While every culture has its own folk remedies, Indian culture has made an art and a science of it. Since 700 B.C.E., when the first book on Ayurveda, "Charaka Samhita," was written, Indians have been experimenting with a system that promotes balance and improves health. Ayurveda is the "science of life." It is a holistic system that takes into account everything from breathing (prana) to posture (yoga) to massage (abhyanga). The fundamental philosophy stresses balance--balance within the body, with the environment, and with the seasons.
Ayurveda recognizes three categories of mind-body types, or doshas: Vata, Pitta, and Kapha. Vata controls movement throughout the body, and therefore Vata imbalances manifest as constipation (lack of movement in the digestive tract) or insomnia (nervous imbalance). Pitta governs the bodily functions associated with heat, and its imbalances manifest in ulcers (too much heat in the stomach) or premature graying and balding (too much Pitta--heat causing the hair to wither and fall out). Kapha controls structure, metabolism, and fluid balance, and its imbalances manifest as obesity (slow Kapha metabolism) or bloating (too much fluid in the body).
If there were one word to describe a Vata type, it would be flighty. Ancient Ayurvedic texts call them ethereal, of the ether, filled with air. You can easily spot a Vata person in a crowd. She is thin, harried, with flyaway hair, rapid-fire gestures, darting eyes, and a worried smile. Advertising copywriters, sports journalists, ballet dancers, these are all stereotypical Vata professions. They suffer from a low attention span or lack of concentration, insomnia, improper digestion, gas, and bloating, almost as if too much wind has taken over their body and played havoc on its rhythms. The prescription for Vata imbalances is routine, something that Vatas detest by nature. Also, warm foods like soups and hearty stews instead of salads and body treatments like oil massages are the first steps toward bringing Vata back into balance. Pittas are intense. They literally burn with ambition, and you can spot it in their red, bloodshot eyes, deliberate enunciation, and intense manner. New York City Mayor Rudolph Giuliani is a classic Pitta.
Pittas are blessed with the ability to concentrate and focus and to work long hours without flagging. Their weak spots are a volatile temper, high blood pressure, affinity for heartburn and ulcers, any illness that manifests in burning, hot sensations. Pittas need to cool off with cucumbers, aromatic baths, walks on the beach. The prescription for Pittas is slow relaxation. While Pittas naturally prefer intense exercise forms like aerobics, they might be better off choosing more moderate exercises like yoga and walking.
Kaphas are slow, deliberate people with a mild, easygoing manner borne of good muscle structure and a healthy constitution. At their best, they have exceptional stamina and a metabolism that is able to pace itself. At their worst, they become plodding bureaucrats unable to get past the minutiae of life. Kapha imbalances manifests itself mostly in a slowing down of metabolism and obesity. The prescription for Kapha imbalances is to help them snap out of it. Bitter foods that will shock their system, aerobic exercises, adventurous activities that will take away from the routine.
Where diagnoses gets tricky is when one body type can have another type of imbalance. For instance, I am a Vata type, blessed with a high metabolism and cursed with erratic body rhythms. When I was a teenager, I experienced a Pitta imbalance, manifested by acne. Red pimples covered my face, almost as if the heat in my body was sprouting out as pimples. After the birth of my child, I am now experiencing the first stages of Kapha imbalance. My metabolism is slowing, and I am putting on weight far quicker than I can lose it. I am trying to jerk my body out of its Kapha imbalance by eating lots of spinach, dandelion greens, and other bitter foods and changing my exercise from yoga to jumping on the trampoline.
Diet is a key element for balancing the body. Ayurveda recognizes six tastes: sweet (sugar, milk, rice), tangy/sour (yogurt, lemon, cheese), salty (salt, seaweed), pungent (spices, ginger, hot peppers), bitter (green leafy vegetables and turmeric), and astringent (beans and lentils). Each of these tastes has a specific effect on the body. One of the easiest ways to practice Ayurveda is to include all the six tastes in every meal.
Adjusting to the environment is the third factor. Generally, fall and winter are Vata seasons, and people are prone to cold, dry Vata ailments like arthritis and rheumatism. Ayurveda recommends that people eat warm, oily, hearty meals in this season to lubricate the dryness of Vata. Spring is Kapha season, when common colds and bronchial ailments manifest themselves. Drying foods like honey and millet are recommended for this season. Summer is the season for sunburn, acne, and heatstroke--all Pitta imbalances. Cool, light fruits and salads help balance the heat of Pitta.
One way to balance your diet is to visit an Ayurvedic practitioner who will feel your pulse to determine your mind-body type and prescribe specific treatments.