Vata, Kapha, Pitta. These words may seem unfamiliar to you, but to many people, they refer to essential pillars of the Ayurvedic tradition. These three elements are representative of the energies that govern the body, and each contributes to overall physical health and mental wellbeing in different ways. While Kapha and Pitta are thought to govern growth and the metabolic systems, respectively, Vata is believed to control all movement in the body, from circulation and breathing, to digestion and nervous system activity. To truly understand the idea of the Vata disposition and the effect it has on the body’s function, it’s important to unpack not just how Vata manifests itself in the body, but also the larger Ayurvedic tradition in which it is rooted.
A Brief History of Ayurveda
Ayurveda is a system of medicine that has its origins in the Vedic tradition in India (which is the oldest religion in India and formed the basis for Hinduism). The word Ayurveda comes from two words: ayur, meaning life, and veda, meaning knowledge. For thousands of years, people have been practicing Ayurveda to support their health and promote balance between the mind and body. This tradition is not only widespread in India, China, and other parts of Asia — it has recently become popular in Western culture as well. Today, it is estimated that about 80% of India’s population practices Ayurveda, and that over 700,000 Americans have received some sort of Ayurvedic treatment.
Similar to Traditional Chinese Medicine, Ayurveda has both historical beginnings and mythical roots. According to sacred texts, Ayurveda was first practiced by Dhanvantari, the god of medicine and the grandson of Brahma, the god of creation (who is sometimes described as the state of pure existence). It is thought that Dhanvantari practiced the art of meditation in order to access the knowledge of the gods, which he passed to mortal sages. These sages compiled the first Ayurvedic texts, which is where a more concrete history of Ayurveda emerges.
In about 8000 BCE, one of the first Ayurvedic texts, Atreya Samhita identified the eight main branches of Ayurveda, including internal medicine, surgery, fertility, pediatrics, psychiatry, toxicology, anti-aging, and ear, eye, and throat issues. Other texts were subsequently written, including Charaka Samhita, Sushruta Samhita, Ashtanga Sangraha, and Ashtanga Hridayam. These texts offered insight on surgery, and also included verse, poetry, and musings on consciousness. They also suggested the use of specific herbs to support overall health and to treat various health issues.
From these beginnings, Ayurveda continued to develop in much the same way as other medicinal traditions, and eventually evolved into a more coherent system of values and conventions. However, unlike some other systems, Ayurveda continued to focus on harmony between the body, mind, and spirit.
A Focus on Balance
Ayurveda is founded on the idea of balance — balance between one’s body, mental state, and the natural world. This is reflected in the two primary principles of Ayurveda: That the body and mind are inextricably linked, and that the mind has a direct impact on the health of the body. When the mind is out of balance, the body may experience negative health symptoms, and vice versa. It is thought that the body and mind are guided by an internal energy that is also connected to a larger cosmic energy. Healing is thought to come about when the mind and body are aligned, and when appropriate herbal nutrients are consumed to balance the energies in the body.
In Ayurveda, our bodies have a natural constitution, which is referred to as Prakriti. It is believed that our prakriti is determined from the moment of our birth, and it is representative of your emotional and physical characteristics, specifically those states that are stable (like eye color and height), and those that you might have a tendency towards (like being cold, being nervous, or similar). Your prakriti is influenced by the three primary energies in the body, which are also referred to as doshas.
The Three Doshas
The three doshas, or energies, are Kapha, Pitta, and Vata. Each person is born with a unique balance of doshas that govern his or her body, and each is representative of a combination of elements, including space (sometimes called ether), air, earth, fire, and water. The Kapha dosha represents water with some earth, and is thought to control growth in the body, support immune system health, and maintain healthy skin moisture. Kapha-dominant types are often easy going and nurturing. The Pitta dosha, which represents fire (and some water), supports metabolic processes like nutrient absorption and digestion and is thought to promote a healthy internal temperature. Those with a Pitta constitution are intense, intelligent, and goal oriented.
However, for this post, we will be focusing on the Vata (air and space) dosha, and the characteristics and issues that may arise with this constitution. In Ayurveda, it is believed that bad health occurs when one of the primary doshas becomes too strong, or if one of the weaker ones develops an issue. This post will focus not only on how to recognize the Vata dosha, but also how many Ayurvedic practitioners work to balance this dosha.
The Vata Dosha
Vata exists as the manifestation of space and air, and is the essence of prana, or the “life pulse,” and “moving force.” It exists as movement in the body and is thought to control the actions of the other doshas in the body, as the others are immobile. It is thought that Vata is also where energy comes from, and its seat is believed to be in the large intestine and colon (the places that produce bodily gas).
If Vata is your primary/dominant dosha, you may have the following characteristics: cold, light, dry, irregular, rough, moving, quick, changeable. Physically, Vata types tend to be tall and thin with a light frame. They may have dry, dark, and curly hair that can be brittle, and a long face with a receding chin. Their eyes may be brown or grey with a matte cast, and they may have an asymmetrical nose and a small, thin-lipped mouth with irregular teeth. Vata dominant people are often agile, with bursts of energy, followed by sudden bouts of fatigue. Those with a dominant Vata dosha may also have dry skin and hair, and may experience cold hands and feet.
Vata doesn’t only refer to a set of physical characteristics; it is also thought to be responsible for various mechanisms in the body. Among the processes Vata is believed to affect are circulation, digestive function, nutrient absorption, and organ function. When in balance, Vata types are able to maintain their liveliness, energy, and lean body.
Emotionally, Vata types crave new experiences and adventure. They tend to be excitable, creative, and enthusiastic when pursuing new opportunities. When in balance, Vata types can still be quick to anger, but are also quick to forgive. They are likely engaging conversationalists, and may take initiative in most areas of life, meaning they can be quick in thought and fast to act. Vata-dominant types may also have a vibrant imagination and a rich inner life.
However, when Vata types are out of balance, they can tend towards worry, anxiety, and difficulty focusing, especially when stressed. They can also become fearful and experience difficulty sleeping. Other issues may arise such as constipation, irregular digestion, and weight loss. If you are a Vata-dominant type, it is especially crucial that your Vata dosha remain in balance.
There are a number of factors that may indicate that your Vata is out of balance. If you experience the following physical or emotional issues, it may be an indication that your dosha needs rebalancing.
- You feel worried or overwhelmed
- You are tired but unable to sleep or relax
- You have digestive issues
- You often have an indecisive attitude
- You find it hard to concentrate on one task at a time and instead flit from one idea to another
- You have a dry throat/lips/scalp/skin
- You experience issues with regularity and experience gas
- Poor circulation
If your Vata dosha becomes unbalanced, Ayurveda subscribes to the principle of opposites to regain balance. Because Vata’s primary features are dry, light, cold, and moving, something that is moist, steady, warm, and heavy is ideal for supporting a balanced Vata.
Generally speaking, if Vata is unbalanced, the application of heat and oil externally is sometimes suggested; most Ayurvedic practitioners prefer a warming, heavy oil like walnut, sesame, or sweet almond as a massage oil. Additionally, many Vata types may find temporary relief by trying various methods of relaxation, such as meditation or yoga. These practices are designed to help the fast-moving Vata mind re-center itself and remain grounded. You might also choose to take a bath, listen to calming music, or try another relaxing activity to help you stay in balance. It can also be helpful to maintain a routine — this may work to balance any potential restlessness that the Vata type may feel. This might mean eating at the same time each day and maintaining healthy sleep patterns.
Since Vata types may experience cold hands and feet, many Ayurvedic practitioners suggest staying warm throughout the day by wearing layers of clothing and avoiding chilly and/or windy areas. Staying warm is key to maintaining a balanced Vata disposition.
If you choose to follow a Vata diet, you may look for warm and spicy foods to help maintain normal water levels — many Vata-dominant types eat a spoonful of good-quality peanut butter in the morning to support balance. Oily and heavy foods are encouraged, as long as they come from healthy sources (think grass-fed butter, fish, and olive oils, rather than processed options like canola oil or margarine).
Sweet and sour foods may also make a difference. Try sweet, fresh fruits like banana, mango, grapes, pineapples, and avocado. Soft or spiced nuts may also support a healthy Vata disposition. Warming and calming herbs and spices like triphala, chai, licorice root, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and mustard seeds may make a difference for rebalancing Vata. Try making yourself a warming cup of tea with these spices to calm your disposition.
Foods Suggested for a Vata Calming Diet
- Grains – rice and wheat
- Fruits – oranges, bananas, plums, berries, cherries, peaches, mangoes, melons, papayas, and grapes
- Vegetables – beets, cucumbers, carrots, asparagus, and sweet potatoes (cooked)
- Spices – cardamom, cumin, ginger, cinnamon, salt, cloves, mustard seed, and black pepper
On the Vata diet, there are also several foods that should be avoided. Cold and frozen foods, such as cold drinks right out of the fridge may disagree with a Vata disposition. Other foods that shouldn’t be consumed include dry or raw foods like dried fruit, and astringent or bitter flavors like coffee, tea, or very hot spices. Those who follow the Vata diet also try to avoid vegetables in the nightshade and cabbage family, as these are seen as unhealthy for the Vata type. These vegetables include tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, potatoes, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, and beans.
While this post has been examining the disposition of a person whose primary dosha is Vata, you may not identify with every characteristic described. Often a person may be a mix of two doshas, so you could potentially be Vata-Pitta oriented, or Vata-Kapha inclined. These people may show characteristics of both doshas. For example, the Vata-Pitta may resemble a pure Vata in many ways, but have a stronger and more compact build. He or she may be quite active, with a keen sense of curiosity and determination. These types may be sensitive to light, heat, sound, and dryness. By contrast, the Vata-Kapha type may be slightly shorter than a pure Vata. He or she may be more sensitive to the cold than other types, and may experience digestive issues.
According to Ayurvedic tradition, every person is treated individually according to his or her body type. What works to support optimal health for one person may not necessarily be the right choice for another. If you’re interested in learning more about Ayurveda, or if you’re a current practitioner, understanding the role of the doshas on your temperament and on your physical characteristics. Understanding how your dosha may affect your emotions and your overall health needs may help you on your health journey, and may help you choose the best nutrients and supplements for your body type.