Although we have more in common biologically than we do different, each of us carries a unique elemental makeup that determines the mental, physical, emotional, and energetic qualities of the body. Some of us may be naturally high in energy with high metabolisms, and possibly strong digestive systems, while others may naturally carry a lower level of energy with a slow metabolism and/ or a sensitive digestive system. Some of us may have curvy and voluptuous body types, while others may have a hard time putting on weight. There is so much variability within each of our constitutions that makes each of us uniquely ourselves and what makes life so diverse and beautiful!
Because of this variability, THERE IS NO ONE SIZE FITS ALL WHEN IT COMES TO DIET! What is nourishing and vitalizing for one system may create heaviness and inertia to another. Even within each of our unique makeups, there is variability. We are cyclical beings that are constantly in a flux of change. We ebb and flow with the seasons of Mama Earth, the astral location of Earth relative to the rest of the solar system, the cycles of the moon, our menstrual cycles, all have an affect on our how our mind and body function at a particular time. While there is no body type that is superior than the other, understanding your unique makeup and what it requires to stay in balance will aid you in choosing a nutritional path that is right for you. The most all encompassing and inclusive system that I have found to date is Ayurveda.
What is Ayurveda?
Ayurveda is an ancient health and medicine system that has been practiced for over five thousand years in India. Ayurveda is a Sanskrit word that roughly translates to the science or knowledge of life. One of the fundamental beliefs in Ayurveda is that everything in our bodies and all of nature is made up of 5 main elements: earth, water, fire, air and ether. Each of these elements carry different qualities as they manifest in our bodies, in nature, and the seasons of the year.
General Qualities of the Five Elements (listed from most dense to most subtle)
~Earth (Prithvi) is dense, heavy, moist, cool and static.
~Water (Apas) is moist, cool, fluid, mobile and heavy.
~Fire (Agni) is hot, light, sharp, mobile, and intense.
~Air (Vayu) is dry, light, cool, mobile and unstable.
~Ether/Space (Akasha) is dry, light, cool, mobile, and subtle.
In the most general sense, Ayurveda seeks to create balance of these elements as they exist within our bodies and the world around us. Recognizing humans not as separate from but part of a vast, complex, and interconnected whole. In essence, Ayurveda is the practice of alchemizing or working in opposition to any elemental excess in our constitution through diet and lifestyle to bring our system back into balance. We also introduce opposite quality and action to counter seasonal shifts and our natural environment.
Within the human body, the 5 elements manifest on a physical and mental level. Each person carrying a unique combination of elements, with certain elements more predominant than others. These combinations are organized into three basic constitutional types, known as Doshas, which roughly translates from Sanskrit as 'most likely to go out of balance.'
By understanding how the elements manifest in ourselves and nature, we are better able to respond to any excess or imbalances in the system to maximize our full potential as an individual and the collective. There are many different tests that you can take online to help determine your type. Here is one of my favorites from The Chopra Center. Take this short quiz and then proceed to the rest of the blog to learn more about your specific type. When taking the quiz, it is important to answer based on how you have been for the majority of your life, rather than just at this moment in your life.
Vata (space and air)
Function: Influences the movement of energy in the body including circulation, respiration, elimination, and release of emotions.
Physical Qualities: Vata types tend to be thin and long, have dry skin and hair, have joints that crack easily, as well as sensitive digestive systems.
Mental Qualities: Free spirited, social, enthusiastic, creative, and visionary thinkers. They have the least stamina of all the Doshas, so will need to protect their energy and time closely.
Time of Day: 2:00-6:00 AM and 2:00-6:00 PM. This means that Vata qualities are increased during these times, so the practice will be to focus on activities that pacify Vata.
Season: Fall and early winter, a time year when the weather is cold and windy, just like the Vata type characteristics. All Doshas should focus their diet and activities on those that pacify Vata during this time.
Imbalances: Vata types tend to become very passionate very quickly about many different things at once. Because of this, they often loose their energy and stamina quickly, often resulting in incomplete projects and tasks. When Vata is aggravated, it can manifest as gas, bloating and constipation. Mentally, is can show up as heightened fear, anxiety, worry, scattered thoughts, and dramatic mood swings. Excess can also result in insomnia, lowered immunity
Balancing tools for Vata: Structure and routine (as much as they dislike it). Go to bed and wake up at the same time every day. Slow down, ground energy, allow plenty of time to rest. Sit quietly for meals, and take time chewing. Relaxing and mindful activities such as slower paced yoga, grounding meditations, yoga nidra, and deep belly breathing or Bhramaree Breath. Warm epsom salt baths. Give Self massage at end of night with sesame oil to improve circulation and digestion. Diffuse calming and grounding essential oils such as lavender, vanilla, sandalwood, rose and cedar wood.
Foods to Balance Vata: Eat foods that are cooked (starts the digestion process), moist, oily, and easy to digest. Moderate food and beverages that are cold, raw (salads) or drying. Integrate warming and digestive spices such as ginger, turmeric, cinnamon, and cardamon into teas and cooking. Avoid caffeine and consider nervine and adaptogenic herbs that reduce stress and calm the nervous system such as ashwaganda, lemon balm, valerian, rhodiola, and cordyceps.
~Pitta (fire and water)
Function: Processing the metabolic system. Digestion and transformation of food into energy.
Physical Qualities: medium build, fairly muscular, and naturally athletic. They tend to have red accents (think the color of fire), red hair, red or blushed skin, or get flushed skin easily. They often have strong digestive systems, and long lasting energy
Mental Qualities: Organized, detail oriented, highly focused and motivated, ambitious, courageous, confident, logical, and strong willed.
Time of Day: 10:00 AM- 2:00 PM and 10:00 PM-2 AM. This means that Pitta qualities are increased during these times, so the practice will be to focus on activities that pacify Pitta.
Season: Late Spring to Summer. The warmer time of the year associated with Pitta characteristics. All Doshas should focus their diet and activities on those which pacify Pitta during this time.
Imbalances: fiery, tend to become easily angered or irritated. Have a tendency to become overly competitive, controlling, aggressive, narcissistic, or have unreasonable expectations of others with excess. Excess bile in system can lead to hyper acidity, high blood pressure, and ulcers. Because of the predominant heat, Pitta types are susceptible to rashes, eczema, breakouts, inflammation and infection of the skin
Balancing tools for Pitta: Calming and cooling activities and food. Bring element of water into routine. Avoid competitive sports in afternoon. Implement cooling yoga practices that focus on surrender. Calming breathwork such as Anuloma Viloma. Wind down at night with light hearted activities to alleviate self created pressure. Self massage with cooling oils such as coconut oil, sunflower, or olive oil. Diffuse cooling and calming essential oils such as lavender, peppermint, and sandalwood.
Foods that balance Pitta: Because Pittas have strong digestive systems, they have little issues digesting food. Can incorporate raw food into diet. Balance the heat in the system with cooling foods such as melon, cucumber, coconut and peppermint. Moderate spicy and hot foods, salt, and fermented foods (already have an excess of bile).
~Kapha (earth and water)
Function: Form and lubricate the body's structure
Physical Qualities: Kapha types typically have shorter and thicker bone structure, and curvy or round body figure. They tend to have large, beautiful eyes, as well as soft, well moisturized hair and skin. They tend to have slower, longer lasting energy
Mental Qualities: They are often naturally loving, supportive, nurturing, grounded, and maintain relationships.
Season: Late Winter to Early Spring. The time of year when the temperatures are colder and life more dormant. All Doshas should focus their diet and activities on those which pacify Kapha during this time.
Time of Day: 6:00- 10:00 AM and 6:00-10:00 PM. This means that Kapha qualities are increased during these times, so the practice will be to focus on activities that pacify Kapha.
Imbalances: When Kapha is out of balance, it can lead to attachment, greed, possessiveness, stubbornness, depression, lethargy, high cholesterol and obesity. Because of Kapha's phlegmatic function to lubricate the system, they are susceptible to congestive disorders such a lung and sinus inflections, colds, and clogging of the arteries.
Balancing tools for Kapha: Energizing and warming activities and food. Wake up before 6 AM. Meditate on upper chakras and drawing energy upwards. Daily, vigorous exercise that creates heat in the body, as well as active and warming breathwork, such as Kapalbhati, to burn excess earth. Massage belly with stimulating oils such as warm mustard seed oil.
Foods that balance Kapha: Should implement foods that are drying, warming and invigorating such as ginger, cinnamon, clove and anise. Avoid mucous forming foods such as sugar, bananas, dairy, and deep fried foods. Moderate portions when eating and wait 10 minutes after a meal before getting seconds. Avoid naps during the day and sleeping in.
Think of the Ayurveda principles not as something that limits you from consuming the food and beverage that you love the most, but rather as a guide to bring you back into balance whenever you feel your health and energy levels become low. We are all going to have our own personal cheat days that satiate our naughtiest cravings. Some research has found that foods that bring us joy and satisfaction, despite any health factors, release the happy hormones, serotonin and dopamine in the body in the body which actually can improve our health in moderated doses. The idea here is not to get addicted to the sugar/ salt high, or the happy response in the system but rather balance those temporary satisfactions with that which you know will harmonize your whole being.