Managing Vata Dosha
Updated: Feb 3, 2020
As I write this entry, I sit in the porch of our house with a delicious cup of 'Vata Tea' in hand.
Tasting all the sweetness of this lukewarm concoction, I can’t help but muse about the effects that this mix of anise, coriander, liquorice, cinnamon, ginger and malva leaves will have on my overall state. It’s been a few unrestful weeks for me here in Bali marked by a lot of overthinking; and despite my Pitta-ish physique, when it comes to the mind, I am a full-on Vata type. What this means with regards to my tendencies in behavior, habits, thinking patterns, or health is the issue of this post today.
Blown Away: Vata Dosha
In our previous two entries on Ayurveda, we covered some of the most general terrain on this ancient form of healing, as well as the relation between two of its best known concepts: the Gunas and the Doshas. There, we defined Ayurveda as “the yogic technology of self-healing aimed primarily at maintaining health” (Acebe, 7.7.19) and explained that, in order to do that, Ayurvedic doctors had come up with their own set of terms to explain the universe and the body as an interplay of elements and forces, as well as the energies at work when it comes to preserving or disrupting their health.
Taking those two entries as our point of departure, then, we want to dive deeper today into the first of the three main doshas; but before we do that, and for the sake of clarity, let’s just recuperate here the notion of the doshas themselves as Ayurveda’s way of speaking of the three main types of constitution (biological, psychological, and emotional) possible for us humans to have. The doshas of Vata, Pitta and Kapha, then, are the terms used in Ayurveda to reflect the characteristic powers of the elements of ‘air,’ ‘fire,’ and ‘water’ at a biological and cosmological level. As such, Ayurveda speaks generally about types of people where the element of air (lightness) is dominant, types where the fire element (combustion) is more abundant, or types where the water element (heaviness) prevails. More often than not, however, we’re a combination of all three to different extents; so, it is by looking at the specific ratio of these elements in a given person that Ayurveda determines the characteristic nature or constitution of that individual (our Prakruti), as well as the best course of action in helping her maintain (or recuperate) good health.
This is how, as mentioned at the beginning, it is possible for someone like me to be a Vata-Pitta-type at a physical level, yet have more of the Vata qualities when it comes to the mind. Nature is actually quite smart when it comes to its own creations and has a tendency to balance or compensate for excess in one area by combining types!
Tendencies of the Vata Type
In general terms, Vata can be defined as the energy of action, transportation, movement, and change. Made up of the elements of ‘ether’ (space) and ‘air,’ Vata dosha has all the connotations one would associate to both of these: a certain lightness, subtlety, dryness, coldness, roughness, mobility, expansiveness and contractiveness, as well as the transient nature inherent in the air.
Inasmuch as Vata is equal to ‘air,’ and therefore, to an element defined by constant movement and transformation, it is also the force behind changes to the other two doshas –which are, by their very nature, incapable of transformation or movement of themselves. Two of the best known authorities when it comes to all things Ayurveda actually tell us that, when in balance, Vata dosha “maintains the energy of will, inhalation, exhalation, movement, the discharge of impulses, equilibrium of the tissues, acuity of the senses” (Frawley & Lad 1988, p.11); but also that, when out of balance, Vata dosha may cause “dryness, discolorations, desire for warmth, tremors, abdominal distension, constipation, loss of strength, insomnia […] and fatigue” (p.11). Hence keeping Vata in check is extremely important. But what does this really mean? Actually, several things.
Connecting to the Vata Within
At the level of the body, Vata is key. We said movement is a Vata quality, so you can think of Vata as that energy within you keeping things dynamic and in motion or changing with the changing pace of things. As such, Vata is said to reside in the interstices of the body, as in hollow organs like our lungs or the uterus, for example, but also in our bone cavities and joints. At an even deeper level, Vata is the very life-force that animates our bodies –think of the breath of life, if you will– as well as the energy that motivates our thoughts, which fly from here to there within the invisible space of the mind.
Given its light and ephemeral nature, Vata is also associated to the nervous system and to its quick electrical impulses; for Vata is to energy, what Pitta is to light, or Kapha to matter in general. The sense organs associated with this particular dosha are the ears and the skin –two senses strongly connected to the perception of things that move or are transmitted in space; and its motor organs are speech (soundwaves also move in space) and touch (particularly in the hands). So we can say that Vata is the force that aids us in having the right type of sensory, emotional, and mental equilibrium, aiding our adaptability to changing environments, as well as comprehension in general.
As the dosha most closely associated with a sense of flow, it signals also to qualities like creativity, enthusiasm, speed, agility, or responsiveness in general, but is also as well the most frequent disease-causing factor in any constitution. Hence, a disturbance of the Vata principle for any type can lead to mental, nervous, and digestive disorders, weaken our immune system or cause the decay of all bodily tissues.
Ayurveda classifies specific body types according to each dosha, and in this regard, Vata types are those with the weakest physical built, yet the greatest capacity for adaptation and change. Thin framed and lanky in general, physical Vata types are characterized by underdeveloped musculature, tend towards low body mass, and normally present dry skin and hair, with quick and small eyes. With a variable appetite, Vata types show a preference for warm foods over cold ones, sleep very lightly, and often experience cold feet and hands. And though physical descriptions in Ayurveda can get into a lot more detail than this, what these traits already seem to imply is a general sense of lightness and alertness, much like a bird that's on the watch-out for potential predators and always ready to fly. The same is also true at a psychological level.
The Vata-Type Mind
At a mental level, Vata types are characterized by their imaginative and creative nature, but also by feelings of insecurity and ungroundedness and by a general tendency towards fear and anxiety. Highly sensitive and vulnerable, Ayurveda tells us that their mental powers are great but they are also somewhat erratic, which grants them their usual absentmindedness.
Great at things like abstract thinking or philosophical understanding, they’re very agile when it comes to grasping new concepts, yet are often encumbered by the responsibility that comes with this; and it is precisely for this reason that psychological Vata types like myself tend towards a certain instability and insecurity, a certain flakiness even, and great variability in mood, character, and appetite.
Vata and Health
The main thing to remember if you’re a Vata-predominant type either physically and/or psychologically, or else if you suffer from a Vata imbalance –which is something quite likely for any type– is to look for gentleness and warmth. Subtle symptoms like fear, anxiety, excessive indecisiveness, restlessness, problems with sleep, hyperactivity, nervousness, excessive talkativeness, and even certain types of depression are signs of a disturbance of the Vata principle. But so are having frequent constipation, headaches, sciatic pain, gas, or arthritis. It is in any of these cases that Ayurveda suggests to look attentively at what we eat, drink, and consume in general to bring this dosha back to a sattvic or balanced state. Because the aim of Ayurveda is to balance the dosha and not necessarily to address the symptoms.
This said, balancing the doshas is more nuanced than it may seem, specially in cases where a difference between the mental and the physical dosha exists. Which means that we must be very careful not to aggravate one dosha by trying to treat another! Generally speaking, though, Ayurveda tells us that in cases of Vata aggravation we must look to bring more gentleness and warmth into our life.
Being a typically cold and dry element, then, Vata is best brought into balance by therapies that enhance moisture, grant warmth, as well as a sense of stability and weight. Oil therapy, for example, warm concoctions of specific Vata herbs and plants such as the ones mentioned at the beginning of this entry, or incorporating grounding Yoga practices can then be prescribed. Since Ayurveda is to a large extent a very individualized nutrition-based therapy that seeks to aid our health firstly my means of what we ingest, the flavors it will seek to increase in a Vata imbalance are those of a sweet, sour, and salty kind, with pungency being oftentimes also advised. Exactly which of these will be most recommendable, however, will depend to a large extent on the specific kind of Vata imbalance we present. After all, it matters whether our Vata is an excess of the cold quality, for example, an excess of the quality of dryness, or an obstruction of the movement quality so characteristic of this dosha –as in cases of constipation, for example.
A good place to start for those of you seeking a more detailed understanding of these aspects is Dr. David Frawley’s and Dr. Vasant Lad’s The Yoga of Herbs, or Dr. Robert Svoboda’s Prakruti, Your Ayurvedic Constitution. Both of these are great easy reads with which to dive a bit deeper into the Guna-Dosha correlation and the actual ‘mathematics of Ayurveda’ in general, and offer lots of information on types of therapies for each particular imbalance. On our end, we’ll keep digging to bring you more entries on all things conscious and Yoga and on the other two doshas.