Are you a vata-type?
According to Ayurveda, the body is made up of three elements, or doshas: vata (air and ether), kapha (water and earth) and pitta (fire with a little water). Vata’s characteristic is the wind that promotes mobility; pitta’s is the heat that sustains life; kapha’s is the phlegm that helps stability. Most people’s body is a combination of two of these elements, although the predominant element can change from time to time. When the body and mind are not centred and balanced there’s an imbalance in the doshas and, when the doshas are out of balance, your health is adversely affected. Even when you feel healthy physically, if your mind is not calm and centred it’s possible you have some imbalance in your doshas. Whatever is happening in the mind will affect the body and vice versa. If there is too much fire in the body, one could be said to have a pitta imbalance; too much water and earth manifests as a kapha imbalance; and too much air and ether a vata imbalance. In this first of three articles, we focus on what happens in the body when you have a vata imbalance and what can be done to correct it, to bring harmony back to the doshas.
According to Ayurveda, weather is one factor that can bring changes in the doshas. Rain, for example, brings coolness and the coolness is said to induce vata in the body. Seasonal changes are times when the possibility of ill health increases. During these times the body becomes more vulnerable to infections, coughs and colds and minor ailments. During seasonal changes you need to be more acutely aware and take extra care of your health to avoid or correct a vata imbalance. Vata is concerned mainly with the nervous system and controls all body movement, including the movement of air and gas within the body. Without proper attention, vata imbalance inevitably has a negative impact on your health and wellbeing.
Symptoms and treatment of vata imbalance
- Excessive dry or rough skin
- An increase in gas in the body
- Intolerance to wind or cold
- Irritable bowel syndrome (IBS)
- Restlessness or excitability
- Cracking of joints
- Vajrasana (thunderbolt pose)
- Shashankasana (child’s pose)
- Bhujangasana (cobra pose)
- Adho mukha svanasana (downward facing dog)
- Cat stretch
- Supta pawanmuktasana (leg lock pose)
- Where and how to eat: Take your meals in a settled environment. Too much air in the body could be a result of activity that’s too hurried.
- Talking and eating: Be conscious of eating your food while engaging in minimal conversation.
- Mixing foods: Avoid mixing starch with fruit at breakfast time. For example, mixing toast and fresh orange juice.
- Ginger tea: Ginger tea with honey can be drunk half an hour before main meals.
- Drinking while eating: Avoid drinking anything in between mouthfuls when eating, especially milk.
- Fennel seeds: Fennel seeds are great for eliminating gas. Eat a quarter of a teaspoon of them after your meals.
- Rest: Rest after eating before returning to your activities.
The following conditions are indications of vata imbalance:
What can you do? A vata imbalance doesn’t have to get the better of you. With a little knowledge and skill there’s much you can do to rebalance the elements in your body. Not only are various yoga poses especially helpful in eliminating excess air and gas, but certain Ayurvedic food recipes and lifestyle habits also play a significant role. Following are some practical and useful suggestions.
Yoga for excess vata
Yoga poses in general have a wonderful effect on the body and mind, not only harmonising the body, mind and emotions, but also balancing and maintaining the balance of the three doshas. More specifically, the following sequences of asanas (poses) are recommended as gas-relieving poses. Practised at the beginning of each day for 10 to 15 minutes, they are a good way to keep any vata excess at bay.
You can either practise each asana individually, mainlining the order of sequence and holding each pose for the suggested amount of breaths, or you can practise the sequence as a vinyasa, a set of flowing movements, holding each asana for no longer than one breath before flowing smoothly into the next asana. If you choose to practise the asanas as a vinyasa, ensure that each time you extend upwards or backwards, for example in bhujangasana or when taking your head back in cat stretch, you do so with an inhalation; each time you move down or contract the body, for example in adho mukha svanasana and shashankasana, you do so with an exhalation.
Kneel on the floor with your buttocks resting on your heels. Keep your big toes and the heels together. If you’re uncomfortable you may place a cushion or a towel either between the back of your thighs and your calf muscles or between your shins and the ground. Rest your hands on your knees, palms facing upwards. Keep your head level and your spine straight but relaxed. Make sure there’s minimal arching in your lower back. Close your eyes and relax your body. Allow your breath to be normal. As you keep your attention on your breath, observe each inhalation and exhalation as they come and go. Sit in this position for as long as you can, progressively increasing the length of time you hold it during each practice. If your knees become sore, stretch and shake your legs out in front of you and then move back into the pose.
Sitting in vajrasana for a few minutes before and after a meal activates various acupressure points on the tops of the feet, promoting strong digestion and helping to eliminate excess gas. Meridians of various digestive organs including the stomach, spleen-pancreas, liver and gall bladder all pass through the areas of the body activated in vajrasana.
Sit on your heels and place the palms of your hands on your thighs. Close your eyes and relax, keeping your head and spine straight. Inhale and raise your arms above your head. As you exhale, bend the top half of your body forward from the hips. Stretch your arms out so they rest shoulder-width apart on the ground in front of you. Rest your forehead on the floor in front of your knees. You can bend your arms slightly so they are fully relaxed. Try to hold this position for a minute at first, building towards holding it comfortably for at least three minutes.
Note: those with very high blood pressure, slipped disc or vertigo should not perform this asana. If you are moving from shashankasana to the next pose, bhujangasana in a flowing vinyasa, slowly take your nose along the ground, as if you are painting a line with it, and gracefully move forward and, at the last moment, upwards.
Lie on your stomach and relax completely. Place your hands under your shoulders so your palms are resting flat against the ground. Take a deep breath and slowly raise the top half of your body off the ground, moving slowly enough so you can feel each vertebra arching back. Allow your head to drop back gently until you feel the stretch in your throat. Keep your arms bent, elbows tucked in close to the side of your body. Take a few slow but normal breaths while holding this position and then, very slowly, lower your body to the ground as you breathe out. Relax.
When you’re more confident you can move to the next stage of bhujangasana, straightening your arms as you raise the top half of your body off the ground, but make sure you’re not placing too much
strain on your lower back. Work in accordance with your personal capacity. No pain should be felt in the lower back. Complete five rounds and relax completely.
After you have completed bhujangasana, rest in shashankasana for a few breaths and then continue with the asanas below.
Lie on the floor on your stomach with your feet shoulder width apart. Place your hands on the floor beneath your shoulders, palms facing down. Take a deep breath in and then, as you exhale, raise the trunk of your body off the ground, as you come up onto your hands and knees. Straighten your arms and keep your elbows locked. Keep your legs strong and straight, knees locked, and press your heels down to the ground so the soles of your feet are as close to the floor as possible. Hold the pose for up to one minute, breathing slowly and deeply. To move out of adho mukha svanasana, take a deep breath in and, as you exhale, lower yourself gently to the ground. Repeat five rounds of adho mukha svanasana between short rests.
Imagine you’re a cat standing on all fours. Make sure your hands, knees and feet are all shoulder width apart. As you take a long, slow breath in, move your head upwards and backwards so you can see as far behind you as possible. Bend your back. Hold this position for a few seconds and relax your abdomen. Slowly and gracefully, as you exhale, move your head downwards so your chin comes to rest on your chest. Simultaneously, arch your back upwards like a stretching cat. Repeat eight rounds and then relax on your stomach, arms by your side. Rest your head to one side. Keep your heels together and toes pointing outwards. This asana should flow as smoothly and gracefully as possible with no jerky movements.
If you’re moving from asana to asana in a flowing vinyasa, just pass through a neutral cat position and move straight into shashankasana. This point marks the end of the vinyasa. Complete up to 10 rounds of the whole vinyasa, or as many rounds as you feel capable of without straining your body.
Lie on your back and stretch out your legs. Bend your left knee towards your chest, keeping the right leg straight, and wrap your hands around your left shin. If your neck feels strong enough, raise your head towards your bent knee on an exhalation. Hold for 3-5 slow breaths. Relax your head and leg as you breathe out and take a few relaxing breaths before completing the same on the other side.
Note: This asana should not be performed by those with slipped disc conditions.
To reduce excess vata in the body, it’s beneficial to observe these guidelines for a vata-pacifying diet:
Food and drink
Food and drinks are an integral part of Ayurvedic healing. Foods can either reduce or induce vata in the body.
Foods to avoid with a vata imbalance
Dried fruits, apples, cranberries, pears, pomegranate, watermelon; raw vegetables, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, celery, eggplant, leafy greens, lettuce, mushrooms, raw onions, parsley, peas, peppers, white potatoes, spinach, sprouts, tomatoes; barley, buckwheat, corn, millet, dry oats, rye; legumes except mung beans, tofu, black and red lentils. Also avoid preserved foods, including pre-cooked frozen foods, and cut out completely preserved fruit or vegetable juices as these increase vata significantly.
Sweet fruits (apricots, avocado, bananas, berries, coconut, grapes, grapefruit, lemons, mango, oranges, papaya, peaches, pineapple, plums); cooked vegetables, asparagus, beets, carrots, cucumber, garlic, green beans, okra (cooked), onion (cooked), potato (sweet), radish, zucchini; oats (cooked), rice, wheat; all seeds are fine in moderation, all sweeteners are fine except white sugar, all spices are good, all dairy products are fine in moderation and all oils are good.
Lassi, a traditional Indian drink, helps to eliminate air from the system and can be drunk once or twice a day. The following lassi recipe is particularly good for reducing vata and the heaviness of the cottage cheese is useful for balancing vata.
½ cup cottage cheese
½ cup plain yoghurt
¾ cup cool water
1 tsp ground cumin powder
1 tsp honey or 3 large pitted dates
½ tsp lemon juice
Blend the cottage cheese, yoghurt and water and add the rest of the ingredients and blend once more. Drink at room temperature. Makes one serve.
Hot milk is useful for reducing excess vata. All you have to do is warm 1 cup of raw milk with 2 teaspoons of ghee (clarified butter). When hot, stir in 1 tsp or more of coriander powder and drink.
The following recipe is an excellent nutritious soup, ideal for vata.
2 heaped dsp ghee (clarified butter)
½ onion, chopped
2 handfuls button mushrooms
½ cup of leeks, chopped
2 cups spinach, chopped
1 large stick of celery, chopped
1 medium carrot, sliced
½ tsp fresh ginger root, grated
1 tsp sea salt
Melt the ghee on low heat. Dice and add onion and gently sauté for five minutes. Add mushrooms and leeks and any other vegetables you prefer and sauté again. Add enough boiling water to just cover the contents and let them simmer for 10 minutes. Add salt and serve immediately. Makes two large bowls of soup.
Note: People of pitta and kapha constitution may use potato, spinach and brassicas if they prefer and can also reduce the ghee. Kaphas may like plenty of freshly cracked black pepper on top.
Other helpful strategies
Massage and hot bath
Both help to alleviate vata. Give yourself a full body oil massage each morning after waking and before bathing. Start at the head and work your way down to the feet, massaging the entire body with oil.
Choose soap carefully. The best type is free of perfumes and colours. (Mysoor sandalwood soap from India, for example, can be bought in Indian shops within Australia.) Soaps with perfumes and colours leave the skin very dry and increase vata.
Dry facial skin
Dry facial skin is an indication of excess vata. To moisten the skin on your face you can massage ghee (clarified butter) into it.
Meggan Brummer is a teacher of Art of Living courses, which include yoga, meditation, ancient wisdom and breathing techniques such as SKY (Sudarshan Kriya Yoga). E: email@example.com, W: www.artofliving.org.au