It is likely that if you have heard anything about Ayurveda you have heard of doshas often defined as  ‘Ayurvedic types’: Vata, Pitta & Kapha. It is just as likely that you are a confused about what doshas are and what they mean for your everyday health.

The popularity of doshas in the West may be due to its similarity with the old-school Western Medicinal concepts of the four ‘humors’:  choleric, sanguine, phlegmatic  and melancholic. Both ideas account for the tendencies of some bodies to be one way or another in temperament and build, susceptibility to disease, appearance etc. Plus we Americans are fond of questionnaires that purport to determine something significant about you. It has become popular to discuss what type or dosha one is and to explain tendencies in terms of dosha in much the same way simplified astrological signs are used: ‘She sleeps until noon....well she is a kapha you know.’ or ‘I’m so Vata! I can never find my keys!’ or ‘She punched him-- she’s Pitta’. However these simplifications are only part of the story. Dosha is not an easy idea to understand but very useful once you get a handle on them.

The doshas  are all always with us. Every living being has all 3 in relative balance. Under normal conditions Vata, Pitta, and Kapha do particular tasks in our bodies, they can be considered the operating principals in the body providing stability (kapha), movement (vata) and transformation (pitta).  When our doshas are operating in a normal balanced way we are healthy and resilient. But another core definition of dosha is ‘that which leads to disease of the Dhatus (tissues) and is a mala (waste product)’. In normal situations and in normal quantities doshas make life possible for us. But they are easily affected by the qualities of any disease-producing influence that we come in contact with.  Doshas can be increased, decreased, or just behave improperly, not doing their jobs. These conditions are often referred to as ‘vitiated’ by ayurveda practitioners. For instance, being outside in the wind on a bright cold winter day will affect the body by aggravating the normal actions of Vata so that the body reflects unhealthy Vata characteristics: dry skin and hair, a tired frazzled mind, stiff joints. If repeated daily over time this Vata aggravation will co-create a disease in collaboration with weakened tissues. When vata has been vitiated for a long time we can end up with arthritis, cracked and dry skin, inability to focus, memory loss, even paralysis. On a short term basis the effects of Vata aggravation can be corrected by resting in a warm calm room, an oil massage or bath, or a hot bowl of stew and fresh bread. Once disease has been produced by a dosha imbalance though the work is much harder.

The first way to learn about doshas is through the gunas (inherent qualities) and karmas (actions).

Vata: causing dryness

Vata: causing dryness

Anything in the body that moves is due to Vata. This includes the movement of thoughts, muscles, the circulation of nutrition and information, even belching and farting. So when there is a stoppage of movement like constipation or a frozen shoulder it is vata  that has been affected. Vata is responsible for the decay of substances and tissues. Aging is due to Vata but so is enthusiasm, and the 5 senses. Vata is associated with the qualities of cold, dry, rough, hard, darkened coloration (ie dark circles under eyes), sensitivity to any sensory stimulus, lightness- and significantly is felt as pain, cold, and restlessness when out of balance. The elements comprising Vata are Air and Ether/space.

Pitta is the transformer of ideas and nutrients, pitta heats and sustains, generating energy and plans, governs sight, intelligence, complexion and courage. Pitta’s qualities include: sharpness (feeling, acting and smelling too),  penetration, brilliance, and warmth. Pitta is dominant when we are in our middle years: puberty to menopause/andropause. Pitta is experienced as burning, redness, and extreme hunger when it is out of balance. Pitta’s elements are Fire and Water.

Pitta: transforming

Pitta: transforming

Kapha is the builder, remembering and preserving information and tissues. Kapha confers stamina and suppleness. Kapha’s qualities are moist and oily, cool and soft, smooth, cloudy, thick and static, heavy and sweet. Kapha is dominant in babies and children. Kapha is experienced as itching, swelling, dizziness, and slow digestion when it is out of balance. Kapha’s elements are Water and Earth.

It is said that Vata causes 80 diseases, Pitta causes 40, and Kapha causes only 20. There is no mystery to this. Vata is all about movement - and movement, well, it moves. Any small variable in the speed, direction, or path of movements in the body can lead to imbalance. Think of constipation (not moving when you should) due to an airplane flight (moving very fast) causing a headache (Vata is there whenever there is pain). It is in Vata’s nature to be ever changing. We often pass through phases of imbalance in our lives that disrupt the delicate balance of Vata. Fortunately Vata’s mobility is also easily corrected, at least at first.

Vata’s negative effects can be seen in the body as pain, dryness, constipation, short attention span and poor memory, wrinkles, weight loss, sleeplessness etc. Luckily these signs indicate to us how to correct them; the opposites of which will soothe them. Treat the effects of Vata with moist, oily, warm, stable, soft, calm and consistent influences.  Sweet potatoes roasted with ghee and a little spice or lamb stew are great anti-Vata foods.

Pitta imbalance are slightly less common-- and slightly more difficult to correct. They are recognised by burning, redness, sometimes oiliness and a pungent, acrid smell. Often Pitta imbalance is seen in the digestion with acidity or diarrhea. Even being critical and short tempered can be Pitta out of whack.  If you find yourself saying ‘My Pitta was a little aggravated, so I punched him’ avoid spicy curry but instead try a cup of sweet milk. Pitta needs to be cooled and soothed with sweet flavors and fragrances, not aggravated with too much time in the sun or in over-stimulating environments.

Kapha: building and connecting

Kapha: building and connecting

Because Kapha is so solid and slow in nature it is harder for it to get out of balance. But when it does watch out! Kapha related diseases include diabetes, obesity, asthma, anemia, and many skin diseases. Kapha imbalance comes from indulging in the qualities of Kapha: heavy, oily, cool and sweet (Ice Cream is the perfect Kapha aggravater). Fast one day every week, sip ginger tea instead of chocolate milk, and exercising regularly and you will be protected from long term imbalance of Kapha.

There are two other ideas that are important to understand about dosha: Prakruti and Vikruti. Most westerners mean Prakruti (constitution from birth) when they say dosha. This is the idea that an individual’s indelible constitution is set at conception and that it indicates a dominance of one or another dosha. It is said the only way to change your Prakruti is to be reborn in a different body. This is an alluring idea (like simplified Astrological Signs or unicorns) but in reality there is no way for us to know our Prakruti. And even if you did what could be done about it? A number of blind experiments have been done where highly respected vaidyas (ayurvedic doctors) took pulses and did interviews to find what dosha was dominant in a large group of subjects. There is never much correlation between their determinations. In India it is generally agreed that prakruti is not a very valuable thing to consider.

Vikruti on the other hand is much more useful. Vikruti is what we are seeing on a daily basis in everyone we meet. Our bodies are heavily affected by our environment, starting before we are even born, so that Prakruti is deeply buried under these affects and we see only vikruti. And vikruti  is much more useful to keep track of! Ayurveda is all about balance and balance exists as a dynamic reflection of current conditions. Today you might need a hot bath and tomorrow a cool drink--regardless of your Prakruti.

Our tendencies and imbalances give us great clues into how to live in a healthy manner. Most of us know if we tend to be dry or forgetful (Vata), easily angered and warm blooded (Pitta), or graceful and unadventurous (Kapha). We also know when we are more forgetful than usual, more angry than usual, more reluctant than usual. This is our Vikruti -- the current state of imbalance in our body. Vikruti can be so strong that a person’s imbalance can appear to be their nature (and when they get healthy their way of being can alter significantly). Vikruti shows the accumulation of all the experiences of life and how you have lived. Vikruti is what you work to balance every day and in everything we do.

Because nothing is simple in Ayurveda we all have a mix of doshas in various states of balance and imbalance all the time. A simple cold could display Kapha chills and mucous with Vata breathing restriction (caused by the Kapha blockages) and a red and burning runny nose (Pitta, but with Vata causing the drip). But the more you tune into the sensations and actions of your body the better you will get at determining what qualities are causing discomfort and how to correct them.

Start simple:

Keep 3 teas on hand --

  • Rose or licorice to sooth Pitta

  • fresh Ginger or Black Pepper to reduce Kapha

  • chamomile or dry Ginger to calm Vata.

Each day tune into your body and mind and have a cup of the tea that will bring balance to your body in that moment.