Ever wonder why you can’t stick to a routine? Why spicy foods make you irritable? Or why change is so difficult for you? Getting to know and appreciate your dosha is key to knowing yourself.
The doshas—Vata, Pitta and Kapha—are the foundation of Ayurveda. They’re the energies that govern our mind and body. We’re all made up of a combination of these three energies, but most people tend to have an abundance of one or two of the doshas. Your unique combination is determined at conception, and it’s your own personal blueprint, a map to yourself. Because the doshas are dynamic energies, they’re influenced by diet, environment, the seasons, stress, daily routine and stages of life. As our doshas move into or out of balance, our health, energy level and mood are all affected.
Understanding the influence of the doshas on the mind and body revolutionized my approach as a physician. I no longer treat the condition, but rather the patient. A headache is no longer just “a headache.” Depending upon which dosha is causing the headache, my prescription differs. This not only gives patients a more effective and cost-efficient path toward disease management, it also provides me powerful insight into specifically which habits are causing the issues. Instead of changing EVERYTHING in a patient’s diet and lifestyle to see what might work, I’m able to prescribe targeted habits that I know work.
A dosha imbalance initially results in reoccurring, unwanted physical and psychological symptoms. And if an imbalance continues to progress, it eventually turns into a chronic medical condition. Because each dosha has predictable symptoms and signs when it’s out of balance, understanding your dosha gives you the knowledge to spot the early warnings of an impending disease. This gives you the power to reverse course and prevent future chronic illness. Instead of feeling like you’re on a locomotive leading you towards an undesirable destination, you can get off the disease train and choose a new track to health based on the specific needs of your dosha. Life feels full of freedom once again.
Each dosha is composed of two primary elements. The elements associated with each dosha determine the dosha’s characteristics. Before we dive into the specifics of each of the three doshas and learn about what makes us tick, it’s helpful to understand their elemental composition.
Ayurveda sees the basis of all life as derived from the five elements of nature: Earth, Water, Fire, Air, and Space, which combine in pairs to make up the three doshas. Each dosha is also characterized by qualities that reflect its elemental composition.
In Ayurveda, “like increases like and opposites are medicine.” This means if your dosha has specific qualities, such as Pitta naturally being hot, and if you do something that increases that quality, such as eating spicy foods, it creates more of that quality within you, resulting in a Pitta imbalance.
When a dosha is aggravated, you can help bring it into balance by favoring things that are its opposite, like balancing a scale with a counterweight. For example, because Vata is dry and rough, which can result in dry skin, constipation and anxiety, ghee is balancing because it’s oily and grounding. Pitta is hot and light, which can cause heartburn, rashes and irritability, and aloe vera juice is very balancing because it cools down the excess heat and soothes irritation. Since Kapha is heavy and cool, which can cause weight gain, sinus congestion and depression, black pepper is balancing because it’s hot and breaks up physical and mental stagnation.
The Doshas and Their Functions
Each of the three doshas have specific functions and characteristics that are based on their elemental forces. Vata governs movement and communication, pitta governs digestion and transformation, and Kapha governs physical structure and lubrication.
In Ayurveda, the seasons and the doshas correspond with each other. There are three seasons each year, each represented by the three doshas. Each season ignites the dosha energies within us, and our systems can be thrown out of balance if we don’t adapt to the weather.
As we take a close look at each dosha, it’s important to remember that your predominant dosha increases during the season it governs. So, you’ll want to choose foods and activities that will balance it, not aggravate it. For example, in fall when the weather turns cooler and drier, people with Vata dosha may notice the change as more gas and bloating. In the winter, when the climate is damp and frosty, Kapha-dominant people may experience more sinus congestion and mucous production. As summer temperatures begin to rise, people with Pitta may notice an increase in their appetite and temper.
Vata is a combination of space and air and represents movement. People with a predominant Vata dosha are small-framed, thin and light. Their skin tends to be dry and rough, and they are physically very active. Vata-dominant people are less tolerant of cooler weather and frequently experience cold hands and feet.
Vata governs activities such as breathing, blinking, movement of muscles and tissues, beating of the heart and movement within cells. People with a Vata dosha are quick to catch on to things and highly creative, enthusiastic and intuitive. Audrey Hepburn, Emma Stone, Gwyneth Paltrow and the Road Runner are all good examples of people with a Vata dominate dosha.
Vata is known as the king dosha. It has the capacity to move the other doshas out of balance. This is why oftentimes no matter what the other dosha imbalances are, we're always looking to balance Vata first if it is out of balance.
Out of balance, the Vata dosha tends to be irregular in every way. They can be nervous and may experience insomnia, constipation and anxiety. It can lead to improper communication and cause abnormal movements in the body, such as tics, tremors and muscle spasms.
Since Vata is made of the elements of space and air it’s best to avoid foods like popcorn and chips that have these qualities since “like increases like” and Vata doesn’t need more of these energies. Vata finds balance through sweet, sour and salty tastes and is aggravated by pungent, bitter and astringent tastes. They should avoid cold raw foods, including salads and raw vegetables, and anything dry and crispy. Cold drinks also increase Vata so they're part of the don'ts category as well as coffee, which is too stimulating for Vata.
The do’s list includes warm cooked foods, and heavy and oily foods, such as those containing ghee (clarified butter), nuts and avocados. In fact, ghee is one of my favorite antidotes for Vata because it's so grounding, and it's good for Vata digestion. I recommend cooking with ghee, especially during Vata season (fall to early winter). If you've already made some vegetables, just add a dollop of ghee.
Warm soupy foods and healthy sweets like dates are excellent for balancing Vata, as well as warming spices such as ginger. Fresh ginger in particular is my favorite. I love cooking with it all through Vata season. Spices like cumin powder, fenugreek, cardamom, garlic and saffron are wonderful to have in your kitchen if you have a Vata imbalance. Some of the best herbs for Vata doshas are ashwagandha, shankhpushpi and licorice. Since digestion is very sensitive for Vata, it’s important to reduce media exposure while eating and to eat in a quiet environment.
The best lifestyle change you can make to help balance Vata is less activity and more rest. Vata is naturally fast moving and tends to be all over the place, so the more rest you take, the more grounded you'll feel. Pilates and yoga poses that focus predominantly on stretching are particularly good for Vata. Sun salutations done slowly, holding each position for 2-3 breaths, is my favorite yoga series for balancing Vata.
Pitta is a combination of fire and water and represents digestion and metabolism. They tend to run hot, both literally and metaphorically. Physically, people with this dosha are of average build with a medium, muscular frame and are naturally athletic. They are high achievers, ambitious, driven and passionate, and tend to have extremely strong mental concentration. Pitta dosha typically experiences strong digestion, steady energy and good circulation. They're known as Energizer bunnies because they really can keep going and going. Good examples of people with a Pitta dominant dosha are Jennifer Lopez, Madonna, Steve Jobs and Yosemite Sam.
Too much Pitta energy can cause anger, jealousy, impatience and irritability. Pitta dominant people can become controlling in all areas of their life, especially at work and with personal relationships. When the Pitta dosha gains weight, it tends to be inflammatory weight, with lymphatic accumulation, the most uncomfortable kind of weight. They can also develop premature grey hair when too much heat rises up to the scalp. Pitta dosha feels excess body heat—when everyone else is bundled up, they’re complaining about being hot.
Common medical conditions for excess Pitta in the body can be ulcerative colitis or Crohn's disease, diarrhea, arthritis, heart disease, stroke, rashes and headaches. Pittas are predisposed to infections in general due to excess inflammation, and the infections can show up anywhere, but especially in the skin, throat, ears and scalp.
Because Pitta is naturally hot and made up of the elements of fire and water, we want to make sure that we're keeping Pitta cool. Pitta dosha is balanced by sweet, bitter and astringent tastes and aggravated by sour, salty and pungent tastes. Pittas do well with cooling foods that turn down the heat. The food don'ts for Pitta include spicy foods like garlic, chilies, onion, black pepper and even cinnamon which isn’t usually considered spicy, but it has a heating effect.
Acidic foods like lemons and tomatoes, and fermented foods and beverages (such as kombucha, coffee and alcohol) are also on the don’t list. I recommend avoiding fried foods for anybody battling a Pitta imbalance, especially during Pitta season (summer/early fall). You can, however, cook with coconut oil and ghee because these specific oils are great ways to reduce Pitta heat.
Drinking coconut water cools off naturally hot Pitta, and cooling fruits such as melons and pears are delicious treats. Green, leafy vegetables are also naturally cooling for the Pitta dosha. Spinach is the one exception to that rule because it’s a bit heating. Although you can still have some spinach if you're Pitta, you don't want to have large amounts particularly during the summer. For cooling down Pitta, I also recommend drinking aloe vera juice and incorporating spices like fennel, coriander, amla powder and rose buds into your diet.
Herbal recommendations for balancing Pitta include shankhpushpi, Brahmi, manjistha, and dandelion root. Shankhpushpi and Brahmi have a cooling effect on the mind. Manjistha is great for reducing excess heat, plus it helps to move out excess water that accumulates in the body. Dandelion root helps relieve excess heat that tends to accumulate in the liver.
Pitta dosha benefits more than any other dosha from spending time outside in nature. It’s incredibly rejuvenating and calming, and the perfect remedy for irritation and anger. Pittas also need to stay cool to balance their hot temperament, so enjoying the outdoors during the cool weather of spring and fall is most welcomed. Since Pitta is naturally hot, you do not want to go outside during the hottest time of the day, especially during the summer. One of my favorite tips for reducing Pitta is spraying yourself with rosewater—it’s wonderfully refreshing.
Pittas are very passionate, competitive and driven, which means they tend to overwork. Pitta people need to really look at their work schedule and create alarms that tell them, "Okay, my workday is done.” Avoiding arguments and heated discussions is also important for reducing Pitta. Because Pittas are so driven and are natural overachievers, it’s important that they embrace rituals for self-care. Taking time to relax in nature regularly and scheduling vacations with family and friends will keep Pittas productive and revitalized.
When it comes to exercise, Pitta dosha benefits from short bursts of fast-moving exercise such as running, hiking, swimming, martial arts or biking. Outdoor exercise is especially enjoyable and balancing for Pittas. But because of their competitive nature, Pittas can sometimes overexert themselves. Engaging in fun, noncompetitive exercise like dancing keeps Pitta in shape and reminds them that life can be playful.
Kapha is a combination of water and earth and represents structure and lubrication. They are usually big boned and sturdy and tend to have the most difficulty keeping weight off. The Kapha dosha has smooth, luminous skin, glossy dark hair, lovely singing voices, good long-term memory and very strong immunity. Kapha is the relaxed, mellow, chill dosha. People who are predominantly Kapha have a let-it-be approach to life. They aren’t prone to stress, anxiety or irritation. When in balance they are very affectionate, generous and loyal. Oprah Winfrey, Melissa McCarthy, Adele and Winnie the Pooh are wonderful examples of the Kapha dosha.
Out of balance, Kapha individuals can lack motivation and feel too lazy to do anything. They have a terrible time making decisions. Kaphas truly enjoy food; sugar and dairy are weaknesses that only make their imbalance worse. Their digestion becomes slow when they are out of balance and that’s why food choices are usually the Achilles’ heel for most Kaphas. They also tend to become possessive and stubborn when out of balance. Common medical conditions associated with excess Kapha include sinus congestion, nasal allergies and obesity.
Kapha dosha needs a low-fat, vegan, nutrient-rich, low-calorie diet with limited fruits and grains, and are balanced by pungent, bitter and astringent tastes. Many of the general food don'ts are the same as Vata—avoid cold, raw foods and cold drinks. However, Kaphas do tolerate dry crispy foods, but just make sure that it's not a lot of cold crispy foods. Kaphas definitely want to avoid dairy and sugar, especially during Kapha season (late winter and early spring), and meat is difficult to digest for most due to their tendency towards weak digestion. Oily foods are also on the don’t list because they increase Kapha.
Honey is one of the few sweet foods that helps to reduce Kapha. One of the things I like doing during Kapha season is mixing warm water with the juice from half of a lemon, along with a teaspoon of honey to help remove all the excess Kapha from my body. If you’re predominantly Kapha, you can do this year-round.
Spices that are good for Kapha include cumin powder, fenugreek, cardamom, cloves, cooked onions and cooked garlic, black pepper, cinnamon powder and pippali (sometimes called Indian long pepper). Specific herbal recommendations that are wonderful for Kapha are ashwagandha, tulsi and guggul. I love tulsi because it helps with the excess mucus that Kapha tend to form, especially during winter months. You can take it as a powdered herb or as a tea. It's such a nourishing tea and really helps to open up the respiratory tract and nasal passages to remove excess Kapha mucus. Guggul is a little-known Ayurvedic herb that is wonderful for helping to scrape the ama (toxins) out of the body. Think of ama as the excess Kapha that your body doesn't need.
Kapha dosha is a creature of habit and loves routine, so when it comes to lifestyle behaviors to help balance Kapha, they benefit most from mixing things up and stepping out of their comfort zone to try new things. Because Kapha naturally have slower digestion, eating less is an important practice for them. They require the most vigorous exercise of all the doshas and should engage in activities that make them sweat. It’s also important for Kapha to stimulate their mind; excess Kapha can make the mind sluggish and dull, which can eventually lead to depression.
Seeds of Wisdom
Before I understood my dosha, life felt unpredictable and pretty daunting. I didn’t know why I got sick, what triggered a headache, why my energy level fluctuated, why my mood suddenly shifted, etc. Life felt like it was happening to me rather than me having control over what I thought and felt at any given time.
Now that I understand what influences my dosha, I can generally predict how something is going to impact me. While I still have setbacks in my health, they are far less than before and they’re patterns that I can predict and alter. Sometimes life throws us variables that are truly out of our control. But when we know our dosha, we are far better equipped to handle life’s challenges.
Knowledge arms us with power for self-determination so that we can meet our goals. It also teaches us to be more compassionate and forgiving of ourselves. We can better understand how we act in balance and out of balance once we identify our dosha. Instead of judging ourselves, we can acknowledge the presence of an imbalance and help correct it from a place of self-acceptance. Healing happens in a nurturing environment, and it’s difficult to nurture our mind and body when we don’t understand how it works. Getting to know the doshas allows us to better understand our unique mind-body type and gets us to our desired health AND life goals with greater ease.