Ayurveda: The Science of Self-Care

Ayurveda: The Science of Self-Care


By Courtney Helgoe | December 2012

Discomfort was a way of life for Kristina Lund. For as long as she could remember, the 37-year-old Minneapolis musician would routinely lie awake at night, her mind racing in the dark. By day, she was prone to digestive distress, experiencing gas and bloating every time she ate. Not feeling well was a 24-hour condition. And she’d gotten used to it.

Then a doctor discovered a large benign tumor on her ovary and everything changed.

After having the growth removed, Lund got serious about taking care of her overall health. Long inclined to pursue natural healing strategies before drugs, she borrowed a book about Ayurveda from a roommate. She was intrigued to learn that, according to the ancient healing system, her various ailments were connected and could be treated together.

Ayurveda is a Sanskrit word that can be translated as “the science of life,” and it refers to a constitutional model of health used in India for more than 5,000 years. Sometimes called “yoga’s sister science,” Ayurveda is used for daily health maintenance as well as intervention in chronic health issues. Its guiding principle is that our constitutions (or prakuti) usually fall into one of three categories, called doshas, which correspond to combinations of the elements air, fire, water, ether (space) and earth.

If your natural inclination is to be unsettled and “airy,” like Lund, Ayurveda recommends ways to become more grounded: eating heavier foods, such as hearty vegetable stews and cooked grains, and getting massages to calm the nervous system. It might also suggest subtler strategies, like staying out of the wind when possible.

While such prescriptions might sound a bit esoteric, Ayurveda is grounded in a fairly straightforward observation: that different types of people are likely to thrive in different  conditions, and that knowing one’s predominant dosha can make it easier for each of us to recognize and compensate for our own inherent tendencies.

“The principles of Ayurveda are timeless,” says Sheila Patel, MD, a family physician who directs health programming at the Chopra Center for Wellbeing in Carlsbad, Calif. “[They are] based on the laws of nature, and we are part of that nature. One thing I appreciate about Ayurveda is that it is really individualized medicine.”

Ayurveda’s basic premise is that the human body is made of the same elements as all of nature, and that most individuals’ bodies express a predominance of one element. This results in a particular physical build, appetite and set of personality qualities that constitute one’s dosha.

The three doshas are Vata (mostly air), Pitta (mostly fire) and Kapha (mostly earth). Each type carries its own tendencies — to be comparatively airy, fiery or earthy by nature. If our natural inclinations get overamplified, however, imbalance and health issues can arise.

Pitta types, for example, already have plenty of heat, so spicy food, warm weather or intense conversations are likely to put them over the edge. To cool their fire, Ayurveda deploys opposites — like cooling foods, spices and activities — to restore balance.

Most of us have one or two primary doshas (only a small percentage of people are truly tri-doshic), but everyone contains all three in some measure. This means that we can have imbalances in any dosha from time to time.

“Somebody might be a Pitta or Vata, but because of their diet, environment or daily choices, their Kapha energy gets out of balance,” Patel explains. “As a result, they might start gaining weight.”

The best way to reverse such trends, according to Ayurvedic thought, is to correct the underlying doshic imbalances, thereby returning the individual to his or her natural, healthy state.

For Lund, taking an Ayurvedic view provided immediate relief from her most chronic symptoms and helped her form a healthier, customized set of habits. “I started following an Ayurvedic diet to the letter,” she says of her resolution to improve her mental and physical conditions, all of which are associated with the Vata dosha type.

She avoided cold and raw foods (which had always made her feel ill) and began eating warm, cooked meals at regular times: hot oats and fruit in the morning; a hearty meal of cooked greens, eggs and grains at noon; and roasted root vegetables like beets and squash for evening meals. She took long walks to soothe her racing thoughts and started meditating regularly. Changing these aspects of her daily routine soon allowed her to fall asleep with ease, and her gas and bloating disappeared.

Bhaswati Bhattacharya, MPH, MD, founder and director of the Dinacharya Institute in New York City, says Lund’s story is not uncommon. On the contrary, it’s a classic example of the power that simple shifts in lifestyle choices and attitude can have on health.

While Bhattacharya might also prescribe specific herbal remedies or recommend traditional Ayurvedic treatments like shirodhara (a soothing, centering procedure in which a stream of warm oil is poured steadily across the forehead),­ she maintains that the foundations of Ayurvedic healing are firmly rooted in its recommendations for daily behavior.

“My goal,” Bhattacharya says, “is to give patients a toolbox they can use to get themselves out of some of their own imbalances.” She believes Ayurveda’s modern value is its capacity to help us take ownership of our health. “One thing that Ayurveda’s reemergence reveals is that people actually want to do more self-care. They don’t want to rely on the doctor for everything.”

While some people see an Ayurvedic practitioner to identify their type (and one should always consult a trusted health professional about serious health conditions), you can get a good sense of your primary dosha by taking an online quiz, like the one available at www.banyanbotanicals.com/constitutions.

Marcia Meredith, a nurse practitioner and Ayurvedic adviser with a consultation practice in Minneapolis, recommends taking the quiz with someone who knows you well, since others can sometimes recognize our central tendencies more easily than we recognize our own.

To learn more about the three doshas and get a sense of how to keep them in balance, check out the following profiles. Whether or not you decide to pursue Ayurveda as a formal healing system, you’ll probably discover helpful strategies for self-care. And that’s something every dosha can use more of.


Know Your Dosha: Vata

Air and space (ether) are the elemental building blocks of this dosha, which is why Vata types are usually slender, light and quick moving (think of a wiry marathon runner or ballet dancer). They also prefer warmer climates and room temperatures.

How to Keep Vata in Balance: Routine
Balanced Vata types have very active, creative minds, says Bhattacharya. They tend toward artistic professions — writers, artists and designers. In most offices the “idea guy” will be Vata. Because of their quick minds, they learn fast, but they also forget quickly. They’re also the most forgiving of the three doshas because they don’t hold on to things for long.

Their creative, airy tendencies make them vulnerable to forgetting whether they’ve eaten, returned a phone call or finished a task. So Ayurveda emphasizes routine as the key to balance. A set schedule with regular meals and bedtimes helps contain the energy of this mercurial type. Otherwise that energy becomes too dispersed and the Vata person acts like an “airhead,” Bhattacharya says.

Conditions that put Vata out of balance

  • travel
  • job or other life change
  • cold, dry, windy weather
  • too much cold, raw or dry food

Signs of Vata imbalance

  • Mental: Anxiety, indecision, forgetfulness, lack of focus
  • Physical: Insomnia, gas and bloating, dry skin, constipation

Best Daily Practices for Vata
Diet: Vatas have irregular appetites and often forget to eat, so regular mealtimes are essential. It might seem like large meals would be grounding for Vata types, but their digestive systems can be easily overwhelmed, so regular, moderate-size meals are best. Ayurveda recommends cooked foods for all doshas (practitioners feel the slight loss in nutrients is more than compensated for by the food’s increased digestibility), but Vata especially should stick to warm meals. Raw foods, dry snacks and iced drinks easily aggravate this already-cold-dry-light-and-mobile constitution. “For lunch, instead of salad, choose warm soup,” suggests Bhattacharya. And plenty of healthy fats are a good balance for Vata’s natural dryness. Sweet, salty and sour tastes are soothing for Vata, so these types should choose sweet fruits and season meals with lemon and salty umami flavors, like soy sauce.

Sleep: Vata people need plenty of rest, since lack of sleep amplifies their spacey tendencies. Having a regular bedtime is helpful and may counteract Vata’s tendency for insomnia. Meredith recommends a sleep schedule of 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. for all the doshas, but says that “Vata can get a little more sleep. It’s grounding for them.”

Exercise: Vata people love movement. They’re usually the ones who want to walk to a restaurant or bike to the movies. Meredith cautions that their activity can become frenetic, however, so they should choose movements that are smooth, stabilizing and strengthening to calm them down, like vinyasa yoga, cycling or swimming. She also recommends they stop before feeling totally worn out. “Vata people need to exercise, but they shouldn’t go to the ends of their energy.”

General self-care: Vata types should take care to stay warm and always keep an extra sweater on hand. Regular massage is good to help these people stay grounded in their bodies. Patel recommends daily meditation for all dosha types, and for Vata it’s wise to meditate at the same time each day. Keeping checklists can be a great way to manage Vata’s sometimes-scattered attention.

Know Your Dosha: Pitta

The Pitta constitution is dominated by fire and water. These people tend to be medium-size with muscular, athletic builds. (Professional competitive athletes are often Pitta types.) Their fiery constitutions mean they frequently feel hot, so they prefer cooler environments.

How to Keep Pitta in Balance: Surrender
Those with a dominant Pitta dosha are typically observant, intellectual and driven. “These are people whose goals get completed,” says Bhattacharya. Balanced Pitta types are assertive as well as extremely warm and attentive to others, especially when it helps move their projects forward. Professionally, they’re usually found in leadership positions and are often the motivating force behind all kinds of projects.

Bhattacharya warns that the fiery, determined aspects of the Pitta constitution make this type the most vulnerable to overwork and burnout. They may want to control situations and have a difficult time relaxing and letting go. “Pitta must learn to surrender to what is,” says Meredith. Their passion becomes a liability when they can’t relax.

Conditions that put Pitta out of balance

  • Hot weather
  • excessive competition
  • overwork
  • too much spicy food

Signs of Pitta imbalance 

  • Mental: Rigidity, anger, excessive judgment and criticism of others
  • Physical: Skin rashes, acne, heartburn, ulcers, inflammatory conditions

Best Daily Practices for Pitta
Diet: Pitta types tend to have strong appetites and good digestion. Skipping meals makes them cranky, so they should eat on a regular schedule with their main meal at noon. They have the strongest digestive fire (called agni in Sanskrit), but it can burn out of control. Ayurveda strongly recommends Pitta types avoid chilies and hot spices, which can overheat this already-hot constitution and cause painful digestive upset.

Cooling foods like cucumbers, bitter greens and cooked legumes are the backbone of a Pitta-soothing diet. Spices like coriander, cumin and fennel are also cooling. In addition to seasoning food, these three whole spices can be boiled into a fragrant, Pitta-soothing tea.

Sleep: Pitta types tend to sleep deeply, but when they’re out of balance they may wake up a lot. A 10 p.m. to 6 a.m. sleep schedule is good for Pitta types, says Meredith. They’re often more comfortable sleeping in a cool room, and may have better rest after a cool shower or bath. This type needs to be careful not to work at the expense of rest.

Exercise: Pitta types are naturally athletic and often enjoy competitive sports. “Playing a team sport can be fun for Pitta people,” says Meredith, “as long as they can keep their fire under control.” When out of balance, this type is better off choosing non­competitive forms of exercise, like yoga in a cool room, bike rides or hikes in nature.

General self-care: Pitta types should schedule some free time each day so they unwind regularly. Funny movies and lighthearted friends also help them relax and let go of stress. Bhattacharya recommends Pitta people avoid gossip, which is a covert form of competition that’s likely to aggravate them. Plants and fresh flowers in the environment are Pitta-soothing.

Know Your Dosha: Kapha

Earth and water elements constitute the Kapha dosha. These types have solid, sturdy builds, with plenty of physical strength and stamina. They have cool constitutions and are sensitive to cold, damp environments.

How to Keep Kapha in Balance: Movement
Kapha dosha types are usually strong and stable with calm, loving natures and excellent memories. They often end up in caring professions, like human resources or nursing, and tend to be extremely loyal and reliable as friends and partners. “We think of them as mountains or rocks,” says Patel. “They’re the people everybody goes to.”

The steady nature of Kapha types can also be their downfall. Unchecked, this inclination to stability can become inertia. “Think of trying to push a mountain,” Patel remarks, noting that Kapha types are the most likely to get stuck in jobs or relationships that no longer serve them. Regular movement is essential to keep these types from falling prey to imbalances like excess weight and depression.

Conditions that put Kapha out of balance

  • Inertia
  • cold
  • damp weather
  • too much sleep
  • clutter in the home

Signs of Kapha imbalance 

  • Mental: Depression, attachment, stubbornness, lack of motivation
  • Physical: Overweight, diabetes, excess mucous conditions, sluggishness

Best Daily Practices for Kapha

Diet: “Kapha types love food,” says Meredith. They like to eat and to cook for others, and they have a tendency to overeat and put on weight. Of the three doshas, Kapha’s digestion is the slowest. While missing meals is not recommended for Vata and Pitta, Meredith says it’s fine for Kapha types to skip breakfast occasionally, or to have only hot tea in the morning.

The ideal diet for Kapha types includes mostly light, dry and warm foods, like bitter vegetables, legumes, and astringent fruits like apples and cranberries. Kapha types can be liberal with their use of spices, especially stimulating ones like ginger, pepper and cayenne. Because dairy is mucus producing, they should avoid it. Like the other two doshas, Kaphas should eat their biggest meal at lunchtime.

Sleep: “Kapha people tend to be very heavy and long sleepers,” says Patel. She recommends these types align themselves with natural cycles. They’ll feel most energetic if they get up between 5:30 and 6 a.m.

Exercise: Because movement and exertion are perfect antidotes to the stagnation that can plague Kapha types, Ayurvedic experts recommend a vigorous exercise routine.

“They should do something that makes them sweat,” says Meredith, who notes that Kapha is strong and can work hard. Meanwhile, because this type is not naturally inclined to exercise, Kaphas’ first priority should be finding something they really enjoy. Once they have a routine, it will be fairly easy for them to stick with it.

General self-care: Kapha types should prioritize self-care and be careful of a tendency to take care of others at the expense of their own needs, says Meredith. Kapha types feel better when their houses and offices are clean and organized. Saunas are often invigorating for them, as is upbeat, energizing music.

Courtney Helgoe is an Experience Life senior editor. Her dosha is Vata-Pitta.

Illustrations by Cliff Alejandro


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