the five Ayurvedic elements of life

Ayurveda — an ancient medical philosophy and practice that began during India’s Vedic period over 5,000 years ago — is predicated on the theory that cultivating balance between mind, body, and spirit through the use of food, herbs, yoga, and meditation, can treat and prevent illness and disease (per the University of Minnesota). The remarkable fact that Ayurveda is still widely practiced speaks volumes to its long history of success as a modality for healing and wellness.

Ayurveda is rooted in the belief that, at the time of conception, we are each instilled with an individual constitution called prakriti (or prakruti) that’s as unique to us as our fingerprints (per Chopra). Our prakriti consists of a combination of the three doshas — governing energies that embody the five natural elements recognized by Ayurvedic tradition: space, air, fire, water, and earth (per Healthline). Vata is the manifestation of space and air, pitta is fire and water, and kapha is water and earth. Each dosha exhibits particular qualities, physical attributes, and emotional proclivities that hold influence over the way we move through the world and how we react to our respective environments.

Every individual is imbued with varying levels of each dosha, but one typically rules as our dominant dosha type. While the prakriti we are born with is ours for life, as we move through different seasons of existence, individual doshas may accumulate or diminish in potency, creating an imbalance which can affect our physical and mental health (per Chopra).

The science behind the doshas

doctor with dosha names

Through a growing body of evidence, scientists have begun to draw undeniable links between the dosha theory and human psychophysiology. One study published in Ayu suggests that the Western world might better understand Ayurveda if we look at it through the lens of epigenetics. The study of epigenetics examines how life experiences and ecology can alter the way genes express themselves, quite literally making modifications to DNA that cause specific genes to turn "on" or "off." The researchers drew the conclusion that because the dosha theory considers an individual’s genetics and phenotype when prescribing specific outlines for diet, sleep, exercise, etc., Ayurveda qualifies as a form of comprehensive and personalized medicine.

A study published in the Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine took it a step further, suggesting that because dosha types can act as a good indication for physiological strengths and weaknesses, mental and emotional tendencies, and susceptibility to particular illnesses, healthcare could be revolutionized by developing a screening system that determines the dosha type of newborn babies, making it possible for future generations to grow up implementing Ayurvedic practices as a form of personalized preventive healthcare for a disease-free life.

Ayurveda offers specific guidelines covering what to eat and what not to eat, when and how much to sleep, and best practices for breathing, meditating, exercising, dressing, and speaking to yourself, depending on your dominant dosha type. Let’s take a closer look at each dosha type and how to effectively nourish them.

Vata dosha is light and speedy

blue sky with clouds

As vata is created with air and ether, the associated attributes are dry, light, cold, rough, mobile, and clear (per Healthline). These qualities often manifest as a thin frame with a tendency for rough, dry skin, and cold hands and feet (per mindbodygreen). Vatas are fast-walking, talking, and thinking, and often boast a clear and open mind. A study on doshic brain types published in the Journal of Ayurveda and Integrative Medicine describes the vata brain as speedy. They learn quickly, forget quickly, and are superior problem solvers. Vata people are creative, free-thinking, flexible, kind-natured, and full of energy (per Healthline). When vata is aggravated (meaning: out of balance in the body), they might feel overwhelmed, perpetually anxious, constipated, cold, and restless.

Whether looking to maintain a healthy dosha or soothe an aggravated one, the practice is the same. Vata people should incorporate lots of cooked, hearty vegetables, avoiding raw veggies as much as possible to offset vata’s inherent airiness (per Healthline). Opt for ripe, hearty fruits like bananas, mangoes, and peaches, steering clear of anything dried. Proteins like chicken, seafood, and tofu are better than red meat, and while most nuts are vata-approved, most beans and grains aren’t. Butter and cheese are vata’s jam, and most warming herbs are encouraged over bitter ones. The happiest and healthiest vatas stick to a routine, keep warm, use grounding meditations to combat anxiety, and go to bed on a schedule (per mindbodygreen).

Pitta dosha is sharp and fiery

flames and embers

Pitta is fire and water, and is attributed with qualities like hot, sharp, liquid, and oily (per Healthline). This often manifests in an athletic, muscular build with sharp features and a sharp memory and temperament to match. Pitta people are strong leaders with a fire in their bellies and an insatiable hunger. They are competitive, competent, and purposeful. The study on doshic brain types notes that pittas react strongly to challenges, and are dynamic, resolute, and intentional in pursuit of their goals. Aggravated pitta appears as anger and impatience, excessive hunger, conflict-seeking behavior, and a red-hot temper (per Healthline).

To maintain or bring balance back, pittas should eat lots of sweet and bitter vegetables like cauliflower, celery, sweet potatoes, and carrots, while avoiding pungent vegetables like beets, onions, and peppers, which elevate pitta’s fire (per Healthline). Similarly, while sweet fruits like oranges, pineapple, and melons are great, sour fruits like papaya and grapefruit should be avoided. Chicken and egg whites are better than red meat, and most grains and legumes are on pitta’s good list. To avoid overheating the constitution, spicy foods should be avoided. Calm and cool pittas loosen their tight schedules, avoid extreme heat while exercising, and find room to be spontaneous (per mindbodygreen).

Kapha dosha is strong and soft

water surrounded by trees

Kaphas are made of water and earth, and as such, are defined as heavy, slow, soft, and cool (per Healthline). Kaphas are often thick-boned with a large frame and soft, pleasing features. They are strong, slow-moving, and deliberate, with a sluggish metabolism and a predisposition to weight gain and breathing issues. They are affectionate, sweet-natured, sensual, love a good hug, and thoroughly appreciate "Il bel far niente" — the beauty of doing nothing. The doshic brain-type study characterized them as steady and methodical in both thinking and action, and suggested they require stimulation if they’re going to get up and get moving. Aggravated kapha can cause laziness, over-sleeping, and issues with depression (per Healthline).

To avoid adding more heaviness to their constitutions, Healthline suggests that kaphas should keep their diets lean, with freshwater fish, egg whites, skim milk, and goat milk. Fatty foods like beef, pork, and lamb are a no-go. While sweet fruits and vegetables appeal to kaphas, they will lead to sluggishness. Astringent fruits like apples and pomegranates and most vegetables and bitter herbs help keep kapha in check. Nuts should be avoided, but across the board, grains and legumes are nourishing. While fatty and sweet is everything kaphas want, they should try to steer clear to avoid low energy. Kaphas are at their best when they take time for self-care, exercise regularly, and seek mental stimulation by varying their routine (per mindbodygreen).

Determining your own prakriti

colorful stars and galaxies

After reading the descriptions of the three doshas, you may have recognized one as your own dominant dosha type. However, maintaining real and lasting balance through the ever-changing circumstances of life will require you to dig a little deeper.

While your prakriti — your biological constitution — is your baseline and dictates where your state of equilibrium lies, the current imbalance of your doshas, called vikriti, fluctuates as you move through life (per California College of Ayurveda). In an ideal world, your prakriti and vikriti would always mirror each other, but that’s not how life works. We can strive to understand our prakriti well enough that when external factors inevitably disturb our doshic balance, we can identify the injured area and get to work licking our wounds. If you’re serious about knowing your prakriti, it’s best to be evaluated by an Ayurvedic practitioner, but to get a pretty good idea, you can try this quiz provided by Ama-Veda.

After working up an appetite determining your dosha ratios, you might reward yourself with a nice, home-cooked meal. After all, a study published in Medicina points out that Ayurveda believes that certain foods aid digestion and that gut health is the cornerstone of overall health. Print out this comprehensive list of food guidelines for basic constitutional types from "Ayurvedic Cooking for Self Healing" by Ayurvedic master Vasant Lad, and feed your body and soul alike!