Ayurveda and Weight Loss Part 1: The Doshas and Weight Gain - Getting to the Root Cause
Ayurveda and Weight Loss
Part 1: The Doshas and Weight Gain - Getting to the Root Cause
Before we jump into the subject of ayurveda and weight loss from an Ayurvedic perspective, it’s important to understand how the 3 doshas operate in the mind and body in order to grasp how they affect weight gain and weight loss and then, of course, how we use Ayurvedic principles to correct the imbalance. In case you’re brand new to Ayurveda, the doshas are the three governing forces in Ayurveda that determine our physical traits, our personality traits, our emotional and psychological tendencies, and what type of diet, lifestyle, and environment is best for us. There are three doshas: vata, pitta, and kapha. The doshas are made of the 5 elements, and you can find a short video on my website about the 5 elements. The link to that video is in this slide right here, and it’s also in the comments. I would check that out when you can to learn a little more about the foundational principles of Ayurvedic medicine.
First and most importantly, let’s talk about Vata’s role in Ayurveda and in weight gain and weight loss.
Vata is made of the elements of air and ether. Air is the element that governs all movement in nature, in our bodies, and in our minds. Ether is the container for all the elements; it’s the space around us and through which we connect to others. I like to help people understand ether by mentioning that it tends to deteriorate the other elements when it increases and that it increases in our bodies and minds as we age. That’s why our hair, our skin, and our bones become thinner into old age and also why our minds often become more unstable as we age. So vata, by nature, is cold and dry (like air and space), mobile (like air), and also unstable (like the ever-changing air and the diminishing quality of space, or ether).
If someone has a lot of vata in, what Ayurveda calls, their “constitution” (the unique combination of the doshas with which they were conceived), they will naturally have thinner bones, thinner skin, and smaller features. They also will have a greater tendency to be unstable in their ability to complete projects, stay on course, remain still for long periods of time, or even to focus on one thing at a time. When severely out of balance, people with a great deal of vata dosha will experience greater tendency for fear, worry, and anxiety. Someone who has been working on balancing the vata in their constitution might overcome some or all of these challenges, but these will, most likely, always be tendencies for them.
These individuals, who naturally have a lot of vata dosha in their constitutions, often have a harder time gaining weight due to the variable nature of air and the diminishing quality of ether; their digestion tends to be variable, which makes it harder to absorb nutrients, and therefore, harder to produce tissue (fat, muscle, bone, etc.) from the food they eat. To help balance those individuals with a lot of vata in their consitution, Ayurveda prescribes a very nourishing and grounding diet with lots of fats, oils, nuts, root vegetables, grains, and even some meat and dairy to help them build tissue, AND Ayurveda prescribes lots of spices (think ginger, cumin, cinnamon, asafoetida/hing, basil, thyme, fennel, etc.) to help them digest, break down, and absorb the nutrients from these heavier foods from which they can then produce healthy tissue. To help balance their minds and allow them to focus, Ayurveda prescribes routine in and around their meals, their waking and sleeping times, and their daily habits and work schedule. Ayurveda asks that they slow down, breathe, and bring their consciousness back into their bodies and out of the “ether,” so to speak
Now, maybe you’re thinking, why is Meghan telling me about people who have a hard time gaining weight? What does this have to do with weight loss? Well, stay with me; we’re going there in just a moment.
So next, let me tell you about pitta and kapha doshas. Pitta dosha is made of the element of fire and a little bit of water element. You can think of the water as something that has to exist to contain the fire, like the mucous membranes that line our digestive tracts and protect us from the hydrochloric acid and digestive enzymes secreted by the digestive organs to break down our foods. You can think of the fire element as any metabolic or transformative process in the body, like the breaking down of our food into absorbable nutrients and the creation of healthy bodily tissue from those particles; in the mind, you can think of fire as the transformation of sensory input into concepts, ideas, and even wisdom.
Pitta, by nature, is hot due to the fire element, a bit oily due to the water element, and also a bit mobile and unstable, due to the constant movement of fire. If someone has a lot of pitta in their Ayurvedic constitution, they will have moderate features, moderate bones, moderate skin…that fire transforms their food into tissues and then burns off the rest. It is very efficient. People with a great deal of pitta are able to be pretty moderate and focused in their studies, their projects, and in their work; they also tend to be passionate in their relationships. They have a great ability to focus, lead, and get the job done. When they are out of balance, however, this focus can turn into intensity, and their clear, sharp minds can become critical, judgmental, and angry. Again, someone with a great deal of pitta can overcome these challenges, but they will always have tendencies toward these imbalances.
Pitta people tend to be able to maintain their weight fairly easily due to the efficient nature of their metabolism and the strong nature of their digestion. Certainly, if pitta overloads the digestive tract, there can be weight gain, but as soon as they put their mind to it or get back to a balanced way of eating, they will usually have an easy time dropping excess weight. In fact, if pitta gets too intense or out of balance, that fire can turn into a conflagration, causing weight loss as it burns up the tissues of the body. Eventually, that fire will dry out all the water element containing it, creating dryness that looks like vata. That fire might even completely burn itself out, just like it does in nature, leaving a cold, dry environment, again looking like a vata imbalance. This is important to note in that it is one way the doshas can “trick” us. What looks like a vata imbalance, has actually resulted from a pitta imbalance. Keep this in mind for later…
When pitta is out of balance, we ask them to do similar grounding practices that we ask of vata; we also want to give them heavier, nourishing foods, but we don’t give them the heating spices that we give vata; we focus on more cooling herbs like cilantro, coriander, chamomile, and mint. We ask them to lighten up and take life a little less seriously by bringing some play and fun into their day. We might even ask them to loosen up in their daily schedules, work less, lower their intensity level, and laugh more.
Stay with me; we’re getting close to bringing ayurveda and weight loss all together for you.
Finally, we have kapha. Kapha dosha is made of earth and water, the heaviest of the five, Ayurvedic elements. Earth represents all the structures in nature, in the body (bodily tissues), and stability in the mind. Water represents anything with innate moisture in the body (bodily fluids) as well as flow in the mind.
If someone has a lot of kapha in their constitution, they will tend to have thicker tissues—bones, skin, hair—and bigger features—eyes, lips, nose, etc. They might also have more innate moisture in their body, producing more sweat, more mucous, and even more breast milk and menstrual fluids in women. Due to the abundance of earth and water in their constitution, kapha people are more easy-going and do things a bit more slowly than vata and kapha. They tend to be a bit slower in making decisions, completing projects, and even moving around in the physical world. While their mind moves a bit more slowly sometimes, they retain information very well, and they are dependable. Think tortoise over hare here. You can imagine, then, kapha digestion tends to be a bit slow as well, so it’s important for them to avoid overloading the digestive system by keeping portions a bit smaller and maybe even fasting sometimes to increase the ether or space in their system so they can move a bit more (more air) and increase their metabolism (more fire).
When kapha is out of balance, weight gain, lethargy, and lack of motivation (being “stuck” in the mud…which is what happens when earth and water combine, right?). They might even be really resistant to change, or stubborn and set in their ways. So, to balance kapha back out, we want them to do all the things modern diet culture tells us to do to lose weight: reduce our portion sizes, eat a plant-based diet and limit carbohydrates, move more to sweat, eat spicy foods that increase the metabolism, and sit less. We also want them to get out of their comfort zone and try something new; kapha tends to be very attached to a routine, so we will ask them to change it up and vary their day-to-day schedules. We might also ask them to let go of their attachments to possessions or even relationships no longer serving them in the hope that their bodies will follow, letting go of excess weight no longer serving them.
All right, so we’ve established that weight gain, therefore, is a kapha imbalance. Now, you might already be asking important questions, like, “I really identify with vata, but I consider myself overweight. So which am I? Kapha or vata?” Great question! That’s where we need to differentiate your nature with your imbalance.
Your Ayurvedic constitution is also called your “prakruti;” it’s the unique combination of the doshas with which you were conceived. Think of it as the expression of the elements through your genes. So if you have a lot of vata in your original constitution, or prakruti, you’ll always have tendencies toward “all the vata things,” like anxiety, worry, fear, inability to focus, variable digestion, dryness, etc.
These symptoms could also be considered your “vikruti,” which, in a nutshell, means your current imbalance. What are you working with right now? For someone with a lot of vata, that’s usually what I mentioned before: anxiety, constipation, gas and bloating after meals, dry skin, etc. For someone with a lot of pitta in their original constitution, or prakruti, their imbalances might look like anger, criticism, work-aholism, burning digestion, diarrhea, skin rashes, etc. For someone with a lot of kapha in their original constitution, their imbalances, or vikruti, will usually look like lethargy, sleepiness after meals, slow digestion, mucous in their stool, swelling/edema, metabolic issues, etc. Any constitution, or prakruti, could, however, have an imbalance, or vikruti, in any (or even all three) of the doshas. So could you be largely vata in your prakruti, but have a kapha imbalance, or vikruti, like weight gain? Absolutely.
One of the beautiful things about Ayurveda (one of the really important take-home messages I want to bring to you today) is that Ayurveda seeks to pinpoint the ROOT CAUSE of our imbalances. And this is important when we talk about weight gain in that I rarely see a kapha constitution come to me, needing or wanting to lose weight. Why, you ask? Well, I think kapha people have kind of figured out how to balance out their issues. They’re just not that hungry most of the time, and if they eat too much, they really pay the price. They’re also not always the most interested in change. I, therefore, see a great deal of vata and pitta constitutions coming to work on weight loss. They don’t like the current state of affairs in their bodies, and they want it to change…and fast! But here’s the kicker: this mentality (“I’m uncomfortable, and I want change now!”) is what caused the weight gain in the first place.
And now the big reveal…drumroll please…
YOUR VATA AND/OR PITTA IMBALANCE CAN CAUSE THE KAPHA IMBALANCE, OR WEIGHT GAIN.
Is your mind blown? OK, maybe not, but I think it’s really interesting to think that moving too much, doing too much, and overloading our senses caused our bodies to get bigger. So let’s make sense of that from an Ayurvedic perspective.
How does this type of weight gain work? It’s helpful to recall that vata is made of air (movement) and ether (space). It’s also helpful to note that any time we change, vata increases. Think of the nature of change: there’s movement from one thing to another (air element), AND you have to give up one thing for another (that creates a space, or void…or ether element). Even change that is considered “good,” like marriage, forces you to give up some freedoms that come with being a single person. Even getting a promotion at work forces you to give up some freedoms that come with less responsibility, right? On the other hand, we have change that is considered “bad,” like the death of a loved one. That can create a big space, or a great deal of ether, and, therefore, vata in our lives.
What happens when you make big changes all the time? Here’s an example I see a lot: getting a divorce, moving to a new city, starting a new job, and then getting involved in a new relationship. That’s a lot of air (movement/change) and ether (leaving/giving up things, people, and places).
Here’s another example: losing a lot of weight in a short amount of time. Let’s say you gave up carbohydrates for a ketogenic diet (there’s definitely some ether there in leaving behind carbs), adopted intermittent fasting (more ether/space in that your stomach is now empty for a large part of the day), and took up a very rigorous high intensity interval training program (LOTS of air/movement…and the kind that really aggravates vata with all the stopping, starting, and “bursts” of activity). OK, so you get the idea here: change and movement create vata.
Well, what happens when you don’t bring in opposite qualities to balance out the vata? You guessed it: it runs WILD! Did you know “dosha” actually means “flaw,” or more literally, “stain”? Yep, the job of the doshas is to express themselves fully; your job is to balance them out.
So what happens to the person who gets a divorce, moves to a new city, starts a new job, and then begins a new relationship and never slows down long enough to truly take care of themselves? I’m willing to bet they either get sick and/or they gain some weight. Similarly, what’s the tragic ending for the person, who did too much too fast by losing a bunch of weight in a short amount of time? They gained the weight right back…and then some. Ugh.
Bottom line: if you don’t balance out vata by slowing down, getting into a routine around sleeping and working, eating nourishing food in the right way and at the right times, your body will do it for you. You will be drawn to things that comfort you. I don’t know about you, but for me, that’s food, glorious food. Because of the way we evolved through the millennia, the human brain craves sugar and fat to increase all those feel-good hormones in the brain and “store up” for another famine. If you’re depriving your body of food by dieting all the time, your ancestral brain thinks you’re in a time of famine. So when you finally break down and break open the bag of cookies, it’s going to persuade you to hoard those calories until it’s sure there’s no threat of starvation.
“Comfort food,” moreover, consists largely of the elements of earth and water, which create tissues and fluids in the body, necessary for survival. These elements and our bodily tissues also “ground” us.” So if you’ve been floating off into the ether on a vata “cloud” of activity and change, putting on weight is the body’s way of making you heavier and bringing you back down to earth, or ”grounding” you, so to speak. Again, if you don’t take the time to ground yourself through moderation, daily practices, and basic self-care, like sleep, your body will do it on its own with a big ‘ol, kapha, fat hug. So now you’ve still got a vata imbalance AND a kapha imbalance. Thanks a lot, right?
And don’t take my word for it, science tells us that when we don’t get enough sleep and/or stress levels rise, our hunger hormone increases (called ghrelin), our satiation (those that tell us we’re full) hormones decrease (called leptin), and our stress hormones (like cortisol) that tell us to actually hold on to fat to prepare for imminent danger or potential famine, increase.
I also want to recognize that if you’ve got a lot of pitta, or drive, in your constitution, this can cause you to take on too much as well. The fire of pitta’s intensity can burn brightly, creating a similar environment in which a person adopts extreme practices, extreme work hours, and even extreme ways of thinking. The air of vata is needed to fan the flames of pitta, so now vata and pitta become “partners in crime,” pushing a person to do more and in a smaller window of time. That fire can sustain this for a while, but this typically leads to burnout, which can look like a nervous breakdown, a complete inability to “do” anything anymore/depression, an autoimmune disorder, or even cancer. At the very least, we can be drawn to unsupportive coping mechanisms like overeating, which again, can cause a kapha imbalance on top of a pitta, or even pitta-vata, imbalance.
Thank you for reading part one of my series on Ayurveda and Weight Loss. If you'd like to take the live course version (recorded), please email me: firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Meghan Hays: Meghan Hays offers Ayurveda Salt Lake City and throughout the United States (by Zoom cal). If you are looking for Ayurveda Salt Lake City, please contact Meghan today for an Ayurvedic Consultation. Meghan is a graduate of the California College of Ayurveda and is currently pursuing a Doctorship in Ayurvedic Medicine.
Please Contact Meghan by email: email@example.com
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