and swallowing, circulation of blood and the messages from the nervous system, speech, digestion in the centre of the abdomen and excretion of urine, wind, stools, menses, sperm and babies respectively! Vata is busy. Hence it directs all the products and functions of movement in the body
We will look at these specific aspects of vata in more detail in a few weeks
Vata is aggravated by astringent, bitter and pungent flavours (as they all increase dryness), at the end of a meal, in the early morning and evening (‘windiest’ and lightest times), by fear and insecurity, in early autumn and spring, at the later stage of life (the driest stage), by excessive movement, by a dry and cold climate, by going to bed after 11pm. Dry foods, such as popcorn aggravate vata, as do dry natured foods such as pulses.
We will look at antidotes to these aggravating factors later.
PITTA: The pitta dosha is made up of fire and water. The seemingly contradictory combination of fire and water to form pitta is actually complimentary. Pitta exists as water or oil in the body, thus preserving the tissues from the destructive aspect of fire.
It is pungent, hot, penetrating, oily, sharp, liquid, spreading and sour. Its primary function is transformation. It is the force of metabolic activity in the body associated with the endocrine function, hormone levels, digestion, body temperature, visual perception, hunger, thirst and skin quality. Mentally it plays a role in understanding and in digesting sensory impressions. Again, the five aspects of pitta determine its location in the body. It resides in the eyes, blood, sweat glands, the small intestine, stomach and lymph. Its primary site is in the small intestine.
The five types of pitta are:
They regulate sight, the heartbeat and ability to discriminate between different pieces if information, the function of the liver, the quality of the skin and digestion in the stomach and small intestine respectively.
We will look at them in more detail soon.
Pitta is aggravated by pungent, salty and sour flavours (as they increase heat), in the middle of a meal, at midday, by anger and irritation, repressed emotions, in summer, from adolescence to middle age, from excessive ambition and in a hot and damp climate. Hot and oily foods like garlic and fried foods disturb pitta.
As it is summer at the moment you need to be especially careful of aggravating pitta. Keep off the chillies, fried foods, salty foods and keep up the fresh juices, water and steamed vegetables.
Over the coming weeks I will introduce complete life-style recommendations for each constitution and season.
KAPHA: The kapha dosha is a combination of the earth and water elements. As the water element it is contained within the earthen structures of the tissues and skin, the dry earth is moistened by the reviving water element. It is slow, heavy, cool, dense, soft, oily, sticky, cloudy, liquid and sweet. Kapha literally holds the body together. It is cohesive, gives shape and form, aids growth and development, lubricates and protects, helps smelling and tasting. It relates to phlegm in the body. It resides in the chest, throat, head, pancreas, stomach, lymph, fat, nose and tongue. Its primary site is the stomach.
Its five aspects are:
They regulate the experience of taste, the cerebrospinal fluid and white matter in the brain, the synovial fluid that nourishes the joints, the lubrication of the lungs and heart and the protective lining of the stomach.
Kapha is aggravated by sweet, sour and salty flavours (as they increase moisture), at the beginning of a meal, morning and afternoon, by greed and possessiveness, in winter, in childhood, from a damp and cold climate and from sleeping in the day.
Unfortunately, the UK is very heavy in kapha tendencies. The weather is often wet and cold and our diets are high in bread, dairy products and beer. Delicious though they are these foods all increase mucus and congestion in the body. More about this later…..
By understanding the characteristics of the doshas and constitutions you can help your health, adjust your exercise and diet according to your needs, understand your partner’s and friends nature and help their health, and work more individually with people and yourself to achieve optimum health.