This article is part of a series of Seattle Yoga News articles focused on interviewing local yoga experts in the Seattle area on a variety of yoga topics that are relevant to our readers. Jodi Boone is a seasoned Seattle yoga teacher who shares her wealth of knowledge about ayurveda and doshas and what should be praticed to keep our bodies in balance.
In Sanskrit, the classical language of India, there is a beautiful word – sama- which means balance. You may know this word from the yoga pose, Samasthiti (very similar to Mountain pose, but with your hands at your heart in Namaste position). Although balance may feel elusive in this fast-paced world, our bodies, minds and hearts yearn for this state of centeredness and feeling of wholeness.
As a yoga practitioner, you have undoubtedly heard of yoga’s sister science, Ayurveda. Thought to be the world’s first healthcare system, Ayurveda offers a path to balance that is simple, intuitive and completely natural.
What is Ayurveda?
The root word “Ayu” means life, and “Veda” means knowledge. Ayurveda is the “Knowledge of Life.” Ayurvedic philosophy is concerned with each individual’s ability to lead a fulfilled, long and healthy life, and gives in-depth guidance on how to do so.
Believed to be more than 5,000 years old, Ayurveda’s wisdom is timeless and especially relevant today. In what is present day Pakistan, Ayurveda was received by seers (those seeking truth) through deep inquiry and meditation. For millennia, Ayurveda was shared orally, through mnemonic verses, before appearing in written form in the Vedas (considered to be humanity’s oldest texts, comprised of scriptures and hymns, written around 1500 to 1000 BCE).
While living in India and co-directing a yoga retreat center, I worked very closely with a beloved Ayurvedic doctor from our village named Dr. Laxmi. Many guests who came to the center for yoga, were also interested in Ayurveda and would see Dr. Laxmi for consultation. I remember one guest sharing with me after her consultation, “I feel like Dr. Laxmi knows me better than I know myself.” I’ve always felt her words summed up Ayurveda completely: Ayurveda helps us to know ourselves deeply, which is essential to living easefully in our bodies, as well as within our environment. This includes not only our natural environment, but also our ability to live in harmony with others – our ability to relate.
How does Ayurveda work?
If you meet with an Ayurvedic doctor or practitioner, he or she will most likely spend one or two hours with you to assess your Ayurvedic constitution. This involves reading your pulse, looking at your finger nails, skin, hair and tongue, as well as asking many questions about your health history, your daily routine and how you feel physically, mentally and emotionally. Deeply rooted in the training of Ayurvedic doctors and practitioners is the belief that they should care for their patients the way a mother would care for her child.
Once you’ve determined your Ayurvedic constitution, you have a foundation for creating a life of balance, namely through diet and daily self-care practices. Ayurveda does not simply believe that health is the state of being free from disease. Ayurveda takes a much larger purview when defining health: Health is a state of wholeness, happiness and vibrancy in all aspects of our lives – physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.
Determining your constitution can be done by an Ayurvedic doctor or practitioner, and we are so fortunate to have many practicing in Seattle (see recommendations below). You can also fill out an Ayurvedic constitutional questionnaire online.
Ayurvedic philosophy explains that nothing in this world exists as an isolated entity. Everything and everyone is interconnected. Thich Nhat Hanh, Nobel Peace Prize nominee, expresses this beautifully using an apple as an example. When he sees an apple, he says that he sees the sun, the rain, the soil, the farmer, the fruit picker, the driver who transported the apple to the local market, and finally, the apple will become part of him upon consumption. Ayurvedic philosophy emphasizes that we are a microcosm of the macrocosm. So, every element we see and experience in our environment, is also within each of us.
What are the Five Great Elements?
In our environment there are Five Great Elements: Space, Air, Fire, Water and Earth. The five great elements translate into the three doshas. There isn’t a direct translation of the word dosha in English, but in Sanskrit, a dosha is something that can go out of balance. We can also describe a dosha as an energy. Each individual is comprised of a unique makeup of the three doshas, and this is our Ayurvedic constitution. The three doshas are: Vata, Pitta and Kapha.
More About The Doshas
Vata is made up of Space and Air. Vata is the principle of movement. This is the energizing force for all body movement, including breathing, talking, circulation, elimination and all nerve impulses.
Pitta is made up of Fire and Water. Pitta is the principle of transformation. All of Pitta’s processes involve digestion or heating, this includes digesting and metabolizing food or processing mental theories.
Kapha is made up of Water and Earth. Kapha is the principle of potential energy, and controls body stability, lubrication, growth and protection. Kapha is responsible for our body’s nourishment and makes up our structure, including bones, muscle, tissue, cells and fluids.
The doshas govern all of our biological and psychological functions of the body. When in balance, they protect the body against disease; when out of balance they can contribute to the cause of disease. They govern the creation, maintenance and destruction of all body tissues, as well as the elimination of waste products. The doshas are also responsible for our emotions, including compassion, understanding and love, as well as fear, anger and greed.
Your Ayurvedic constitution, or in Sanskrit, your Prakriti, which means nature, is determined at conception Your Prakriti does not change, but you can experience imbalances, which are referred to as Vikriti. Each individual has a constitutional type, which is a unique make-up of the three doshas.
Brief descriptions of each of the doshas and how they manifest in our bodies, minds and hearts follows. As you read these synopsis, remember that each person is a unique make-up of all three doshas, or in other words, we all have qualities of all three to some degree.
- The qualities of Vata are dry, rough, light, cold, subtle and mobile.
- Physically, Vatas tend to be thin and bony, with little muscular development. They can be very tall or quite short.
- They are cold, especially their hands and feet.
- Vata’s appetites are variable, and they have weak digestion, which causes bloating, gas and constipation.
- They love to move, and are very drawn to physical activity, as well as travel.
- In balance, Vata’s are creative, excellent communicators, imaginative, enthusiastic, intuitive, spiritually inclined and compassionate.
- Out of balance, Vata’s display tendencies such as a restless mind (inability to focus) and body (unable to sit still), feeling fearful, anxious and ungrounded. Out of balance, Vata’s can be spacey and impatient.
- The qualities of Pitta are oily, sharp, hot, light, moving, liquid and acidic.
- Physically, Pitta’s tend to have a medium build, with developed and proportional musculature.
- Pitta’s are innately warm, and sweat easily, so they do not do well in hot climates, preferring cooler ones. They generally have voracious appetites and strong digestion.
- Pitta’s tend to have delicate, oily skin and are prone to rashes and acne.
- They are very driven and goal-oriented, as well as planners and list makers.
- Pitta’s often speak loudly and directly. They also grasp concepts quickly and are known for their intellectual acuity.
- In balance, Pitta’s have a joyful disposition, immense motivation and excellent leadership skills.
- Out of balance, Pitta’s are prone to anger, being overly critical and competitive.
- The qualities of Kapha are moist, cold, heavy, dull, soft, sticky and static.
- Physically, Kapha’s have heavy bones, broad frames and are strong and well-proportioned. They may be taller or shorter than average. Kapha’s can be overweight, and have difficulty losing it.
- A Kapha’s skin is cool to the touch, as well as smooth. Their hands may be clammy.
- They have slow digestion, and are often not hungry in the morning.
- Kapha’s love to relax, sleep long hours and enjoy being at home.
- They don’t do well with change, so they tend to keep the same job for many years and live in the same house.
- In balance, Kapha’s enjoy naturally good health and mental peace. They are naturally loving and calm.
- Out of balance, Kapha’s can experience obesity, are prone to disorders with mucous and congestion, suffer from lethargy, depression and attachment.
How to Balance your Doshas (3 Pillars)
Ayurveda is primarily focused on prevention of disease. When our doshas go out of balance, this opens the door for the disease process to begin. According to Ayurveda, there are three pillars of life: Diet, Sleep and Vital (or Sexual) Energy. To maintain balance, and therefore health, we need to honor, and understand these pillars.
First Pillar: Diet
Eating a diet that is nourishing for your unique constitution is essential. Although each of the doshas have specific food recommendations, it is considered best for all constitutions to eat a whole foods, vegetarian diet.* Whole foods are recommended because they are unprocessed and contain life-giving energy, or prana. The way in which foods are prepared is also important, including how foods are cooked and which spices are used.
Keeping our digestive fire, or agni, strong is just as important as buying fresh, local, organic and seasonal foods. We can buy the healthiest foods, but if we are unable to digest them, we are essentially malnourished. It is easy to extinguish one’s digestive fire. The most common ways are:
- Drinking ice cold beverages
- Eating when signs of hunger aren’t present
- Eating before your last meal has been fully digested
- Dating dinner and going to bed shortly after, Ayurveda recommends eating three to four hours before bed
All of these habits can wreak havoc on our digestive system, causing indigestion, gas, bloating, abdominal discomfort, bad breath and a weakened immune system. However, a person whose digestion is functioning optimally, will feel hunger at regular mealtimes, will digest, assimilate and eliminate their foods easily and will have a glow to their skin, as well as feel energetic.
Ayurveda believes in the concept of “like increases like and the opposite creates balance.” So, for example, a Vata’s predominate constitution is innately cold with low digestive fire. Vata’s, should eat well-cooked, moist and warming foods. One-pot meals are best for Vata, such as soups and stews, because they are easy to digest. Vata’s have great difficulty digesting raw or uncooked foods, with few exceptions.
A Pitta person has a strong digestion fire. The digestion can be likened to a campfire – we all enjoy a campfire, they’re pleasing to sit around. However, the campfire must be attended to so that it doesn’t run the risk of becoming a forest fire, which would spread and cause great devastation. If Pitta’s eat spicy or oily foods, their digestive fire can burn too high, causing heartburn, acid-reflux and even ulcers. Pitta’s do well with cooling and calming foods, such as fresh vegetables, fruits and salads.
A Kapha person, who is innately cool, with a slow digestion, also needs warming foods, but the foods must be light and dry, because Kapha’s are heavy (Earth element) and moist (Water Element). Because of their predominant Water element, Kapha’s tend to have excess fluids often in the form of mucous and congestion. Light and dry foods pacify heaviness and excess fluids.
The Six Tastes
According to Ayurveda, the sense of taste is a natural guide towards proper nutrition. There was a time when humans relied mostly upon taste to discover which foods were healthy for them. We respond to food through taste. For example, a crisp, juicy apple may produce a sense of sweet delight, while a spicy Thai dish might produce a distress. As we tune into the tastes naturally desired by the body, we tap into the body’s innate wisdom regarding food and nutrition.
Ayurveda categorizes all foods into six tastes: Sweet, Sour, Salty, Bitter, Pungent and Astringent. While the first four tastes are recognizable, the last two may not seem familiar. Pungent taste is hot and spicy as found in a chili pepper, while Astringent taste is dry and light as found in popcorn (plain, without salt and butter!).
The Three Gunas
In Ayurvedic philosophy there are three main qualities in nature called Gunas. Gunas exist in all things: human beings, air, earth, plants, medicine and food.
The first Guna is called Sattva (Essence). Sattva is pure, healthy and clear; it is harmony and balance.
The second Guna is called Rajas (Activity). Rajas is hot, passionate, energetic and powerful.
The third Guna is called Tamas (Gross). Tamas is slow, cold, motionless and continuous.
The foundation of an Ayurvedic diet is Sattvic foods, which are pure, healthy, nourishing and contribute to balancing the body and mind. The Sattvic diet increases the positive influence of prana in the body. To live in the modern world, we also need Rajasic energy and therefore, Rajasic foods. For example, if you feel heavy and exhausted, Rajasic food could help to increase your energy levels.
Sattvic Foods are fresh, juicy, light, unctuous, sweet and tasty. They give energy to the body without taxing it These foods are the foundation of higher states of consciousness. Examples of Sattvic foods: Juicy fruits, fresh vegetables, fresh milk and butter, whole soaked beans, sprouted beans, grains and nuts, many herbs and spices served in the correct combinations with other foods.
Rajasic Foods are bitter, sour, salty, hot and dry. They speed us up (think of the effects of coffee or spicy foods). Rajasic foods are the foundation of motion, activity and pain. Examples of Rajasic foods: Foods that have been fried in oil, as well as specific herbs and spices that are strongly exciting – garlic and ginger.
Tamasic Foods are dry, old, decaying and distasteful. If consumed, a large amount of energy is required to digest them. Tamasic foods are the foundation of ignorance, doubt, pessimism. Examples of Tamasic foods: Foods that have been strongly processed, canned or frozen. Also includes foods that are old and stale, or eating foods that are incompatible with each other, such as milk and fruit. Meat, fish, eggs and liquor are especially Tamasic.
Second Pillar: Sleep
The next pillar is sleep. Ayurveda advises that we go to sleep by 10 pm and awake with the sun (depending on the season), getting between 7 and 8 hours of sleep according to the needs of our constitution (Vata’s require less sleep, Kapha’s require more and Pitta’s are somewhere in the middle). Today, it is said that 25 percent of all American adults take some kind of sleep aid. Unknowingly, there are things we do that can disrupt our sleep. A major culprit is looking at a computer, TV or smart phone screen before bed. The light emanating from screens, not to mention their content, can be very stimulating to our minds and nervous system. The light also effects our melatonin production.
Ayurveda recommends that we create an environment that is conducive to sleep. This means taking an “electronic sunset,” or not looking at a screen, at least one or two, hours before bed. Also, in the evening, dim the lights throughout the house and light a few candles. This will soften the environment and help to relax you. Also, do simple and enjoyable things such as take a warm bath with essential oils, if you’re predominantly a Vata type. If you are a Pitta type, a cool shower (not cold) will help you to relax. Kapha’s generally have no problem falling asleep, but along with Vata’s and Pitta’s, will benefit from the calming effects of listing to soft music, reading a spiritual book, drinking a cup of herbal tea, massaging your feet with sesame oil, journaling, meditating or practicing a breathing exercise (pranayama) like Nadi Shodhana or alternate nostril breathing.
Third Pillar: Vital or Sexual Energy
The final pillar, vital or sexual energy, reminds us to use our energy wisely. For example, when engaging in sexual activity, we are intimate with a person we care about and who cares about us. We should also feel desirous for sex, never pressured or obligated. If we do not use our energy wisely, this will be depleting on the deepest physical, emotional and mental levels. The third pillar also guides us on how we use our energy in all aspects of our lives. For example, where many of us spend a better part of our day is at work. We want to do work that feels meaningful and enjoyable. It is soul-killing to have a profession we dread. Also, how do we spend our free time? Do we spend it with people we love, that inspire us and promote a feeling of positivity? The same is said for our activities – are they life-giving or life-depleting. Watching a lot of television, spending hours on the computer and even engaging in gossip are considered depleting. This can be a difficult question to reflect on, and Ayurvedic practices raise our awareness and allow us to be really honest with ourselves.
Aligning with Nature
Creating balance in our lives also means that we align ourselves with nature’s cycles. This includes daily cycles and self-care, seasonal cycles and cleansing, as well as the cycles of our lives and honoring each stage from childhood, to adulthood to aging.
To lead a happy, fulfilled and healthy life, Ayurveda says the key is balance. Only through balancing body, mind, heart and spirit can we experience a sense of wholeness or sama.
*Ayurvedic doctors may prescribe eating the flesh of animals for medicinal reasons.
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