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.

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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! ;)

April 20, 2004

Drunken Monkeys

"Our minds are like a drunk monkey bitten by a scorpion,” the Swami said. “We try to concentrate but our mind is all over the place, jumping here, jumping there.”

I could relate. Two days into my attempts at meditation and 99% of the time my mind was focusing on everything BUT nothing. Not only was my mind a drunk monkey stung by a scorpion, it also had attention deficiency syndrome and ants in its pants! Sitting cross-legged with my back straight and my eyes closed, in the company of nearly 200 other yogis didn’t seem to bring me closer to enlightenment. It did, however, cause my legs to go numb and feel like giant tree trunks, my back to ache and begin to slouch, and my eyes to periodically open to make sure everything else was still meditating.

Meditation, constant observation and calming of the mind, was a big part of the ashram/yoga experience, and one of the Five Points of Yoga (#5 – Positive Thinking & Meditation (Vedanta & Dhyana)). Every morning after rising at 5:30 a.m., we would gather in the main hall for 20-30 minutes of silent meditation. Meditation is an evolution of concentration, which might make it sound easy. But, try to concentrate quietly on just one thing without allowing your mind to wander and you’ll quickly see that even sustaining concentration is a big accomplishment. Even after two weeks of (and I must admit, not the most dedicated of) practice, I could only manage to maintain concentration - the precursor to . A couple of times I began to see colors, especially green and purple (like I imagine the aurora borealis would be if recreated in my head) but that was most likely do to a lack of oxygen to my brain than any progress in terms of enlightenment!

After meditation, we would chant for about 45 minutes in Sanskrit, and then be off to our morning asanas class. The first points of yoga, #1 Proper Exercise (Asanas), as well as points #2 Proper Breathing (Pranayama) and #3 Proper Relaxation (Savasana), were all an integral part of our two daily classes. Each class, which was usually held under a woven coconut palm covered shelter with a (hard) cow dung floor (you get use to it), began with the class resting in Savasana, or corpse pose, flat on our backs with our arms a foot to either side, our legs 2 feet apart, totally relaxed. We would then breath deeply from our abdominals, expanding out abdomen as we inhaled, contracting it as we exhaled – similar to the breathing exercises taught to singers, and the way that babies naturally breathe.

Sadasiva, our daily lecturer, told us that stress is the experience of holding onto something, whereas relaxing is letting go. By relaxing, we “cut the wire to defuse the bomb – so that when the button gets pushed, there is no explosion.” By relaxing physically – and mentally – we are better able to deal with difficult situations that arise – without an explosion. While the asanas classes improved our bodies physically, it also helped us mentally - focusing on the postures was akin to meditation, and the deep breathing exercises we did helped to bring extra oxygen to our brains, relaxing them as we nourished them.

Point #4, Proper Diet (Vegetarian) was easy to manage at the ashram, even for those who had never experimented with the concept. We were served two meals per day, the big morning meal at 10 a.m. and a lighter meal at 6 p.m. Yoga believes that certain foods are tamasic, or promote lethargy, and as a result, meat, eggs, garlic and onions were banned, as was smoking and alcohol, for those staying at the ashram. Even without the benefit of garlic and onions, the food was excellent – far from bland, it was mild and pleasing, and while some complained about the dishes, most people enjoyed the food.

A usual brunch would include rice, sambar (a liquid curry), chutney, cooked vegetables, beet and carrot salad, herbal tea and a chapatti, dosa or uttapam (one of several types of Indian bread). The dinner menu was more varied than brunch, but was frequently either idilli (similar to a formed moist cake of cream of wheat), sambar and coconut chutney, or chapatti and sambar, or couscous and dahl (lentils) – my personal favorite. I assumed I would be hungry all the time, especially with 4 hours of yoga per day, but in actuality the meals were perfectly adequate. On those days when I needed a sugar fix, or when I wasn’t particularly thrilled with dinner, I would go to the Health Hut, where yogis could buy fruit salads, fruit juices and teas, and even packages of chocolate cream cookies!

I found I didn't miss the meat at all, and have maintained my vegetarian status even now, two weeks after I left the ashram. While I have allowed eggs, garlic and onions back into my life, I am going to see how life without meat treats me. Seeing meat-producing animals on the streets, on the beach and in people's yards, certainly makes it easier. When you have spent 10 minutes watching a group of playful piglets run and jump, you feel much less likely to have pork chops or a ham sandwich for dinner!

With regards to the other points of yoga taught at the ashram, I hope that I will be able to maintain them in my life as well. For the past week I've been on a beach in Goa, and I rise every morning at 6 a.m. for yoga, leading myself and a friend from the ashram in pranayama, sun salutations and the 12 basic postures, as well as final relaxation. Now, if I can just bring the habit of meditation back!

As cynical as I may have sounded about my own half-hearted attempts at meditation, I believe the ashram/yogic message that regular meditation can be helpful in every aspect of your life – clearing and quieting your mind, culling through the mental garbage, etc. We live in a world where we are constantly bombarded with messages, thoughts, ideas, worries, concerns, frustrations and other thoughts that clog our mind and don’t allow it time to relax. By meditation, even for 10 minute every day, we allow our mind the opportunity to relax, something it probably hasn’t fully done (during waking hours) for years.

The same goes for the other points. Yoga is not alone in promoting regular fitness and proper diet – medical science has proven that regular exercise and a healthy diet full of fruits and vegetables (even a non-vegetarian one), is foremost in maintaining a health body – both inside and out. And, in our crazy world of daily stresses, constant stimulation, the idea of taking time out to breathe deeply, or to relax fully, seem to be important points we might have missed in our desire to get ahead, running breathlessly between appointments, dates, school, work and social engagements, using every minute of our day to its fullest “potential.”

One of my favorite quotes of the ashram (besides the monkey one) came from a teacher during pranayama (proper breathing) exercises in an asanas class. “You can go without food for weeks, you can go without water for days but you can’t go without oxygen for more than a few minutes.”

So, sit up straight, close your eyes, and spend the next five minutes breathing deeply. Its a good place to start.

April 13, 2004

Take Me to Your Guru

Hello everyone! Spots of Time continues, again - sorry for the month long break! I'm still in India, working my way north again after having spent THREE weeks in the yoga ashram and a week or so laying around on a beach - enlightenment can be exhausting! :)

Hope you are all well! Love, Melanie


"Who is your guru?" the man in the Indian coffee shop asked me, after I told him I was in Trivandrum to study yoga at a nearby ashram. I had no idea how to answer. The term "guru" brought to my mind images of serious old men with long beards and flowing orange robes. I, on the other hand, was in southern India for a fun two-week yoga holiday in the land of its birth. The concept of gurus, mantras, and swamis were no where in my thoughts when I planned this part of my adventure.

While volunteering in Thailand, a Danish girl told me about her experiences in a yoga ashram in southern India and her tale stuck with me. Two weeks after my arrival in India I found myself at the Sivananda Yoga Vedanta Dhanwantari Ashram in the town of Neyaar Dam, near the southern tip of India. I had reserved a spot in a two-week "Yoga Vacation" and expected lazy days filled with yoga classes, writing in my journal, contemplating life and India and generally relaxing and rejuvinating my travel-worn body. I was wrong.

My first few days at the ashram I learned that yoga, contrary to how it is marketed in the US, is not just exercise, but likened to a science or philosophy of life. It encompasses not just a strong body, but a strong mind, selflessness and a devotion to God - all prerequisites to self-realization and ultimate unity with God. Unlike a religion, yoga has no dogmas and no church and each person's spiritual path is individual - many roads leading to the one final destination of self-realization, enlightenment, etc.

The days at the ashram started early - really early. Every morning at 5:30 a.m. we awoke to the sound of a cow bell clanging and calling us to Satsang (or "association of wisdom") our group gathering that included meditation, chanting, lecture and annoucements. A quick cup of tea at 7:30 a.m. was followed by morning asanas (yoga postures) or what most westerners think of as yoga. Brunch, the largest meal of the day, was at 10 a.m., followed by a morning lecture on the science of yoga at 11 a.m. and Karma Yoga (action and selfless service) at 12:30 p.m. Tea was served again at 1:30 p.m., followed by an asanas coaching class at 2 p.m. and our 3:30 afternoon asanas class. At 6 p.m. the ashram met for a small dinner, and then had free time until evening Satsang at 8 p.m. where we did more meditation, chanting and usually had some kind of entertainment (a flute performance, traditional Indian dancing, a film on vegetarianism, a documentary about Swami Vishnu-Devananda, a Kathakali performance, etc.) Lights out was at 10:30 p.m. every night.

Initially, the ashram freaked me out. An independent individual who had spent much of the past year and a half traveling alone, my shock at the group living and community aspect of an ashram was significant. In my first day's journal entry I wrote the following:

"One radio voice, many stations. The Swami's description of there being only one true God but many different religions "broadcast" in unique ways - that's all I'll take from Day One of my two-week yoga "vacation." Lying here sweating under the mosquito net in a room I share with 30 women, I'm not sure I'll last two weeks - I'm not sure I want to. I've been bitten alive by mosquitos, feel like everyone knows everyone else already, been chanting god-knows-what the past hour only to have to get up tomorrow at 5:30 a.m. to start it all over again. There is no free time and I feel like I am surrounded by people every waking and sleeping minute!"

Just a few days later, however, I was enjoying myself. The turning point, for me, was meeting other people who shared my feelings of being a fish out of water. We all vented our frustrations and then just as quickly became accustomed to the schedule. We learned to appreciate the energy of the chanting sessions, we commiserated on our aching knees during meditation and basically decided to embrace the situation instead of rebelling against it. "Take what you can from the experience and don't worry so much about the rest," one of the women said.

The ashram was set up by Swami Vishnu-Devandanda, in honor of his guru, Swami Sivananda Saraswati, who sent him to the US in the late 60's with the message, "people are waiting." He set up ashrams in Canada, the US, and other spots around the world, teaching yoga and its concepts to a western audience, before returning to India and setting up ashrams in his home country.

Western people throw the term guru around indiscriminently, using it as a synonmym for teacher, when in reality it is far more. Guru, in Sanskrit, means "remover of darkness" and is considered to be "one who knows the true reality of God," or has attained self-realization. A "Swami" on the other hand is a teacher, but not necessarily a guru. (More on this later in a future column, "Interview with a Swami").

Three weeks after I arrived at the ashram I decided it was time to move on. I had stayed a week longer than I originally planned, mostly to improve my asanas but also to think about the messages that had been relayed regarding meditation, positive thinking, detachment and the yogi way of life. I'm not certain that yoga will become an integral part of my life - just like I'm not sure that being a (new) vegetarian will stick. I don't know if I ever will find a guru, or if I even need one. But, I can confidently say that I am better for the yoga ashram experience. That my eyes were opened to new concepts, that misconceptions were clarified, and that some ignorance was replaced with knowledge.

Will I ever attain self-realization or enlightenment? Maybe, maybe not. But, I'm not so fussed with the details. It's something that comes from within, and when I'm ready, I'm sure my "path" will be revealed to me.

If not in this life, then there is always the next one. :)

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Next week's "Spots of Time" column: The Five Points and Four Paths of Yoga