Heather, a bodyworker, has been under stress lately and she’s starting to feel its effects. Blustery winter weather has arrived and she has a hard time keeping warm. Business is lagging at the spa where she works and she finds herself lying awake at night worrying about money. Her bowels, always a little on the sluggish side, are worse than usual and she’s been experiencing intermittent heartburn.
To make up for the loss of income at the spa, Heather has taken on a few private clients. Though the extra money helps, her schedule is packed, leaving barely enough time for laundry or exercise. She’s driving more than usual and finds herself annoyed with other drivers. She rarely sits down to eat during the day, instead grabbing a salad on the run or snacking on energy bars between clients. At night she winds down with a glass of wine in front of the TV and then falls into bed exhausted.
From an Ayurvedic perspective, Heather, a composite based on several people, is vata-pitta. That means her natural constitution, or prakriti, which is the unique combination of doshas that a person is born with, is balanced between the airy qualities of vata (creative, energetic and active, but tending toward anxiety) and the fiery nature of pitta (smart, passionate and driven, but prone to anger). She has less kapha, the dosha associated with earth and water, which is marked by strength and dependability but also a tendency toward laziness. (Some people have one dominant dosha, while others, like Heather, have two. A balance of all three is called tri-doshic.)
Heather’s life isn’t usually so chaotic. When she is feeling balanced, the combination of vata and pitta serves her well. She’s good at her job and maintains a busy social life. Although her schedule is pretty full, she manages to cook a few nights a week, usually sleeps seven or eight hours and makes it to yoga class fairly regularly.
But the cold, windy weather, a hectic schedule and financial worries have caused Heather’s vata dosha to become imbalanced. To use the term some Ayurvedic physicians employ, her vata dosha has become deranged. According to Ayurvedic thought, vata is like the wind. It’s cool, dry, rough and erratic—and anything with similar properties will tend to increase it.
A lot of what we refer to as being “stressed out” in the modern world is, from an Ayurvedic perspective, a manifestation of vata derangement. It’s more likely to happen to someone like Heather, who has quite a bit of vata in her prakriti. Still, people with a lot of pitta and kapha can also see their vata get out of balance as a result of a combination of climate, stress, lifestyle decisions and other factors, such as the ageing process, certain illnesses and lots of travel.
Regardless of your prakriti, if your vata is acutely increased, it can cause problems. You may experience typical vata symptoms such as anxiety, constipation and insomnia. Those with vata-related health problems such as arthritis, chronic pain or Parkinson’s disease are likely to notice more pronounced symptoms. Over time, excessive vata can lead to derangements in the other doshas, too. For example, a kapha-dominant person with vata derangement might experience an increase of the negative qualities of their prominent dosha—feeling more lethargic than usual or coming down with a sinus or bronchial infection. A pitta with vata derangement might become more hot-headed or experience heartburn. These symptoms parallel modern science’s increased understanding of how stress contributes to or exacerbates most medical conditions, from heart disease and diabetes to depression.
When you experience stress, the sympathetic nervous system—the body’s “fight or flight” emergency-preparedness system—becomes activated and stress hormones such as adrenaline (also known as epinephrine) and cortisol flood the body. Common vata symptoms such as agitation, fear, intestinal disturbances and difficulty focusing may all result from these changes to the nervous system and hormone levels.
When you observe the physical state of people in the throes of vata derangement, you’ll notice that they aren’t well grounded—and this isn’t just a metaphor. Often they’re in constant motion and can’t sit still. Their eyes may wander. Their fingers may wiggle in yoga poses, even in Savasana (Corpse Pose). They probably don’t ground their feet well in standing poses.
In Tadasana (Mountain Pose), their upper thighs may be farther forward and more externally rotated than is ideal. In yogic terms, this indicates a lack of apana, or downward-flowing prana (life force). That might not sound serious, but in Ayurvedic diagnosis, it signals a possible imbalance in the body, and imbalances can eventually lead to disease. Those with vata derangement are also likely to breathe in a choppy, erratic way, primarily into the upper lungs, and they may have difficulty exhaling fully and deeply. Yoga teaches that breathing this way increases agitation. Medically, we know that rapid breathing depletes the body of carbon dioxide, which can increase feelings of anxiety.
Modern medicine doesn’t have much to offer those who are under stress, other than tranquillisers, antidepressants or perhaps a recommendation to exercise. Fortunately, yoga and Ayurveda have many tools to safely lower stress levels, shift the balance of the nervous system toward relaxation and ground the restless spirit.
The yogic approach to countering vata derangement involves slowing down, being more mindful, breathing smoothly and deeply, and learning to ground the feet into the floor. This isn’t always easy if you’re experiencing vata imbalance. A slow, quiet practice and particularly restorative poses such as Savasana can feel like torture. Before you can settle into a more balanced state, you might need to first burn off some steam with active practice, as long as it doesn’t deplete you.
Heather and everyone else suffering from vata derangement would benefit by heeding the main Ayurvedic lifestyle advice for the condition: do less. This means cutting back on scheduled commitments, minimising multi-tasking (and exposure to vata-stimulating technology such as computers and television, particularly right before bed) and making time for daily relaxation. It’s also important to stick to a regular bedtime and to get enough sleep each night to feel rested. This may be difficult at first. Excess vata often results in insomnia. But sticking to a regular bedtime and implementing some of the other changes that support relaxation should help.
Staying grounded means slowing down. You may have to skip favourite activities.
Diet and eating rituals are important aspects of Ayurvedic healing. Mealtimes should be mindful events where you sit down and eat slowly, allowing your body to digest fully. Ideally, meals should be eaten at the same time each day. Also, food should be well cooked, moist and soothing. Hearty soups, steamed vegetables with brown rice and casseroles are excellent choices.
Keeping warm is important, particularly in a cold climate. Other measures such as drinking tea and taking hot baths can help, as can a daily warm-oil massage (see Winter warmer, opposite). Staying warm is also important during yoga, especially for relaxation practices, so make sure to have a jumper or blanket handy as the class cools down.
If you’re experiencing vata derangement, you likely crave stimulation and variety. The air element in vata seeks constant expansion, but it can lead you into an even more chaotic state. Staying grounded means slowing down. You may have to skip some favourite activities. Just as sitting down to a meal will help you digest your food, so slowing down and being more mindful will help you “digest” all the other things that feed you in life.
In the long run, Heather needs to make choices that keep her vata in check, because a chronic imbalance can lead to more critical health problems. But she can’t change the weather, and for now she can’t afford to turn down the additional work. Still, when it comes to vata management, even small lifestyle changes can make a difference: she could dress more warmly; opt for hearty, warm soup instead of a salad at lunch; and relax with a hot bath in the evening instead of watching TV. And, even when there’s hardly a moment between clients, there is almost always time for at least one slow, deep, mindful breath.
Dr Timothy McCall is Australian Yoga Journal’s medical editor and the author of Yoga as Medicine. Find him online at www.drmccall.com.
The Ayurvedic practice of abhyanga, or warm-oil massage, is a soothing treatment for overwrought vata. As a self-care treatment, it’s traditionally done in the morning, before bathing, and is especially useful as a daily ritual in the winter months. By its nature, vata is dry and cold; in this massage the warm oil penetrates the skin and helps to resolve the imbalance.
Abhyanga is also used to help direct ama (toxins) from the tissues to the organs of elimination. Done regularly, it can improve circulation and digestion, relax the nervous system, nourish the skin, create feelings of groundedness and focus, and increase ojas, or radiance, which results from good digestion and strong immune functioning.
Plan to spend at least 10 minutes massaging the entire body after coating it in oil, and then resting for at least 10 minutes before washing the oil off. (If you don’t have time to rest and let the oil sink in, try lubricating the body in oil before beginning the massage to give it more time on your skin.)
+ to cup organic sesame oil to generously lubricate the body. (If you have a strong pitta dosha in your constitution, you may want to substitute organic olive oil.)
+ A metal saucepan to heat the oil
1 HEAT THE OIL on the stove until it’s warm but still comfortable to the touch.
2 MASSAGE YOUR BODY with the warm oil, moving from the head to the feet. Begin with the outer folds of the ears, then massage the head (if you don’t want to get oil in your hair, do a dry head massage) and work downward. Use circular motions on the joints and use a gentle circular clockwise motion over the heart and abdomen. This is a way to coax erratic vata in the direction it’s supposed to move. On the torso, massage inward following the direction of the ribs. Massage straight up and down on the arms and legs. Finally, thoroughly massage the feet.
3 SIT COMFORTABLY on the edge of the tub or lie on a towel on the floor and relax for at least 10 minutes, allowing the oil to penetrate the skin. You can also sit in a warm bath. When you are done, wash the oil off using a gentle cleanser.