Spots of Time

April 27, 2004

Ayurveda and The Three Doshas

"Everything," the petite Indian masseuse said, gesturing for me to remove my clothes. "Everything?" I asked again, sure I'd heard wrong. This was India, after all, a country where women swim fully clothed in their saris and shorts for women are unheard of except for the tourists. "Everything," she repeated, sweeping her hands from head to foot.

The next thing I knew, I was naked, sitting on the edge of a "massage table" and wondering why the woman was putting coconut oil onto the top of my head, in my ears, on the palms of my hands, inside my belly button and on the bottoms of my feet. I was about to get an Ayurvedic massage, and the set up was unlike any massage I'd previously had. Instead of a soft, padded massaged table, there was a hard, wooden, oil-soaked, coffin-shaped slab, with a two inch high rim around it and a two by four across the top 1/4 of it, where I assumed my head was meant to rest. Did I mention that there was no modesty sheet of any kind? How exactly was this suppose to be "relaxing?"

Within a few minutes I understood the hard wooden surface and lack of encumberments - the masseuse was using copious amounts of oil to massage my limbs, so much so that soon I was slithering around on the table like a kid on a "slip and slide." I calmed my modesty insecurities with the knowledge that Ayurvedic massage is part of the five thousand-year-old tradition of Ayuveda, the science of life, prevention and longevity, and quite possibly the world's oldest form of holistic medicine.

Ayurveda is not unknown to western audiences. In the past 10 years it has become somewhat of an "in" concept, especially to readers of women's magazines like Cosmo and Glamour, where the philosophy is boiled down into a breakdown of three body types and the best way to keep each one fit through diet and exercise. This is technically true, but doesn't go into nearly enough depth to make it really valuable for the individual reading the article. Still, it did introduce me to the concept several years ago, and in the back of my head I seemed to remember being classified a Vata - though I have to admit I kind of forgot what that meant.

In "Your Ayurvedic Constitution," my main guide for the details of Ayurveda, author Robert E. Svoboda describes the background of Ayurveda, focusing specifically on the three Doshas, or "faults." These three Doshas are "one of the three forces which binds the five elements - Air, Fire, Earth, Water and Ether - into living flesh" and are classified as Air (Vata), Fire (Pitta) and Water (Kapha). The three Doshas are three forces or energies in the body. You see, when the three Doshas are in complete balance, an individual is healthy. But, as Dosha means "things which can go out of whack" - and most individuals have an overabundance or one or another - it is believed that sickness in most people is caused from an imbalance of the Doshas. This manifests itself as too much air (Vata), too much fire (Pitta), too much water (Kapha), or some combination of the three.

Vata people's constitution is determined by dry, cold and irregular. They are frequently very tall or short, slender, with thin frames and cracking joints. However, due to their addictive qualities, they can also be extremely over or underweight as well. Other characteristics include that fact that Vata's don't usually sweat very much, they have dry, curly or frizzy hair, they have gray, violet or dark brown eyes (sometimes two different colors), they are anxious to eat but their eyes are bigger than their stomachs, they love warm climates, they are light sleepers, forgetting their dreams easily, and in general they remember and forget facts, arguments and compliments quit easily. Vata's are sensitive, high-strung and exceptionally changeable, resisting regularity in their lives. They have high energy, but can burn out quickly. The alternatingly crave companionship or demand solitude. They love to travel for fun, and make friends easily - though these friendships don't always last. They find it difficult to concentrate on any one subject and fail to complete projects.

Vata's are original thinkers. They recognize the need for self-development but are rarely consistent with any one program. They can often be fanatical, joining cults, but quickly switch allegiance to something else before tiring of it as well. Most Vata people are drawn to cats, but dogs are better companions as they add stability and routine to life. Vata people have rapid fluctuations in energy and often have trouble sleeping. They live erratic lives, with changeability being the one word that bests describes them. They need balance and relaxation, but shy away from it. Vata people like change, enjoy new experiences and tend to flit from one thing to another - getting the "new" fix. They tend toward jobs that require large bursts of energy for limit periods of time. They hate routine but need it, as it stabilizes them. They have acute hearing, and are quite sensitive to noise. They think in terms of words, even when they visualize or emote. They usually use words to tie their thinking together.

Vata people, in general, tend to be ok with sweets, dairy (unless they are allergic) and are the only Dosha where meat, in moderation, is recommended. White sugar is poison to them, and they are prone to addition. They do best on cooked veggies, as opposed to raw, and wine is the alcohol of choice, though only in moderation.
Pitta people's constitution is determined by hot, oily and unstable. Pitta people tend to be of medium height, build and weight, gaining and losing weight with ease. Pitta people are usually redheads, or have some red in their hair, sweat even in winter, have hazel, green or light blue eyes, they love to eat all the time and get cranky without food, they like colder climates, they fall asleep easily and remember their dreams, and they remember easily, it is hard for them to forget - elevating grudge holding to an art!

Pitta people are strong and forceful - to the point of domineering. They are practical, believe in fair play, and when in a good mood can exude exuberance. But, when angry, they can be cruel. They make friend easily and are acutely intelligent and tend to be impatient with anyone whose intelligence is not equally acute. They are dedicated to their own self-development, which can become ego-expansive. They stick to their ideas.

Pittas are ideal teachers, because it provides intellectual challenge but not perpetual comparisons. They need sufficient challenge to keep them occupied without the stress of competition. Pitta people are practical, taking Vata's ideas and applying them to real situations. Pittas are visually oriented and easily fantasize - they always see what they think about and use images to relate words and emotions together. Pitta people are impatient, require challenges, but sleep well at night. Intensity and competitiveness are two words which best describe them. Cats are Pitta's best friends, constantly challenging them.

Pitta people, in general, should avoid sour and salty foods, as well as meat. Veggies are good for them, and sweets are ok as well. Coffee should be avoided, but beer, in moderation, is acceptable. Barley is their "super grain."
Kapha's constitution is determined by cold, wet and stable. Kapha people tend to be heavy of bone structure, have shorter fingers and toes, and wider hips and shoulders. They are moderate of size with exercise, but can gain weight easily. Kapha people tend to have dark wavy hair that is prone to oiliness, always sweat, have blue or dark brown eyes, are stable eaters but tend to be emotional eaters as well. They like warm or cool climates, but not the extremes, sleep heavily for hours with peaceful dreams, but tend to feel untested when they awake and have trouble getting up. Though they have trouble remembering facts and figures, once they learn something they never forget it.

Kapha people are calm, quiet, steady and serious. They have patience, fortitude and humility. But, they can be greedy and possessive as well. They have stable personalities to the point of lethargy. They study each subject cautiously before committing themselves. Once committed, however, they are stubborn and will see things through, even to their own detriment. They make friends slowly, but these friendships are for life. They are less motivated for self-devilment than others, are not good fanatics, and their faith can be unshakable - as is their desire to maintain the status quo. They tend to be the most compassionate and maternal of the three Doshas.

Kapha people find large dogs beneficial because both owner and dog need vigorous exercise. Kapha people are great administrators - making businesses they associate with run like a well-greased machine. Competition is good for them, though they find it stressful. Morning is the Kapha time of day and is the hardest time of day for creative ideas. Kapha people are natural athletes but tend to be complacent. They need motivation and stimulation to get them going. Kapha people are more sensual, and feel or sense things - they often think with their emotions and feel the connection between words and forms.

Kapha people should avoid sweet and salty foods, as well as dairy and meat. Dried foods are good for them, as our veggies and spices (except salt). Tea and coffee are fine, and purely Kapha people are the only ones for whom hard alcohol is not poison.

While these are some of the most interesting of the facts about each Dosha, this is by now means an exhaustive list. Still, its interesting to see where you fit – did you find yourself in one or more of the Doshas?
Personally, I am a Vata. You might have guessed this already. :) This was reinforced in my reading of the book, but also in a free Ayurvedic consultation from the Ayurvedic doctor at the yoga ashram. After taking my pulse and asking me a few questions, he said I was Vata, and outlined some of the better choices I could make to limit Vata's affect: eating less dry foods, eating more cooked veggies, including more routine in my life (yeah, right!), etc. It was the reading of the book, however, that made me realize just how much more than my physical body was classified as "Vata." My eating habits, my likes, my dislikes, even the types of career choices I've made in the past, almost all were outlined as typical "Vata" characteristics. In truth, I also found characteristics of "Pitta" in myself - which is quite common and fits in accordance with the theory that few people are purely one Dosha or another, but some combination of two.

Much of the emphasis of Ayurveda comes from food and eating, because food is considered the prana, or life force, nourishing us from the inside. Eating is a sacred act and ingested substances are divided into food, which nourishes; medicine, which enhanced nutrition; and poison, which disrupts nutrition. What makes it more complicated is that one person's poison can be another person's nutrition - that is why you might be able to eat pasta and carbs to your hearts delight, but your best friend does better on veggies and fruits. Each person's constitution is different, even within each Dosha, so some level of experimentation is necessary to determine what the right food (and wrong "poison") are for you. Ayurveda believes that indigestion is the base of all physical disease and the condition from which all others arrive. Fasting is promoted as the ideal to get ride of Ama - the manifestation of physical and mental internal toxins.

Ayurveda is so much more than body types, personalities and food, however. The Ayurvedic massage I had done at the ashram is just one of a host of Ayurvedic treatments designed to treat the whole body, and not just the joint that aches or the face that breaks out. However, as this column is long enough for one week, I'll leave the additional research up to you - if Ayurveda is indeed something that interests you!

My favorite part of the Ayurvedic philosophy - and why I believe there is truth in its methods - is that it realizes that every person is different. That every person has a unique constitution, and that there is no "magic" universal remedy - except self-awareness. Ayurveda believes that every individual is a unique phenomenon, and a manifestation of cosmic consciousness.

Me too.


Special thanks to Jennifer Olive for introducing me to Svoboda's book and to the Universe for seating us next to each other on the bus. Shanti Shanti Shanti OM.

Next week's Spots of Time: Melanie Turns 30 - Oh My! ;)