Part two of Shann and Ananga's discussion on how Ayurveda, India's ancient and natural science of life, can help us understand and soothe anxiety. (You can read part one here.)
Shann: Ayurveda is a very ancient body of knowledge. So how does something that is so old relate to the anxiety and the stress that people get themselves into today?
Ananga: That’s a very good question. Because Ayurveda is based on timeless principles, which are based on the understanding and observation of all nature. So even in Ayurveda, you will find descriptions of very modern diseases, like Parkinson’s disease, which is called kampa vata in Ayurveda. In Ayurveda, everything is given a name according to its dosha – there are three doshas, vata, pitta, kapha – which I know not everyone are familiar with, so we’ll try to keep this simple.
Just think of everything around us as composed of five main elements – earth, water, fire, air, and ether – in various degrees. So if you’re looking at fire, it’s almost 100% fire – it’s got some gases and other stuff going on, but the main bulk of it is fire. That’s really obvious. If you’re looking at clay, you’ve got two elements, earth and water, bound together. So you can see that as these ingredients – that manifest everything in the universe – interact, they give different flavors to each other. When you look at a flower, the color in the flower comes from fire. The scent of a flower comes from the earth. So everything’s got these properties bound up in them. So that means the herbs that we’re using, the food that we’re eating, and you and I, we’ve all got our different – how can I call it?
Ananga: Yes, different compositions – thank you – and different proportions of those ingredients within us. So that’s how you get different, individual body types. So it doesn’t really matter whether you’ve got a modern disease – something like anxiety, or we’re seeing increasing examples of senility, ADD, Alzheimer’s – these all appear to be increasingly common modern illnesses. But all of these illnesses, according to Ayurveda, have something in common, which is that they all come from disturbance of vata dosha.
So going back to what we said earlier
about anxiety being caused by too much mental stimulus and us slipping out of balance and becoming ungrounded, many modern diseases that we’re seeing now, particularly those that are affecting the mind, come from the same root. So there’s a common understanding there with how everything works, and it doesn’t matter if it’s five thousand years ago or today, or ten thousand years into the future. It’s all to do with how we’re living, and how we’re interacting with our food, with our environment, with the people around us, with our own personal routine, and our own sense of self-care. That’s where the understanding of all disease comes from.
Shann: Fascinating. Most people have heard about the vata-pitta-kapha constitutions and qualities of ayurveda, or as you called them the doshas. Is there one particular dosha, or type, that is more likely to suffer from anxiety than another?
Ananga: There is, and that would be vata. Somebody who is, by nature, of a higher vata constitution is more likely to be inclined to suffer from anxiety. And that doesn’t mean that those of us who have a lower vata component aren’t – anyone can become vata-disturbed. You can have somebody who’s pitta or kapha and also suffer from anxiety. But they will naturally have a greater buffer, just by dint of their constitution, between anxiety developing in them or not.
It’s interesting – recently I heard someone describe their family as naturally skinny and prone to anxiety. To anybody who understands Ayurveda, that’s a giveaway that they have a higher vata constitution. And then I heard them make a very interesting comment, which was that when the women in the family were pregnant, they suffered less from anxiety.
Ananga: According to ayurveda, pregnancy is a kapha condition. Kapha is the dosha that gives nourishment to the body, to the nervous system. It’s the dosha that builds tissues. It’s the dosha of stability, groundedness, loyalty, love, support. So you can understand that when the body goes into a pregnant condition, where it’s lovingly creating another body, then the buffer from suffering from anxiety increases.
Shann: That’s interesting.
Ananga: Yeah. So although a person with a higher vata constitution may be predisposed to suffer from anxiety, it doesn’t mean that there’s nothing they can do about it. The thing about ayurveda is to understand what you’ve got to work with and see how you can support yourself. So logically enough, if we understand that pregnancy, being a kapha condition, placates feelings of anxiety, then somebody who’s suffering from anxiety needs to bring those kapha elements into their life. And that you can do with diet and lifestyle habits and a supportive routine.
Shann: Can you tell me a bit about the properties that make up the vata, pitta and kapha doshas?
Ananga: Sure. Vata is composed of air and ether, so it’s the most subtle. The properties of vata are that it’s unstable, it’s moving, it’s light. If you want to have a good idea of how to understand vata, it’s useful to think of a flag or laundry flapping in the wind. It’s moved around very easily. It’s easily-agitated, dry, rough and cold. Vata is a combination of air and ether which makes it light and subtle. In the body, vata governs all movement, blood flow, nerve impulses, breathing, co-ordination of the senses and the flow of thought and emotions.
Pitta is a blend of fire and water. It’s hot, sharp, penetrating, oily, liquid and flowing – those are the qualities of pitta. In the body, pitta governs digestion and metabolism, the blood, visual perception, heat, hunger, and your complexion.
Kapha is a blend of earth and water, so kapha is easy to understand if you think of it like clay – what you get if you mix those two elements together. Kapha is cold, it’s heavy, dull, stable, slimy, and non-moving. In the body, kapha governs structure, building, strength, lubrication, fat, cushioning, reproduction
Those are the elemental expressions that you see within the doshas.
When it comes to understanding anxiety, an anxious person benefits from balancing the dryness of vata with the oiliness of kapha. Because the doshas act as opposites to each other. Vata and kapha are in direct opposition to each other; they’re completely opposite. They only share cold. Apart from that they’re completely different. And then pitta, being a very dynamic and transformative dosha, is in the middle saying, “Come on guys – let’s make a body!” Pitta is pulling the other two together and trying to get things working in the body.
So we all have all three of the doshas within us. We tend to have more of one or two than the other and that defines our “type”, but they all have positive functions within the body.
Pitta governs our metabolism - it’s involved in our blood and our digestion. In the mind it’s intelligent, it’s sharp, it’s witty. When it goes out of balance it can be a bit too sharp, and a bit sarcastic. If ti goes further out of balance, it gives rise to irritability and anger. But balanced pitta gives a very intelligent mind, a wonderful intelligence with clear perception and it makes good choices. Vata in the mind is very creative, and it has mental lightness. But again, because of the propensity of vata to be disturbed by movement and things going on around it, it can easily become unbalanced and start manifesting anxiety. The kapha mind is loyal and stable and loving, but if kapha increases too much, it becomes lazy, nostalgic, and gets itself stuck.
There's great information to be found within the properties of the dosha that gives you real insight into how your body and mind are working, and how you’re relating to what’s going on around you.
Shann: Oh, that’s most interesting. I look forward to learning more about Ayurveda for sure, during my yoga training we spent a day talking about the doshas and figuring out where we might fall, through answering some questions, to be able to say, “I am pitta-vata”, or “I am kapha-pitta”. And what I found – is that I was equally pitta-kapha at the time that I took that test, and I thought that that was interesting. And I actually had a high level of vata as well. And I remember my yoga instructor talking about how that really wasn’t that unusual, that there are a lot of people who have even – and that it’s actually a good thing to have the three close in relationship, if you’re taking a test and adding up your answers, with levels that are close to the same. Did you want to speak to that at all?
Ananga: Yeah, sure. It’s an interesting point you raise, because the rule of thumb with Ayurveda is that like increases like – not what you like, but like as in similarity. So the tendency for the doshas is for them to increase and accumulate, and that’s what causes imbalance. If somebody has two doshas that stand out front rather than one that's way more obvious than the others, then they’re going to be having a more rounded experience of life. For example, since we’re focusing on anxiety here, if somebody’s already showing high vata in their constitution then anything that they contact that is of the same nature as vata will quickly increase their vata.
So if we understand that vata has these properties of cold and roughness and movement, if somebody’s traveling a lot, and they’re moving around all the time, that disturbs vata. If somebody’s wearing rough clothes and sleeping on a rough surface, that increases vata. But also, if somebody’s having roughness in their relationships, that increases and disturbs vata. So you can start to really apply these understandings very broadly in your life. When you apply these things to emotional areas in your life, you can see the results when you change. If a vata person’s having rough dealings in their relationship, it’s not that we’re just using that word in a casual, blanket way. It will affect them. And if they’re able to make their dealings smoother, then they will feel the benefit of that.
It’s very important to choose your environment and your association, your sources of leisure and entertainment very carefully. The tendency is, when somebody’s anxious, they want to get away from their anxious thoughts, so they’re going to click on the TV or go to a movie or do something that they call “getting out of their head”. But unfortunately, many of those choices involve getting more stimulus into your head. So your mind’s distracted by it, but it’s also disturbed by it. It’s not actually getting to the root of the problem at all. The answer is to try to start applying gentle opposites. There are some really simple lifestyle adjustments you can make that are going to start bringing anxiety back under control, and give a greater buffer between somebody suffering from anxiety and the outside world.
When anxiety happens in the nervous system, it leaves us feeling very exposed, very unprotected and vulnerable, which is an awful feeling. Just simply by oiling the skin with some sesame oil, or massaging the soles of the feet with sesame oil before you take rest at night – that simple act alone provides protection, because you’re providing lubrication and warmth to the skin. It's the simplest thing, but if you understand the underlying principles of Ayurveda, you can say, “Okay, if vata and anxiety are driven by coldness and roughness, then yeah, massaging some oil into the skin could really help with that.” But if you don’t understand the underlying science behind Ayurveda, you might just think it’s a platitude and it can sound like a worthless piece of advice. But actually it’s based on this science of applying gentle opposites to bring balance.
It’s exactly the same as when you mentioned ginger – everybody knows ginger’s good for a cold. Why is it good for a cold? Because it’s hot, it’s pungent, it’s penetrating. It’s the opposite of the properties of cold. That’s why it works.
photo by kakki**
Further reading on Ayurveda...
Part one of this Interview series: Ayurveda and Anxiety Relief
Increasing Health & Happiness with Ayurveda - Part 1 Fresh & Vital
Increasing Health & Happiness with Ayurveda - Part 2 Body Basics
Increasing Health & Happiness with Ayurveda - Part 3 Principle Power
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