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We should all know by now that the “Standard American Diet,” i.e., SAD, is just plain bad news. But wouldn’t it be helpful if there was a way of eating that was delicious, fairly easy to follow, and just made sense? Well, there is. It is called Ayurveda. Ayurveda means “science of life” and it has been around for the last 5,000 years!
Kapha, Pitta, and Vata Doshas in Ayurveda
Ayurveda is an ancient healing art based on prevention. It works by rebalancing aspects of a person’s being, including the physical body, the mind, and the emotions. It describes the body in terms of the natural elements – earth, fire, air, water, and ether (i.e., space) – and relies on the underlying principles that “like increases like” and “opposites balance.” The mechanisms and influences in and on the body can be categorized into “types,” or Doshas, based on these principles. The Doshas are Kapha, Pitta, and Vata, and they are at the very heart of Ayurvedic nutrition.
The Kapha Dosha is governed by earth and water. To imagine the qualities associated with Kapha, think about what happens when you mix soil and water. You get mud or clay (which can actually be a very healing substance). Kapha is the “stability and structure” Dosha—mud can be oozy and formless, or it can be used to make a building. Some descriptors of this Dosha include “heavy,” “oily,” “soft,” “slow,” “gentle,” and “cool.”
Since Kapha energy is all about structure, Kapha in the body has to do with our cells as well as the general health of our tissues, organs, muscles, and so on. It also looks after the spinal column, the integrity of the stomach lining, and the immune system.
The Vata Dosha is governed by the elements of air and ether. It is the “movement” Dosha just as air is constantly moving through space (ether). Qualities associated with Vata are “light,” “movement,” “quickness,” “rough,” “changeable,” and “irregular.”
Vata energy is the “driver” of other mechanisms in the body and governs neurological functions and hormones. It also looks after the respiratory system and the large intestine.
Finally, the Pitta Dosha is ruled by fire and water. The literal translation of Pitta is “that which cooks.” It is the “hot-blooded” Dosha that is “fiery,” “high acid,” “hot,” “pungent,” “sharp,” “intense,” and “penetrating.”
In the body, Pitta energy governs metabolism and digestion. It is also the “temperature regulator” of the body. This includes the mechanisms of our sweat glands since sweating has to do with both fire (your body heating up) and water (sweating to cool down).
Unique Expressions of the Doshas
The differences among people in terms of their Doshas has actually been verified by science. An intriguing study conducted in 2008 by the Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology in Delhi, India found correlations between the three basic Dosha types and specific differences in “biochemical and hematological parameters and at genome-wide expression levels.” The team noted that there were significant differences between the people they tested who displayed severe leanings toward a particular Dosha. These differences could be seen in how genes expressed themselves in physiological functions like blood transport, immune response, and genetic predispositions to disease.
However, while one Dosha usually dominates over the others in a single person, most individuals do not 5express just one Dosha. Most people express a combination of at least two and sometimes all three.
The purpose of the Ayurvedic diet is to re-balance Dosha energies in order to create strength and health. But what does this look like in real life? While healthy Dosha balance can definitely be seen and felt physically, it often shows up clearly in a person’s emotional state most tellingly.
For example, when an individual who is predominantly Vata is in balance, this person will often experience an abundance of both energy and creativity. On the flip side, when the Vata person is out of balance, they may be prone to bouts of anxiety. For Pitta types, balance can appear as a quick wit, while imbalance can lead to anger. Finally, for primarily Kapha types, balance may look like a person who is easy to forgive. Imbalance can lead to insecurity and jealousy.
Dosha-Type quizzes, where you can find out your own personal Dosha type, exist all over the internet so be sure to have fun taking one or more of them! If you want to get serious about Doshas, however, I suggest finding an Ayurvedic professional to consult. The National Ayurvedic Medical Association has a searchable online database where you can look up your region (in the U.S. and anywhere in the world) to find an Ayurvedic professional near you.
The Six Tastes in Ayurvedic Eating
Ayurvedic practitioners believe that every aspect of your life, from the foods you eat to your relationships and career choices, play a part in health. The “art and science” of eating Ayurveda is also about how one “tastes” life. In Ayurveda, “taste” is referred to as rasa, and it signifies much more than just the taste of your food. For ayurvedic practitioners, how we can truly “taste” our food is similar to how we can truly “taste” our life. Taste is also a determining factor in how we maintain balance within our bodies and our lives as a whole through the Doshas. There are six basic tastes that Ayurveda recognizes:
1 | Madhura, i.e., sweet, connected to water and earth
2 | Amla, i.e., sour, connected to fire and earth
3 | Lavana, i.e., salty, connected to water and fire
4 | Katu, i.e., pungent, connected to air and fire
5 | Tikta, i.e., bitter, connected to ether and air
6 | Kashaya, i.e., astringent, connected to earth and air
For most of these categories, we can probably identify a whole list of foods and herbs that would fit based on our already-developed sense of taste. Astringent is usually a point of some confusion, however, since foods as diverse as pomegranates and chickpeas fall into this category. To determine if a food is Kashaya, or astringent, take a bite and notice if the subtle sensation of dryness (some people say “chalkiness”) is produced in your mouth. This is the defining characteristic of an astringent food such as green bananas, broccoli, parsley, and most beans.
Taste is very important in Ayurvedic eating also because it represents “the beginning of the story” for how each food influences Dosha balancing. A person tastes the food and is also affected by the temperature, or virya, of it. The food will also have a “post-digestive” effect on cell nutrition and elimination, which is called vipaka. Based on all these factors and more, a food may move in a particular direction in the body and have an effect on the emotions as well.
Finally, according to Ayurveda, taste is not a static thing. The taste of a particular food may vary depending on where it grew (or where it was raised), how it was prepared, how fresh it is and, of course, when it was grown, harvested, and eaten. All of these distinctions are vital to understand when choosing to “eat with the seasons” the Ayurvedic way.
A Side Note on Meat in Ayurveda
Ayurveda puts a heavy emphasis on getting plenty of vegetables and fruits in your diet overall. According to Nadia Marshall, director of the Mudita Institute in Byron Bay, Australia, this is because vegetables and fruits are easier to digest.
“It is also because vegetarian food is generally more sattvic, meaning it promotes calmness, peace, and clarity in the mind,” Marshall said in a recent interview. “Meat, on the other hand, is considered tamasic, creating heaviness and dullness in the mind if consumed in excess.”
That being said, this doesn’t mean that meat is completely off the menu! The sticking point, says Marshall and others, is how meat is prepared and how you feel after eating it. Lighter meats such as chicken or fish are preferred over heavier meats. In the same vein, hearty soups and slow-cooked casseroles prepared with herbs that help the digestion are considered healthier than eating a slab of steak on its own. There is even a healthy way to eat ayurvedic if you are on a ketogenic or paleo diet.
“In my experience, people who are eating Paleo don’t usually know that they need to customize the diet for themselves…” says Dr. Akili Palanisamy, functional medicine MD and author of The Paleovedic Diet. “For example, eating too much raw food or eating foods that are considered ‘energetically heating’ [such as beef] may be harmful depending on your Ayurvedic body type…”
Putting It All Together with the Seasons
Now that you know the basics about Ayurveda, let’s put it all together with how the seasons play a part in eating Ayurvedic.
According to the National Ayurvedic Medical Association, Ayurveda is the “original circadian medicine.” In a literary sense, the word “circadian” means “noting or pertaining to rhythmic biological cycles recurring at approximately 24-hour intervals.” In a broader sense, Ayurvedic eating can help us realign with the cycles of not just the day, but also the entire year through seasonal eating.
Ayurvedic Ritucharya (translated as “seasonal life routine”) is a system of observing the rhythms of nature in order to balance the Doshas. Ritucharya encourages eating habits that are in line with natural cycles, including the cycles of day and night as well as that of the times of the year. In Ayurveda, there are not just four seasons like we have on our calendars; there are actually six! The “seasons” in Ayurveda are called “ritus.” Here is a breakdown of all of them as well as which foods are best to eat in each:
Sishira (mid-January to mid-March)
Sishira is associated with cold and dewiness. The “power taste” of Sishira is bitter. According to the experts at Prakash Nethralaya Ayurvedic Hospital, during this season, there is a buildup of Kapha. In order to balance this, they recommend keeping the body warm by taking baths, wearing warm clothes, and getting massages to help blood circulation. Drink and eat warm, soothing things as well as foods that contain extra fat, such as healthy oils, yogurts, and organic cheeses.
It is during Sishira that the body, in general, can handle heavier foods, such as meats, since Ayurveda says that digestive strength is stronger in the colder months. But Vata can also become aggravated by the cold, so individuals who have a lot of Vata energy can keep it balanced by following Vata-balancing guidelines.
Vasanta (mid-March to mid-May)
Vasanta is the springtime season and is ruled by the astringent taste. It is one of the most pleasant seasons in India (and in many other places as well). However, as the earth warms up, the digestion becomes weaker. That is why it is important to lighten the diet during Vasanta. You can do this by eating less meat, dairy, and oil and more light, astringent vegetables, herbs, and fruits. The end to cold weather can also leave a person with an accumulation of both Kapha and Vata in the beginning of the season.
Spring is a time of transition and renewal. By following the gentle rhythms of nature, it can also be a good time to do a gentle cleanse or juice fast. Some springtime foods include apples, lemons, strawberries, lettuce, mushrooms, asparagus, garlic, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, peas, celery, kale, grains such as millet, buckwheat, quinoa and corn, many kinds of beans, pumpkin, and sunflower seeds as well as light animals products like yogurt, cottage cheese, and eggs.
Grishma (mid-May to mid-July)
Grishma is the summer season and is associated with the pungent taste. Vata Dosha tends to coagulate during the summer months, and digestion is the weakest. Experts recommend reducing strenuous Vata-inducing activities and opt for milder forms of exercise during this time.
According to the experts at The Joyful Belly School of Ayurvedic Diet and Digestion, “Hot, humid weather destroys the appetite and aggravates Pitta-Kapha rashes, irritability, and lethargy… Avoid alcohol, other ferments, and sour taste. Favor bitters instead.”
Some foods that are perfect for summer include endives, cucumbers, pomegranate, cranberries, lemons, watermelon, fennel, cardamom, sweet peas, green beans, and white fish.
Varsha (mid-July to mid-September)
The late summer/early fall usually brings monsoons to India, so this season is deemed the “rainy season.” It is associated with sour foods and is aligned with the active expression of Vata and Pitta. Because of this, precautions can be taken to calm and balance these two Doshas.
According to Ayurvedic professional Dr. Jigar Gor, blood-related issues, painful joints, skin problems, and virus and bacterial overgrowth can be particularly problematic at this time. He suggests an increase in foods that contain fat and salt (according to your own dietary limitations, of course). Dairy and fats such as ghee, milk, and buttermilk are helpful during this time as are foods such as pumpkin, ginger, cumin, fenugreek, turmeric, and garlic. Leafy vegetables can be downplayed in Varsha in favor of foods like yam and squash. Meats prepared in soups and stews are great for this time of year and so is brown rice and bread, if you eat it.
Sharad (mid-September to mid-November)
This season is looked upon as “nature at her best” in Ayurveda. Most days are pleasant and refreshing. If you live in an area where seasons are pronounced, then you are probably awash in the color of leaves turning in autumn.
It is also a season of a lot of change in the weather, however. This is why Ayurvedic experts often divide Sharad into two timeframes: early fall and late fall. Ayurveda warns that early autumn can be a time of “Pitta-like” maladies such as skin, digestive system, and liver issues, while late fall is all about the Vata.
According to an article by well-known Ayurvedic and functional medicine doctor Deepak Chopra, “A transition from wet, oily Pitta season into dry Vata season, without sufficient drying in between may manifest as excess mucous production… Excessive mucous serves as prime real estate for the body to harbor viruses, an imbalance which may lead to the common cold or flu often seen in late fall and early winter.”
Nourishing foods to eat in early fall include apples (on the tart side are best), pears, eggplant, corn, melons, okra, and figs. For late fall, avocados, tomatoes, citrus, nuts, healthy fats and oils, pumpkin, and slightly heavier animal products can be consumed. Beans should be avoided in late fall if at all possible.
Hermant Ritu (mid-November to mid-January)
Hermant Ritu signifies the start of the biting winds, snows, and overall cold weather of winter. Believe it or not, according to Ayurveda, human beings are at their best in terms of overall energy and stamina during this time! At the same time, it is also the season of going within to rest and reflect for prayer and meditation. If you can find the time to be in alignment with the inwardly rejuvenating pulse of the winter season, then you will feel this increased energy and stamina and can really thrive in the darker months. If not, then you may be prone to common winter ailments, including winter colds and flu.
Most Ayurvedic practitioners agree that winter is primarily a Kapha Dosha season. However, if you live in a particularly chilly and/or windy area, then Vata will also be strong during this time as well. Likewise, if you do live in a windy environment, slow, steady exercise is recommended. If not, then winter may be the time to challenge yourself physically a bit more than in other seasons during your workout. Hermant Ritu is associated with the taste of sweet. Beneficial foods for this season include apricots, limes, peaches, cherries, beets, green beans, carrots, chilies, cooked spinach, leeks and onions, many kinds of grains (if you eat them), many kinds of fats, heavier meats in moderation, and natural sweeteners such as honey and molasses.
Keep On Learning About Ayurveda
Believe it or not, this article doesn’t even touch the surface of the vast amount of information out there about Ayurveda. After all, Ayurveda is a lifestyle, not just an eating style, and people have been writing about it for the last 5,000 years!
The apostle Paul tells us that since the very creation of the world, God’s eternal power and divine nature are clearly seen in nature. His word also tells us that our bodies are temples; we were created in His image. When we talk about Ayurveda, we are really talking about taking advantage of the bounty we’ve been given to keep our bodies healthy and full of life. There’s a reason that various plants grow in specific regions or seasons – they are exactly what we need for that time and place! How can we not take advantage of such a gift?
If it piques your interest, I say go for it. Dive into this mode of coming into balance through the Doshas and experiment with different foods and Ayurvedic modalities as you go along. Most of all, have fun with it. A deep dive into the wonderful world of Ayurveda can only produce a healthier YOU over all!
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