The doctrine or theory of the tridosha holds that the three essential humors—Vata (wind), Pitta (bile), and Kapha (phlegm)—are determined by the interaction of the gross elements1:
- Vata = Ether + Air
- Pitta = Fire + Water
- Kapha = Water + Earth
What is the Tridosha theory?
Ayurveda teaches us that the relative balance of humor, which ultimately expresses itself as a semi-fluid, constitutes one’s physical nature and directly affects their temperament and health.
The relative balance of the doshas – how each dosha interacts with the body’s seven constituent dhatus (tissues) and malas (waste products) – determines one’s unique constitution.
Doshas are considered “as the basic functional units of the body.” Thus, Tridosha is the basis of Ayurvedic diagnosis, pathology and treatment.
Sarngadhara writes that humor itself- is also considered to be the dhatu, because each one supports the dharana (body) as well as impurities. From this point of view they are divided into five types.
Wind, choler, and phlegm are known as humors (dosas) because they corrupt the body (doosana); as body tissues (dhatu) as they keep the body up; And as impurity (mala) because they spoil it (malina-kara).
It is precisely in the balance of the doshas that we come to our normal and specific positions, as the doshas “bind the five elements in the living body.”
Yet only air, fire and water, as the active and changing elements, are primary in the doctrine of the Tridosha, with Ether and Earth respectively, serving as the space and supporting foundation for the Tridosha whole.
Everything in the manifest universe is made up of the constituent elements of nature – the gunas of Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas – on the journey from subtle to gross manifestation in a living being.
How this manifestation occurs at the level of the unique individual is determined by the balance of the doshas, which can be thought of as “the one who quickly becomes unbalanced”.
It refers to the health and fragility of life, while also providing us with a means of assessing health as a continuous process of developing the balance of energy we have at any given moment.
Health is expressed in the balance of our living tissues, which we maintain or lose depending on the effects of doshas: Disturbance of doshas leads to disturbances in tissues, whereas normalization of doshas is brought about through diet2, medicine and lifestyle.
To better appreciate how this works, we will next take a closer look at the Tridosha and each of their five subtypes.
Formed by the seemingly ethereal elements of air and ether (the latter being either ethereal or mythical, depending on your beliefs), Sushruta tells us that vata (or breath, prana, air) is “free, eternal and omnipresent, and Because of this it is revered throughout the world as the Self of all beings. It is the cause of existence, origin and extinction of all beings.”
This predominance of Vata is due to it being “the holy wind of God”, which “maintains the balance of humour, body tissues and digestive fire while not irritating.” Its function in its normal state is to provide energy for movement, including internal movement of tissues. In the words of Vagbhata, it is naturally dry, light, cold, hard, fine and mobile.
The dynamics of Vata (Rajas) makes it the governing source of movement and communication and allows the fire of Pitta in our assimilation processes, which in turn work to balance Vata and Kapha.
The primacy of air for Sarangdhara is abundantly explained: “Cholar (pitta) is lame, kapha (phlegm) lame, impurity (mala) and tissue (dhatu) lame. They are like clouds, wherever the wind takes them.”
While each dosha is present throughout the body, each is also said to dominate specific areas in the form of updosha. Vata is traditionally (i.e., in ancient teachings) said to be most present in the colon, trunk, stomach and heart, while contemporary Ayurveda sources claim it is dominant elsewhere:
- Lad has vata dominant in the “head, throat, diaphragm, small intestine, belly button, pelvic girdle, thighs, colon, and heart,”
- Tiwari has vata dominant in “the lower body, pelvic region, colon, bladder, urinary tract, thighs, legs, arms, bones, and nervous system,”
- Pole reports that vata is “below the belly button, especially in the colon,” while also in the “bladder, thighs, ears, bones, and sense of touch.”
The more specific manifestation of the pranic energy of Vata in the body is in five ways, which Karaka describes as the five vayus, which give us the prana-vayu or vata sub-dosha:
Here the general term prana is applied to its specific manifestation as air as it enters the body through respiration, moving down and inward to bring life energy into the body.
It controls breathing, causes the heartbeat, maintains blood flow and nerve impulses, moves food through the esophagus to the stomach, and is associated with cognitive function. Thus, as air, prana-vayu is about the movement of the whole body, thoughts, feelings, emotions, sensations and perceptions.
When calm, it becomes like a mirror, a silent witness of the perfection of existence, of consciousness. When disturbed, it causes anxiety, fear and anger as well as respiratory and cardiovascular diseases, joint diseases and digestive diseases.
Curiously, it is traditionally said to be centered in the heart, while some more recent Ayurvedic thinkers place its home in the brain (which is curious as to whether traditional Ayurveda did not recognize the brain as a source of cognitive or larger neurological functions).
This is the upward manifestation of Vata energy, which includes the upward flow of energy responsible for exhalation, speech, vomiting and memory. Thus it is also associated with feeling emotionally uplifted, physically stronger and mentally clearer.
When disturbed, it interferes with clear speech (and can cause stuttering), inhibits memory, and undermines a sense of purpose in life.
As something opposite to prana-vayu, udana-vayu suggests slowing things down, calming down and calming from within, to better maintain a greater flow of prana and a constant awakening of clear awareness.
As an inward movement of prana, Samana-vayu stimulates the digestive fire as its energy moves to the center of the body, regulating digestion by stimulating the secretion of gastric juices and digestive enzymes.
The boy is very specific in saying that the same-air in the small intestine and navel stores bile in the gallbladder, opens the pyloric valve, and pushes the bile into the duodenum (the section of the gastrointestinal tract that accepts food from the stomach).
When irritating, it causes indigestion, lack of absorption of nutrients, and diarrhea. On a micro level, same-air is associated with emotional resilience and understanding regarding nutritional habits.
The entire movement of prana is done by Vyana-vayu, which spreads the wind energy throughout the body.
It is said to occur in the heart, it maintains the heart and larger circulatory systems, transports nutrients to tissues throughout the human organism, and regulates muscle movement.
When irritating, it causes dry skin, heart disease, edema and other circulatory problems.
On a micro level, when in balance, it makes us healthier social beings because we more easily circulate and share energy with others.
Apana-vayu is believed to be responsible for elimination as well as conception by moving downward and regulating the urinary and reproductive systems most present in the pelvis.
When impaired, it causes diarrhea or constipation, disrupts urination and menstruation, causes pain during intercourse, causes premature ejaculation, and leads to other problems, including osteoporosis and diabetes. 3
When in balance, it allows you to more easily let go of thoughts and things you may be clinging to unnecessarily, allowing you to nourish and purify.
Choler (Pitta) is produced by the combination of fire and water. Vagbhata describes cholera as being “somewhat pungent, sharp, and hot, as well as mild, pungent, diffuse and fluid”.
Of course we treat water as extinguishing fire and fire as water evaporating. But here they work together as the fiery juxtaposition of passion and metabolism, their primary function of protecting the tissues from burning in the heat of change, their water quality. Consider sufficiently tempering the fiery digestive juices by the water element to prevent them from burning through the lining of the intestines.
It is said to regulate the heartbeat, hormones and body temperature, along with liver and digestion.
Pitta also plays an important role in immunity, killing bacteria in the spleen, thermal regulation and vision, as some structures of the eye are associated with bile (the lens, cornea, and cone).
Moving on, as the digestive process leads to the nourishment of all cells, Pitta is said to awaken the intellect and open us to pure consciousness.
Although Charaka attributes various effects to pitta, including the powers of vision, digestion and intelligence, they do not classify them further, as Sushruta does; Sushruta presents these five distinct expressions of pitta:
1. Pachaka Pitta
Said to be found in the liver, gall bladder, pancreas, duodenum, and small intestine as well as saliva and stomach, Pachaka Pitta is the first fire. A fire in itself, Pachaka is also said to be the protector of the flame as it supports the other expressions of Pitta related to an alert, discreet mind.
The actions of Pachaka regulate digestion in the stomach, duodenum and small intestine. Once the food is digested, the digested bile separates the nutrients from the waste products. When out of balance, thus pitta causes indigestion and poor absorption of nutrients.
2. Ranjaka Pitta
The second manifestation of Pitta, Ranjaka Pitta, is responsible for the creation and maintenance of blood as it is primarily associated with the liver (which Ayurveda has traditionally and incorrectly presented as the source of blood production) and the spleen.
From a root word meaning “to redden” or “color”, pigment pitta gives us the color of our hair, skin and eyes. Some go far beyond the understanding of traditional Ayurveda theory, to suggest that Ranjaka works in the bone marrow to produce red blood cells (which is understandable given that we now know that the liver doesn’t produces blood).
It’s also related to the burning feelings of anger and hatred, helping to metabolize their expressions as they too are baked in the fire of awareness.
3. Sadhaka Pitta
Sadhaka Pitta is related to memory, self-awareness and normal mental functioning, which until recently was situated at the heart of Ayurveda principle.
Now that Ayurveda has recognized that the brain has a neurological function, the Sadhaka is said to be in charge of all neurochemical changes there as well. When impaired, it is the source of various neuroses, including mental disturbance and addictions.
4. Alochaka Pitta
Enlivening and regulating the eyes, Alochaka regulates visual perception. The disturbance of Alochaka, which can arise from not allowing tears to flow, obstructs vision, covers the whites of the eyes, and becomes a hindrance to the realization of the Absolute Truth.
5. Bhrajaka Pitta
The fire of Bhrajaka gives the skin its warmth and radiance. Providing us with healthy skin, Bhrajaka helps protect the body from pathogens while allowing the sense of touch, temperature and pain.
When irritating, it causes various skin diseases as well as loss of tactile sensation. Its association with emotions is manifested by blushing or paleness in response to certain types of emotion.
Formed by earth and water, kapha gives us structure and stability as the moisture of the water binds the dry earth into shape. It is the Kapha which is described by Vagbhata as “impure, cold, heavy, slow, smooth, thin and solid”.
Kapha causes a buildup of mucus and is present in the lymph, plasma, muscles, semen, connective tissue and white matter of the brain, where the brain is said to give its structure.
Thus, it is present throughout the body, its connective properties shape us, and its liquid properties give us the ability to taste and smell, nourish the joints, and protect the stomach lining. When in balance, it is a source of stability, strength and endurance.
Again, Caraka does not classify the Kapha subdoshas specifically, whereas Sushruta gives us the five subtle expressions of Kapha:
1. Kledaka Kapha
Considered to be primary in water, Kledaka originates in the stomach and forms its protective lining, produces mucus, and aids in digestion.
When it increases, it causes nausea and indigestion and can lead the person to overeating.
Its imbalance also leads to increased anxiety, insecurity and loneliness, which can also lead to overeating as one tries to fill emotional voids.
It is also said of our nature’s lubrication, allowing us to live more easily and fluidly in our tissues and relate to others.
2. Avalambaka Kapha
Sometimes called the “protector of love”, this watery quality is found in the chest and especially in the heart. Avalambaka gives vital support to other manifestations of kapha, gives blood its plasma content, protects the lungs, and ensures the flow of energy to the organs.
When it increases it causes lethargy, respiratory disorders and cardiovascular diseases.
3. Bodhaka Kapha
Attached to the mouth, and specifically the tongue, Bodhaka sends water to the tongue for making saliva, the sensation of taste, and preparing food for digestion. The observed properties (colour, texture) of the tongue as well as the perceived taste are Ayurvedic tools for assessing certain properties of health, as we find out later.
When aggravated, Bodhaka interferes with the natural ability to perceive food poisoning and contributes to eating disorders. Thus the virtues of Bodhaka teach us about cleanliness, moderation and self-care.
4. Tarpaka Kapha
Now understood to support the white matter of the brain and in particular the cerebrospinal fluid, Tarpaka is said to nourish the brain and calm the senses.
When out of balance Tarpaka distorts perception, causes psychological problems, and disturbs memory. It also teaches us about the lightness of being, inviting us to live more peacefully.
5. Slesaka Kapha
With a viscous quality of Kapha, Slesaka is found throughout the joints of the body where it provides lubrication for easy movement.
When increased, it promotes joint diseases like arthritis. It teaches us patience, invites us to be clear as we form expressions (relationships) with others on our various paths.
In these various ways, the five noble elements (mahabhutas) together form the doshas, bringing the principles of organizing nature in the tissues of the body closer to their full realization. The balance of elements in each dosha gives it its own character and primary function, with the different updoshas each fulfilling more specific functions in supporting the overall integration of tissues in a unique individual.
In the ancients we see that Caraka and Sushruta offer different and even conflicting views of the doshas, with Sushrutas considering the “principle of the blood” in combination with Vata, Pitta and Kapha. Sushruta is usually more specialized than Karak, possibly due to him being a surgeon.
In contemporary Ayurvedic sources, the difference is huge, as we have seen even with basic considerations such as where doshas and updoshas manifest in the body.
Such differences persist in the understanding of the body’s constituent tissues, dhatu: some give us all five elements, some four (earth, air, water, fire), while others (including Sushruta) give us only tridosha. The building blocks of the body.
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