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  • Writer's pictureValerie

The Doshas: Your guide to Vata, Pitta, and Kapha

Updated: Sep 1, 2023

An extensive beginner's overview of the basic building blocks of Ayurvedic medicine.


You will never come across a book in Ayurveda that does not talk about the doshas. To understand how Ayurveda works, you need to know about vata, pitta, and kapha: the foundation upon which Ayurveda's unique system of medicine is built – here is a guide to everything a beginner needs to understand the doshas, simple and clean.


These days you can find plenty of online "discover your dosha" quizzes that tell you whether you are Vata, Pitta, or Kapha, or a combination. Based on a variety of factors, including physical features, digestive tendencies, personality traits, and dominant emotions, these quizzes create a profile of which dosha(s) are most prominent in you. While these quizzes can be a great resource, you may find yourself asking questions about how the doshas work, whether they are fixed or changeable, and what it means for your doshas to be balanced. When working with clients, I often find that there are many misconceptions and points of confusion around the doshas, the difference between constitution and current state of health, and other key Ayurvedic concepts. This guide seeks to provide readers with a clear and systematic way of understanding the doshas and an idea of how Ayurvedic practitioners apply these concepts in treatment plans.


What are the Doshas?

Prakriti: Constitutional Traits

Vikruti: Challenges & Imbalances

Health & Doshic Balance: Further Exploration


 

What are the doshas?

The energetic forces of nature

The system of Ayurvedic medicine was developed upon a greater foundation of Vedic philosophy - a system that considers all the forces and workings of the Universe and how they relate to the human experience. As a result, one of the fundamental assumptions of Ayurveda is that all the forces that govern the Universe also govern what is going on in the human body and mind. As human beings, we are a part of nature - a microcosm of the macrocosm. The doshas allow us to conceptualize the patterns of nature in three major categories: vata, pitta, and kapha. The differentiations are determined by the elemental makeup of each dosha.


There are five elements in Ayurveda: ether, air, fire, water, and earth. Rather than being chemical elements, these are better understood as conceptual representations of universal forces or ideas. Each element and their fundamental qualities* are described simply below:

  1. Ether - the concept of empty space (Qualities: subtle, light, unstable)

  2. Air - the concept of movement (Qualities: mobile, dry, light)

  3. Fire - the concept of transformation and illumination (Qualities: hot, light, sharp)

  4. Water - the concept of cohesion (Qualities: moist, flowing, heavy)

  5. Earth - the concept of solidity and stability (Qualities: stable, heavy, dense)

*Note: There are 20 main qualities discussed in Ayurveda that are paired into opposites. For example, cold - hot, moist - dry, etc. The most important thing to know about these qualities (called gunas in Sanskrit) is that opposites balance each other out. This is a major therapeutic principle in Ayurveda applied to all aspects of treatment.


Elemental Pairs form Doshas. Each of the three doshas are composed of two elements that determine their nature and their functions. The doshas take on the qualities of the two elements in their composition combined:

  1. Vata: Air & Ether element (Qualities: light, mobile, dry, subtle, cold)

  2. Pitta: Fire & Water element (Qualities: hot, oily, mobile, sharp, light)

  3. Kapha: Water & Earth element (Qualities: heavy, stable, moist, dense, cool)


Functions: forces that govern the Body and Mind

The doshas are the physiological forces that govern the functioning of the body and mind. Each dosha is responsible for different aspects of anatomical development, physiological function, and disease pathology. Here is a breakdown of the overall function of each dosha:


  1. Vata: Governs all aspects of movement and transport in the body, as well as the empty spaces in the body. Examples of this include absorption of nutrients, elimination, nerve impulses, and circulation. It is also involved in sensory intake and motor skills.

  2. Pitta: Governs all aspects of metabolism, heat and transformation, as well as eyesight. Examples of this include the chemical breakdown of food into nutrients, the production of digestive enzymes, and the conversion of nutrients into energy. It is also involved in cognitive processing and facilitating focus.

  3. Kapha: Governs stability, solidity and fluidity in the body. Kapha is responsible for resilience and immunity. It contributes to anabolic processes, lubrication, insulation, and general building of bodily tissues. Kapha helps keep the mind stable and facilitates emotions like compassion and attachment.

Putting together the concepts: Conceptualizing the doshas takes a combination of critical and creative thinking. Let's take Pitta as an example. You may be wondering how the same force that governs eyesight also governs metabolism as in the case of Pitta. It is helpful to think about qualities of the elements that Pitta is formed from - namely fire. Fire is both heating and illuminating. Light facilitates eyesight. Heat accelerates metabolism.


Doshas = Defect

The word dosha is literally translated as "that which causes disturbance" in Sanskrit. This is important because it means that any disease that we experience can be explained as a disturbance in our doshic balance. When any given dosha is described as aggravated, vitiated, or increased, this generally indicates that there is an excess of that dosha causing a disturbance in the body and mind.


In Ayurveda, we keep our doshas balanced and our bodies healthy through proper diet and lifestyle first and foremost. When our everyday habits support our health, we are less likely to get sick.


Bringing the doshas to a state of balance is the art of Ayurvedic medicine, as each unique individual has their own constitution or Prakriti - their unique balance of doshas.


Prakriti: Constitutional Traits


The doshas determine our unique prakriti, or constitution. Our prakriti manifests in our body type, physiological tendencies, personalities, and mental faculty. Each of us has a unique combination of vata, pitta, and kapha that make us unique in the way we develop and in the way we interact with the world around us. We can compare it to something like our genetic code - our prakriti is determined at conception and essentially does not change throughout the lifetime.


Vata Prakriti

Physical Features

Those that are vata-dominant in their physical features tend to have smaller, slighter features, but because of the mobile and irregular nature of vata, other body parts may also develop much larger or smaller than average. Vata bodies tend to be long but thin, with less muscle mass. Long, slender fingers and frizzy, dry hair are also typical of vata types.


Physiological Tendencies

Vata body types are much more sensitive overall because of vata's cold and dry nature. This might cause fluctuations in appetite, digestive strength, and body temperature. A vata body type may not retain water easily and may also have trouble gaining weight.


Personality & Mental Faculty

When in balance, those with vata personality types tend to be bubbly and enthusiastic, with expressive and artistic tendencies. Vata types are very comfortable with change and travel. They have a knack for multitasking and initiating projects that interest them, even though sometimes they may not follow through. They also tend to be social butterflies and are fun and interesting to be around.


Pitta Prakriti

Physical Features

Those that are pitta-dominant in their physical features tend to have moderate, sharp and defined features. Pitta expresses itself in the body often as intensity, so a pitta person may have penetrating or deep-set eyes. Their bodies often look more defined and muscular, although not very bulky. Because of the water element in pitta, pitta skin tends to be more oily and red, and hair is often fine but also oily.


Physiological Tendencies

Pitta body types generally have a strong metabolism, so they can both gain and lose weight fairly easily. Pitta types usually have a very strong appetite and get "hangry" when they haven't had enough to eat. They tend to have an overall higher body temperature and also tendencies towards body odor.


Personality & Mental Faculty

When in balance, pitta-dominant types are generally sharp, motivated and highly disciplined. Pitta types are organized and logical, and love to get things done. They are good at critical thinking and prefer to analyze the information they have before making decisions. Pittas are able to focus their attention on what's important to them and tend to follow through on projects.


Kapha Prakriti

Physical Features

Because of water and earth element, Kapha dominant body types tend to be heavier, stockier and more rounded out. In general, the water aspect of Kapha manifests as softer, larger eyes, softer and paler skin, and thick, wavy hair. Compared with the girth of their bodies, they may seem to have shorter limbs and appendages.


Physiological Tendencies

Kapha body types are characterized by stability. They tend to have stronger immune systems and do not lose weight easily. Their metabolisms are much slower and as a result, they also have a low appetite most of the time. They do not need to eat as much as other doshas to maintain their bodies, even though they may eat out of habit more often.


Personality & Mental Faculty

Kapha dominant types are very laid back and are less likely to bend in stressful situations. They do not like change and prefer living lives that are stable, comfortable and predictable. They are very reliable as people and enjoy providing support to others. Kapha types tend to have fewer but strong and lasting friendships. They have the ability to accumulate on hold on to wealth and possessions, and sometimes can be somewhat sentimental.


Vikruti: Challenges & Imbalances


Although our constitution is determined at conception, we are also subject to the influence of the environment around us from the beginning. Even when we are in the safety and comfort of our mother's womb, our development depends on the nutrition we get from our mothers and many other factors. Once we are born, the exposure to outside influences grows exponentially, as does our capacity to fall out of balance.


The ability for our bodies to maintain harmony and balance in accordance to our prakriti is considered health. Just as with the concept of homeostasis, our bodies are constantly working and adapting to maintain this dynamic equilibrium. Each of us must face challenges and difficulties throughout life. Our tendencies towards certain illnesses is due to a mix of influences, including our natural constitutional tendencies and genetics, but also our environment, upbringing, and so much more. Any challenge, disease, or imbalance is called Vikruti in Ayurveda.


We can experience an imbalances in any dosha and often multiple ones simultaneously. Here are the most common imbalances categorized by dosha:


Vata Signs of Imbalance

Note: Vata is considered the king of doshas and is responsible for the most imbalances in the body. It is the only dosha that has the ability to push the other two out of balance because of its mobile quality.


Digestive

Vata digestive imbalances are characterized by dryness and irregularity. The seat of vata is in the colon, so constipation, dry stools, and gas are typical signs of early vata imbalance in the digestive tract. This can be caused by any kind of irregular eating habits, a diet with vata-aggravating foods, and even vata-type mental disturbances.


Other physical imbalances

Vata can cause undesirable weight loss, dry skin, and poor circulation leading to cold extremities. Deeper imbalances in the body include weakness, pain, and deficiencies. Many nervous system disorders involve vata.


Mental

Anxiety is one of the most prominent and early signs of vata imbalance. Other signs of vata in the mind include poor memory, difficulty focusing, hyperactivity, feelings of fear and overwhelm. Vata imbalances in the mind are often linked to insomnia as well.


Pitta Signs of Imbalance


Digestive

Pitta is hot, fluid and mobile. Too much pitta can lead to digestive disturbances like loose stools, hyperacidity, and smelly gas. The seat of pitta is in the lower stomach and small intestine where many of the enzymes are added to the chyle. Pitta aggravating habits and diet can lead to these early signs of pitta imbalance.


Other physical imbalances

Excess heat and sweating, intensity, rashes, and acne are all examples of pitta in the body. Most inflammatory disorders involve some level of pitta imbalance. Jaundice and hepatitis are examples of specific disorders primarily caused by pitta.


Mental

Anger is the most prominent sign of pitta imbalance in the mind. However, aggression, hyperfocus, and tendency to overwork are also good examples. Being hypercritical and judgmental is a sign of pitta imbalance. Pittas can also experience insomnia due to heat or from trying to process too many things in the mind.


Kapha Signs of Imbalance


Digestive

The seat of kapha is in the upper stomach, where an excess of kapha can lead to nausea and low appetite, as well as sluggish digestion. Because of the moist nature of kapha, excess mucus is also often a symptom and may be visible through the stools, which tend to be more bulky and pale. Eating heavy foods, along with kapha aggravating habits, can cause these imbalances.


Other physical imbalances

Systemic swelling, water retention, and excess weight gain are all signs of kapha imbalance. Another early sign of kapha is excess mucus production in the respiratory tract. Many conditions of excess growth involve kapha. Itchiness is also a cardinal sign of kapha imbalance.


Mental

Kapha mental imbalances have a heavy, sluggish nature. This may manifest as lethargy, laziness, stubbornness, or even low grade depression. When there is too much kapha in the mind, the mind tends to run slower. When there is excess water element, kapha types tend to become over-attached and may become manipulative with their affection.


A note on dosha combinations: There are actually infinite combinations for the ways in which the doshas can interact with each other. Within each individual, the doshas interact in subtle and unique ways. When it comes to imbalances, there are superficial imbalances that are easier to deal with, and there are deep-seated imbalances that may take intensive measures to reverse. Identifying the nature of these imbalances in an individual is part of the practice of Ayurvedic medicine.


Further Exploration

Thank you for reading my guide on the doshas! I hope it helped deepen your understanding of Ayurveda and some of its most fundamental principles. This guide just scratches the surface of how the doshas work. To learn more about doshas and other Ayurvedic principles and how you can apply them, subscribe to my weekly newsletter Wisdom Wednesdays here.


I also recommend the following books for further exploration on Ayurveda. These books were written by my teachers and some of the most inspirational leaders in Ayurveda in the US today, and are written for an American audience:

  • Healing Your Life: Lessons on the Path of Ayurveda by Dr. Marc Halpern

  • The 3-Season Diet: Eat the Way Nature Intended: Lose Weight, Beat Food Cravings, and Get Fit by Dr. John Douillard

  • Joy of Balance - An Ayurvedic Guide to Cooking with Healing Ingredients: 80 Plant-Based Recipes by Divya Alter

May everyone be happy and healthy!

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