Heather, a Boston-area bodyworker, has been under stress lately, and she's starting to feel its effects. Blustery winter weather has arrived in New England, and she has a hard time keeping warm. With the economy yet to rebound, appointments at the spa where she works are still off, 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, active, but tending toward anxiety) and the fiery nature of pitta (smart, passionate, 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 aging 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 like anxiety, constipation, and insomnia. Those with vata-related health problems like 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 hotheaded 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 like 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 tranquilizers, 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 like 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, minimizing multitasking (and exposure to vata-stimulating technology like 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.
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 all 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 this article). Staying warm is also important during yoga, especially for relaxation practices, so make sure to have a sweater 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 favorite 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.
Timothy McCall, MD is Yoga Journal's medical editor and the author of Yoga as Medicine.
To learn a vata-calming asana sequence, go to yogajournal.com/vataasana.