I remember many years ago a friend telling me she had started eating two tablespoons of chia seeds each day, an amount that is commonly recommended on many health websites. Chia seeds are very rich in Omega 3 essential fatty acids and have a host of other health benefits.
But according to Ayurveda, my friend is considered very Vata. Vata types tend to be dry overall, inside and outside, and often suffer from constipation. One of the health benefits of chia seeds is helping regulate elimination, but chia seeds soak up water like a sponge and will draw water from the body along the digestive tract (if not soaked beforehand). So, imagine what that does to a person whose colon already tends towards dryness.
On the other hand, someone with a Kapha constitution might not need to worry as much because Kapha types often have an excess of water in their system.
This is a perfect example of why we need to be more in tune with our own body and not just follow the crowd, no matter how health-conscious they are!
And more is not always better, or, as the saying goes, less is more. One of the greatest lessons I learned studying Ayurveda with Maya Tiwari, was to be prudent with the use of herbs. We know how dangerous it is to be taking multiple prescription drugs, but we think nothing of chugging down handfuls of herbal supplements on a daily basis for months, or even years, at a time. Yes, herbs are food, but just like certain foods have contraindications for people, so do herbs, and an easy-does-it approach always works best. Sometimes just a pinch of an herb is more than enough to do the trick.
Ideally, we should only take one or two herbal remedies at a time, and let our body give us signals as to whether or not they are working for us. Three months is a typical amount of time that Ayurvedic practitioners give their patients when recommending herbs. The whole point is to give the body a little jump start back towards balance where it can take over on its own. If nothing else, give your body a mini-rest from supplements/herbs one day a week. And be patient! It can take the body years to find itself in a state of dis-ease and it can take many months to bring it back to good health.
This is a really hard concept for many of us – Vata and Pitta types especially – who tend to pile on new things to try and are impatient for results. A Kapha type, on the other hand, might be more cautious, or inclined not to try anything at all!
I am guilty as charged here. As a Vata-Pitta type, I eagerly take on the role of human guinea pig and will try anything, often getting trapped in a situation where I don’t know what is or what isn’t working because I have too many things going on at once.
Ayurveda is all about balance and one of its most important principles is that of the gunas. The Sanskrit word guna means quality or attribute. (Note: I am not referring here to the three gunas in Yoga known as Sattva, Rajas and Tamas. That is a conversation for another day.)
The twenty gunas in Ayurveda I have listed below are ten pairs of opposite qualities that apply to everything in Nature, including us. They can be applied to the five elements (air, ether, fire, water and earth) the doshas (Vata, Pitta, Kapha), our food and environment, and even our emotions. The gunas are as follows:
- Cold and Hot
- Heavy and Light
- Smooth/Slimy and Rough
- Dull and Sharp/Pungent
- Dense and Liquid
- Oily and Dry
- Static and Mobile
- Soft and Hard
- Gross and Subtle
- Transparent and Opaque
There are actually many more gunas in Ayurveda, but these twenty are the most widely considered.
If you learn nothing else from Ayurveda, reflect upon the gunas. They give us vital clues about the state of our health. By paying close attention to these qualities in how we feel, what we eat, and what environment we’re in, we can target an imbalance and work to change it ourselves.
Here’s an example: Do you eat too many hot, spicy foods? Do you always run hot – in your body and in your emotions? Feel like a pressure cooker sometimes? Chances are your liver is overtaxed and a possible area of weakness in your body. Recognizing this, you can begin to eat more cooling foods, avoid heating foods, stay out of the heat, cool your emotions through meditation, breathing exercises, walking in the moonlight, and even avoiding confrontational situations in the heat of the day.
Does this sound vaguely like I am describing a Pitta-type personality? That is because each dosha has specific gunas which are associated with it.
The gunas of the doshas are:
Vata: cold, dry, light, rough, subtle, mobile, transparent, astringent
Pitta: pungent, hot, slightly oily, liquid, mobile, light, sharp
Kapha: heavy, dull, oily, cold, liquid, smooth/slimy, static, gross, opaque/cloudy
Gunas that are opposite each other will be pacifying to a dosha, while gunas that are close in nature will aggravate the dosha.
The six tastes according to Ayurveda (sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, astringent) also come into play here.
Vata: Bitter, astringent, and pungent tastes will increase Vata and cause an imbalance because they are cooling and drying. Sweet, sour and salty tastes will help pacify Vata and bring it back into balance. Of course I don’t mean candy and potato chips will balance Vata! Sweet, sour and salty healthy foods such as sweet fruits, vegetables and grains, sour pickles and sea salt or seaweed are Vata-pacifying. Worth noting, however, than any food in excess will aggravate Vata dosha. Oh, you have no ideas how much I love potato chips…
Pitta: Pungent, sour and salty tastes will increase Pitta dosha while bitter, sweet and astringent will help pacify Pitta. This is why Pitta types do so well eating a lot of greens (including green juices), which tend to be bitter and astringent.
Kapha: Sour, sweet and salty tastes increase Kapha, while bitter, astringent and pungent decrease Kapha. All spices (except salt), green leafy vegetables and most legumes are some good Kapha food choices.
Remember that less is more and there can always be too much of a good thing. And variety is the spice of life! Don’t get stuck thinking that you have to religiously follow a dosha-specific list to practice Ayurveda.
Just because your constitution is Vata doesn’t mean you can’t ever have popcorn because it’s drying. Eat it occasionally, if you like, with lots of melted ghee or coconut oil on it! Or stay away from it when you’re feeling dehydrated and unbalanced. True Ayurveda is being in tune with your body and mind and giving it what it needs to stay healthy. Of course, this will fluctuate from day to day, season to season, year to year. Be flexible and have fun listening to your body. It really can talk to you!
By the way, my friend didn’t need to stop eating chia seeds altogether. Maybe she was digesting them just fine. Maybe she has enough Pitta or Kapha in her constitution that she doesn’t suffer from typical Vata dryness and constipation. Or perhaps she hydrates herself really well. Maybe she could start out with a 1/2 tsp. of chia seeds and see how her body handles them. Soaking chia seeds in water first is crucial – it allows them to absorb the water before they enter your system so there’s less chance of added dehydration.
The lesson here is to start out slow, using less and pay close attention to how your body is reacting to a new food, herb, or even environment. Let me know how you do!