What is Vata Dosha: A Basic Understanding of Ayurvedic Doshas

The word vata means to blow or move like the wind.

Consisting of the elements air and ether, it is the principal force of motion in the body and mind. When vata dosha is healthy, the movements of the body are graceful, unimpeded, and yet controlled. When out of balance, the movements become erratic, excessive, decreased, or blocked.

To understand the vata dosha, it is important to understand its qualities. Vata dosha is light, dry, mobile, cold, hard, rough, sharp, subtle, flowing, and clear. A body and mind in which the vata dosha predominates expresses or reflects these qualities.

Vata dosha is best understood in terms of its component parts, its subdoshas, which are the five types of vata or five types of movement. Each sub-dosha defines a direction of movement and governs specific actions in the body.

Prana Vayu: Prana vayu represents the force that draws sensory experience to us. It is the force of attraction and has a magnetic nature. The way it functions determines the types of impressions we expose ourselves to. Prana Vayu resides in the head and heart (chest) where desire dwells, choices are made, and sensory experience is processed. When it is healthy, we are drawn toward that which is harmonious and which brings us health and well-being. When prana vayu is out of balance, we misuse our senses and bring inside of us that which will cause disease.

Samana Vayu: Whereas prana vayu represents the force of attraction, samana vayu represents the force of absorption, pulling the impressions we are drawn to toward the center of our being. For example, samana vayu carries nutrients from the intestines into the circulatory system, and the sensations of things we touch are carried from the skin to the central nervous system. When samana vayu is functioning properly, impressions are properly absorbed. When it is in a state of dysfunction, absorption becomes difficult, and malnourishment or numbness may occur.

Vyana Vayu: Once absorbed, an impression must be acted upon. This is the role of vyana vayu, which is the force that circulates the response, moving it from the center toward the periphery. Following our examples, in the digestive system, blood carries nutrients throughout the body so that each cell receives its proper supply. In the nervous system, a signal is sent from the central nervous system toward a muscle or organ.

Udana Vayu: Udana Vayu is responsible for action and expression, which means putting the energy received to work. Cells take the energy received and perform their unique functions. Nutrients are used for cellular energy and for building proteins. The nerves instruct muscles and organs to act properly.

Apana Vayu: Cellular activity produces both work and waste. While udana vayu is responsible for the work, apana vayu is responsible for cleaning up the waste. Apana vayu eliminates waste primarily through the functions of urination, defecation, and menstruation. It is responsible for all the downward flowing energy of the body and as such is also responsible for the energy needed for carrying the child out of the womb and into the world.

The Qualities and Presentation of Vata Dosha

The natural expression of vata dosha in the constitution of the body and mind reflects the qualities inherent in the dosha. Examples of the way these qualities manifest are as follows:

Light: The bones of the body are narrow

Cold: A person tends to become chilled more easily than others

Dry: The skin or eyes have a tendency to become dry

Mobile: A person moves quickly, often with a lack of focus

Subtle: The mind is open to new ideas, expansive, and interested in the esoteric

Hard: If the tissues of the body become dry, they will then become hard; this is easiest to see as an imbalance

Flowing: The mind flows easily from one idea to the next

Sharp: The bridge of the nose is thinner and sharper than in other constitutional types

Rough: As the skin becomes drier, it becomes rougher; which is easiest to see as an imbalance

Clear: The eyes are clear

When vata dosha is out of balance, there is an excess of the qualities that define the dosha. The specific symptoms produced as a result of the imbalance depend upon which srota (channel system) and which dhatu (tissue) inside that channel are affected. Generalized examples of excess vata qualities (imbalances) in the body are as follows:

Light: The body loses weight

Cold: A person feels chilled

Dry: The lips become chapped

Mobile: The voice becomes too quick and rambles

Subtle: A person is too easily affected by the feelings of others

Hard: The stools become hard and difficult to eliminate

Flowing: There is an inability of the mind to focus

Sharp: Pain in the body is sharp like the prick of a needle

Rough: The skin becomes rough

Clear: The eyes and the mind become vacant

Managing Vata Dosha

Ayurveda offers many approaches to bringing vata dosha into balance. Whether the tools used are dietary, herbal, colors, aromas, mantras, massage oils, or lifestyle; the principles used to return to balance are the same. It is necessary to increase the qualities as opposed to the imbalance. Where there is an excess of lightness, we increase heaviness; where there is an excess of coldness, we increase heat; where there is an excess of hardness, we increase softness; and so on. While each of the treatment tools noted above are valuable, by far the most important tool is a lifestyle. Only through adopting an appropriate lifestyle can the vata dosha remain in balance and the cause of disease be removed.

One of the most important lifestyle tools for maintaining health and supporting healing in the vata individual is the adoption of regular healthy routines that are in harmony with the rhythms of nature. Stability is greatly improved through eating and sleeping at the same time every day.

It is best to arise within a half hour of the sun rising. The morning routine should include time for self-abhyanga (oil massage), meditation, and yoga asana practice in addition to proper daily hygiene. Meals should be taken regularly throughout the day; as many as five small meals per day taken every three hours would be appropriate. These meals should be taken at the same time each day. This increases both the heavy and stable qualities. The foods should be somewhat oily (moist), cooked when possible (warm), and moderately spiced (warm). Bedtime should occur at about 9 or 10 pm, though this depends somewhat on the rhythm of the sunset and varies from season to season and by latitude. Waking and sleeping times should be consistent from day to day to increase stability.

Specific treatments are available for almost every known condition in the body, as such symptoms can be understood in terms of the ten pairs of opposite qualities. Once the qualities of the patient’s constitution and condition are known, the experienced practitioner, knowing the qualities of the remedies, is able to design a treatment program that brings these opposite qualities into harmony. These qualities provide the body with the fundamental energies and raw materials needed to support the healing process.