Getting to know your dosha

What do you do when, at the age of nearly 50, finding “the right food to sustain you” defeats you nearly as much as at ever did? When this happened to me, what hit me the hardest of all was a sense of not feeling welcome in my own body or, indeed, my own life…as though there was nothing left in the cupboards of life that could even pretend to want to feed me anymore; it was looking me straight in the eye and shaking its head. No exaggeration to say it felt like a version of abandonment all over again (chronic illness can repeatedly feel like an abandonment scenario; as though the same ordinary life that supports everyone else leaves you left out or lacking in some way). After all my hard work striving to improve my lifestyle to heal, it felt like yet another slap in the face.

This happened to me after receiving the blood test results (refered to in my last blog) that told me I had 24 food intolerances planted right on top of some of my core foods as an organic, “clean” eating vegetarian. Really, I had been doing everything I could to heal myself through diet and here, now, was this.

There had to be a gift in it…and there was; and it was that it got me to stop and look again at Ayurveda. Ayurvedic healing is something I had danced around with an interested eyebrow raised many times before on my journey through alternate modalities and as a yogi seeking a more yogic lifestyle yet something had kept me from going deeper; and that thing? Oh yes, me. Maybe the time just wasn’t right yet.

Now feels right. You know when you’re onto something; synchroncities line up to flag this one thing up from every corner of your experience and this happened to me about Ayurveda. Even my husband, who was deep into reading books about Ayurveda as a lifestyle in connection with yoga, kept reading anecdotes out over breakfast and then flagged up for me, in the most timely way, that we have a local practitioner (Angela Hope-Murray) of some renowned that I could seek access to so maybe I should consider it. Straight from the Chopra Centre’s website in answer to what is Ayurveda: “Thousands of years before modern medicine provided scientific evidence for the mind-body connection, the sages of India developed Ayurveda, which continues to be one of the world’s most sophisticated and powerful mind-body health systems. More than a mere system of treating illness, Ayurveda is a science of life (Ayur = life, Veda = science or knowledge). It offers a body of wisdom designed to help people stay vibrant and healthy while realizing their full human potential”. These titbits I kept hearing whet my appetite again so I allowed myself to go in deeper this time; googling Ayurvedic diet for healing as a starting point. Then I purchase Angela’s most accessible book, “Ayurveda for Dummies” and that completely opened the door since it gave me an accessible (and relatable) overview of the whole “system” in one easy to read source.

Straightaway, I remembered doing those familiar Ayurvedic tests to “see what dosha you are?” in the past. They have a habit of popping up on Facebook and, again, on the Chopra Centre website which I knew I had completed at some point. Yet I was vague about what I had come up with…something about being a vata-pitta…and had certainly never acted on it in any coherent way (how many of us do these quizzes and think “oh, how interesting; sounds just like me” and then flutter on past?). There are numerous quizes out there and I recommend you type “dosha quiz” into google and try at least three as the results can vary depending on the depth of their questions Screen Shot 2017-07-20 at 14.46.05.png(there’s also a very thorough one in Angela’s book). You will soon start to get a feel for what is your type and then you can start to play around with getting to know the three doshas – vata, pitta and kapha – (there’s plenty of information about that online) and doing what it takes to tweak your own lifestyle to bring it back into balance. Most people are a mixture of at least two. Some of us, unsurprisingly, tilt precariously into one dosha and the healing process involves working to rebalance that by pursing a diet and lifestyle that no longer provokes that dosha into its prevailing dominance. In fact, the system is remarkably simple and intuitive once you get the feel for it; you will probably start to feel the “truth” of some of the characteristics that come up and notice how the suggest adjustments work closer with you innate preferences than some of the things you have been doing with your life.

So I will leave you to explore as its a personal process; but what I really wanted to share here was my growing theory that, where chronic health conditions of the fibromyalgia kind are concerned (you know, those health conditions where we are almost too sensitive for this world; we feel too much) our vata is probably well out of balance. This brings with it a particular set of dietary and lifestyle requirements which, if we are following any kind of conventional healing path, might not be being met or could be being plain ignored in the name of pursuing better health. Often, we do this through eating fresh or even raw foods like it is going out of fashion, even avoiding too much sweetness whenever we suspect it is being used as a source of comfort (as I’ve been doing for some time) to our own detriment. Let me explain:

The qualities of vata are (and this is just a summary) lightness, dryness, mobility, subtleness, coolness, roughness, clarity and inconsistency (description taken verbatim from Ayurveda for Dummies by Angela Hope Murray). It is all about nerves and hyper-sensitivity (things I talk about such a lot); about feeling things and receiving energetic messages at their most subtle. As a quality, it is quick, agile, exploratory, flighty, playful, sensitive, light, creative, in fact quite astonishing in its high-frequency approach to everything and capacity to expand viewpoints or uplift the mundane. Out of balance, it presents as muscle cramping, nerve pains, paralysis, hopeless indecisiveness, feeling far too much, ungroundedness, anxiety, feelings of abject overwhelm. When I hear vata out-of-balance  (and how this manifests as illness in the body) being described, it sounds such a lot like the endemic Epstein Barr symptoms that Anthony Williams’ (The Medical Medium) talks about being the basis of most modern chronic health complaints; for, indeed, I suspect they are much the same thing, impacting the nervous system at a very profound level that becomes autoimmunity (to ourselves and the world that we live in). In other words, we feel like we can’t stay in our own bodies, or our environments, anymore…like we are no longer welcome here and must move on to somewhere beyond the physical; a long slow departure. Healing our relationship with our bodies, via food, plays a crucial part in returning ourselves to these bodies under a brand new set of terms that makes us feel more than welcome, and valued, once again (so, an end to all those abandoned feelings) in order to thrive like never before. And its time this became a  much more readily available healing path for all those vast numbers of people burdened with wearisome chronic illnesses; which, I am beginning to suspect, Ayurveda may supply if we start to use it to get to know ourselves better. One of the best things about it is that it is a process that we can do ourselves, simply by familiarising ourselves with the doshas and the ways that these get out of balance. And if you think you know yourself really well already, consider this; so did I…but I have been forced to completely reconsider my diet since opening this box of knowledge, and am already reaping the benefits.

To do this, we quite literally need to befriend our most pitta-like qualities since they govern proper digestion (of ideas too!), temperature regulation and hormones plus the release and appropriate use of all those enzymes that keep us in balance, those all-important engines of the metabolism that are so key to health and energy. The good news is that, I suspect, for those of us who started out as mainly chronically fatigued but who now notice a real fire in our engines…yes, maybe one that, for the moment, seems to make us feel even more depleted and, well, burnt-out, this is actually a sign that our doshas are trying to get into balance. But…here’s a catch that we need to be aware of and it can actually feel like a setback in our recovery process if we misinterpret the signs…

Based on my own experiences, where inflammation and extreme pain co-exist with that super-sensitivity and ungroundedness I’ve already referred to, I suspect rising pitta is creating this issue and, like I said, it can feel like things getting worse as it starts to rise. This happened very markedly to me, two and half years ago, when I was really starting to feel like I was gaining traction in my recovery, then suddenly I was burning up inside and out, I developed electro-sensitivity and all sorts of new environmental triggers around heat and my pain levels and intolerances became worse than ever. This only made my strongly vata tendencies entrench more; I felt more anxious, flighty, ungrounded and out of sync with the world I live in, like I had to hide away just to survive it all. I felt toxic all over again…and this build up of ama (toxins) is exactly what happens when vata is off-kilter since it this dosha is the most crucial to our nervous system and its proper function, delivering messages that direct all those other processes involving digestion and elimination etc. When it is out of balance, digestive processes, cell regeneration and all kinds of subtle processes impacting our thyroid, our pituitary and so on suffer for it in a downwardly cascading process; and we can then feel too weak to cope with devising the next steps we need to take to recover ourselves (I think a lot of people reading this will know that feeling all too well).

In other words, we need our life-force back; a bit of jet-propulsion beneath our rocket in order to recover…so we need some pitta to rise up in us. But then we are not exactly on the best of terms with pitta since we are still smarting from being “burned” the last time we became inflammed (isn’t that what started off this whole process of illness?) so we are distrustful of it in the extreme.

It’s as though the relationship between pitta and vata (the two most dominant doshas in a person with such a play-off) are suddenly competing for attention and the feeling between them is suspicious and strained. They are like the odd couple who fell out a long-long time ago; no one remembers why but it has left an old scar that has never been forgotten or forgiven though they still live together. So occasionally they bicker and sulk but they  largely ignore each other, muddling by, falling into a strangely distorted (and silent) relationship for a very long time…until, one day, the balance of power starts to change and the one that always kept very quiet decides to have their say…loudly. Even though what they have to say is just what is needed to break the painful stalemate, the other person reacts like they have been hit.

Likewise, many of us have become used to our vata-dominant way of life for years; we learn to adapt and lead oddly self-protective lives in order to survive the world and, in time, the extreme imbalance between doshas lessens through a lack of aggravants (since we have virtually eliminated them all with our careful lives)…which can feel like we are getting somewhat better. So our life-force fires up, our pitta is on the rise again; and we push our own boundaries, daring to make new commitments and plan to do more “normal” things. In other words, we step back into a more grounded existence; one that is more involved with the world. When this happens, vata recoils in shock at all the heat that is suddenly released inside of us and, voila – our recovery is set right back again (or so we assume). This certainly feels like what happens to me at these times. When pitta comes up in me too strongly, too fast; especially early in the day or when I am least expecting it, it can set me back further than I was to start with and it makes me loathe to try new things. So what do we do next? We vata-pitta types tend not to want to mess with our kaptha (the third dosha) at all since excess kaptha, to us, can feel like depression, laziness or complete loss of purpose; in fact, our moderate but reliable and steady kaptha qualities are probably the very thing that have kept us level and pragmatic, continuously plodding us onwards like the donkey that never tires through all the endless years aof recovery and setback without losing heart and when other people might have gven up; but we dont want to become any more accepting, more stolid than that. Really, we know we need to work with the energy of fiery pitta (which can feel like the very essential life force that we lack) to recover the good health in our bodies…but how, without getting burned?

In other words, this plays out something like the off-kilter relationship between yin and yang (or, feminine and masculine aspects) in this out-of-whack world of ours; we know we need to fix it but don’t know how to go about it without giving ourselves away to another dominant force that will potentially “hurt us”.

Yet, as I talk about endlessly, we have reached a point where the feminine is rising AND where the yin and yang must (crucially) learn to get on with each other…to work as a trusting partnership…so that we can get ourselves into balance and know “perfect health” both as a planet and as individuals. See how they correspond, these two healing opportunities; our bodies and the whole rest of the world? When we crack one of these conundrums, we play our part in the other and they are a remarkably similar process.

In my own case, I thought that to heal, the very best thing  I could do was to pursue the most direct-sounding and popular healing-diet modality that is out there and eat the most turbo-charged fresh, often raw and preferably young and vigorous (think sprouts and micro herbs) organic veg and fruit I could; to neck green juices around the clock and crunch my way through endless nuts, seeds, beans and crackers smeared with homus…all great stuff…keeping it all in as natural a state as possible rather than cooking or heating too much (in fact, I had all-but convinced myself I no longer like my food warm at all). But this turned out to be completely wrong for my vata constitution and, when I saw this for the first time, it was so obvious I could have laughed. My ideal diet has a lot more in common with the food I ate as a child, as it turns out, than the meals I had been so lovingly preparing for myself these last few months, especially since my intolerance tests took dairy out of the equation against my will (the extreme-vegan angle that forced me to admit I wasn’t thriving at all on these cold-raw foods). I had honestly felt like I was quietly dying; unsustained, lacking in vitality, crashed-out and unenthusiastic about meals, doggedly washing salad leaves (again) and telling myself it was all good stuff. Well it was; but not quite right for me.

Vata is already physically fragile, ungrounded, not quite as embodied as it needs to be as a fully functioning human being. Vata struggles somewhat with the physical processes of mulching down food to extract the nutrition since it is far more used to pure energy of the kind that comes straight from the star system and all this physical-human shove and grind to extract energy from substance can feel way too much for its delicate constitution to have to deal with. To stuff its constitution full of cold, raw and dry foods, unsoftened fibres, hard little nuts and sharp little seeds without doing at least part of the work first is to do it a terrible disservice; like feeding a whole tree from the roots to the seeds hanging on its branches into the most delicately calibrated food-processor imaginable and expecting it to extract the pure life-force in one attempt. I see now, oh-so clearly, where I was going wrong putting all this extra strain on an already delicate and exhausted system; which is where I began to realise how intuitive Ayurveda is, like coming home to the healing modality that feels most natural of anything I have played with before.

Dhal.jpgVata craves warm, comforting, sweet and flavoursome (so, yes, also salty and sour) nutrition that is grounding and quick to release its fuel. It likes smooth, light, moist and slightly oily dishes; but also food with good life force (so, not processed foods or two-day-old leftovers). Its cravings are grounding, nourishing, stabilizing; basically, it favours the opposite qualities to itself…to keep itself in check. When out of balance, it doesn’t like hot spices (preferring gentle warmth…not full-on fire, for obvious reasons) so is it any wonder that chilli came up as one of my prime food intolerances. It favours sweet bananas, not green; cooked broccoli and greens, not raw – you get the picture. When I made up some lists of what I should and shouldn’t eat if I want to pacify my vata, I was astonished to find how many of the foods in the “avoid” list were already on my confirmed intolerance list (from my recent blood test) and also amongst my personal dislikes, going back many years, some of which I had been trying to ignore (rather than admiting against trend that I only like dark greens when they are cooked and strongly disliking raw apples whatever the doctor says about one a day, nor do I enjoy dried fruits at all…unless they have been soaked before I eat them). I can now openly admit without excommunication that I really do love sweet and comforting foods (yum, rice pudding!) – and these are not only “allowed” but necessary for survival when your constitution is vata (preferably achieved through through natural means such as beets and honey etc). My intuition, it seems, was on the right track all along; and I suspect those few intolerances that I have (such as dairy) may only be temporary until I can heal my gut from all the damage I have done throughout years of bending to dietary habits that didn’t suit me at all.

The proof, as ever, is in the pudding and though it is very early days with this (less than a week since I took some Ayurvedic advice from the books that I am reading), I am noticing some positive effects. Since adhering to these guidelines and replacing cold granola, toast or raw veg and humus for breakfast with warm (not hot!) porridge made with almond milk, sprinkled with cinnamon and sweetened by raw honey and a few other allowed extras such as bee pollen and arctic blueberries (I buy these freeze-dried), I have been feeling far more balanced and sustained. The chronic sugar crash and/or nausea half an hour after eating breakfast has dramatically softened (nor has it worsened as it did when I ate very hot porridge in the old days). Certainly there are no starving hunger pangs mid-morning or desperation for lunch; in fact I sometimes have to remind myself its lunchtime. My eyesight and my head feel somewhat sharper and my breathing less erratic, my pulse less flighty, my thoughts more calm; you could just say, I feel more grounded on this warm start to the day. Once I’ve grounded this way, I can allow some “fire” qualities (a little edginess, courage, go-get attitude and lets-get-things-done mentality) into my day, facing most kinds of music without needing my metaphorical smelling salts; which is big news indeed as this means I can start to enjoy a more “normal’, productive and predictable routine without hiding from the world.

Then, for lunch…instead of those mountains of crunchy-crunch-crunch on a bed of leaves…I’m making up a warm quinoa bowl with a variety of vegetables and some gentle herbs, maybe the tiniest teaspoon-handle-tip pinch of paprika…and finding this does the same job of sustaining me in the afternoon as the porridge does in the morning. Kicheree (an Ayurvedic staple made from yellow split mung beans) will do the same thing from what I read and is on the menu for today’s lunch. By way of a test, yesterday I was forced to resort to the crunchy-salad option once again as I was out in town and my favourite cafe had run out of their veggie soup; nothing left for me but some cold grains topped with raw brocoli and nuts. I felt awful afterwards, like my stomach was digesting razor-blades; I also felt irritable and depleted and could have chewed my own arm off for food by the time I had to gather all my energy for the fifty minutes drive home with very tired eyes, having had nothing more than a fruit and nut health bar (more cold-dry food) to tide me over. Even after I had managed to eat a home-cooked meal, my energy felt “off” for the rest of the day and I went to bed feeling hungry and irritable (by the way, vata likes its main meal in the middle of the day and to eat several sustaining portions throughout the day to avoid that long-fasting feeling). This, I can’t help feeling, is because my stomach has already got used to its warming (not hot or spicy) quinoa bowl or similar for its midday fuel and that “other healthy stuff” made from raw things doesn’t cut the mustard for me any more; I wonder if it ever did. Perhaps not while I am in a healing phase; and I am prepared to be the dedicated healer of myself for as long as it takes to stabilise my health, even if it is sometimes challenging or an inconvenience to do what is necessary or make certain changes in routine (including cooking food on a stove twice a day). I suspect it will be worth it and look forward to noticing any differences in how I feel come September this year, having eaten a more sustaining diet for some weeks by then.

Of course, there is a seasonal element to all this and I am prepared to concede that my body actively craved those crunchy raw salads and plentiful juices in the spring. This, I suspect, is because our kundalini rises in sync with the rising sun towards summer solstice…as do creative urges, our very life force…between March and June in the northern hemisphere. However, once past that midsummer point, my body actively seeks the warmer, more stabilising food and (until now) has had to beg in vain for it until, maybe, the end of September or October when I usually “allow” more substantial food onto the menu. No wonder September has always been a month of such chronic fatigue, dullness and pain for me; the worst month of my year for as long as I can recall (Ayurveda also tells me that September is a key transition month). I have been running my tank out of fuel before I even get there because of months of summer salads and inappropriate snacking on cold, dry foods. The key is to listen to your body and its seasonal requirements and not make anything an engrained habit, not even because the sun is shining or someone’s blog (even mine!) suggests you eat a particular way.

I mentioned already that I suspect that rising pitta also comes into this for me and, perhaps, for many others who have the chronic fatigue and super-sensitivity type illness but also the long-running issue with unresolved inflammation and pain. For me, I notice a pattern that each time I start to feel more “well” following a success in my healing process, or when the seasons, my female cycles, my rising kundalini (mid-life really activates this for a woman!), exposure to high levels of electro-magnetic pollution and even solar flares, conspire to inject more fire into my system, this has been all-too-much for my vata in its current dominant state. What this feels like, in my mind’s eye, is that I am a house made of paper and that pitta rising in that can feel like a struck match at its core…it burns me down in my current state. So, if this is the case, there is a need to have methods at hand to keep pitta in check (allowing it to rise on your own terms, for your best wellbeing) but also to bring the vata aspect down somewhat to meet the pitta that, after all, is your very own life-force energy working to ground you and bring you into better alignment with the physical processes that you rely upon to enjoy a healthy human existence. Just like the yin and yang balancing act that I have made my own particular fascination (across all aspects of life), here is an opportunity to bring vata down and encourage pitta up so that they meet in the middle on the level. And, yes, once this starts to occur, kapha elements can then be encouraged (without fear of developing complacency or depression – the deepest dread of someone with chronic illness) since it is a balance of all three doshas that is the aim of the game; but when healing from a chronic condition, reconciling the two primary doshas should be the initial focus of your efforts and the rest will, I suspect, fall into place of its own accord.

Perhaps it is a too-simplistic description to describe kapha as an “excessively grounded” state, vata as “not grounded at all” and pitta as the bridge or the conduit that connects the two; yet this might be a helpful visualisation. Therefore, for someone who exists fully on the physical plane (extremely kapha dominant), encouraging pitta could be the means by which they get their wheel pulled out of the mud and awaken their spiritual sensibilities or most vibrant life-force, not to mention their metabolism, bringing them into a broader sense of themselves in the universe and a more vital way of experiencing life. But for those of us who have already lived most of our lives feeling ungrounded and not entirely, or convincingly, “in” our physical bodies, our primary aim is to make it so we really want to come back into our bodies at this juncture; to bring ourselves back into our humanness so that we can start to really thrive as physical beings and know what that feels like in all its glory. You know what I mean; a body that doesn’t feel clapped-out in exhaustion or pain all the time (what a nice idea).

There can be a reluctance here and I know it all too well. Hard to articulate it but there is a subtle but present fear for many of us that if we bring our most expansive spiritual selves fully back into the body, we will lose everything we have gained as an enlightened spiritual entity; that we will forget or have to forfeit what is so precious to us. If I’m honest, some of my most bliss-filled moments have occurred when I have been feeling least grounded in my body for those are the times when I have fully let go of my physical preoccupations, surrendering to (what can feel like) an alternate reality outside of that to allow me to cope. Yet the true reality or, you could say, whole reality –  where it is not a case of “either”/”or” (perhaps this is the brand new reality, since we are going through a transitional phase in our evolution) – is that we can now ground fully into our physicality and bring all that spiritual stuff with us, without losing a thing.  How do we know that? We just need to trust it is so…but I find that, with ever more conviction when I tune into highest wisdom, I know it to be so and I take the time to remind myself of that every day. In other words, we can literally have all of it and, after all, that is the whole point of what we have been striving towards for the longest time.

I feel sure I will be sharing more about my experiences with Ayurvedic healing as I deep dive into more reading and go for my first appointment with a practioner in a couple of weeks but, in the meantime, I encourage anyone who has found this intriguing to take a deeper look for themselves, perhaps via Angela’s book which is a wonderfully accessible introduction to the doshas and the right diet to suit yours to get you started.

Useful references:

Ayurveda for Dummies – Angela Hope-Murray

The Chopra Centre

Several books by Dr David Frawley (available on Amazon)

Vata-Pacifying Foods – article on Banyan Botanicals

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