Ayurveda: The Dosha’s
Throughout the course of history, humanity has made countless efforts to understand how the
human body functions. What causes disease? What is the basis for health? Is it possible to prolong life
by preventing decay? These questions, amongst many other, have culminated in the formation of
multiple models of health and disease. Of these models, Ayurveda, the ancient science of life and
longevity, has survived the test of time. Despite being at least 5,000 years old, Ayurveda and its
principles are still being effectively utilized today, and modern science and medicine are just beginning
to acknowledge its usefulness and efficacy. With the re-emergence of this ancient healing modality, we
can now begin to understand and integrate some of its basic tenets as a means to foster greater health
and wellbeing in an era where a rampant increase in chronic disease has become the norm.
One of the primary reasons that Ayurveda is an effective model for health and wellness is due to
its categorization of individuals based on their physiological and psychological constitution. Ayurveda
developed around the notion that no two bodies are the same, and depending on the individual, a
different approach is necessary to attain optimal health. Three general categories were derived to
describe and discern the difference between particular constitutions (which are referred to as Doshas).
The Doshas can be understood as bioenergetic forces that operate in various degrees and intensity
depending on severl factors. Everybody is born with a particular birth constitution (Prakruti) which is
predominantly one Dosha or a combination of two Doshas (and sometimes all three). This birth
constitution, or Prakruti, establishes the baseline for the type of diet, lifestyle, etc. that would be most
conducive for that particular person. Over the course of one’s life, certain habits (dietary and lifestyle),
as well as environmental factors, often lead to an imbalance within that person causing a disturbance of
the Doshas and subsequently leading to the manifestation of disease. This disturbance of the initial birth
constitution (Prakruti) is known as Vikruti, which indicates the person’s current, imbalanced state.
In order to understand the Doshas, it is important to understand their essential nature. The
Doshas are typically understood based on their elemental composition as well as certain qualities which
they exhibit. Each Dosha is predominant in one of five elements (Ether, Air, Fire, Water, and Earth),
although they are all comprised of two elements. In addition to the elements is the consideration of
twenty opposing qualities (hot vs cold, heavy vs light, oily vs dry, etc.) which are expressions of the
Doshas, and they can also be considered in terms of how they either aggravate or pacify a particular
Dosha. Understanding the Doshas is essentially understanding the nature and quality of the elements of
which the Dosha is comprised, and this elemental understanding and application is also the primary
means for treating any Doshic imbalances. Let’s begin unpacking the three Doshas.
Vata Dosha is comprised predominantly of Air and Ether, but for the sake of simplicity, we can
consider it the biological Air humor. Vata means “that which moves” and is akin to air or wind. It’s main
qualities are dry, light, and cold, but it is also rough, mobile, subtle, and clear. Vata type people possess
an ectomorph body type. Some of Vata’s functions include sensory functions (hearing, touching, etc.),
communication, circulation, elimination, movement, respiration, thinking, and nerve impulses. Vata
pervades the entire body, and it fills all of the spaces within the body. It’s primary site of accumulation is
the colon, but it is also located in the bladder, kidneys, bones, skin, and lower limbs. Due to its light and
variable nature, Vata type people tend to have irregular appetite and digestion. In terms of time of day,
the primary Vata hours are between 2-6 AM/PM (around the time of sunrise and sunset). In terms of
age, Vata dominates Old Age (as can be seen with the bodily fluids drying up, the tendency towards
lower body temperature, etc.). Vata is most prominent during late Autumn and early Winter. Often it is
useful to consider weather and/or environmental conditions to understand the Doshas in relation to
their qualities (i.e. early Winter is generally cold and dry, qualities which aggravate Vata).
Vata imbalances generally manifest as symptoms such as weakness, excessive weight loss,
constipation/dry and hard stool, bloating, twitches, anxiety, insomnia, dry/cracked skin, and
hyperactivity or excessive speech. Vata is aggravated by environmental conditions, such as cold/dry
climate and/or a fast-paced lifestyle, eating foods that are dry, cold, and light (such as raw foods and/or
cold foods/drinks). Treatment of Vata includes eating foods that are sweet, salty, and sour (tastes that
do not contain the element of air – more on the six tastes in another article), eating predominately
warm/cooked foods, use of warming spices (such as ginger, cinnamon, and black pepper), use of oils
(particularly sesame or ghee), use of herbs (Triphala and Ashwagandha), and massage with warming oils.
Lifestyle management for Vata involves minimizing sensory stimulation, minimizing travel, eating slowly
and consciously, allowing time for stillness between activities (especially after eating), yin yoga,
meditation, and maintaining a regular schedule and routine.
Pitta Dosha is comprised predominately of Fire and Water, but for simplicity we can consider it
the biological Fire humor. Pitta means “that which digests” and is akin to the digestive fire (Agni). Its
main qualities are hot, light, and a little oily, but it is also sharp/penetrating, liquid, sour, mobile, and
pungent. Pitta type people possess a mesomorph body type. Some of Pitta’s functions include digestion,
catabolism, perception (visual and mental), skin pigmentation, and body temperature. Pitta’s main site
in the body is within the small intestine, but it is also located in the stomach, liver, spleen, pancreas,
blood, eyes, and sebaceous glands. Due to its hot and pungent nature, Pitta types tend to have a strong
appetite and digestion. In terms of time of day, the primary Pitta hours are between 10-2 AM/PM
(around midnight and midday). In terms of age, Pitta dominates Adulthood (as these “fiery” years
involve penetrating into the world through vocation and familial affairs). Pitta is most prominent during
late Spring through early Autumn, especially during the hot and humid Summer months.
Pitta imbalances generally manifest as symptoms such as red/irritated skin, loose
stools/diarrhea, anger/irritability, inflammation, red/dry eyes, excessive competitiveness, and a highly
critical mentality. Pitta is aggravated by environmental conditions, such as hot/humid climate and/or a
competitive and/or aggressive lifestyle, eating foods that are hot and pungent (such as foods that are
heavily spiced, particularly with hot spices such as cayenne or hot peppers, and fermented foods/drinks,
including alcohol). Treatment of Pitta includes eating foods that are sweet, bitter, and astringent (tastes
that do not contain the element of fire), eating foods that are cooling energetically (sweet, juicy fruits),
eating a balance of freshly cooked and raw foods, cooling spices (such as coriander, cardamom, and
cilantro), use of cooling oils (such as coconut and ghee), use of herbs (Avipattikar Churna, Amalaki,
Manjishta), and massage with cooling oils like coconut. Lifestyle management for Pitta involves being in
nature around water (creeks, streams, and lakes), avoiding excessively hot and humid climates,
minimizing conflict and argumentation, minimizing judgment and criticism, cooling pranayama such as
sheetali and sheetkari, gentle yoga, and meditation.
Kapha Dosha is comprised predominately of Water and Earth, but for simplicity we can consider
it the biological Water humor. Kapha means “that which binds things”, the “sticky” substance that holds
things together like glue. Its main qualities are heavy, cold, and oily, but it is also soft, sweet, static, and
cloudy. Kapha type people possess an endomorph body type. Some of Kapha’s functions include
anabolism, lubrication, adherence, formation, growth of the body, firmness, strength, and defense (as it
relates to Ojas, the essential energy of the immune system – more on Ojas in another article). Kapha’s
main location is in the Lungs, but it is also located in the head, throat, stomach, fat tissue, connective
tissue, ligaments, tendons, and lymph. Due to its heavy and static nature, Kapha type people tend to
have a sluggish digestion. In terms of times of day, the primary Kapha hours are 6-10 AM/PM. In terms
of age, it dominates Childhood, as it is responsible for the growth and formation of the bodily tissues.
Kapha is most prominent during late Winter and early Spring, the wet season.
Kapha imbalance generally manifests symptoms such as excessive bodily fluids (such as mucous
and phlegm), sticky or sluggish bowel movements, obesity, a thick white coating on the tongue,
lethargy, complacency, and emotional and sentimental attachment to things and people. Kapha is
aggravated by environmental conditions such as cold, wet weather, eating foods that are cold, wet,
heavy, and/or sticky (such as dairy products like ice cream or heavier foods such as pasta). Treatment of
Kapha includes foods that are pungent, bitter, and astringent taste (tastes that do not contain the
element of water) as well as foods that are light, dry, and/or warm in temperature and energy. Heating
spices (chilies, black pepper, and cayenne) are also useful for pacifying Kapha. Warm drinks like, herbal
tea with bitter or astringent herbs, are helpful. Kapha types, or those with a Kapha imbalance, should
minimize their use of oils and utilize pungent herbs and herbal formulas, such as Trikatu, to help kindle
the digestive fire (Agni). Dry massage or dry brushing is best for Kapha. Lifestyle management for Kapha
includes lots of movement (vigorous exercise which causes sweating), stronger yoga practices such as
hatha or vinyasa, heating/energizing pranayama such as kapalabhati or bhastrika, avoiding over-sleeping
or excessive lounging, occasional fasting or similar practices of austerity, and practicing non-attachment.
These basic and general guidelines for the Doshas help to provide a framework to begin viewing
life through the lens of Ayurveda. Here we have just begun to scratch the surface. More detailed and
specific aspects of the Doshas can be seen in their subdoshas or subtypes (which will be discussed in
future articles). Most importantly, it is beneficial to understand the nature of each Dosha (its elements
and qualities) so as to be able to recognize and respond to imbalances. The qualities in themselves allow
for a means to treat imbalances (for instance, acid reflux, being hot and sour, can indicate a Pitta
imbalance, so avoiding foods that are spicy, pungent, and sour would be a wise choice of action).
Working with the Doshas allows us to refine our diet and lifestyle and gravitate towards foods and
practices that instill the greatest balance and, ultimately, contribute to optimal health and wellbeing.
Ayurveda epitomizes the age-old adage “let food be thy medicine, and let thy medicine be food.” May
the wisdom of Ayurveda create greater health, longevity, and joy for all who apply it to their lives.