Ayurveda considers the response to seasonal variations and the development of seasonal routines an important cornerstone of health. Balancing the nature of your local climate with lifestyle choices that offset the potential for seasonally-induced imbalances is one of the simplest ways that you can protect your well-being.
In Ayurveda, Ritucharya is an ancient seasonal regimen: Ritu (fixed time, season) and Charya (routine). Ritucharya consists of lifestyle and diet adaptations, and practices such as yoga and meditation, that are responsive to the seasonal changes. The goal is to remain balanced against the changes triggered by the seasons on our total being.
Seasonal variations are fundamental not only to the diagnosis of imbalances but also direct the treatment plans offered. In Ayurveda, there are six seasons, not four. Summer and Winter are divided into two seasons each, based on whether they are the wet or the dry part of the seasons. The six are: Early and Late winter, and Early and Late Spring, plus Summer and Autumn.
The seasons are reflected in, and impact on the doshas. Doshas are a familiar term in Ayurveda for many people. Dr. Vasant Lad, one of the most esteemed teachers of Ayurveda, writes that:
“Ayurveda identifies three basic types of constitutional energy: vata, pitta and kapha. Vata is the energy of movement; pitta is the energy of digestion or metabolism and kapha, the energy of lubrication and structure. All people have the qualities of vata, pitta and kapha, but one is usually primary, one secondary and the third is usually least prominent. The cause of disease in Ayurveda is viewed as an excess or deficiency of vata, pitta or kapha. According to Ayurvedic philosophy the entire cosmos is an interplay of the energies of the five great elements—Space, Air, Fire, Water and Earth. Vata, pitta and kapha are combinations and permutations of these five elements. In the physical body, vata is the subtle energy of movement, pitta the energy of digestion and metabolism, and kapha the energy that forms the body’s structure.
Vata is the subtle energy associated with movement — composed of ether and Air. In balance, vata promotes creativity and flexibility. Out of balance, vata produces fear and anxiety.
Pitta expresses as the body’s metabolic system — made up of Fire and Water. In balance, pitta promotes understanding and intelligence. Out of balance, pitta arouses anger, hatred and jealousy.
Kapha is the energy that forms the body’s structure — made up of Earth and Water. In balance, kapha is expressed as love, calmness and forgiveness. Out of balance, it leads to attachment, greed and envy.”
Because the three doshas reflect combinations of the five elements of earth, fire, water, ether and air, it is natural that as the seasons impact on these elements, they result in potential imbalances of the doshas.
The teachings about the doshas are the source of endless theoretical texts and commentary, beyond the scope of this article. I defer to Dr. Lad and others for a more complete review.
We are currently entering the Autumn season, the sky is clear, with light clouds, the sun shines with warmth but not overpowering heat and the earth is muddy. Autumn is considered a Vata season, the characteristics of vata theory and the Autumn season are close. Since vata dosha represents the air and ether elements, it is considered to be inherently cold, light, dry, moving. Thus, Autumn is considered a vata season: dry, rough, windy, erratic, cool, subtle, and clear. These elements, air and ether, in balance, create the beauty that we think of when we think of light wind on our face, colorful leaves drying up and falling to the ground. But in excess vata, our bodies mimic the changing season and become filled with gas and bloating, our skin drys and our sleep weakens. And anxiety increases. Vata is vitiated. And for those of us whose vata is our primary dosha, the fall has even more of an impact because it will be an imbalance on your primary energy force.
Ayurveda teaches us that we must counterbalance what is being agitated in any change of season. Observing the changes in your environment empowers you to respond to both daily and seasonal fluctuations. Many people subconsciously adopt seasonally appropriate habits: typical in summer we eat more light foods, fruits and salads as antidotes to the intense heat of the summer. But by fall, we return to “comforting” foods that naturally subdue the dry, light, and flightiness of the fall. Diet and lifestyle changes that appease and counter the effects of each season provide a sense of equanimity and balance throughout the year.
This is why taking a few simple steps to balance vata this fall can be tremendously beneficial. So, if we consider the Ayurvedic principle that opposites balance, vata season (which is cool, light, dry, windy, and unpredictable) will be less vitiated if you appease it with warmth, oiliness, deep nourishment, loving relationships, and a sense of stability, routine, and groundedness.
Signs & Symptoms of Vata Imbalance:
In the Mind there are often the earliest warning signs of increased vata: anxiety, loneliness, insecurity, restlessness, hyperactivity, spaciness, and/or confusion. Excess vata in the mind can also leave you feeling irritable, jumpy and can interfere with your sleep
In The Digestive Tract: The digestive tract is often the first location of vata imbalance. Early signs of vata imbalance include gas, bloating, and constipation. Excess vata in the digestive tract can also cause an irregular appetite. When vata is vitiated, people tend to crave meat and fatty, salty, sour, or spicy foods.
In the Circulatory System, Skin, Nails, Scalp, and Hair:
Excess vata in these areas may cause dryness in the skin, lips, or hair, cracking of the skin, heels, nails or cuticles, and dandruff. Excess vata can also cause lusterless skin, poor circulation, cold hands or feet, and eczema.
In the Muscles, Bones, Joints, and Nervous System:
Clumsiness, weakness, muscle aches, tightness, and stiffness, are all signs of excess vata in the musculature. Cracking, popping, or pain in the bones and joints indicates that there is too much vata in these delicate spaces. Excess vata can also cause tingling, numbness, sciatica, nerve pain, a stiff neck, and vague or generalized pain.
A Vata-Pacifying Diet:
(The Vata-pacifying diet is useful year round for people with a vata predominant dosha. But with each season, everyone would benefit from emphasis on balancing the particular dosha that is vitiated the most.)
You can easily support vata by favoring warm, oily, well-cooked, well-spiced foods that are high in protein, high in fat, and seasoned with sweet, sour, and salty tastes. Eat foods that are easy to digest, but also grounding and nourishing, such as root vegetables, soups, and stews. Garnish your food with plenty of ghee. Increase your intake of cooked grains—like oatmeal, tapioca, cream of rice, and cream of wheat. Eat regular meals at regular times and enjoy fresh ginger tea with a little honey between meals so that your agni (digestive fire) remains strong and your appetite is stimulated prior to eating. Drink room-temperature, warm, or hot beverages, and avoid iced drinks. In general, try to reduce your consumption of raw vegetables, cold and frozen foods, as well as the bitter, pungent, and astringent tastes. Eat only in moderation the light, cooling, and drying foods like broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, sprouts, leafy greens, white potatoes, beans, popcorn, crackers, millet, and dried fruit.
Do your best to reduce the pungent, bitter, and astringent tastes and avoid strong black teas, and coffee.
A Vata-Pacifying Lifestyle:
In general, your vata seasonal routine should aim to maintain hydration, decrease, reduce gas in the digestive tract, and practice calming exercises. Establishing a simple daily routine is one of the most powerful ways you can calm vata. It is important to stimulate agni (digestive fire), so practice yoga poses that involve twists which stimulate your digestion. If you enjoy essential oils, vetiver, geranium, and citrus are recommended. Dress in enough clothes that you stay warm throughout the day. Cover your head and minimize exposure to drafts, loud noise, and aggressive music. Move more slowly, with intent.
Ashwagandha, as a tea or a supplement, helps to stabilize your nerves, aids in sleep, and facilitates digestion. Read more about Ashwagandha and other supplements here.
Stay warm, stay safe!
And don’t forget to check back with us again for an update on Ritucharya in Winter!