When I got sick a few years ago, I knew that western medicine would not offer me much in the way of actual healing. Having been a follower of ancient Chinese medicine for years (thank you, Bill Moyers, for “Healing and the Mind”), I knew the powers of acupuncture, Chinese herbs, and of course, the meditative practices of Buddhist yoga. But after listening to dozens of podcasts by a naturopathic doctor, Dr. Stephen Cabral, I began researching an even older practice of medicine from India called Ayurveda. While the Chinese have been practicing medicine for nearly 3500 years, the Indian’s have been practicing for over 5,000 years. I have adopted the practices of both cultures but would consider myself more of an Ayurvedic practitioner.
Chinese, and Indian Ayurvedic medicine, are the two most commonly practiced forms of traditional medicine in Asia. Both share a similar holistic approach—treat the person as a whole vs. treating just a symptom or set of symptoms. Philosophically, however, they are very different from each other. Ayurvedic medicine takes a constitution-based approach, i.e., individuals are born with different traits and characteristics that are unchanging. When their constitution (dosha) is out of balance, it creates a set of symptoms that, if left unchecked, can lead to “dis-ease.” Chinese medicine treats what they call ch’i or qi in the body. Ch’i is a vital energy that connects to all of your organs and their function. It also uses an aggregate of healing modalities, which includes acupuncture, Chinese herbal therapy, massage, dietary therapy, Tai Chi and Qi Gong. It is ultimately based on Taoist philosophy. I will write more in-depth about Chinese medicine in a future post, but for now, let’s talk Ayurveda.
Ayurvedic medicine emphasizes the three doshas or biological energies found throughout the human body and mind. They believe that doshas govern all physical and mental processes and provide every living being with an individual blueprinting for health and fulfillment. These doshas are called Vata, Pitta, and Kapha. Your constitution, or dosha, is determined at the time of conception. Much like the color of your eyes, or the size of your stature, your composition is unchanging. While we have all three doshas in our body, we each have a dominant dosha that cannot be changed. Once a Vata, always a Vata. Let’s begin.
Kapha governs all structure and lubrication in the mind and body. It controls weight, growth, lubrication for the joints and lungs, and formation of all the seven tissues — nutritive fluids, blood, fat, muscles, bones, marrow, and reproductive tissues. Therefore Kapha controls our lymphatic system. Even in the desert parts of the country, winter is relatively damp and cold with spurts of snow, ice, or freezing rain. These elements create a similar reaction within the body to accumulate Kapha, particularly avalambaka Kapha (Kapha housed in the respiratory system). We feel the results as we blow our nose and cough our way through winter.
For me, winter means puffy eyes, and puffy eyes can be a clue your lymph fluid is getting sluggish. Other signs of an “increased” Kapha (when a particular dosha is present in higher than average proportions, it is increased, aggravated, or excess state) can be sluggishness, swelling, higher than normal blood pressure, and excessive phlegm. So what can we do? Exercise!
It turns out lymph vessels are squeezed by your muscles when you move. Therefore, exercise plays a vital role in lymphatic fluid circulation. Deep breathing exercises can also benefit the flow of lymphatic fluid because of the pressure deep breathing creates in the chest and abdominal cavities along with the contractions of the diaphragm and abdominal muscles.
Lymphatic Yoga motions: neck motion – slowly lift your chin to the ceiling and look up while inhaling slowly; bring it down, on a slow exhalation and look at the heart (Repeat 3X). Bring your head to a neutral position. Turn your head to the right and look over the shoulder far behind you, the same to the left (3X). Shoulder motion – breathe in, slowly lift your shoulders to the ceiling, exhale with a sigh and let them go down (Repeat 5X).
Other ways to balance your Kapha:
- Breathe deeply and slowly for at least 10 min daily.
- Drink plenty of water.
- Reduce your daily salt intake.
- Reduce your alcohol intake.
Vata dosha governs movement in the body, the activities of the nervous system, and the process of elimination. Vata translates into “That Which Moves Things,” and it governs anything related to movement, such as breathing, talking, nerve impulses, shifts in the muscles and tissues, circulation, assimilation of food, elimination, urination, and menstruation. Vata is often called the “King of the Doshas,” since it governs the body’s greater life force and gives motion to Kapha (“That Which Sticks”), and Pitta the third and final dosha (“That Which Cooks”).
I am a Vata dominant and winter time is the hardest time for me. Vata’s love warm climates and warm food. They have high energy (bordering on hyper) and have a hard time saying no. Vata’s respond to stress with fear, and because their mind is continuously moving, it makes Savasana in yoga (a time of extreme silence), the hardest part of yoga! Vata’s are quick to learn, usually fast talkers, and tire quickly because they try to do 1000 things at once. If Vata’s are out of balance, it’s because they have exceeded the limits of their energy. They can sometimes become anxious and can’t sleep. Vata dosha is closely connected to the root chakra, which is responsible for grounding and bringing a sense of wholeness and happiness. Ground through yoga and exercise can be quite helpful.
Ways to balance Vata:
- Eat naturally sweet, salty, and sour foods, avoiding junk food, excessive salt, and processed sugars.
- Follow a fixed routine and avoid too many different, frenetic activities. Bedtime, waking time, meal time, and exercise time should be the same every day.
- Yoga postures should be done at a slow, steady pace.
- Include the following in your asana practice: Vajrasana, Cat Stretch, Surya Namaskar, Virabhadrasna (Warrior Pose), Vriksasana (Tree Pose), Purn Pavanmukt asana (wind relieving pose), Shavasana (corpse pose), Ujjayi breathing.
- Stay warm, calm and relaxed with hot baths, warm oil massages, steam and heat treatments, and soothing music.
Pitta derives from the elements Fire and Water and translates as “that which cooks.” It is the energy of digestion and metabolism, and energy production in the body that functions through the carrier substances such as organic acids, hormones, enzymes, and bile.
The central locations of Pitta in the body are the small intestines, stomach, liver, spleen, pancreas, blood, eyes, and sweat. Physiologically, Pitta provides the body with heat and energy through the breakdown of complex food molecules. The primary function of Pitta is transformation. Those with a predominance of the Pitta principle have a fiery nature that manifests in both body and mind.
Qualities of Pitta:
Pittas doshas are usually of medium size and weight. They sometimes have bright red hair, but baldness or thinning hair is also typical in a Pitta. They have excellent digestion, which sometimes leads them to believe they can eat anything. Aggravated Pitta causes problems related to excessive heat and acidity in mind and body such as acid indigestion, diarrhea, anger, fever, hot flashes, infections, and rashes.
To balance Pitta:
- Enjoy exercise, but avoid getting over-heated or too embroiled in competitive sports.
- Keep cool. Avoid hot temperatures and food.
- Walking in nature especially by bodies of water or in the shade of mature trees, yoga, swimming, skiing, cycling, etc. are good choices
- Favor cooking with cooling spices like fennel, coriander, cardamom, and turmeric. Coconut oil and olive oil are also good.
- Avoid chili peppers, vinegar, alcohol, tobacco, caffeinated beverages, and chocolate
- Get to bed before 10 PM
- Moderation; don’t overwork.
- Allow for leisure time.
- Regular mealtimes, especially lunch at noon.
In sports nutrition, the doshas are very similar to the endomorph, ectomorph, and mesomorph body types, as you will see below.
• Vatas are energizer bunnies that love to move. They are most similar to the Ectomorph body type.
• Pittas are natural athletes. They are comparable to the Mesomorph body type.
• Kaphas are most like the Endomorph body type.
Often, due to many factors in our environments like weather, seasons, lifestyle choices, and diet, the most dominant dosha tends to become imbalanced, but any Dosha can also become imbalanced. These imbalances create a secondary, “current” state, known as Vikriti, which results from inadequately supporting our natural constitution (Prakriti). We push ourselves off balance by continually eating foods or adopting habits that are not suited to us — primarily by exposing ourselves to more of the Doshic energies that we already have. If we are experiencing symptoms of imbalance, such as bloating, rashes, spots, hot flushes, itchy skin, sore gums, gassiness, tummy upsets, lousy temper, tiredness, or anxiety, it means that our Vikriti is way off from our Prakriti. These signs that our mind-body is off-kilter, if left unchecked, lead to disease down the road.
In summary, the doshas are dynamic energies that constantly change in response to our actions, thoughts, emotions, the foods we eat, the seasons, and any other sensory inputs that feed our mind and body. When we live in the fulfillment of our natures, we naturally make lifestyle and dietary decisions that foster balance within our doshas. But when we live against our intrinsic nature, we tend to support unhealthy patterns that lead to physical and mental imbalances. In my next blog post, I will discuss some of the ways to re-balance your doshas and begin to explore some of the themes of traditional Chinese medicine.
Thank you Stephen Cabral, ND for your passion and knowledge that you share so freely and lovingly.
Until then, Ayubowan!