Earlier this year I interviewed the owner of a salt spa in Boulder for an article published at MileHighMamas.com. When I found out that Dr Nita Desai was both an MD and a Certified Ayurvedic Practitioner, I was intrigued. Over the years I’ve been treated for a lung condition with western medicine and with eastern medicine separately, but I’d never found one person who could see me through both lenses and treat me from such dual knowledge.
The term Ayurveda is taken from the Sanskrit words ayus, meaning life or lifespan, and veda, meaning knowledge. It has been practiced in India for at least 5,000 years and has recently become popular in Western cultures. The basic principle of Ayurveda is to prevent and treat illness by maintaining balance in the body, mind, and consciousness through proper drinking, diet, and lifestyle, as well as herbal remedies.
— Source: University of Maryland Medical Center
My first appointment with Dr Desai was in April (I’ll never forget the date because it was the day before Grandma Marshmallow died). Dr Desai looked over the questionnaires I’d completed and examined me — felt my pulses, looked at my face and tongue, hair and skin, and asked me further questions about my eating and sleeping habits so she could figure out my primary dosha.
Before I explain the doshas, let’s first look at the elements. You are probably familiar with these: Ether, Air, Fire, Water, Earth, in order from least to most dense.
- Vatas, typically ectomorphs, reflect the qualities of Ether and Air. Think wind. In balance, Vatas are a spring breeze. Out of balance, they are a raging hurricane.
- Pittas, typically mesomorphs, reflect the qualities of Fire and Water. Think flame. In balance, Pittas are a warming campfire. Out of balance, a wild and uncontrollable forest fire.
- Kaphas, typically endomorphs, reflect the qualities of Water and Earth. Think where water meets earth. In balance, Kaphas are meandering, gentle streams. Out of balance, they are sludgy swamps.
What are doshas?
Just as everyone has a unique fingerprint, according to Ayurvedic beliefs, each person has a distinct pattern of energy — a specific combination of physical, mental, and emotional characteristics. It is also believed that there are three basic energy types called doshas, present in every person:
- Vata — energy that controls bodily functions associated with motion, including blood circulation, breathing, blinking, and heartbeat. When vata energy is balanced, there is creativity and vitality. Out of balance, vata produces fear and anxiety.
- Pitta — energy that controls the body’s metabolic systems, including digestion, absorption, nutrition, and temperature. In balance, pitta leads to contentment and intelligence. Out of balance, pitta can cause ulcers and arouse anger.
- Kapha — energy that controls growth in the body. It supplies water to all body parts, moisturizes the skin, and maintains the immune system. In balance, kapha is expressed as love and forgiveness. Out of balance, kapha leads to insecurity and envy.
Everyone has vata, pitta, and kapha, but usually 1 or 2 are dominant in a particular person. Many things can disturb the energy balance, such as stress, an unhealthy diet, the weather, and strained family relationships. The disturbance shows up as disease. Ayurvedic practitioners prescribe treatments to bring the doshas back into balance.
— Source: University of Maryland Medical Center
I am a Vata. This means that by nature I am light, dry and cold and not very dense (because Vata is on the weightless, cold and dry end of the element spectrum — Ether and Air). So it makes sense that to balance out my constitution, I crave things that bring me density, moistness and warmth, like sugar and fat, which are calorie-dense and oily.
Yay, sweets and fats!
Previously, I had no problem consuming sweets and fat. The problem was, I had not been choosing good sweets and good fats. With Dr Desai’s guidance, I have (mostly) given up refined sugar, sweetening instead with agave and other whole, natural sweeteners. Dr Desai also switched me from vegetable or canola oil to healthy saturated fats like coconut oil and ghee (clarified butter) and avocados. Olive oil is acceptable, too.
Dr Desai said to stay away from gluten and refined or processed foods. I had never realized how much pre-prepared foods I ate and served until I tried giving them up. Yakisoba bowls from Costco? Frozen raviolis with sauce from a jar? A pan of turkey enchiladas from the grocery store? Previously I had thought these were healthy choices.
Each meal is to include some good protein. Sunflower seed butter is in. As a Vata, though, beans are not easily digestible (airy, remember?). Clean meats make the cut. By “clean,” Dr Desai means animals that aren’t treated with hormones or antibiotics, and she includes grass-fed cattle, free-range chicken, and wild caught, non-colored fish, among other carnivorous offerings. In other words, creatures that eat what THEY are supposed to eat.
And each meal for my type should also include cooked fresh vegetables, steamed or sauteed in some of those good oils and seasoned with spices that are good for balancing Vatas.
I feared I would gain girth with these new dietary instructions. But Dr Desai said as long as I did BOTH parts — staying away from refined foods as well as adding in healthy oils — I would actually become more healthy and thus, find my best weight and girth.
Other parts of my regimen include taking appetite-regulating herbs in warm water before each meal (Vatas are known to skip meals), sipping on naturally sweet herb and spice tea (made from dried cardamom, cinnamon, fennel, licorice, ginger) all day long, and abyanga, or self-massage of the scalp, face, joints, limbs and body with dosha-balancing oils — twice a week.
It took 3 months to conquer my life-long craving of sugar, but I finally did it by my July appointment. In addition, I’ve lost 5 pounds of icky fat. Not that that was the point.
In ayurveda, digestion is fundamental. What and how we eat, how we nourish each cell of our bodies, that is the most important factor in our health. So Dr Desai’s first charge to me was to get my digestion working better.
That few months dramatically changed what I consider food. The thought of putting a slice of Wonder bread into my mouth feels as ridiculous as eating a sponge. And I’d be equally inclined to sip a Diet Co.ke as I would be to sip drain cleaner. These items no longer seem like food to me. I am much more conscious — not only with my mind but also with my body’s visceral reactions to foods — about how I nourish myself.
In July at my second appointment, my pulses and other measures indicated that my digestion was calmer. Now we could begin to work on the next level: my lungs.
To do that, we would have to clear up a lifetime’s worth of ama. The more I know about it, the more I wonder if ama is what really took the life of my mother-in-law (underlying the lung and liver cancer that she battled). More about ama and my lungs in a future post.
In the meantime, if you’d like to determine your primary dosha and get some insight into balancing it, take this quiz. And if your interest is really piqued, find out if the excellent and complete Eat Taste Heal is available at your local library.