In January, I went to Goa. It was a wonderful short holiday, which also gave me the chance to study the food side of Ayurveda. Each afternoon I went to the Ayurveda Natural Health Clinic (ANHC). It was only a few miles away from the hustle-and-bustle of Calangute where I was staying, but it was like stepping into another world. The ANHC has an aura of peace, ideally suited to a holiday retreat—which in part it is. People come from around the world to detox, reconnect to themselves and heal through specialized diet, herbal remedies, massage and yoga. And yet at the same time, it is more like a hospital, with doctors walking along the corridors treating people who have come to find a cure for more serious illnesses. My teacher, Dr Anupa, told me that some of these people stay with them for up to 3 months.
The yoga hall was our makeshift classroom. With the fan on full trying hard to keep the room cool, a blackboard ready for the all of the strange Indian words and a small table for my desk, Dr Anupa took me through the main concepts, philosophies and ideas about food in Ayurveda. I learnt a huge amount about it and yet I only scratched the surface too. At the end of each afternoon, we would go upstairs to restaurant where one of the chefs showed me how to prepare 2 or 3 dishes. Whilst we watched, and I scribbled the recipes down, Dr Anupa quizzed me on all the things I had learnt: What were the elements and tastes of the food being prepared? How did they change in the cooking process? And how did each dish impact on people with different doshas? Ayurveda is fascinating, but it does take a while to get your head around it! For this Tip I’d like to share a little of what I learnt with you, and then you too might like to experiment with your own diet to witness the changes it makes to your well-being and possibly your health too.
What is Ayurveda?
The ideas, philosophies and treatments of Ayurveda have been around for 5,000 years. In India today, it’s still widely practiced, both in the home and in hospitals. Ayur means life and Veda means knowledge and in India, it’s referred to as the Science of Life. Ayurveda’s main philosophy is to find balance in the body through diet, herbal remedies, massage and yogic breathing to give you optimum health. On occasions when you are ill, Ayurveda is used to restore your balance so your body can heal itself.
Ayurveda begins by assessing how well balanced and aligned you are according to your ‘dosha’ type. Dosha is the Sanskrit name for 3 different energies formed from the five elements (air, ether, fire, water and earth) which are known as vata, pitta and kapha. These energies are found in the universe—all living things, your body, nature, the seasons, time of day, the climate and even the stages of your life.
Your body is formed with a mixture of 3 doshas, however usually one or two of the energies is dominant. Ayurveda believes to stay healthy you need to eat and live your life in a way that maintains the balance of your own personal dosha.
The three doshas: Vata, Pitta and Kapha
Vata is made up of air and ether (space). Air is a pushing force, whilst space is an emptiness that allows the force of air to move things through it. Vata controls all movement in your body, including breathing, the passage of food through the body and all bodily systems as directed by the nervous system. Its characteristics are:
dry, rough, cold, light, minute and moving.
Pitta is made up of fire and a little water. Combustion combined with a little water creates flow to allow your body to digest food. Pitta’s fire is the stomach acid. The characteristics of pitta are hot, sharp, fluid, burning, specific colour and odour.
Kapha is made up of earth and water. Earth energy is the structure of your body’s bones, muscles, organs and fat. The water element again creates flow. Kapha controls body weight (the amount of fat carried), the form of bones, muscles and organs as well as the flow of blood. The characteristics of kapha are moist, soft, steady, slow, heavy and cold.
Discovering your dosha type
If you visit an Ayurvedic doctor, they will ask you a whole series of questions about your body and personality with questions like; “What taste (in food) do you like the most?” and “Do you prefer a cold or warm climate?” They will observe the shape, size and texture of your body. They want to know how easy you become angry and how quickly do you forgive someone. They also take blood, urine tests, do specific pulse readings as well as examine your tongue and possibly even your stools. In this way they get a really clear picture about your dominant dosha(s) type and are able to see if your body is out of balance. However, you can get a very good indication of your dosha type by considering your own body and personality characteristics. I have prepared a quiz based on the one given to me whilst in Goa. Click here to download the quiz .
Now you know your dosha type, what next?
Remember you are a mixture of all three doshas and your results will be unique to you. If I use my results, to demonstrate, it might be easier for you to understand your own typing. My results are: vata 6, pitta 22, kapha 5. From this you can see I am strongly a pitta type person. Pitta characteristics are hot, sharp, penetrating, fluid, burning, with an energy that also has a specific colour and odour to it. If I eat foods with these characteristics, it will increase my pitta dosha, which is already much stronger than my vata or kapha energy, moving me even further away from the utopian ideal (but very rarely seen) balance of three doshas. Some people, like me, will have one dosha that is clearly dominant. Others will have 2 doshas that are more equal.
My diet is not perfect, but in terms of western wisdom, it is quite healthy. I eat very little processed food, preparing nearly all of my food from fresh. I don’t eat beef or lamb. I don’t drink alcohol or coffee. I drink lots of water. I eat lots of fruit and vegetables. But I also love hot and spicy foods, pepper, anything pickled, as well as salty and sour foods all of which are pitta in nature, so if I follow the Ayurveda way of eating these foods need to be avoided, or at least minimized.
When I realized this, part of me was miffed!! Do I really need to stop eating these things I love, especially foods that, in the west, would not be considered unhealthy? After my rebellious (my ‘hot’ pitta nature!) side calmed down, my thoughts began to examine this is more detail (my ‘penetrating’ mind?) and I became curious: what effect would these changes to my diet have on me? My course had shown me lots of ways to cook and prepare food that were surprisingly quick as well as well as used lots of spices which were not hot in nature like cumin seeds, saffron, turmeric and nutmeg. It’s only been a few weeks, and I’m still experimenting, but I do feel better in terms of how I’m sleeping and how my body generally feels. I know “better” is a little vague, but it is enough for now for me to keep experimenting.
5 elements, 3 doshas and 6 different tastes
The five elements of air, ether (space), fire, water and earth are found throughout nature and, as you have read, these combine to form the three doshas. Your personal dosha indicates a level of being out of balance (utopian health would require an equal balance of all 3 doshas, which is incredibly rare). If, like me, you have a single strong dosha, then eating food with similar qualities, can make you even more unbalanced as they increase this energy in your body. Ayurveda believes that all disease and ailments come from being out of balance, so ensuring you eat correctly for your dosha type is part of staying healthy and well.
As well as the qualities of food – like chillies being hot and ice cream cold – Ayurveda considers that all food has a specific taste. These are Sweet, Sour, Bitter, Salty, Astringent and Pungent. Below is very brief look at these:
Sweet taste is formed from earth and water. Its qualities are heavy, cool, moist and oily. Sweet taste is not just the sweetness of sugar and our refined foods, but more the natural sweetness in meat, fats, fruit, starchy vegetables, milk, pulses and nuts. It reduces vata and pitta energy (i.e. they are good for you if these are your personal dosha types), but it increases kapha (so not good for kapha dosha types).
Sour is mostly fire with a little earth and water. It is very heating to the body, slightly heavy and moist. Sour foods include vinegars, yoghurt, raw tomatoes, alcohol, yellow cheese, pickles and sour fruits. As the pitta dosha is also fire dominated, these foods will unbalance someone who has pitta as their primary dosha, and in excess they will also upset kapha. Sour taste is excellent to rebalance vata dosha.
Bitter is made from air and ether elements and its qualities are cold, light and dry. This taste is found in many herbs, green vegetables, certain spices like fenugreek and turmeric, grapefruit and caffeine. Bitter should only be taken in small quantities, as it is a strong taste. This is a great taste for balancing kapha and pitta, but should only be taken in very small amounts by vata.
Salty taste is made up from water and fire. It is heavy, hot, moist and pungent. As we know from Government back advertising, too much salt can cause high blood pressure and it’s many associated health risks, but what is less known is that it increases dryness in the skin and hair and therefore can make our skin more wrinkled and create hair loss. Salty taste helps vata but it increases heat in pitta and adds moisture to kapha – so it’s not good for these doshas.
Astringent is a combination of earth and air. It is dry, cooling and slightly heavy. Astringent is more of an after-taste – like the one you get after drinking red wine or tea. Some green vegetables have this taste too: broccoli, artichoke and asparagus. Cranberries, pomegranates, apples and pears have a slight astringent taste too. Too many astringent foods will unbalance vata, but they are very good for pitta and kapha.
Pungent is made from fire and air. It is light, heating and dry. Raw onions, garlic, chilli, ginger, radishes and strong spices are pungent. Like the bitter taste, pungent is powerful and only small quantities should be eaten at any one time. It is a great taste for kapha who should try to include it in all meals. Apart from the spices, it’s not great for vata and pitta should only eat the milder spices.