I often get quizzical looks when I start an introductory lecture on Ayurveda with the comment that “the three doshas are not body types.” Vata, Pitta and Kapha are certainly foundational to every aspect of Ayurvedic theory and practice and understanding them starts with the fact that we are made up of all three doshas, just as everything in nature is made up of the five great elements ether, air, fire, water and earth. These concepts are quite similar to Yin, Yang and Chi in Traditional Chinese medicine, and knowing of their qualities, expressions and functional integrity or interrelationship is the key.
7 Constitutional Types
Constitutional “types” relate to the unique, individualized expression of each of the 3 doshas within an individual, not to simply identify with one. Ayurveda’s practical method identifies 7 basic constitutional “types,” based on our doshic make-up, but each of these types have infinite expressions. For example, someone may be single dosha predominate- Vata, Pitta or Kapha, while others dual-doshic- VP, PK, VK and some are tri-doshic/VPK=. Identifying where we fall along this constitutional spectrum isn’t an end game that culminates with a simple “one size fits all” list of how to live our lives or what types foods we should or shouldn’t ever eat based on our “dosha type.”
Knowing which dosha or doshas that are predominate in our unique constitution helps us to better understand long-term trends relating to our personal health as well as patterns of imbalance that might present themselves due to our individual doshic make-up. Yet life is dynamic and the causes of doshic disturbance can vary dramatically. So unless we have a good grasp of the basic principles of Ayurveda, it can be hard to carve out a streamlined and individualized approach for dealing with challenging health issues based solely on self-assessment. This is where a well-trained Ayurvedic Physician, Practitioner or Wellness Counselor can greatly help clarify things, making the Ayurvedic journey towards greater wellness more enjoyable and less restrictive than it needs to be.
Limitations of the Dosha Quiz
More and more I encounter people who have completed a dosha quiz online or in an introductory class and then innocently start following the food list for their “type,”and even buying herbal supplements based this general self assessment. This can quickly become a costly and confusing. Surely, these dosha quizzes have there value in the learning process, and I use at times them myself to inspire new students in the education process, but not for clinical assessment. Ayurvedic food lists have wisdom embedded into them too, but they are designed for us to better understand the overall qualitative effects on the doshas, rather than to serve as hard and fast list of dos and don’ts. This is why I suggest to students and clients, who are new to Ayurveda, to first observe how each of the doshas express themselves within the body and mind, as well how seasonal changes, food choices, activities, relationships and even the phases of life might affect the qualities and characteristics of the 3 doshas within themselves.
Taking our Time
If we rush to a conclusion about “our type,” rather then first observing how the doshas are express themselves and which aspects need more care and attention, we may overly simplify things, thus pigeon holing ourselves into a certain category, without fully grasping the flexible and dynamic applications of Ayurveda and its view of constitution and how to manage dosha is a practical way.
Here, we can unnecessarily find ourselves following overly restrictive dietary and lifestyle guidelines. Just because someone is Vata predominate doesn’t mean that they should never eat crackers or go for a jog. Similarly, someone who’s Pitta predominate can enjoy chili peppers in moderation and even go to a hot yoga class. Once, I met someone how hadn’t eaten a sweet potato for 10 years because someone had told her she was a Kapha type, so I recommended that she go home and enjoy a sweet potato. Of course she loved it and was grateful that she could also eat an avocado again too. I am not saying that there isn’t a time or place for such restrictions, but we don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater, when it comes to sensible and nutritious food choices. Often, clients can be concerned about eating too much fruit, while they are eating a bowl of ice cream after dinner every day. This is where a logical and straightforward approach is needed, not getting bogged down in minutia.
Guidelines are Simply Guidelines
It is my feeling that the guidelines laid out in the classical Ayurvedic texts were not designed to serve as rigid lists, but rather as a dynamic and flexible knowledge base to help us to determine which foods, herbs, or activities would be the most beneficial for us at any given time, place and circumstance and which might contribute to further imbalance. Even here, I still recommend that we test things out in the laboratory of our own bodies. Not everyone, regardless of have a similar constitution, will react the same way of certain foods, herbs etc. Keen observation and our own direct experience is the best teach of all.
Focusing on the Weakest Links in the Chain
When first working with clients, I often only give a handful of key recommendation to support in the initial phases of any given health regime. These are based on what I perceive, based on thorough assessment, to be the weakest links in the chain of a persons current diet and lifestyle. A half a dozen key suggestions, when followed well, are far more effective than a list of 50 exotic Ayurvedic rituals, which could prove unsuccessful at achieving tangible results, if not specific enough to address the needs of the client.
Integration and Healing
Healing takes time and slow changes is lasting change. Overwhelming the body and mind with too much information, be it Ayurvedic of otherwise, isn’t a sustainable approach for most people, and nowadays, people are often already overwhelmed from so much conflicting information available at a click of the mouse. Ayurveda is simple and practical science that meets us from where they stand, and helps us to gradually learn more about ourselves, and to integrate that material in a gentle and practical way.
Vishnu Dass AD, LMT