One of the unique characteristics
of "vata" imbalance is that the symptoms are
changeable, often leading the uninitiated — which, alas, includes many doctors and psychiatrists — to believe that the
complaints reported are psychosomatic . . . and therefore not pathogenic. Particularly with vata conditions, it is quite possible to have a serious condition that is not detected:
- because no effort was made to discover the cause,
- the complication was difficult to detect because the problem was inconsistent,
- or the symptoms are due to air rather than something more tangible.
Those who suffer from vata conditions often express anxiety over what is real to them and treated superficially by their health care providers. This is where an understanding of Ayurveda is very helpful. Obviously, having one's symptoms dismissed as fantasies is very frustrating to patients, especially since the types of people most susceptible to vata derangements are the very people who thrive on good communication.
According to ancient medical tradition,
whether Chinese, Indian, Greek, or later, such as the medicine of Hildegard of Bingen, good health depends upon balance
of the elements. Depending on the particular medicinal philosophy, the elements may be seen as competitive with each other or friendly. They can also neutralize and thus appear to destroy each other. For instance, fire is hot, but all the other elements are cold so these elements can either regulate the temperature
so as to prevent inflammation and fevers from damaging the body, or they can destroy fire. Let's put this another way: water can dowse fire and put it out or fire can vaporize water. In other words, we can have too much of an absolutely necessary element or too little. Fire and water make good examples because each has one property not found in the other elements. As mentioned, only fire is hot, but only water is wet. The other elements and the doshas formed by combinations of elements share many of their attributes with each other.
Vata is comprised of both air and ether. They are essential to life and closely associated with prana and the breath of life. Without these elements, we would not inhale or exhale. In short, we would not breathe, and we would die.
Vata is light, cold, and dry. In ordinary
language, this means that the invisible elements, ones whose presence is deduced by observation of the effects rather than the causes, are not just insubstantial in the sense that they lack substance, but they are light and quick, i.e., highly mobile. However, as anyone who was ever near a fan knows, wind lowers both the temperature and humidity. So, vata is also cold and dry.
All the elements as well as the doshas have both physiological and psychological characteristics. Vata types tend to have the lightest bone structure, i.e., least density, as well as least body mass. This is because the body is roughly two-thirds water — so even a small shortage might be reflected in the appearance. Vata types are usually thin, at least while young; and they are generally shorter or taller than average.
Body density can be viewed as a continuum with earth, ruler of the first chakra and the heaviest of the elements, having the least "lightness" — and then as we ascend the chakras with their corresponding elements, there is faster vibration and less density. So, vata derangements tend to be characterized as light, but again, there is a spectrum ranging from responsive to fragile. Lightness is closely associated with quickness, agility, perceptivity, and sensitivity to impacts from outside the self, such as social stimuli or electromagnetic frequencies.
If we think of keeping our feet on the ground while the head is in the clouds, we might grasp the fact that as our attention shifts from something like gardening to what will happen when we grow old, we can "lose our ground" and become anxious. The basic rule for this kind of panic attack is that the concerns are groundless so the difference between phobia and anxiety is as great as the distance between earth and air.
Phobias usually have some basis in
actual emotional experience whereas anxiety may be an unwelcome part of the personality and its idiosyncrasies, but most cases of nerves are not associated with situations that are likely to occur. However, if we worry enough, we will surely live in a state of fear that deranges vata.
Lightness is also associated with memory, especially short-term memory. It is probably more or less normal to forget a phone number or where the keys were last seen, but it is a bit more embarrassing to forget an appointment or a person's name.
From the perspective of Ayurveda, the first time you lose your keys or worry about whether or not you locked the door when you left home is the exact time to start addressing the vata derangement. By nipping such imbalances in the bud, it will probably be possible to avert more serious memory challenges later. It may even be a way to avoid serious incapacitation due to degeneration of the nerves or brain.
To sum up this part of the discussion, it might be sensible to emphasize that a distraction here and there might explain a careless mistake, such as typographical errors or misplaced keys or bumping into a table, but if such occurrences are frequent, the vata derangement requires management.
In most sensible circles, no one would make an appointment to see his doctor just because the keys keep going missing, but the real issue is not the keys but the nervous system and how well it supports adequate functioning in the world. If someone were to make a fuss about the keys, the doctor might prescribe some anxiety medication, but where Ayurveda is helpful is that it offers advice about life style changes and meditation practices as well as food and herbs that help bring people back into balance.
Antidotes to Nervous Stress
The first recommendation for those with early symptoms of vata derangement is to try to organize better.
- Do one thing at a time and take a short break between tasks in order to allow time for assimilation of the experience and adjustment of the vibration
- Practice "mindfulness" which means giving the mind a focus so that it is not so easily distracted
- Take time to enjoy Nature, particularly places that feel expansive and support a rich sense of expansiveness and freedom
- Allow time for social interactions
- When seeking new experiences, discriminate as to whether you are being creative or simply trying to be different or involved
- Eat smaller meals at more frequent intervals
- Stick to at least some semblance of a routine, such as going to bed and waking up on a schedule rather than burning midnight oil one night and crashing for the next three days
- Avoid foods that are light such as crackers, popcorn, and toast
- Take food and herbs that are grounding, that aid digestion, and that calm the nerves
||I will expound on these ideas later suffice it to say that rhythm and routine help to regulate excess lightness.
Coldness is the second major attribute
of vata derangement. People who are cold are sometimes almost traumatized by fans, air conditioners, wind, and cold. Keep in mind that the air element rules the sense of touch and ether governs the etheric body so drafts and breezes may be both disorganizing and cooling. The times of the year when the seasons are changing can also be vata deranging.
In very serious cases, cold can be paralytic. This is because it is associated with inflexibility and deep withdrawal from stimuli.
Psychologically, coldness is expressed
as detachment, indifference, and/or rigidity. In a balanced state, people who are susceptible to vata derangement would be social, open to new ideas, and relatively non-judgmental. They would value their
freedom but enjoy interaction. However, if passion falls below a certain point, the vata energy can express as a desire to avoid involvement and concern. This is not a comfortable feeling even if defended on some pretext or other. Really, there is no similarity between feeling liberated and feeling isolated.
Coldness does not feel good to the
person who is cold. Besides feeling removed and therefore out of
touch, it is physically uncomfortable. The thaw therefore comes
from warmth, friendliness and joy as well as thermal ease.
People who are cold readily become fearful
and sometimes also cowardly. They are relieved by the warmth and passion of
fire. Sometimes, it is easier to restore these traits if supported by a diet consisting of lightly spiced foods that are served hot . . . and not reheated after being refrigerated.
As noted, dryness is due to the lack of moisture. So, now we see that earth alleviates lightness, warmth dispels coldness, and moisture relieves dryness. Except for water, all the elements are dry, but they are dry in ways unique to each.
Vata dryness is caused by a lack of basic viscosity and lubrication. This can express predominantly in one system of the body or be more or less systemic. For instance, the joints may be creaky and/or the skin may be dry. Hair and fingernails could be brittle or the nerve sheaths could be frayed.
Ayurveda teaches that the tendency towards more vata derangement increases with age so it is the symptoms of vata are also associated with the symptoms of old age, everything from a wobbly gait to lost memory.
The proper way to restore moisture is through diet and herbs because topical preparations are more cosmetic even though some oils penetrate better than other oils. Foods that are moist are fairly easy to understand. For instance, oatmeal is mucilaginous and slimy as compared to millet or buckwheat. Sweet potatoes and squash are moist in comparison to Idaho potatoes and cruciferous vegetables. Certain cooking oils and ghee are also superior because they are most easily assimilated so the body can make better use of them. Ghee and sunflower oil are preferable to soy or even olive oil.
There is a lot to learn about each of the types, but more and more material will be posted in the near future that helps to fill in the gaps in this brief essay.