Ayurveda is the ancient Indian holistic medical system, based on achieving physical and mental harmony with nature, which has been practised for more than 5000 years. Ayurveda means "science of life" ("Ayu" meaning life and "Veda" meaning science), and was first recorded in the Vedas the world's oldest surviving literature. Ayurveda is a science which is very close to nature and takes its inspiration from nature itself. Its principles are also based on that of nature and the five basic natural elements. According to Ayurveda everything that we see is composed of these five elements: Space, Air, Fire, Water, Earth. These five elements in turn combine with each other to give rise to three bio-physical forces (or Doshas) Space + Air = Vata, Fire + Water = Pitta, Water + Earth = Kapha.
In this article I would like to write about the Dosha Vata in detail. In my clinic and in my experience as a teacher of Ayurveda and Yoga, I have come across many comments where I have been told that understanding the Dosha’s can be a little confusing. Hence explaining the three Doshas, Vata, Pitta, Kapha will form a firm basis towards understanding many aspects of Ayurveda.
When we talk about the five elements, it is believed that each element is formed from the previous one. That means earth is formed from the element water, water has its roots in fire, fire comes into existence because of air and air is formed due to condensation of space. And space is independent of any element or factor.
• When we look out towards the sky, all that we see is space. It expands into the solar system, the Milky Way etc. There is no limit to space and its existence is infinite. Within this space various particles, atoms and molecules etc exist.
• When these particles are all brought together/condensed, it gives rise to the element air.
• When the air and particles in the air start vibrating at high frequency, this leads to friction and heat. This heat is the fire which is the next element in order.
• When this fire becomes intense, the water molecules in the atmosphere start melting and give rise to liquid water.
• This water when left untouched, forms earth just the way when water is left in the freezer, it becomes ice. Ice is the solid form of liquid water.
Therefore each element gives rise to the next element. These five elements can also be compared to the fingers of your hand.
• Thumb: space
• Index finger: air
• Middle finger: fire
• Ring finger: water
• Small finger: earth.
Without the thumb one is termed as partially handicap as he/she is not able to perform all tasks properly. Likewise, Ayurveda says without space element nothing else can exist as space is the most important element for existence.
• Vata is space and air in combination.
• Vata is also known as the King of all Doshas. Because even for mere existence we require space, therefore for our own existence we require the Dosha Vata.
The three Doshas can be compared to the physiology of the body. The various organ systems and their functioning come under the Ayurvedic Physiology through Vata, Pitta and Kapha.
When we talk of Vata Dosha and how its functions reflect in the body, we bear in mind the two elements space and air. Hence the functions that relate to these two elements become the functions of Vata Dosha.
Without space nothing can exist, likewise without space the body cannot exist. All hollow spaces seen within the body are also governed by the Vata Dosha. Example – spaces in the gastro-intestinal tract, the heart, large arteries, veins, bones etc.
The next element, air, reflects its functions through its principle of movement. Air needs to move around, likewise all functions related to movement become Vata functions in the body.
Examples of such functions are as follows:
• Physical movement itself is Vata Dosha
• Respiratory system which involves air and movement together become a part of Vata Dosha
• The movement of blood and its circulation is governed by Vata Dosha. Here we have to bear in mind that we speak of only the movement of blood and not blood as such
• The way the food moves in the digestive tract once it has been ingested is a Vata Dosha function
• The beating of the heart and the movement of lungs is also controlled by Vata
Vata is Space and Air. Vata lacks fire, water and earth. By this we can conclude that because there is not much fire, Vata is cold. Therefore anything that is cold in the body becomes a Vata function. The most superficial layers of the skin, hair and nails are in principle the coldest parts of the body.
Vata lacks water. By this we mean that it is a dry Dosha. Therefore all things dry will become Vata. Again superficial layers of the skin, hair and nails are dry parts of the body.
Vata lacks earth. This means Vata is light. Anything that is light in the body or makes the body light will become a part of Vata. The bone is a Vata part of the body. When we strip away the muscles, nerves, arteries veins etc surrounding the bone, what remains is a light, fairly dry tissue. Therefore bone and the skeletal system are a part of Vata as they both help towards physical movement
Anything that makes the body light is Vata. In the same light all functions pertaining to elimination in the body, which principally make the body light, are Vata functions. Examples – urination, defecation and even the process of menstrual bleeding come under Vata functions as they are all making the body lighter.
Ayurveda gives immense importance to the five sensory functions. They can also be divided into Vata, Pitta and Kapha sensory organs/functions
Vata sensory functions are:
o Hearing: If one stand in a room which is completely cut off or insulated from the outside world (example two walls with no air between them), he cannot hear anything even if someone played music really loudly on the other side. This means to be able to hear, sound needs to travel through air. Without air there is no sound. Therefore hearing/ears are a part of Vata Dosha.
o Touch: When one feels/touches something for the first time, one can appreciate the sensation e.g., cold, hot, soft, rough etc. But if the hand were to be left in the same place for a long time, one loses the sense of touch. But when the hand is moved again, the sensation comes back. This means that to be able to feel, one needs movement and air. Hence touch as a sensory perception belongs to Vata.
Nervous system is a part of Vata Dosha function in the body. Example – if one were to look out of a window from a room over an open field, he would never know if the wind was blowing or not. But if there was a tree in the middle of the field, one will look at the movement of leaves on the tree and conclude that the wind is strong or gentle. By this we mean that Vata on its own is invisible but always shows its effects on other things. The nervous system works in a similar way. By seeing the contraction of a muscle or blinking of the eyelid, one can infer the proper working of the nervous system.
Mind is an important part of Vata Dosha. As we all know, the one aspect of us that never takes rest is our mind. No matter how relaxed we are, our mind never stops thinking. Hence just like the movement of air, the mind is also always moving/working/functioning.
The important qualities of Vata are:
• Mobile: restless eyes, walking running, travelling, multi tasking, initiating many projects, dreaming excessively, little sleep,
• Cold: cold hands, cold feet, dislike towards cold weather, poor circulation and cold extremities
• Dry: dry skin, dry hair, dry nails, constipation, and tendency towards dry stools, dry joints, dislike towards windy weather
• Light: lean and thin body, light muscles, low body weight
• Rough: rough skin, cracked foot soles or hands, cracking joints
• Subtle: fine muscles, minute twitching, very fine tremors and trembling
• Clear: grasping quickly but forgetting easily
To summarise, some of the bodily functions of Vata Dosha due to the presence of space and air elements are:
• physical movement
• starting activities and processes in the body
• stimulation of Agni (digestive fire)
• excretion and elimination
• conception and development of the embryo
• sensory perception
This forms a short and clear summary of Vata Dosha in the body. In the next column I shall explain Pitta Dosha in detail.
© DR DEEPA APTE
Dr Deepa Apté is a fully qualified Indian medical doctor (Bachelor of Medicine; Bachelor of Surgery, India), a qualified Yoga teacher and an experienced Ayurvedic practitioner. She lectures widely on Ayurveda and Yoga (both in the UK and Germany) and regularly has articles published in the press. After having run successful practices in India and Germany, she now runs her practice from London. She also teaches courses to trained therapists on various treatment techniques in Ayurveda.
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