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Dosha 101

 Human Elements

Understanding the Ayurvedic concept of ‘dosha’ and how it manifests in your body is perhaps the single most important concept for your wellness and longevity.

Translating into Western concepts, we can describe the doshas as correlating with the humors of wind, bile and phlegm, to borrow from Tibetan and early Greek medicine. But understand that Tibetan medicine is built from a core of Ayurveda and the Greeks’ concept of humors almost certainly comes from Ayurveda. Ayurveda is the source of these ideas. Perhaps the mis-translation of the dosha concept into an understanding of substance in the blood may be why the traditional Greek medical understanding of humors was ultimately discredited, and modern Western medicine emerged as a result.

The concept of ‘dosha’ may be 10,000 or more years old, because the oral tradition from which formal writing about Ayurveda emerged goes back into ancient prehistory. Ayurveda is the oldest systematized medical system in the world, recorded in the written language called Sanskrit, which is the precursor of all Indo-European language. Writing about Ayurvedic concepts began perhaps 5,000 years ago, and the medical textbooks, still in use, date back as far 2500 years, predating the oldest Chinese Medical texts by over 200 years[1].

A core concept in Vedic Philosophy, central to Yoga and Ayurveda, is the principle of five element theory. The Vedic five element theory is a little bit different than that of Chinese Medicine; of particular note is the systematic arrangement of the five elements on a continuum of subtle to gross. (See Diagram). The understanding is that these five elements are a basic nature of how physical reality is constructed and organized.

The three doshas arise directly from an understanding of this five element theory; the doshas are in particular how the five elements manifest and operate as the substances of living tissue. In other words, the doshas constitute the human body, and a correlate implication is that understanding the doshas of a given individual will provide insight into the constitution (Prakruti) and the state of balance or imbalance (Vikruti) of that individual.

Vata Dosha is composed of space and air, and is the presentation of these two elements in the body. Pitta is the presentation of the fire element, and to some degree, hot or warm water. Kapha is the manifestation of cool water and earth in the body. (This transformation is shown in the diagram.)

While a great deal more can be said about the five elements and the three doshas, one core concept is that there are ten pairs of qualities (Gunas), which can describe all physical substance. Thus the Doshas have Gunas, and in fact, so do the five elements. A given person, because of their unique Dosha combination will therefore manifest more of certain qualities and less of others. This is why each person is unique, and why people have different appearances, preferences, experiences and so forth. These principles apply the physical level, and interestingly, also have implications for the mental realm as well.


The Ten Guna Pairs
(The twenty qualities of physical substance, arranged as pairs of opposites)






Fast / Sharp

Cool / Cold

















Mobile / Variable

Sticky / Cloudy








Qualities of the Doshas
(In Individuals, and States of Imbalance)

Some Qualities of the Vata Individual


Irregular Metabolism

Slender Body

Long Fingers,

Delicate Features

Gets Cold Easily

Best with 9 hrs of sleep

Difficulty with Digestion


Some Qualities of Vata Imbalance



Bloating and Gas

Cracking of the Joints

Dryness (skin, bowels)

Anxiety and Fear


Talks Fast, Feels Ungrounded

Some Qualities of the Pitta Individual


Ruddy Complexion

Medium Build


Keen Intellect

Small Teeth

Sharp Gaze

Body Oils, Body Odors


Some Qualities of Pitta Imbalance




Rashes, Redness, Rosacea





Some Qualities of the Kapha Individual


Slow Metabolism

‘Big Boned’

Larger, Broader features

Thick Hair

Pearly Fingernails

Melodious Voice

Forgives Easily


Some Qualities of Kapha Imbalance




Fatty Stools




Craving for Sweets

©2012 Boulder Ayurveda, LLC. 302 Pearl Street, Boulder,CO 80302









[1] If the Suwen, perhaps the early part of the Yellow Emperor's Inner Classic (Huangdi Neijing) was written in the second (or parts in the third) century BC, per consensus of scholarly opinion (ref: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Huangdi_Neijing), then the collected sayings of Charaka (Charaka Samhita, circa 500BCE) would be 2-300 years older, notwithstanding the written Atharva Veda, which is the earliest presentation of Ayurvedic concepts, circa approx 5000BCE.

Ayurveda 101

 In Ayurveda, life is defined as the functional integration of mind, body and spirit, with this triad first being described and detailed thousands of years ago. Ayurveda originates from the Atharva Veda, and thus qualifies as the oldest recorded medical system on the planet. Fascinatingly, Ayurvedic philosophy and the context of philosophy recorded in the Upanishads have stood the test of time, and remain completely relevant today for all dimensions of human activity, and are still considered a highest authority on key topics for perhaps a billion people. It seems most serious inquirers into the nature of reality will eventually find their way to Vedic Science, the ground from which Buddhism sprang into being, and with which modern Quantum Mechanics finds remarkable agreement.


The term Ayurveda can be translated directly as "the science of life". It has sacred meaning, sharing its Vedic origins with Buddhism, and therefore should always be capitalized. The original and intended purposes of Ayurveda are life extension and enlightenment.

In Ayurvedic theory, there are three components of the body, which are called Vata, Pitta and Kapha. These three doshas are how the five elements manifest in the body. Vata arises from space and air in the body; Pitta is largely composed of the fire element, but also warm water; Kapha is composed of Earth and cool water. The five elements: Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Space compose all material reality and therefore are at the basis of Ayurvedic treatment on this material and in subtle form, the psychological realms. The five elements are associated with 20 gunas (qualities), which are arranged in 10 axes of opposing pairs. Each of the three doshas has five subtypes, which can be organized with correlation to the five elements.  There are three maha gunas which operate with particular relevance to the nature of mind. Incidentally, mind and body are, in Ayurveda, considered to be functionally integrated, and it is understood that mental toxins, which may be the seed of disease, can be extracted from the body as physical substance. Digestion is central to Ayurveda and is a primary focus, since metabolism is critical to create, maintain and restore health. A main cleansing process in Ayurveda is Pancha Karma, which translates as five therapeutic actions, and relates to a means for removing elemental level imbalances from the body, especially deep tissues and organs.

Ayurveda specifically prefers not to name a disease, and instead offers a discussion of states of imbalance and how to correct them. However, the Western version of Ayurvedic medicine, which should be distinguished from the more superficial "spa" Ayurveda, can be applied with specific power and efficacy as a complementary medicine to Western medical science.  In fact, the techniques of Western medicine fit within the body of Ayurvedic theory---the eight branches of Western medicine likely came to the Greeks as a result of Ayurvedic medical conferences in Tibet.

Perhaps the oldest record of complex surgical procedures was written and practiced by the legendary Indian physician Sushruta of 2500 years ago, who made important contributions to plastic surgery and cataract surgery.  Acupuncture too may have originated in India.

Today there are perhaps four main branches of Ayurveda: 1) the South Indian version, as practiced in Kerala which emphasizes fresh quality herbal oils and massage with them; 2) the North Indian version, which includes alchemical techniques and highly potentized medicines; 3) the medicine of Tibet, which integrates indigenous shamanic practices, Buddhist philosophy and Chinese medicine into a foundation of Ayurvedic theory; and 4) the constellation of Ayurveda that has now rooted into Western culture, and when truly qualifying as a medical science, may be largely informed by training more based in the North Indian philosophies, but is in fact taking on its own form as it integrates with the Western ways, especially Western medicine.

The highly potent herbs of Ayurveda have become very popular throughout the world; and many are now being studied intensely by Western science, which is finding remarkable results, even when one substance is studied alone without the synergistic effects of herbal combinations and the comprehensive treatment modalities that tradition suggests. A
dditionally, Ayurveda has partnering sister sciences, two being the sciences of Jyotish astrology and of Yoga, since Ayurveda specifically considers the full human lifespan and employs meditation, Yogic physical postures and breathing practices for healing.  Spiritual practice and meditation are of special importance in Ayurveda, particularly when working on imbalances with emotional causes, as well as difficult or chronic conditions.


Originally written by Varadaan for COLORAMA in 2010, then edited 2012 for this site. 
©2012 Varadaan and COLORAMA, the Colorado Ayurvedic Medical Association.
For more about COLORAMA, see: www.coloradoayurveda.org


Learn more about Ayurveda on Wikipedia. . .