The Doshas Explained

The images from this blog’s banner represent the panchamahabhutas (five great elements): ether, air, fire, water, earth.

In the vast world of Ayurveda, the subject that gets the most attention is the doshas. You may have heard about the doshas (vata, pitta, and kapha) from listening to Dr. Oz, in magazines, or just in general on the Interwebs.

There’s a lot of misinformation about what the doshas are, why they’re important, and how to balance them, but to truly understand the doshas, you have to first understand five great elements (called pachamahabhutas in Sanskrit or MBs for short).

Every living thing, every inanimate object, pretty much everything and everyone in the Universe, as Ayurveda sees it, is built from these five elements. The MBs determine physical characteristics, personalities, what diseases we are prone to, sleep patterns, to name a few.

From subtle to gross, smallest to largest, the mahabhutas are:

Space/ether (akasha): this is the most subtle element. Think of this as the space inside of a seed or a cell–just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it serves no purpose. Our thoughts: Where do they come from? Arguably, they arise from akasha. OK, I’ll try not to get too existential on you, but essentially akasha is pure energy, possibility, pure vibration, and space. Those who have a lot of akasha tend to be very thin, are usually cold, may be more spiritual, and a bit skittish.

Air (vayu): this is akin to wind, and creates movement. Elimination, respiration, and circulation all happen thanks to vayu. (If you got gas from beans you ate at that Fourth of July bbq, this is vayu trapped in your intestines.) Certain external forces, such as a windy day, eating lots of roughage, and excessive exercise will increase vayu in the body.

Fire (pitta): Anything that is hot in our body–the acids in our stomachs, for example, are there because of pitta. Pitta also governs our eyesight and vision. Finally, pitta is what gives us our brain power – think of a spark of an idea; that comes from pitta. Alcohol, spicy food, hot days, as well as a host of heat-inducing things increase pitta.

Water (aap): The human body is composed of quite a bit of water, from blood plasma, to our fluids like saliva, tears, and sweat. Certain foods like watermelon, salty food, and yogurt will all increase aap.

Earth (prithvi): Our bones, hair, nails, and teeth, along with muscles and fat (which are composed of other elements as well) come from the densest element prithvi. Earth is also binding, so it helps clot blood, keeps bones strong, and keeps you feeling grounded. Sweet foods, heavy root vegetables, milk, and heavy grains like wheat will increase prithvi.

These five great elements form three doshas: Vata, pitta, and kapha. Each dosha is a biological energy combination of the aforementioned MBs. We are all made up of a varying combinations of these elements and ruled by one or two main doshas.

Vata dosha is comprised of air + wind, pitta is made up of water + fire, and while kapha shares water with pitta, it adds earth to the mix (so water + earth).

The Doshas

The literal definition of dosha is “that which can be disturbed.” Doshas are constantly moving due to weather, time of day, the seasons, what we ate, our age, what we think, and an infinite number of factors.

The ebb and flow of the doshas is something you can manage if you know what to look for and how to counteract it. if you recognize when a dosha is increasing, you can make small tweaks to stay in balance and avoid getting sick. If a dosha keeps increasing unchecked, however, it will essentially overflow (called prakopa), causing disease: cancer, heartburn, colds, allergies, heart attacks, you get the idea. Typically, imbalances can take days, months, or even years to form. Eating one donut won’t cause a heart attack, but years of donuts could.

So to bring a patient back to balance, an Ayurvedic doctor gives herbs, foods, and treatments that are the opposite of the disruption. For example, if you have a cold, hot ginger, hot tea, warming herbs, and dry foods are prescribed to draw the cold and dampness out of the body. (Essentially, like increases like.)

There are several dosha quizzes online that can help you gain an understanding of your prakruti (the dosha combination you were born with, as well as any imbalances called vikruti). It’s always best to see a seasoned Ayurvedic practitioner for a complete assessment and diagnosis. (If you live in the Bay Area, look up my school Vedika Global and attend the free clinic Vedika Seva.)

Next time, we’ll talk about the doshas, how they relate to food, how to eat to balance each dosha, and some yummy recipes. What else do you want to know about Ayurveda?

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