This month, I’ve been writing about Ayurvedic medicine and Vedic science. Ayurveda is an ancient healing system with ashtanga, meaning “eight limbs” (like the highly popular eight-limbed system of yoga outlined by Patanjali and developed by Patabi Jois). The limbs of Ayurveda include disciplines such as internal medicine, surgery, psychology, and pediatrics. The system also includes veterinary medicine, with special emphasis on the treatment of horses and elephants.
Today, let’s delve a bit more into theory and terminology. One of the terms most common to Americans who have heard a little about Ayurveda is dosha. We love figuring out what “type” we are – whether it’s Western astrology, the Chinese zodiac, Myers-Briggs, Enneagram, blood type, or anything else that will help us understand ourselves. Thus, the popularity of Ayurveda in the West really exploded when people caught on to its typing system. This system is based on three fundamental qualities or forces, called doshas, that exist in humans in varying degrees. They are called vata (vah-tah), pitta (pit-tah), and kapha (read closely: kahp-hah – if that’s too tricky, think about the juxtaposed p and h sounds in the words “scoop honey”).
There are many tests in books and on the web to help you “figure out your dosha,” and I’ve often heard people ask, “What’s your dosha?” It’s not entirely incorrect to use the word dosha this way, but before you name your child Dosha, let’s clarify this term a bit. First we need to take a step back.
Central to the Ayurvedic view of health is good digestion. Partly this is for physiologic reasons: digestion is the means by which we feed the body and mind, and also the means by which we expel waste. If either the intake of nourishment or the removal of toxins is disrupted – and disruption of this system is more common than disruption of any other organ system – we have problems. Partly, digestion is central for spiritual reasons: eating and digesting is the primary way that we connect to the outside world. We literally put the outside world into ourselves and assimilate it.
Ayurveda, like many other traditional medical systems, uses metaphors of the elements (earth, water, fire, air, and space) in its language, and the digestive process is considered to be driven by fire – the power to “cook” or transform our food in the belly. This highlights a further expression of the spiritual significance of digestion. Fire plays a central role in ritual in Indian culture. It’s the source of light and a key instrument in sacrifice. It is through the transformative power of fire that something of the physical realm is sent to the ethereal realm (as energy and smoke), and Hindu ceremonies often involve the offering of prayers to the fire along with a “gift” of sorts (butter, incense, flowers, etc.) to carry these prayers beyond the mundane. So, when we see the digestive faculties as a sort of bonfire, every meal becomes a sacrifice, an offering.
As Robert Svoboda writes, “The everyday process of eating is Ayurveda’s fire sacrifice, a daily offering of food into the sacred fire of digestion for the purpose of maintaining microcosmic harmony. The ‘fragrance’ (the chemical constituents) of these food offerings ascends to the brain, where the ‘gods’ (the various parts of the brain and mind) are nourished. The gods then send the ‘rains’ (hormones, neuropeptides, and other metabolites) on to the ‘earth’ (the body) to make it fruitful.”
So, digestion must proceed healthily in order for everything to work. What is the main impediment to this process? Dosha.
The root of the word dosha is dus (“to spoil”), which is equivalent to the English prefix dys-, meaning ill or bad. Dosha is an impurity which prevents the “sacrificial act” of eating from having its desired effect. Svoboda writes, “A dosha is a fault, mistake, error, or stain, a transgression against the cosmic rhythm, an inaccuracy which prevents success and leads to chaos.” There are many doshas, but the three we’re interested in are unique: They’re considered to be the waste products of the Five Elements (vata from air and space, pitta from fire and water, and kapha from water and earth), and in living beings, they have both useful and disruptive functions. They can help keep the body and mind healthy when in balance, but when out of balance they are the source of disease.
The particular combination that each individual is born with (say, 20% vata, 20% pitta, and 60% kapha) is called one’s prakruti (also written as prakrti or prakriti), or constitution. Your prakruti determines your fundamental makeup, your strengths, and the kinds of imbalances you will be prone to. Over the course of your life, you may acquire imbalances that differ from your constitutional predispositions. This moment-to-moment presentation of your current state of health is called your vikruti (vikriti, vikrti), and it’s important to look past the vikruti to understand one’s essential makeup. When people speak of taking a “dosha test,” or say, “My dosha is…,” what they usually mean is prakruti.
There are eight main presentations of prakruti: vata dominant; pitta dominant; kapha dominant; vata and pitta dominant; vata and kapha dominant; pitta and kapha dominant; all three doshas equally out of balance; and the rarest – all three doshas remaining in a state of balance. Now I’ll describe some of the characteristics of each dosha. Because of variances between prakruti and vikruti, not all of the qualities of a dosha are apparent, even when it’s quite dominant in a person. So, these qualities should be understood as representing broad patterns.
Vata means “wind” and like the wind itself, which blows and then stops, and changes direction frequently, a hallmark of vata is irregularity. Energy comes and goes, moods come and go, digestion is erratic, appetite is up and down, sleep can be variable. And we see irregularity in the body, too – asymmetry, knobby joints, angular and uneven limbs, differences between the two sides of the body. These knobby joints make it so that when vata hands are cupped, it’s difficult to hold water, due to the spaces that naturally form between the fingers.
High vata makes people do things quickly. They learn quickly and forget quickly. They get enthusiastic quickly, and quickly lose their enthusiasm. They jump up and dance and then don’t have the stamina to keep going. They often walk quickly, talk quickly, change their minds quickly, change topics quickly. They have restless minds, and when they have energy, they often do whatever they feel compelled to do until they’re exhausted.
In the digestive tract, vata tends to cause gas and constipation. Vata is dry, and often leads to cracked, rough, or bumpy skin, and crunchy joints. The predominant vata emotion is fear or anxiety, and this tends to get worse when meals are skipped. Erratic blood sugar is common with high vata. Putting on weight and building muscle are often difficult, and vata types tend to be fundamentally skinny (even if they later acquire an excess of body fat) and often chilly. Because of its essential irregularity and the tendency to use up energy whenever it becomes available, vata is the hardest of the three doshas to manage.
Excess vata can be balanced with nourishment, stability, consistency and relaxation, routine, warmth and moisture. Massage is excellent for reducing vata. Ghee and sesame oil are especially good, both eaten and applied to the skin. Fish and modest amounts of meat also help “anchor” the airiness of vata. Oranges, mangos, and nuts, too, can help reduce vata. Yogurt is considered excellent at controlling vata, but American cows are different than Indian cows, and these days milk sensitivity is increasingly common, so one’s compatibility with dairy needs to be assessed on an individual basis.
In comparison to vata, pitta types tend to have a more muscular build and a warmer constitution. Pitta is ruled by fire, and this tends to make people dislike heat and prefer cool climates and foods. This fire also makes pitta people strong-minded, competitive, forceful, efficient, precise, orderly, determined, and intense – even pushy. In balance, pitta gives a person a knack for managing all sorts of energy, including money. Pitta promotes digestion; pitta types like eating and have strong appetites (not just for food, but for success). They don’t like missing meals (vata, on the other hand, might make a person forget about eating altogether, until they suddenly realize they’re ravenous).
Pitta is slightly oily, producing skin that is typically lustrous and elastic, though prone to moles, rashes, and acne. Pitta people can get overheated and sweaty easily, and are often the ones taking off layers and opening windows. When pitta dominates, there is a greater tendency for hair to grey or fall out early.
When emotionally challenged, pitta makes people irritable, impatient, and angry, especially with those who are slower, less efficient, or less focused than they are, or who disagree with them. This anger may make a person lose perspective (a trait which is otherwise strong in pittas). When well-disciplined, the fire in pittas can make them courageous and driven, though sometimes they prioritize success over all else.
Excess pitta can be balanced with cooling foods, perspective, and slowing down. Pitta types need to have bitter foods as a regular constituent of their diets (such as dark leafy greens and certain herbs, such as gentian, dandelion, chrysanthemum, burdock, aloe, and amla). Cooling foods like cucumber and watermelon can help, as can ghee. Traditionally, bathing in cool water, spending time in the light of the moon, wearing white clothes, hanging out in green foliage, wearing a chilled pearl necklace, meditating, and listening to soothing music are all ways to “cool” pitta.
Kapha is watery and slow. Kapha types are slow to wake up, slow to realize things, and slow to learn things. They tend to move slowly, have slow digestion, and speak slowly, too. Though they learn things slowly, they are also likely to remember things forever (like elephants, which are naturally high in kapha). Kapha’s slow, wet and cold influence makes for calm people, but in excess this can lead to sluggishness, congestion, and inertia.
Kapha allows one to hold onto things, such as energy, which, while perhaps a bit low, tends to be consistent. The same is true for money, which tends to be easier for kapha types to acquire than it is for, say, vatas, who are often too impulsive to hold onto anything for long. When imbalanced, the gift of holding onto things may turn into a difficulty letting anything go – from grudges to traumas to body fat. When it dominates one’s prakriti, kapha causes a desire for a slow, relaxed, consistent life, without too many surprises. Kapha makes body tissues firm and well-nourished, but there is a tendency to gain excess weight.
Kapha types are said to have a gait like a swan. Svoboda says they “swim regally through life.” Due to their consistency, kapha types are the easiest to maintain in a state of health. This consistency makes it relatively easy for a kapha type to skip a meal without much discomfort. Kapha has neither the clear air or fire of vata and pitta, so kapha types aren’t always blessed with incisive minds or strong drive, but because of their evenness, they’re often excellent at managing people and organizations.
Kapha is balanced through warmth, action, variation, and stimulation. Aromatic spices are essential – such as ginger, black pepper, garlic, caraway, bay leaf, cardamom, cumin, nutmeg, fenugreek, and turmeric. Bitter foods are also important for clearing the phlegm and toxicity that may result from sluggish eliminatory functions. Intense exercise, sex, hot baths, and small doses of wine can all help stimulate kapha. Lots of responsibilities and a changeable routine can also contribute to the prevention of inertia.
While far from being a comprehensive survey of the doshas, I hope this article has helped you understand the presentations of these qualities in humans. If you’re interested in determining your prakruti, I encourage you to try one or more of the many tests available online, or find an practitioner of Ayurveda who can also offer you specific dietary and lifestyle recommendations.
Dr. Peter Borten
Frawley, D. (2002). Ayurvedic Healing Correspondence Course for Health Care Professionals (Vol. Part 1). Santa Fe: American Institute of Vedic Studies.
Svoboda, R. (1992). Ayurveda: Life, health and longevity. London: Arkana.