The doshas are the main components of Ayurveda. They explain why the body works the way it does and even why disease will manifest without obvious reason. They make sense of our physical and emotional differences: why we blink, why blood stays in and urine goes out, and why the food that makes one person feel energetic may weigh another down. The doshas enable us to understand what science has yet to explain. So, what are the doshas?
Doshas are vital energy forces; they are catalysts responsible for all physiological and psychological processes in the body. There are three doshas in all, each characterized by its qualities and unique role in the body. Their differences arise from their elemental makeup.
The Five Elements
Ayurvedic philosophy explains that there are five elements: air, space, fire, water and earth. These elements come together into three harmonious pairs to form the doshas:
- Air and space merge to form the vata dosha.
- Fire and water merge to form the pitta dosha.
- Water and earth merge to form the kapha dosha.
All three doshas exist within each of us and carry out specific vital roles and functions. We experience good health when these doshas are in balance and functioning properly. It’s when they increase, decrease or become unbalanced due to our lifestyle, food, emotions and/or external factors (like the weather), we experience imbalance and illness. As a form of holistic medicine, Ayurveda teaches us how to prevent the doshas from going off kilter, describing the specific diet and lifestyle that’s suited to our own unique constitutional makeup. (Read more in A Plant-Based Diet Makes Better Yogis.)
The Three Doshas
Should imbalance manifest, Ayurveda offers an enormous body of wisdom to balance the doshas. As Ayurveda is a qualitative science, the doshas are recognized by their qualities. Vata is in charge of movement; pitta is in charge of transformation; and kapha is in charge of stability and lubrication.
Vata carries the traits of air and space. As the wind is cold, dry, light, rough and mobile, so too is vata. As space is subtle and all-pervading, vata is as well.
Vata’s primary quality is movement. The other two doshas are incapable of movement without vata; so, any movement in the body surely has some vata component. This includes speech, voluntary actions (like walking), and involuntary actions (like blinking, breathing, expulsion of wastes, pumping of the heart and the sense of touch). (Learn how chai is warming for vata dosha in The Benefits of Chai Spices.)
Pitta carries the traits of fire and water. It is primarily fire-like, but contains within it the lubricating qualities of water. Like fire, pitta is hot, light and sharp. And like water, pitta is unctuous, viscous, fluid and liquid.
Pitta’s primary action is transformation. Just as a fire transforms wood to ash, the fire of the body transforms food to body tissues. Pitta is responsible for digestion, maintenance of body temperature, vision, taste, appetite, thirst, intellect, luster and bravery.
Kapha carries the traits of water and earth. Like water, it is unctuous, soft and cold. Like earth, kapha is heavy, slow, stable and thick. Kapha is much like mud (water and earth combined).
Kapha is responsible for stability and lubrication. It maintains the stability of the body and the lubrication of our joints, as well as the unctuousness of the body and tolerance of the mind.
Your Doshic Makeup
While we each have all three doshas operating within, one or two doshas are usually dominant. Some people are more vata, some more pitta, some more kapha. This makeup is called our prakriti, or unique Ayurvedic constitution. It’s determined by the time we’re born and remains the same until our death. It’s the difference in our proportions of the doshas that explains our physical and mental differences. Everything from our skin texture to our gait, our digestion to our temperament, our hair thickness to our voice.
Balancing the Doshas
No dosha is better than the other. Each brings positive qualities when in balance: vata granting adaptability, spirituality and creativity; pitta granting intelligence, motivation and self-confidence; and kapha granting calmness and stability.
It’s when these doshas go out of balance that we see their negative qualities. When the air and space of vata increase, we feel un-grounded, even anxious and fearful. (Learn more about The Nature of Fear.) We tend toward dryness, constipation and body pain. When the fires of pitta increase, we feel acidic, irritable or even angry. Our body heat may increase in the form of fever or we may see fire-like eruptions in skin rashes. When the waters and earth of kapha increase, we feel lethargic, heavy and even depressed. This may manifest physically as mucus, weight gain or water retention.
The doshas are affected by food, lifestyle, daily rhythms, sleep, behavior, thoughts, travel, the weather and the seasons. Everything we do affects the doshas. As both a preventive and curative science, Ayurveda teaches us to live a life in harmony with our own doshic makeup.