The ancient Indian practice of balancing internal energy for better health now has some science on its side -- and promotes innovative ideas for helping the body heal itself.
Shel Pink, 40, a Los Angeles working mother of two, wakes up every morning with the sun, gives herself an oil massage, and does yoga or meditates before she sits down to her breakfast of steel-cut, organic oatmeal and fruit. She brings lunch to the office, usually rice and mung bean, and most challenging, she gets to bed by 9:30 or 10 p.m. She does all of this according to a traditional system of health said to have been developed by Indian rishis, or seers, some 5,000 years ago.
Who knows if they saw this coming? But since the eighties, the discipline called Ayurveda has been taking root in this country, thanks to popularizers such as Deepak Chopra and Ayurvedic training programs that have produced a new generation of American-born teachers who are proving that the message of balanced living is actually quite modern.
Ayurveda ("science of life" in Sanskrit) covers a lot of ground: diet, lifestyle, "detox" massage and cleansing techniques (panchakarma), and herbal remedies (rasayanas). It also makes use of the sister disciplines of yoga and meditation. Everything fits into a unifying philosophy of balance -- living in sync with our own unique energetic makeup.
According to Ayurveda, we, and the universe we exist in, are composed of three complementary energies, or doshas: vata, which is movement; pitta, which is transformation; and kapha, which is stability. The three doshas comprise five "great elements" that give them their distinctive qualities. Vata is made of air and space, pitta of fire and water, kapha of water and earth. We're all our own proprietary blend of vata, pitta, and kapha, but we usually have one dominant dosha that determines things such as our personality and appetites. Take our quiz to find yours.
Keeping Doshas in Check
Our doshas shape our identity, but they can also be our Achilles' heel when the dominant energy becomes too strong. For instance, the pitta personality is naturally drawn to hard work and high achievement, but if she gets too caught up in that, to the exclusion of her softer (kapha) or more reflective (vata) sides, she's courting a physical and/or emotional breakdown. In Ayurveda, everything is connected. The fiery pitta personality may crave spicy foods, which then fuel hot emotions.
"My students always ask me, 'Does that mean I can never trust my instincts?'" says Hilary Garivaltis, dean of the Ayurveda program at the Kripalu Center in Stockbridge, Massachusetts. No, she advises, but we do have to check in to gauge the consequences of our diet and lifestyle choices and pacify our out-of-balance dosha with its opposite energy.
Sound too simplistic? A number of studies, admittedly small scale, have shown Ayurvedic herbal remedies effective in treating chronic conditions like heart disease and diabetes. Hari Sharma, M.D., of Ohio State University's Center for Integrative Medicine, has found that many of these traditional Indian herbs are among the most potent antioxidants yet discovered. And, intriguingly, the Ayurveda approach dovetails with two of the most significant trends in modern Western medicine: integrative medicine, with its emphasis on treating chronic diseases with adjustments to diet and lifestyle, and genomic medicine, which is beginning to tailor treatment to individual genetic differences.
In India, there's even an emerging field of "ayurgenomics," which yielded a 2008 study that was able to separate the three doshas according to sophisticated genetic and biochemical markers. Says Bhaswati Bhattacharya, M.D., a clinical assistant professor at Weill Cornell Medical College who teaches Ayurveda to Western physicians at her Dinacharya Institute in New York City: "We're finding that the science validates what the classical Ayurvedic texts are saying in a more poetic way."
What's your Dosha: Vata
In the Ayurvedic tradition, dry, cool vata energy is associated with movement, be it thoughts passing through the mind or food through the digestive system. When vata puts its stamp on a person, she's lean, fine-featured, often tall. She might work for a start-up or go into writing or the arts. But all that nervous energy can leave her stuck in high gear, an anxious wheel-spinner. She can be short on follow-through, and "an airhead," Bhattacharya says bluntly.
When vata energy is exaggerated, the quick, active mind becomes nervous, agitated, and prone to insomnia and sometimes headaches. A common first line of defense is addressing diet (eat hearty, warming foods) and lifestyle (get on a regular schedule: early to bed, early to rise). An Ayurvedic practitioner may then prescribe a preparation that includes ashwagandha, a heating herb that can stabilize nervous energy during the day and enhance sleep at night. Too much dryness in the system leads to incomplete digestion, constipation, and/or excess gas. Using pepper and ginger in cooking heats up the "digestive fire" that can burn rather weakly in the cool vata. Dryness often shows up in the joints as pain or even osteoarthritis, and can be helped by using anti-inflammatory spices such as ginger and turmeric. Get more Ayurvedic Fitness tips for vatas.
In Ayurveda, the key to proper nutrition for everyone is eating whole foods -- whenever possible, in season. But each dosha type has to exercise special care with foods that can exacerbate her dominant energy, especially in the season when that energy runs high. A vata person who eats dry, cold vata foods (for instance, cereals and raw vegetables) in vata season (late fall/early winter: think cold, desiccating winds) is creating a recipe for imbalance. Instead, go with moist, warming foods like soups and stews, and add a warm piece of salmon to a salad.
Vatas tend to hit the ground running -- sometimes in circles. Bhattacharya recommends a morning meditation to focus the mind and a set routine to bring some discipline into the picture. Vatas are drawn to -- and built for -- high-energy sports like jogging and cycling, but they can wear out quickly. K. Michael Ferranti, a New York City practitioner and educator who runs Gotham Ayurveda, recommends yoga (gentle Hatha is a good choice) or Pilates to balance those aerobic efforts.
"They say in a relationship, one person is the kite and one is the string," Bhattacharya notes. "Vata is the kite." Vata-in-balance can bring spontaneity and fun to any relationship. A vata out of balance can be a flighty novelty-seeker -- but Garivaltis says that she may pacify her excess vata energy by finding a loyal kapha mate to ground her. "Two vatas together will have a ball and then burn out quickly," she warns. In the bedroom, vatas usually want frequent sex -- but if they indulge that craving every time, they'll drain their shallower energy reserves.
"Oil is vata's best friend," says Garivaltis, who recommends applying sesame or almond oil at least every other day, either in the morning or before bed. The heavy oil, generously applied, locks moisture into vata skin, which has a tendency to dry out, especially in vata season, and a gentle 5- to 10-minute massage with it has a calming effect on the tightly strung vata nervous system.
What's Your Dosha: Pitta
In the body, pitta is the metabolic heat that transforms food into energy, and in the person, it's what animates the strong, medium-built striver who lives to solve problems and surmount challenges. She's the competitor who's climbing the professional ladder in business, medicine, or law -- smart, engaged, on point. She can also become part of the burn-out crowd. When pitta is too much, she's a judgmental perfectionist. "That's the surgeon throwing the instruments across the operating room," Bhattacharya says, "the domineering parent, the 'my way or the highway' control freak." Get more Ayurvedic Fitness tips for pittas.
Inflammation is the common thread in pitta unwellness. It can derange digestion (heartburn, irritable bowel syndrome, ulcers), the skin (rashes), and the hormonal systems (thyroid and sex-hormone disorders, including infertility). The remedy is straightforward: Put out the fire! The first step is attention to diet and lifestyle. (Tone down the competitive approach.) Moderation is recommended for caffeine and alcohol across the board, but pittas in particular tend to over-rev on coffee and vent aggression when they drink alcohol; they would do well to replace both with mint drinks and coconut water, especially in the "pitta-genic" summertime. Cooling spices like cumin, coriander, and fennel can help with overheated digestion and should be used in cooking.
Pitta has the strongest "digestive fire" of the three doshas but can abuse it by overdoing foods that are spicy, oily, or salty. If the digestive system rebels, it's time to emphasize sweeter, cooler fruits and vegetables (raw or cooked), such as melons, carrots, and broccoli. All told, the pitta nutritional approach should be low-acid, high-alkaline, and anti-inflammatory, Ferranti says.
Garivaltis suggests meditation or relaxing exercise in the morning and a routine that's big on restorative sleep and three square meals. (A high-performance engine has to be carefully maintained.) The pitta who is feeling grounded can indulge her yen for high-octane activity. If she's feeling the wear and tear, says Vasant Lad, director of the Ayurvedic Institute in Albuquerque, she should try an activity like yoga, meditation, or swimming.
At her best, pitta is a passionate romantic. She loves the excitement of surprise flowers ("They're cooling," Lad says) or a closed-curtains weekend getaway. At her out-of-balance worst, she can be jealous and sexually manipulative. "'I want it because I want it,'" Bhattacharya says. "It's about 'me,' not 'us.'"
A 5- to 10-minute massage twice a week with coconut or sunflower oil takes the edge off living la vida pitta, but a scalp and foot massage may be enough. Ferranti suggests adding cooling essential oils like peppermint to the base oil. For irritations, turmeric -- either as a cooking spice or in a preparation -- can help soothe.
What's Your Dosha: Kapha
Grounded Kaphas are "earth mother" types with pale skin, big eyes, and lustrous hair. (They often turn up in more nurturing lines of work: counseling, nursing, cooking.) Kaphas may be healthy, but they're almost always carrying at least an extra 5 or 10 pounds. When out of balance, "even their tenacity is lazy," Bhattacharya says; for example, the kapha who can't bear to let go of anything gets bogged down in clutter.
Think of the body fluids that lubricate the human system and drain the wastes from it: lymph, mucous, phlegm. Now, imagine that the channels are blocked, and you've got the out-of-balance kapha: the tendency to bloat and hold on to excess weight (with the cardiovascular risks that entails) and an oft-clogged respiratory system that's prone to infection. Ayurveda aims to energize this chilly, sluggish system with diet and 30 to 60 minutes of exercise a day. Because an overweight, out-of-shape body is prone to so many maladies, out-of-balance kaphas may be especially good candidates to see a practitioner for recommendations. Get more Ayurvedic Fitness tips for kaphas.
Almost invariably, kaphas are drawn to what is not good for them: high-calorie sweet and fatty foods. They, and for that matter, anyone who is feeling heavy and sluggish (especially in kapha season, late winter/early spring), should forgo milk, butter, and ice cream (not to mention chocolate, cheese, and cake). Instead, go with sharp, astringent, and bitter foods that seem to suck the moisture out of your mouth and cut through the mucous. Apples, beans, cauliflower, and cabbage are all good choices. "Swiss chard, berries, and spinach actually detox your body," Ferranti adds. A liberal amount of pepper and sharp tastes help wake up the system, Bhattacharya says.
According to Ayurveda, we should all get up with the sun or before it. For kaphas, this is especially important -- and loathsome. "They hate it!" Lad says. Kaphas should fight their sedentary tendencies with yoga (a vigorous style of Vinyasa) in the morning, Garivaltis says, and aerobic exercise -- jogging or cycling, for instance -- later in the day. If kaphas start to become too introverted and housebound, Ferranti says, they should see friends or throw a party.
"Kaphas absolutely need intimacy and cuddling," Bhattacharya says. Sexually, they may be slow to heat up, but once they do, they have deeper reservoirs of energy than either vata or pitta. The dark side of the out-of-balance kapha? Not surprisingly, she will hold on too tightly and smother her mate out of insecurity. The kapha-vata match is often the best -- nurturance and liveliness in balance.
Oil massage is less important for kaphas, who already have plenty of water and fat in their tissue. Once or twice a week is fine. Ferranti suggests adding an aromatic oil like eucalyptus or camphor to a grapeseed base to heat up the massage. Or add some turmeric for an anti-inflammatory self-detox treatment, Bhattacharya says. Kaphas also might try dry-brushing the entire body with a loofah sponge or body brush. The friction, practitioners say, energizes the body by breaking up stagnation in the lymphatic system.
Want to learn more? Try an Ayurvedic Weekend Detox.