These five great elements combine into three basic energies or functional principles, which are present, in varying degrees, in everything and everybody. Space (ether) and air constitute vata. Fire and water combine to make up pitta. Water and earth constitute kapha.
In our bodies, these three doshas or humors govern our psychobiological functioning. vata–pitta–kapha are present in every cell, tissue, and organ. When in balance, they create health. When out of balance, they are the cause of disease.
These three doshas are responsible for the huge variety of individual differences and preferences, and they influence all we are and all we do, from our choices of food to our modes of relating to others. They govern the biological and psychological processes of our body, mind, and consciousness. They regulate the creation, maintenance, and destruction of bodily tissue, and the elimination of waste products. They also govern our emotions. When in balance, they generate noble qualities such as understanding, compassion, and love. When their balance is disturbed by stress, improper diet, environmental conditions or other factors, they can give rise to negative emotions such as anger, fear, and greed.
In Ayurveda, vata is the bodily air principle. It is the energy of movement. Pitta is the principle of fire, the energy of digestion and metabolism. And kapha is the principle of water, the energy of lubrication and structure.
All people have all of these three doshas, but one of them is usually primary, one secondary, and the third least prominent. Thus, each person has a particular pattern of energy, an individual combination of physical, mental, and emotional characteristics that make up his or her constitution (prakruti). Just as everyone has an individual fingerprint that can be identified by a trained practitioner, so everyone has an energy print—a balance or proportion of vata, pitta, and kapha—that is uniquely his or her own.
Health depends on maintaining this proportion in balance. Balance is the natural order of things; imbalance provokes and reflects disorder. Within our bodies there is a constant interplay between order and disorder, which determines our state of health.
Health is order; disease is disorder. The internal environment of the body is ceaselessly reacting to the external environment. Disorder occurs when these two are out of harmony with each other. But since order is inherent within disorder, the wise person learns to be aware of the presence of disorder and sets about to reestablish order.
The three fundamental doshas combine to create the seven constitutional types of Ayurveda, and you will learn your own body type, the key to making lifestyle choices for self-healing and maximum well-being. For the moment, let us look a little more deeply into the characteristics of these three basic energies of life.
Vata is the energy of movement. Although it is the air principle, it is not considered the same as actual air in the external environment, but rather as the subtle energy that governs biological movement.
Vata is intimately related to our vital life essence, known as prana. Prana is the pure essence of vata. It is the life-force, the play of intelligence. That flow of intelligence is necessary for communication between two cells, and it maintains the life function of both. On a cosmic level, prana is said to be the attraction between Purusha and Prakruti.
As the principle of mobility, vata regulates all activity in the body, both mental and physiological. It is responsible for breathing, the blinking of our eyes, the beating of our hearts, and all movement in the cytoplasm and cell membranes. All the impulses in the vast networks of our nervous system are governed by vata.
When vata is in balance, it promotes creativity and flexibility and evokes feelings of freshness, lightness, happiness, and joy. Out of balance, vata produces fear, nervousness, anxiety, even tremors and spasms.
Vata is dry, light, cold, subtle, clear, mobile, and dispersing. We shall soon see how these qualities are expressed in a person with a vata constitution.
Pitta is translated as fire, but this is not meant literally. Rather, it is the principle of fire, the energy of heating or metabolism. Pitta governs all the biochemical changes that take place within our bodies, regulating digestion, absorption, assimilation, and body temperature. From the standpoint of modern biology, pitta comprises the enzymes and amino acids that play a major role in metabolism.
Pitta regulates body temperature through the chemical transformation of food. It promotes appetite and vitality.
Not only food is metabolized by us. Every impression coming in from the outside is also processed or “digested” and made a part of us. Thus pitta (when in balance) promotes intelligence and understanding and is crucial in learning. Out-of-balance pitta may arouse fiery emotions such as frustration, anger, hatred, criticism, and jealousy.
Pitta is hot, sharp, light, oily, liquid, pungent, sour, and spreading. These qualities occur in various ways in people of pitta constitution.
Kapha combines water and earth. It is the energy that forms the body’s structure, the glue that holds the cells together. Kapha also supplies the liquid needed for the life of our cells and bodily systems. It lubricates our joints, moisturizes the skin, helps to heal wounds, and maintains immunity. Kapha provides strength, vigor, and stability.
Psychologically, excess kapha is responsible for the emotions of attachment, greed, lust, and envy. When kapha is in balance it expresses itself in tendencies toward love, calmness, and forgiveness.
The qualities of kapha include heavy, slow, cool, oily, damp, smooth, soft, static, viscous, and sweet. Kapha individuals display these qualities in various ways.
Together, these three doshas govern all the body’s metabolic activities. Kapha promotes anabolism, the process of building up the body, the growth and creation of new cells as well as cell repair. Pitta regulates metabolism, which is digestion and absorption. Vata triggers catabolism, the necessary deterioration process in which larger molecules are broken down into smaller ones.
Vata, the principle of movement, moves both pitta and kapha, which are immobile. Thus when vata is out of balance, it influences and disturbs the other doshas. The majority of illnesses have aggravated vata at their source.
The whole of life’s journey is divided into three major milestones. From birth to age 16 is the kapha age. From 16 to 50 is the age of pitta, and from 50 to 100 the age of vata.
In childhood, kapha and the process of anabolism are predominant, as this is the time of greatest physical growth and the structuring of the body. Kapha disorders, such as lung congestion, cough, colds, and mucus secretions, are common at this time. In adulthood, a time of activity and vitality, pitta is most apparent. Vata and the catabolic processes of deterioration take over in old age, bringing vata disorders such as tremors, emaciation, breathlessness, arthritis, and loss of memory.
The Complete Book of Ayurvedic – Vasant Lad, M.A.Sc, Published by Harmony Books, 1998