According to Ayurveda, there is a direct relationship between the elements that make up the natural universe–earth, water, fire, air and space–and the human body. Therefore, it is important to know about the basic constituents and principles of a well-functioning body and the physiological aspects of Ayurveda.
Concept of doshas-dhatus-malas
In our bodies there are certain activities that are going on constantly, both structurally and functionally, from the gross outer level to the most minute internal tissue and cellular level. These activities can be divided into three groups:
Doshas–The three doshas, which are biological forces, are the factors that constitute the body and are responsible for its substance and its functions. They are active in all vital bodily functions such as respiration, digestion, excretion, formation of new structures and movement. They are composed of the same elements as the universe: space and air (vata dosha), fire and water (pitta dosha), and earth and water (kapha dosha). The doshas are not visible like blood or skin, but their presence is felt through their activities. They tend not to grow as the body grows; nor are they excreted as waste. They are, however, functional in the body from birth to death, and are the source of its constitutional and physiological energy.
Dhatus–The dhatus are the seven basic tissues of the body, which tend to grow as the body grows. Tissues are groups of cells having similar structure and function. These are: rasa dhatu (plasma), rakta (blood), mamsa (muscle), meda (fat), asthi (bone), majja (nerve tissue and bone marrow) and shukra (reproductive tissue). The dhatus build up and maintain the body structures.
Malas–Malas are those substances which form excretory waste products: fecal matter, urine and sweat. Formed continuously as the result of metabolic activity in the body, malas clean the body as they are thrown off or eliminated.
When doshas, dhatus and malas are in equilibrium, health and contentment are the result. When imbalances and disturbances occur, disease and its symptoms result.
The essence of Vata dosha
The three doshas are seen as pillars of body physiology. Ayurveda considers them critical in the treatment of disease. This article will address only the Vata dosha, the primary biological force and the motivating power behind the other two doshas, which are incapable of movement without it.
Vata dosha is an invisible force, or energy, formed by the combination of space and air. This dosha possesses all the properties of air, such as force, vacuum, dryness, coldness, lightness, wind and dehydration. It is active in bodily movements: contraction and relaxation of muscles, blinking, breathing and the internal transportation and flow of substances such as blood, lymph, sweat, urine, nutrients and other fluids.
Vata also relates to the energy that is produced as the result of digestion. The quality and quantity depends on the amount and type of food that are eaten. People who are malnourished or fasting have diminished body activities as their vata energy is lessened. Conversely, people who do hard physical work or play sports require and consume more food, increasing their vata. Seated in the pelvis and in the colon, the vata dosha generates vata energy to all other body parts.
Five types of vata
Vata energy is divided into five types called vayus, which means air or wind: prana, udan, uyan, saman and apan.
Prana vayu functions in the head, neck and chest region, and the direction of its action is from the atmosphere to the inside of the body. It carries out functions of the sensory organs in the head and acts as a receptor of all external stimuli. Some of the functions of prana vayu are inspiration (inhaling during breathing, which helps in purifying the blood); taking in food and water; receiving impressions through the senses of smell, sound, taste and vision; interpreting these impressions and coordinating reactions to them; mental activities and grasping of knowledge. Prana vayu also keeps the consciousness intact.
Udan vayu, also located in the head, neck and chest, acts in the opposite direction of prana vayu. Its direction is upward and outward, enabling the body to vomit, spit and throw off substances such as carbon dioxide and water during expiration. It also allows us to express ourselves through talking, singing, whistling, etc.; to show emotions through laughter or tears; and to perform actions such as sneezing and blowing.
Vyan vayu functions at the chest and heart region. It acts like a pacemaker, controlling the activity of the heart, and is the initiator of all actions and movements everywhere in the body. Vyan vayu is responsible for circulation of substances in the body to activate muscular movements and to initiate mental activities.
Saman vayu is present in the area of the abdomen, where digestion takes place. Its main function is to ignite the digestive fire and activate the process of digestion by creating peristalsis in intestinal movements. It also helps in the separation and absorption of digested food and carries excretory wastes to the large intestine.
Apan vayu is the primary vayu present at the main seat of vata, in the colon. Its functions are seen in the excretory organs for defecation, in the kidneys and urinary systems, and in the area of reproductive organs. It activates and mobilizes sperm, enables performance of sexual activities, and is central to ovulation, menstruation and the process of childbirth.
When balanced, these five vayus carry out the normal functions of the vata dosha. Certain factors, such as food, lifestyle, climatic conditions and the mind, however, can create changes and imbalances in the dosha. Those factors that are similar to its properties aggravate or excite the dosha; those opposite to its properties calm it down. Imbalances create major adverse effects in body functions, leading to chronic, incurable diseases. Furthermore, vata diseases are difficult to cure because of the unstable nature of vata.
Foods that aggravate vata are dry, dehydrated foods or gas-producing foods such as raw salads, potatoes, cauliflower, broccoli, potato chips, biscuits, crackers, beans (red and kidney), chick peas, and cold, fizzy drinks. Lifestyle factors include living in a cold, rainy, windy climate and overexertion from too much work or strenuous sports like weight-lifting, which can cause extensive wear and tear on the body tissues. Suppression of natural urges, such as urinating or coughing, and mental factors, such as suppressing or over-expressing emotions, also lead to imbalance of vata.
Effects of vata imbalance
Ayurveda considers vata to be the energy of drive, force, motion, direction and action; therefore, that interferes with its movement and direction will excite or aggravate it–either locally or throughout the body–creating destructive and degenerative changes in the tissues. One of the symptoms of unbalanced vata is dry, rough skin with a dark or cracked appearance. Other signs include poor circulation, constipation, difficulty in breathing (asthma), joint pains, stiffness, restricted movement, swelling, burping, flatulence, abdominal gassy distension, negative thoughts, loss of concentration or memory, disturbed sleep, desire for warm foods, instability of mind and body, indecisive attitude, cracking of joints, tremors, tantrums, or emaciation.
Unless diagnosed in a timely manner and treated to remove the causative factors, vata imbalances can lead to chronic disease. Some disorders are in this category are arthritis, asthma, indigestion, excessive gas, heart disorders, infertility, constipation, and nerve problems such as paralysis, Parkinson's, etc.
Treatments for vata disorders include remedies, diet and lifestyle factors that have the opposite properties of vata. Some of these are warmth, heat, oily fluids, lubricants such as ghee, and spices with warming properties like ginger and black pepper.
Article written by Aparna Bapat, B.A.M.S. (Bachelor of Ayurvedic Medicine and Surgery). She is a senior faculty member and Academic Dean at the Sai Ayurvedic College and Ayurvedic Wellness Center. She has been a dedicated international Ayurvedic Specialist (Vaidya), consultant, and educator since 1990 and is a member of the Board of Directors, National Ayurvedic Medical Association (NAMA). She studied Ayurvedic medicine at the University of Pune, faculty of Ayurvedic Medicine & Surgery. She was a Senior Lecturer at the College of Ayurveda in London, U.K. Dr. Bapat is the author of numerous articles on Ayurvedic medicine and related themes, has made multiple television appearances, and is one of the premiere lecturers, scholars and practitioners of Ayurveda in the West today. Dr. Bapat specializes in pulse diagnosis, detoxifying therapies, Ayurvedic medicines and treatments, and yoga. She does consultations, treatments and conducts Ayurvedic cooking classes.