The Five Elements
Ayurveda arises from a tradition that describes the entire physical world—including man—in terms of five elements: space, air, fire, water, and earth. These five elements can most accurately be thought of as energetic patterns rather than as purely physical substances, and each has particular qualities. To help make sense of this, consider how these elements manifest in the natural world:
- Ether, or space, as in the sky, is vast, cold, light, and clear. It enables all other things to have a place to take form and exist.
- Air is dry, cold, rough, and full of motion. To understand these qualities, think of what it’s like to be whipped by an aggressive wind.
- Fire is hot, subtle, mobile, dry, and sharp. Its clearest manifestation in nature is the sun, which provides warmth to the earth and sky.
- Water is cold, mobile, heavy, soft, and liquid. Think of the ocean.
- Earth is cold, heavy, solid, stable, and dry. This element is exemplified by soil.
The three constitutional principles
The five elements combine in various ways to form three constitutional principles, known in Ayurveda as doshas. These are:
- Vata, comprised of ether/space and air
- Pitta, comprised of fire and water
- Kapha, comprised of earth and water
To understand these principles at their core, it is useful to think of the different qualities of the elements that create them.
Composed of air and space, vata is dry, light, cold, rough, subtle/pervasive, mobile, and clear. As such, vata regulates the principle of movement. Any bodily motion—chewing, swallowing, nerve impulses, breathing, muscle movements, bowel movements, urination, menstruation—requires balanced vata. When vata is out of balance, any number of these movements may be affected.
Pitta brings forth the qualities of fire and water. It is sharp, penetrating, hot, light, liquid, mobile, and oily. Pitta’s domain is the principal of transformation. Just as fire transforms anything it touches, pitta is in play any time the body converts or processes something. Pitta oversees digestion, metabolism, temperature regulation, sensory perception, and comprehension. Imbalanced pitta can lead to sharpness and inflammation in these areas in particular.
Kapha, composed of earth and water, is heavy, cold, dull, oily, smooth, dense, soft, and static. As kapha governs stability and structure, it forms the substance of the human body, from the skeleton to various organs to the fatty molecules (lipids) that support the body. An excess of kapha leads to an overabundance of density, heaviness, and excess in the body.
So what does this look like?
A vata predominant person usually displays the following traits:
- Physique: A light build, often delicate in nature. Features (facial features, limbs, fingers, etc.) are generally long, slim, or narrow, and hair is thin, wiry, or curly.
- Digestion: Appetite and digestion are often variable, going up and down, yet often lean towards “eating like a bird” and constipation.
- Personality: A vata person tends to be creative, “go with the flow”, and think abstractly. Speech is raspy, high-pitched, or crackly. Vata predominant people are prone to fear and anxiety, and have trouble focusing on one thing at a time.
A pitta predominant person displays the following traits:
- Physique: A medium build, with average height and weight. Physical features can be sharp and fiery (red hair, for example), precise and well-defined.
- Digestion: Ferocious appetite, strong metabolism, and may ” roar” when hungry.
- Personality: A pitta nature makes one passionate, an initiator, directed and focused. A sharp, probing intellect and the ability to focus intently. This same fire can also make a pitta primary person easily irritable, fussy, angry, judgmental, and critical.
A kapha predominant person usually displays the following traits:
- Physique: A large, stout frame is a general kapha characteristic. Features are rounder, larger, thicker, and often smoother than those with vata or pitta predominance.
- Digestion: Appetite is consistent and regulated. Metabolism tends to be slow - may accumulate weight more readily and have more difficulty losing it. As the digestion can be sluggish, the person may feel sleepy or tired after eating.
- Personality: A kapha person may be described as “down to earth” or “solid as a rock” (notice the reference to earthy qualities); there is a tendency toward being grounded, stable, patient, compassionate, and nurturing. Once a kapha grabs a hold of something, he or she holds on tight—this frequently means a person with a good memory and/or firm beliefs. These same qualities also make kapha folk prone to inflexibility, possessiveness, hesitancy toward change, jealousy, and inertia.
Now that you’re familiar with the basic concepts, take this Dosha Quiz to determine your unique Ayurvedic blueprint.