THE DOSHAS: The three humours: Friend or Foe?

In this edition I want to take a more detailed look at the doshas and the constitution. Understanding your constitution is central to understanding Ayurveda. It can also benefit your yoga practice as it can help you to make your practice specific to you.

“ 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 knowing about them 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- Space, Air, Fire, Water and Earth. 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’ meaning ‘fluid’ 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 I will discuss in detail below. Your constitution 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 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 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.

As we saw in the last edition of Spectrum some of the hatha yoga texts mention the doshas and how they can be removed from the system. Some more examples are where
Mahayogi Gorakhnath gives the medical benefits of four pranayamas in the Yogabija (102-112) as:

1. Suryabhedana stops vata problems in the stomach and prevents throat trouble.
2. Ujjayi stops kapha problems in the throat, increases jatharagni, stops
problems in head, belly and the tissues.
3. Sheetali stops imbalances of pitta, i.e. fever
4. Bhastrika balances all three doshas, increases jatharagni, awakens and
straightens kundalini, destroys kapha in brahmanadi (presumably sushumna) and pierces the three granthis (knots).

Below is a more detailed look at the doshas and some of the yoga postures that can help you to keep them balanced.


We looked at vata in the last issue of Spectrum, but its so important and so frequently imbalanced by our frenetic 21st Century lifestyles that I thought we should go over it again.

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, a bit like a windy day. 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):
Prana: Moving inwards
Vyana: Moving outwards
Udana: Moving upwards
Samana: Moving across
Apana: Moving downwards

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. Its connection with prana as a whole is reflected in the primary importance of breathing practices in yogic tradition.

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.

Yogic ways to antidote these obstructions to the smooth flow of life are

Warming, stretching, calming Nadi Shodhana Antarmouna Trataka
Shashankasana Ujjai Basti
Padmasana Brahmari Ajapa japa
Surya Namaskar; slow, with mantra Surya Bheda Pratyahara
Backward bends
Pawan Mukta Asana 1, 2+ 3
Inverted to treat apana vayu

Look back to the Autumn 2003 edition for other tips to help balance vata.

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, a bit like a hot curry! 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:
Alochaka: In the eyes
Sadhaka: In the mind
Ranjaka: In the liver
Bhrajaka: In the skin
Pachaka: In the stomach and small intestine

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.

Some yoga practices that can help to reduce pitta:

Chandra Namaskar Sheetkari Antarmouna Kunjal
Surya Namaskar Sheetali Dhauti Nauli
Veeparit Karani Ujjai Shankaprakshalana
Sharvangasana Trataka

How to balance pitta: As pitta is ‘hot’, ‘oily’ and ‘intense’ it is aggravated by these tendencies. It is best balanced by their opposites: cooling, calm, loving, compassionate, moderation.

Less pungent, salty, sour foods (chillies/spices, salt, fermented foods- ie alcohol, pickles)
Less aggression, competition
Less hot environments

More sweet, bitter and astringent foods (grains/fruits, asparagus/lettuce)
More cooling drinks- rose water, peppermint, coriander
More calming massage with light oils- almond, coconut, grapeseed
More compassionate meditation and uncompetative yoga.

Pitta is alleviated by clearing pachaka pitta from the digestive system by using purgatives and cholagogues such as Amalaki, Neem, Triphala.

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, a bit like ice cream! 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:
Bhodaka: In the tongue and taste buds
Tarpaka: In the mind
Sleshaka: In the joints
Avalambaka: In the heart and chest
Kledaka: In the stomach

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.

How to aggravate kapha: is aggravated by sweet, sour and salty flavours (as they increase moisture), at the beginning of a meal, morning (6-10am) and evening
(6-10pm), by greed and possessiveness, in winter, by a cold, heavy and wet natured diet, in childhood, from a damp and cold climate, sleeping in the day, lack of movement and laziness. Because ‘like attracts like’ there is a natural tendency to be attracted to these.

Unfortunately, the UK is very heavy in kapha aggravating 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.

Some kapha relieving practices are:

Surya Namaskar: Sun salutation: fast Surya Bheda Chidakash dharana Neti
Pashchimottanasana: Forward stretch Bhastrika Antarmouna Kunjal
Yoga mudra Ujjai fast, bija mantra Nauli
Shalabhasana: Locust Agnisara

How to balance kapha: As kapha is ‘slow’ ‘damp’ and ‘heavy’ by nature and has a tendency to be attracted to and therefore increase these qualities it is best balanced with opposites: increase movement, activity, light diet, warm environment, less oils/fats, more dry foods and environments.

Less Sweet, Sour, Salty foods (sugar, yoghurt, salt)
Less Cold, refrigerated, Damp, Wet food (ice, dairy, out of season fruits)
Less inactivity

More Bitter, Astringent and Pungent foods (Asparagus, tea, spices)
More exercise, dynamic behaviour- astanga yoga, metabolic exercise
More giving, sharing, letting go
More heat, saunas, deep massage with drying powders, mustard oil
More drinks of hot water and spicy teas.

Kapha is best treated by focusing on clearing mucus from the stomach and lungs-expectorants; Long Pepper, Ginger, Pepper, Trikatu

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 students’ Ayurvedic nature and help their health, and work more individually with people and yourself to achieve optimum health.

Sebastian Pole Lic OHM is an Ayurvedic and Chinese Herbalist using Yoga therapy in his clinical practice. He has trained with the Satyananda School of Yoga.
He runs Pukka Herbs specialising in Organic Ayurvedic herbs, teas, capsules and tinctures. View for lots of information on Ayurveda.
Contact: 08456 585858.
He has a busy Ayurvedic herbal practice in Bath: 01225 466944.

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