In nature, the five Ayurvedic elements—ether, air, fire, water, and earth—very rarely exist on their own. Instead, what you see are beings and creatures that are combinations of elements, usually all five if they are alive. This is especially true in us humans, for without all five elements we wouldn’t be able to carry out our basic biological functions, let alone have the capability for mental and spiritual processes to unfold.
Inside the body, there can be specific pairings of elements that, when combined, form another substance entirely. These three elemental pairings are called doshas—one of the words most readily associated with Ayurveda in our present times. Doshas can be understood as biological humors, or constitutions. They’re similar to the elemental types in Chinese Medicine as well as the humors described in ancient Greece and the Middle Ages. While the doshas carry the qualities of their element constituents, they also have a nature all their own, and can be characterized as below:
Vata dosha is made of the ether and air elements. It is light, cold, dry, rough, mobile, and subtle. Vata is known as the “king of the doshas” because it is responsible for all of the body’s functions that require movement, which is almost all of them—things like sensory perception, respiration, communication, elimination, conception, etc. It’s primarily located in the lower third of the body, in the pelvis and lower limbs (think about the qualities of that part of the body—it’s where there is a huge space for your reproductive organs to dwell, where elimination takes place, and where we physically move by walking or running). We experience vata most during the fall and early winter seasons, where colder temperatures, wind, and dryness settles into the environment around us. Pungent (spicy), bitter, and astringent tastes all increase vata, because of their tendency to dry out, constrict, and/or produce gas in the body.
Pitta dosha is made of the fire and water elements. It is light, sharp, hot, liquid, subtle, spreading, and foul-smelling. Pitta is closely related to agni, our digestive fire that’s responsible for transforming all food and information in the body, but they’re not the same; agni is pure fire, so stays dry, whereas pitta contains water. We experience pitta in the body in the form of heat and intensity of all kinds—thermal heat (like body temperature and sweat), as well as the heat of the blood, the digestive system, hormones, and cognition. Pitta resides in the middle third of the body, around the abdomen, and helps us have a sense of ego and individuality. Providing direction and clarity, pitta feeds and illuminates our heart’s desires and our mental focus thanks to the light of the fire that it comprises; but because of the water element, that fire remains contained in organs like the eyes and brain, both of which have a liquid component to them (pitta also gives color to the eyes, skin, and blood). Summer is the season for pitta (hence the foul-smelling…), where we can really experience its intensity in the warm weather and humidity. Sour, salty, and pungent tastes all increase pitta, since they stoke the fire element in our tastes buds and gut.
Kapha dosha is made of the water and earth elements. It is heavy, slow, cold, oily, smooth, dense, soft, stable, gross, and slimy. As you can tell from these qualities, kapha is basically the opposite of vata, but that means they work together pretty well in the body (when they’re balanced). Kapha keeps things moist and lubricated and held together, which counteracts some of the dispersive, mobile, and drying properties of vata. It’s mainly located in the upper third of the body, in the chest and head, which is where we can experience most of that slimy substance in the form of mucus and other secretions. You can also see there where vata and kapha help each other out, since the kapha will keep the respiratory tract, digestive tract, and sense organs nice and moist as vata comes into the body through those pathways—without kapha, you’d basically combust from all that friction. The same is true for kapha elsewhere—in the joints, and in the GI tract, where it balances the movement of vata and heat of pitta so we don’t self-destruct. The stability, groundedness, and building nature of kapha makes it great for things that are solid—like your muscles, fat tissue, bone marrow, and, well, matter itself. Seasonally, kapha shows itself during the late winter and early spring, when it starts to get warm enough for the snow to melt and the earth is saturated with that once-frozen moisture—and maybe you can now see the connection between kapha and springtime congestion in colds and allergies. Sweet, sour, and salty tastes tend to increase kapha because of their watery nature, and ability to retain water as well.
In the same way that we contain all of the elements, we contain all of the doshas, too—just in different amounts and expressions. And that’s where the idea of having a dosha at all comes into play. Doshas come in two varieties, which is essential to keep in mind whenever you’re talking about what “your dosha” is or might be. The first is our constant, stable dosha that is formed at our conception, known as prakriti in Sanskrit. Prakriti is a bit like our genetic code, responsible for things like our body type, our tendencies in personality, mood, and behavior, and even our tendencies to get imbalanced in certain ways (more on that below). As a general baseline, the doshas tend to have these expressions, though remember that these are strictly archetypes and not representative of all our unique manifestations of the doshas:
Vata—small frame; very tall or very short; prominent joints; hard to gain weight and easy to lose; skin that is dry and tans easily; lighter brown hair that’s dry, frizzy, or curly; small eyes that are gray, blue, or an unusual color; rapid thoughts and mental patterns; likes talking and socializing; easily distracted and dislikes routine; good short-term memory but poor long-term memory; light sleeper; tendency toward fear and anxiety; responds to stress with flight. A person with a vata dominance might be called an “air head,” or may have a tendency to “space out” or speak or write in a “long-winded” way.
Pitta—medium or athletic build; medium height; toned and well-proportioned muscles; good stamina for exercise; weight is stable; skin tends toward oily/combination, fair and burns easily; brown hair that’s oily, straight, fine, and/or premature graying or balding; medium-sized eyes with intense gaze, green or hazel in color; good at focusing, likes schedules and routine; self-starting and ambitious; good memory overall; sound sleeper; tendency toward anger, assertiveness, and competition; responds to stress with fight. A person with a pitta dominance may be known as “hot-headed,” speak with a “sharp tongue,” or be know for their “fiery temper.”
Kapha—large or stocky build; average or tall; carries weight evenly around the body but can easily gain weight; fair and/or very clear and glowing skin, lustrous; thick, shiny hair; large eyes with clear whites, can be dark brown; enjoys hosting and caretaking; hard to get motivated and easily gets stuck in a rut; takes time to learn but remembers well long-term; deep sleeper, can sleep too much; tendency toward insularity, sadness, and generally more emotive; responds to stress with freeze. A person with a kapha dominance may work at a “slow and steady” pace, or have a “grounded” presence that makes people around them feel calm.
Our prakriti is what most people think about when they read about doshas online or in magazines these days. In our world where we are quite obsessed with labels and ways to categorize ourselves, as well as with extreme, all-or-nothing, mindsets, it’s attractive to be able to say “I’m so vata,” or “He’s so pitta”; it makes things feel simpler, in a way, since we might be tempted to think we can just live our whole life balancing that single dosha and forget about the rest. Marketers want us to think that, too, since identification with something that is inherently “us” makes us more likely to buy that item, especially if we think it’s something that will “fix” us. What this doesn’t account for is the fact that we have all the doshas in us, just like we have all the elements. So being kapha doesn’t get you off the hook of having to think about vata and pitta.
That’s partly why prakriti is actually less important when it comes to practicing Ayurveda, whether you’re maintaining health or trying to restore balance from disease. Sure, it’s good to have a sense of “who you are” in a general way, but that doesn’t really matter if “who you are” right now is different in some way (and your prakriti is not the whole of “who you are” anyway). So instead, in a clinical context, we spend more time focusing on the second form of dosha, or vikriti. This is our current state of imbalance, and is inherent to the idea of the dosha itself. In a balanced state, you see, a person would not necessarily demonstrate overtly vata, pitta, or kapha qualities—besides things like their body type or eye color. They’d just be healthy—pooping every day, eating the right amount and digesting it well, responding to stress appropriately, and sleeping soundly through the night. (Sounds great, doesn’t it?) Dosha, however, implies imbalance of one or more of those three elemental combinations such that it’s starting to cause a problem in the natural flow of our humors that keep us feeling good. Even more than that, doshas will get so vitiated that they start making the other doshas upset, too. Think of them like mischievous little imps—vata likes to blow on pitta, making its flames hotter and bigger; pitta likes to burn up kapha and make vata even dryer; kapha likes to clog up the channels so vata gets stuck and starts blowing harder to push through, or just moves in the wrong direction. (It’s not quite like that, but you get what I mean.)
So by talking about dosha, we’re actually talking about how the humors of the body are behaving right now—which is independent of our prakriti. In fact, lots of things will affect our vikriti, from our age and the season or geography we live in, to our daily diet and lifestyle choices. And while something small and isolated like a bit of a hot chili pepper might cause a spike in the pitta dosha for a few moments, what we tend to see more is an accumulation of the dosha over time—like twenty years of drinking black coffee resulting in acid reflux, an expression of accumulated, aggravated pitta.
Our prakriti can be a guide in helping us avoid virkritis to a degree. That’s because if we already have an abundance of a certain dosha in us, it’s easy for just a little more to push us into imbalance. Imagine the doshas like three jars of water in your body. If you’re a pitta prakriti, your pitta jar might be a little fuller than the other two. So when summer, pitta season, hits, you just need one or two really hot days to make your pitta jar overflow into imbalance; whereas if you spent the night munching on popcorn during a Netflix spree, a food that would increase vata, you might not feel it as much since your vata jar was already a little less full. The things that add to your dosha jars can be external or internal, and no matter what your baseline is you can find any of the jars overflowing, or depleted, at any time.
A way of simplifying all of this is to break down the doshas to their individual elements, and those elements’ qualities, to see where you might be getting too much of a good thing. (Nothing is inherently good or bad in Ayurveda, but anything can be good or bad at a given moment.) Because all of us have different expressions of the doshas, what works to balance my vata right now might not work to balance yours, since the root cause of the problem and its symptoms will be different. For instance, a common way to soothe the dry quality of vata in the skin is a (delicious) self-oil massage, called abhyanga. But if my vata imbalance is more from an excess of space, perhaps I’m eating too much kale (causing gas in my belly) or lack any semblance of a schedule after four months of quarantine (causing scattered, distracted thoughts), then abhyanga wouldn’t be the first choice of treatment. Maybe I need to replace that kale with a sweet potato, or start implementing some more regular activities in my day to quell the impish space element.
Working with an Ayurvedic practitioner is a great way to help hone in on what exactly is causing you to feel unwell in mind, body, or spirit. When we are in a state of imbalance, it can be hard to get enough perspective on how things that we may have been doing for a while are no longer working for us (especially if they had worked before, but either accumulation or a change in life has shifted something around).
But what any type of consultation really does is help clear the space for you to see the truth of how you are right now, and decide to honor that truth with how you live. It may involve one of the doshas, or several doshas, and doing things to balance those doshas might be the path to feeling good. You will, though, ultimately have to be creative, flexible, and patient about how you implement those treatments, in addition to which ones you choose. As any Ayurvedic teacher or practitioner will tell you, when it comes to knowing whether something will work the answer always is “it depends.” That not-knowing, but trusting—having faith in a deeper truth beyond the superficial labels and categories—is what makes Ayurveda such a beautiful and sustainable science. It lets you be you, vata, pitta, and kapha—and a whole lot more.