by Dr. Brian Keenan
In Ayurvedic medicine, there are 5 elements: Earth, Air, Fire, Water, and Ether (or the space between things) that interact and combine to form the 3 dosha: vata, pitta, and kapha. These dosha go on to be the functional and corporeal interactions of life, nature, and by extension, human health. Moreover, beyond governing all aspects of life, the dosha are also responsible for the variety and uniqueness of life. This is said to be because these three dosha combine and interact in various ratios and at various levels in each living being. Simply put, this explains how Ayurvedic physicians will have extremely individualized treatment plans for their patients, as they have been trained to detect subtle differences in the actions of the dosha and their overall ratio in the makeup of an individual. The dosha, as they exist and maintain the human body, are influenced by several factors including diet, lifestyle, stress levels, emotions, and thoughts, as well as the environment, the season, the air quality, and so forth. Another place wherein the dosha are influenced is by age, and which epoch of life an individual is in. Ayurveda separates the lifespan into 3 eras, each named after a specific dosha. The kapha era at the beginning of life, the Pitta era from puberty until around 65 years of age, and then the vata stage of life from around 65 until death. When in a particular dosha’s era, the influence and qualities of that dosha will be more present and act as a greater influence than the other two dosha. For example, the Kapha stage of life is one’s childhood. Kapha is associated with the elements Water and Earth and governs growth, the tissues of the body, as well as the fluids of the body. Children grow rapidly, are susceptible to diseases that often cause increased amounts of mucus, and their desire for sweets is reminiscent of an instinctive desire to fuel the rapid growth they are undergoing. Similarly, the vata stage of life that deals with older age is characterized by dryness, fatigue, pain as well as wisdom, and clarity.
An examination of the vata stage of life, and the best practices for balancing this increase of vata energy can be useful for understanding the aging process in a different way, and uniquely influencing the trajectory of health as we age. Given that Ayurveda itself has been practiced for over 5000 years, it is likely its scholars might know a secret or two about aging and how to age with grace and comfort.
UNDERSTANDING VATA AND ITS ROLE IN AGING
In order to grasp the recommendations and best practices that Ayurvedic physicians recommend for the vata stage of life, the dosha that is vata must be fully explored and explained. Vata is the product of Ether or Space, and Air. As a result of its relationship to space, it makes sense that any and all aspects of movement are also then considered governed by vata. From the osmosis of water from areas of high concentration to areas of low concentrations to the mechanics of walking, to the movement of wind, these all require some aspect of space itself for movement to occur. Similarly, the Air element relates to wind, the breath, as well as clarity and wisdom. Taken together, the vastness of the universe becomes, in essence, a reflection of the vata aspect of reality as we know it. Beyond this, the qualities of the vata dosha are dry and cold. This makes sense as air and movement will invariably cause dryness without replenishment and balance of water, which in this system would be supplied by Kapha and Pitta dosha. Without the fires of the sun, metabolism, and so on, there is nothing left but cold.
When we consider the vata stage of life, we see human physiology mirror these associations. Becoming easily chilled and having dry, brittle, hair and skin are common symptoms amongst those of advanced ages. Other correspondences of the vata dosha include its role in excretion and as such, is said to reside in the large intestine. As mentioned previously, vata is associated with all aspects of movement, and this includes elimination. Similarly, in the vata stage of life, digestive complaints such as dry stools and constipation, are not uncommon. While there are many maladies that seem to dovetail perfectly with the concepts of the vata dosha, there are also many benefits that come with the increase of vata in this stage of life. Vata is associated with the mind, wisdom and experience, and mastery. During this era of life, the elderly carry with them the stories and wisdom of their lives and often demonstrate extremely high levels of expertise in one field or another. We see an increase in wisdom and clarity, or in some cases, stuckness of thought, which would also be seen as a vata imbalance. The being set in one’s ways, not open to change or challenge, refusing growth, could be looked at as vata not allowing the mind to move, and if the cliché of Ebenezer Scrooge and other crotchety elders sticks out in your mind, it demonstrates this aspect perfectly. Taken together, the vata stage of life is hallmarked by increased risks of dryness or feeling cold, but also the wisdom and clarity of age. For all the potential dilemmas of the vata years, fortunately, there are many ways to tend to this aspect of ourselves and prevent vata concerns while still reaping all the benefits of this beautiful stage of life. Additionally, given vata’s penchant for movement, some of the easiest and most subtle changes can have fast and dramatic impacts.
CARING FOR THE VATA WITHIN
When considering how to restore health, or maintain it, during the vata years, it is important to hold the properties of the dosha in one’s mind while making health decisions. For instance, vata is cold and dry, so the balance of this is moist and warm. So in a single broad stroke, this simple observation can be overlayed with things like dietary considerations, supplement use, daily behaviors, and self-care practices. Using warming oils like sesame oil to massage the body regularly and using lotion routinely will do wonders for the skin and also prevent cracks and breaks in the skin which could potentially get infected. In Ayurveda, it is even recommended to use a neutral oil such as coconut oil to lightly coat the nasal passages daily to prevent disease, improve memory, and strengthen the voice.
Another important aspect to focus on nourishing is the digestive fire, or Agni. Because of the increasing likelihood of cold and dry conditions affecting the body, this also means digestion will be impacted. As such, using healthy amounts of warming spices with cooking can go a long way to enhancing vitality in elderly populations. Moreover, many spices are also known to have their own unique benefits. Ginger for instance is known to stimulate digestion, improve joint mobility, and overall promote comfort. Similarly, cumin and turmeric also enhance digestion while promoting comfort and are delicious in their own right.
When it comes to dietary choices, vata is most supported by well-cooked, nutrient-dense whole foods. Because the digestive fire naturally can wane, stews and soups can help step in and essentially unlock valuable nutrition that’s ready to be easily absorbed. Unless blood lipids are of concern, healthy fats are welcome during this stage of life.
As the vata dosha is responsible for the breath, Pranayama or breathing techniques are especially useful. These techniques teach individuals different strategies for focusing on and controlling their breath during meditation. Pranayama is excellent for anyone in any stage of life, but is particularly useful for those in the vata stage of life. These techniques quiet the mind, banish anxiety, and improve one’s outlook on life. A simple Pranayama technique is breathing in for 4 seconds, holding the breath for 2 seconds, and exhaling for 6 seconds. Adjusting the time allotted should any dizziness occur; however, the goal is to exhale longer than inhale.
Pranayama is often practiced with yogic practices but yoga alone is well understood to be helpful for people of all ages. It promotes movement and stillness, strengthens joints and muscles, and helps improve mood well after one is done practicing. Given yoga’s ability to harness the mind and promote healthy, controlled, movement, there’s no wonder its recommended even more strongly during the Vata stage of life.
Part of health is the concept of community. Oftentimes, with fatigue, aches, and pains, as well as the grief that can come with the losses that accumulate as we age: the desire to help others or connect with others can diminish. However, aiding one’s community or family, or doing charitable work, helps nourish the spirit. It may include movement, such as cooking for a neighbor or helping at a food bank. By its nature, selfless service increases interaction which dispels loneliness and also gives a sense of purpose and identity. A common example in American culture is when an elderly person gets a pet and dotes on it continuously: the dog is the subject of the selfless service, and the individual’s quality of life improves.
VATA SUPPORTING BOTANICALS
AMLA (PHYLLANTHUS EMBLICA)
Amla is said to be the fruit of the elixir of life in Indian legends. Given what is known about amla today, it seems to be living up to its moniker. For instance, it is one of the most antioxidant fruits for its size in the known world and contains higher concentrations of vitamin C than almost any other food currently known. In Ayurveda, amla is considered “tridoshic” which means it is useful to anyone, of any age, and any unique doshic makeup. It has also been shown to help improve metabolic parameters in the elderly, reduce oxidative stress, support gum health, and makes up one-third of the formula Triphala. Explore our previous article to learn more about amla!
BOSWELLIA (BOSWELLIA SERRATA)
Boswellia serrata is well known to promote healthy joints, easy movement, and supports healthy immune function. In Ayurveda, it is considered warming and sweet which alludes to its nourishing and warming qualities that work well for those in the Vata stage of life. On its own, it can be difficult to digest, which is why Boswellia is often paired with digestive-supporting herbs like ginger and turmeric.
Shilajit is a mineral pitch comprised mostly of fulvic and humic acids and has been used in Ayurveda to restore strength and vigor to the elderly. Its name literally means “the strength of the mountains” and it has been used classically as an aphrodisiac, to help those who have been afflicted with debilitating illness recover, and to support healthy aging.
As mentioned earlier with Amla, Triphala is one of the great staples of Ayurvedic medicine. It is used for a plethora of concerns but is also recommended as a daily tonic. It contains Haritaki (Terminalia chebula), Bibhitaki (Terminalia bellerica), and Amla. One of the ways it is employed is as a rasayana which means to restore vitality. This is through its ability to keep all the systems of the body moving regularly and in harmony with each other; a hallmark of the vata dosha.
SHATAVARI (ASPARAGUS RACEMOSUS)
Shatavari is an herb in Ayurveda that supports healthy lubrication, is moistening to the tissues of the body, and helps enrich the mind as much as it does the body. Additionally, it is useful to support healthy libido in women. Oftentimes, the dryness that comes with the vata stage of life can make intimacy less desirable for individuals. Shatavari, with its nourishing and lubricating qualities, can be an excellent support herb for helping nourish the body, mind, and spirit.
Ayurveda has several approaches and techniques to supporting individuals as they age and transition through life. By understanding the vata dosha and all its associations, we can make choices to balance our lives in a way that nourishes us into the older years. Through simple lifestyle changes, dietary strategies, and herbal approaches, we can enjoy lasting vitality for many years to come.