We’re fortunate to have Ayurvedic guru Gretchen taking over the Prescribe Nutrition blog today and introducing us to the world of Ayurveda, and also unraveling the mystery of doshas. This is part 1 of a 2 part blog series, so stay tuned for more, and be sure to check out Gretchen’s bio below!
I always jump at the opportunity to talk about Ayurveda. The first question I always get is, “Are you going to do our hair?” No. Trust me, you don’t want me anywhere near your hair. Ayurveda (not to be confused with Aveda – but shout out to their Brilliant shampoo smelling awesome) is a source of knowledge. Ayurveda is a system of natural healing and health care that dates back in India over 5,000 years. Fun facts: it is the sister science of yoga and the sanskrit word, Ayurveda, literally translates as “the science of life.”
Ayurvedic philosophy says this: everything that exists in our natural environment also exists within our bodies and our minds – we are all made up of the five elements: ether, air, fire, water, and earth. Some of us have more fire, others more air, others more earth, so on and so forth. My ratio of the five elements is unique, as is yours. By knowing our own individual blend of the elements, we can begin to bring balance to our mind, which then extends that balance to the body. In a state of balanced awareness, we maintain a state of physical immunity and a higher state of health. Something we all want, right?
Combined elements are categorized into three principles, or doshas called Vata, Pitta, and Kapha. Your inner nature, your constitution, is an individual blend of these principles. Every cell in your body contains all three doshas and must in order to survive. Vata governs movement, Pitta governs metabolism, and Kapha governs structure. Your unique balance of the three doshas was determined at the moment of conception and is with you the rest of your life. It determines what is in harmony with your nature and what will cause you to become out of balance, sick, and diseased. Knowledge of your constitution is essential to developing optimal health; it determines how you react to various foods, colors, aromas, and general life habits. So then, let’s take a closer look at each dosha.
The Vata dosha is made up of air and ether, having qualities that are similar to these elements. Vata is very much like the wind – it is light, cool, dry and mobile. In the body, people with a Vata nature experience more of these qualities. Their bodies tend to be light, their bones thin, and their skin and hair dry. They often move and speak quickly. When out of balance, they may lose weight, become constipated, and have weakness in their immune and nervous systems.
These qualities are also reflected in the personality. Those with a Vata nature tend to be talkative, enthusiastic, creative, flexible, and energetic. Yet when out of balance, they may also become easily confused and overwhelmed, have difficulty focusing or making decisions, and have trouble sleeping. This becomes more apparent when they are under stress. They are challenged by cool emotions like worry, fear and anxiety.
Bringing balance to Vata means introducing the opposing qualities of warmth, heaviness (nourishment), moistness and stability. In the diet this is reflected in the consumption of sweet, sour, salty/heavy, oily, moist and hot such as cooked grains, sautéed vegetables, soups, stews, and warm herbal teas or spiced milk. Avoiding or limiting foods that are cold and dry, such as salads, smoothies, chips and salsa, cold foods and beverages, will keep digestion running smoothly and bloating, gas and constipation at bay.
The Pitta dosha is said to be made up of the fire and water elements. Fire is more predominant, and those people with a predominant Pitta nature have many of the qualities of fire within them. Pitta tends to be hot, sharp and penetrating. It is also somewhat volatile and oily. The oily nature of Pitta is related to the secondary component of water. People with a Pitta nature reflect qualities of warmth, have somewhat oily skin, penetrating eyes, and sharp features. They tend to have moderate weight and good musculature. When out of balance, they tend toward diarrhea, infections, skin rashes, and weakness in the liver, spleen, and blood.
A Pitta personality is one that is highly focused, competitive, capable, courageous, and energetic. Pitta types are clear communicators and get right to the point. They like to solve problems, and, when under stress, they dig in their heels. However, they can also become overly intense and speak with a sharp tongue. They make great friends, but feared enemies. Emotionally, they are challenged by the heated emotions of anger, resentment, and jealousy.
In order to bring balance to Pitta, opposing qualities of coolness, heaviness (nourishing) and dryness are emphasized. Cool, refreshing food is best with a decrease in salt, oil, and spices, all of which are heating to the body. Salads contain two tastes, bitter and astringent, that help temper a Pitta fire and calm a roaring appetite or burning digestion. Of all body types, Pittas do the best on a vegetarian diet with abundant amounts of milk, grains, and vegetables.
Within the Kapha dosha there is a predominance of water and earth. Like these elements, Kapha tends to be cool, moist, stable, and heavy. In the body these qualities manifest as dense, heavy bones; lustrous, supple skin; low metabolism; and large, stocky frames. In addition, those with a Kapha nature tend to feel cool. When out of balance, Kapha individuals are prone to gaining weight and tend to have weaknesses in their lungs and sinuses, where there is an accumulation of mucous. Those of Kapha nature are also most prone to non-insulin-dependent diabetes mellitus.
Water and earth are also manifested in the personality. The heavy, stable nature of Kapha is reflected in a steady personality that is not prone to quick fluctuations. Those with a Kapha nature handle stress very well, often not even noticing that it exists. They don’t like change, are generally conservative, and would prefer to keep things just the way they are. Kaphas are also comfort seekers, relating to the soft, watery nature of Kapha. Too much comfort, however, can lead to a lack of motivation and a feeling of becoming stuck. When Kapha is out of balance, the heavy emotions of depression and lethargy result.
Bringing balance to Kapha means introducing the opposing qualities of lightness, dryness, and warmth. Grains such as quinoa and amaranth, hot spices like cayenne pepper, lots of vegetables and very little nuts or dairy is recommended. Kaphas must be on guard against the influence of sweet, salty and rich foods which increase congestion and sleepiness in order to feel more balanced, energetic, lighter and happier about themselves.
So there you have it: Vata, Pitta and Kapha in their most basic form. Most assuredly at this point Vatas are feeling a bit overwhelmed, Pittas are ready to run with this and revamp their entire diet, and Kaphas [love them!] are not stressed but ready for a nap. Keep in mind two things. First, you are not just one dosha, but a combination of all three. This explains why you can relate, in some manner, to all the doshas. Most likely, you have two that are dominant. Second, keep things simple. Ayurveda is most successful when taken one step at a time. Pick one thing, one place to begin. Put one foot in front of the other and slowly, SLOWLY, move forward.
I’ll leave you with this famous Vedic verse which says, “It is our duty to the rest of mankind to be perfectly healthy, because we are ripples in the ocean of consciousness, and when we are sick, even a little, we disrupt cosmic harmony.”
In Peace and Health,
Gretchen is a Registered Dietitian, Ayurvedic Practitioner and Registered Yoga Teacher and has been working in the health and wellness industry for over 15 years. Her passion for yoga and exploration first introduced her to Ayurveda, but it was her own, personal struggles with digestive health that finally encouraged her to branch away from western medicine and pursue a more holistic, eastern approach to gut health. She studied Ayurveda at Kanyakumari Ayurvedic Education Center in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, graduating at the practitioner level in 2011.
Having taken a break from private practice to stay home with her two young children, Gretchen enjoys educating others about Ayurveda and it’s power to heal. Amidst the chaos of family checklists and schedules, you’ll find her in the yoga studio, testing out a new recipe in the kitchen, cozied up by a warm fire, or entertaining family and friends.