Living Healthfully with the Vata Dosha in Autumn

If I wanted to sum up the wisdom of Ayurvedic natural medicine while standing on one foot, I would choose the Sanskrit aphorism from Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, namely, Heyam Dukham Anagatam, or Avert the Danger That Has Not Yet Come.

The concept is simple. What you do now affects what will happen tomorrow. As in other aspects of our lives, so too in health. One of the ways we prevent disease, or "avert danger," is by living in tune with the seasons. Another is through knowledge of our particular body-mind tendencies, called dosha in Ayurveda.

In Ayurveda we use nature as our guide. It’s only reasonable to consider that we humans are affected by natural forces of dark and light, cold and heat, dry wind and moist rain just like the rest of the natural world. This includes both daily (circadian) as well as seasonal biorhythms.
Autumn: Days of Awe

Literature and poetry are replete with images from the seasons and reflect their obvious effects on our moods. Autumn is generally suggestive of a downward movement (we do call it Fall!), an in-gathering, a taking stock, a natural "deflation" of the wild blooms of summer.

Ezra Pound refers to the "sweet sadness" of autumn; sweet because Autumn has its own beauty, sad, because it is the end of something else that was wondrous, rich, and gay.

Autumn is a natural time for taking stock of the fruits of Spring and Summer, examining their results and making the adjustments necessary for a better quality harvest next year, while expressing gratitude for the successes you have had that will take you through Winter.

Autumn is a time of special awe. We know what is in store. We know Winter is ahead; there is change in the air, the light softens, the shadows lengthen, the air smells different, and at the same time the memory of Summer lives fresh in our senses.

It’s interesting that in the cycle of Jewish holidays that occurs in Autumn, the 10 days between the anniversary of the creation of the world Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement for mistakes committed against our fellow human beings and God) are called the Days of Awe.

In Judaism this is a very special time for reviewing your actions of the past year, and making amends and asking forgiveness from those you have injured or transgressed upon. It is a time for deep assessment. Only after this meditative retreat, culminating in the fast of Yom Kippur, does the wonderful harvest festival Succoth, the Feast of Booths, arrives.

And among Hindus in South India this time of year features the Navarathri, or Nine Nights of the Goddesses, during which time craftsmen and women honor the tools of their trades, students and musicians honor their textbooks and musical instruments, accountants open up new books for the year, and everyone honors their parents and teachers and favorite deities. This is followed by Deepavali, the Festival of 1008 Oil Lamps. After this the Sun-god goes to sleep until mid-January.

By the time we reach the end of September the accumulated heat of summer has had a drying affect on nature, on our bodies, and on our beings. Dryness and a gradual cooling are in the world around us. Winds often pick up and days become blustery, further increasing dryness. Of course even the leaves wither and drop from the trees, but in a final burst of color, the last gift of Summer. True. It’s not yet Winter when things go underground.

General Guidelines for Autumn

This cold, dryness, and movement (wind) of Autumn, especially late Autumn, are exactly what characterizes the Vata dosha. And when a particular dosha increases in the environment, it will tend to increase in our body as well. For example, spending prolonged time in a very dry and cold environment tends to make our skin and body dry and cold, which are the qualities of Vata dosha. This is precisely what happens in the late Autumn/early Winter.

In a way this is the most important time of year, since Vata is the force that moves the other doshas. If Vata goes out of balance, the other doshas are more likely to go out of balance as well.

It is wise to keep your Vata dosha balanced in Autumn. Here are general guidelines you can follow in late Autumn and early Winter, and more closely if you are Vata predominant. (There are exceptions for other doshas.)

* To bring balance to dryness, apply moisture. Moisture here means oil, not water.
* To balance cold, apply heat. This means warming foods and warm clothing.
* To balance excessive movement or quickness, calm down and slow down.

Balancing Moisture

To balance moisture in late Autumn and early Winter, apply oil to your body. Ayurveda recommends regular oil massages during all the warm months, but never more than in Autumn.

On your day off, massage your body from head to toe, including the scalp, with warm sesame oil. (If you have a current Pitta imbalance, you may need to use coconut.) Then take a nap on a beach towel and wash off the oil in the shower with a mild soap or herbal cleaning powder. In many ways losing moisture defines the aging process, and our senior years are governed by Vata. The oil bath is one prevention for aging.

Application of oil to the skin replenishes, nourishes, moistens, and heals Vata of the body and mind.

Applying Heat

Here are some methods for applying heat in late Autumn and early Winter:

* Eat heavier nourishing foods. See the recipe below for an example. (This does not mean lasagna.) I recommend parsnips and kale sauteed in sesame oil with onions, cumin, black pepper, salt with some lemon added.
* Choose moistening and warming foods, such as cereal cooked with cinnamon and pears versus dry cereal, and cold milk and cooked veggies with protein and rice versus a cheese sandwich.
* Avoid old food, frozen food, processed food, as they all damage Vata.
* Lightly cook your vegetables with warming spices like ginger, Cumin, Coriander, Asafoetida, Turmeric and black pepper.
* Drink lots of soup and Vata tea, which is both warming and seasonally regulating.
* Have warm cooked food for lunch, or at least have some soup.
* Avoid raw food, especially salads, which are by nature cold, light, and drying and only increase the cold dry qualities of Vata, when what you need is warming, grounding nourishment.
* Be careful not to have too much bitter or hot spicy (chilis and cayenne pepper) food this time of year.
* In the evening before bed put a drop of warm sesame oil or ghee in the nasal passages. I use a medicated version from
* Keep yourself comfortably warm; avoiding getting chilled, especially on the head and back of the neck where the wind can attack.

Calming Down and Slowing Down

Here are some methods for calming down and slowing down in late Autumn and early Winter:

* Go to sleep by 10 pm and get up early.
* Don't skip meals.
* Choose slower forms of exercise, such as slow, grounding yoga poses or Yang Family Style Tai Qi.
* Do not exercise to exhaustion. This is "too much movement." Sports and exercise that leave you feeling over stimulated or exhausted often are depleting you of all your vital energies and are not recommended, especially during the Vata time of year.
* This is a bad time to run a marathon, but if you must, make sure you really recuperate with food and rest.
* Number one way to slow down is to have a regular meditation practice.
* There is no one who can't meditate, just people who have tried and failed, or not had good instructors. I can teach even a goat. Try it. Meditation is nourishing as well as calming.
* Do a 10 minute meditation or pranayama (breath work) before going to sleep, rather than reading or watching TV, which re-stimulates your mind.
* Make sure you get your quiet time in. Take a cat-nap.
* Try not to rush, or at least rush calmly!
* Face your fears, rather than bury them.

How Vata Manifests in the Human Body

Vata in nature is cold, dry, light, and windy. Vata is the aspect of intelligence that governs all movement in the body, including in the following areas:

* Digestive tract
* Nervous system
* Mind
* Communication, including speech
* Activity of the joints

Imbalanced Vata can lead to excessive nervous system activation and excessive mental activity, causing things such as:

* Insomnia (mind can’t slow down)
* Anxiety (heart can’t calm down)
* Hyperactivity
* Mania
* Weight loss
* Fatigue
* Weakened immunity
* Arrhythmia
* High blood pressure

As Vata governs the joints and bowels, imbalance can lead to the following:

* Joint pain, such as arthritis and stiffness
* Any kind of pain
* Chronic constipation
* Bloating
* Gas
* Uro-genital problems such as Interstitial Cystitis

A Balanced Vata tends to be creative, vibrant, lively, enthusiastic, clear, alert, flexible, sensitive, talkative, and quick to respond.

What Does It Look Like Physically to be Vata Predominant?

While doshas generally occur in combinations, a text-book Vata dominant would have some of the following unique characteristics:

* Thin
* Slender and hard muscles
* Large prominent joints (relative to rest of limb)
* Irregular features, such as ears too small or too large for the head, crooked nose or large shoulders and hips on a fine boned frame
* Dry, rough skin
* Dry hair, like straw
* Small crooked teeth
* Dull or washed out small eyes
* Inconsistent, not hearty appetite
* Little sweat
* Light sleeper, tending to insomnia
* Tendency to bowel problems, constipation, or diarrhea
* Weak or inconsistent libido
* Forgetfulness
* Restlessness, excitability, nervousness, anxiety
* Moodiness
* Quick walk and talk, even manically
* Easily chilled so dislikes cold weather

Dietary Guidelines for Vata Types

While dealing with Vata's tendency to a restless excitable nervous system at the level of the mind is critical, diet is also very important.

If you notice yourself worrying or obsessing about your diet, that in itself may be a symptom of Vata imbalance in the former, or Pitta in the latter. Take it easy. There are no evil foods, only evil diets, and a diet occurs over a lengthy course of time. Have some sinful food on your birthday and holidays; it’s okay.

Below are general guidelines for the hypothetical pure Vata. That means you really need to modify these with an Ayurvedic counselor to fine tune what is right for your exact body-mind type.

* Dairy products: All dairy products pacify Vata. Heat milk with Ginger or Cardomom, and don't drink with a full meal. With grains alone is ok. Cheese should be soft and fresh, like cottage cheese, not aged, like cheddar.
* Fruits: Favour sweet, heavy fruits, such as avocados, grapes, cherries, peaches, melons, berries, plums, bananas, sweet oranges, pineapples, mangoes and papayas. Avoid or reduce dry light fruits such as apples, pears, pomegranates, cranberries and dried fruits. (Dried fruit can be taken first soaked in hot water. Dates are best taken with ghee). Apples and pears are ok if cooked.
* Sweeteners: All unrefined sweeteners are good for Vata (but definitely not in excess). (Sweeteners are warming and moistening.)
* Beans: Avoid all beans, except for tofu (soybean curd) and mung dhal (split mung beans). (Beans are considered "astringent," which dries Vata.)
* Nuts: All nuts are good (warming, moistening).
* Grains: Rice is and wheat are very good, but beware of wheat if you are allergic to it or gluten intolerant. Barley, corn, millet, buckwheat, rye, and oats in moderation and well cooked.
* Oils: All oils pacify Vata. Warming ones are best: sesame and olive
* Spices: Cardamom, Cumin, Ginger, Cinnamon, salt, Cloves, mustard seed, and small quantities of black pepper pacify Vata. Avoid chilis or even too much black pepper. An excellent Churna spice mix for Vata is two teaspoons each Cumin, Ginger, 1 teaspoon each Fenugreek, Turmeric, Turbinado Sugar, salt, and Asafoetida.
* Vegetables: Beets, carrots, asparagus, cucumber, and sweet potatoes are good, but they should be cooked and not raw. The following vegetables can be eaten in moderate quantities, cooked and especially cooked with Vata reducing spices: peas, green leafy vegetables, broccoli, cauliflower, celery, zucchini and spinach. Avoid sprouts and cabbage.

Activities that Aggravate Vata

Late nights, overwork, dealing with anxiety and worry, over-stimulation by media, especially fast media like television, and video games, stimulating drugs, air travel, excessive travel.
Activities that Regulate Vata

Breathing, gentle exercise, meditation, adequate rest, good friendships, warmth from color and light.
Warmth through Color

Color is another source of balance for doshas. Since Vata is cold, like the color blue, if you have a Vata constitution, you might do well to surround yourself with some warm colors like gold, orange, or red, whether in your choice of clothing, art works, or even choice of paint color. Vata is comprised of air, and Vata imbalance causes a lack of groundedness. (Thus an Oriental carpet on the floor with rich deep maroons and reds can be grounding.)
Warmth through Light

When I was a boy in New York City my mother would embarrass me by stopping in the middle of the sidewalk if the sun came out suddenly on cloudy cold days. She would tip her head back, close her eyes, and let the sunbeams wash her face and let the golden heat penetrate her eyelids for a minute or two.

Now I know what she was intuitively doing. Mom had a Vata imbalance. Just as someone with excess heat or Pitta should avoid the noon sun in summer, if you are a cold Vata or Kapha, then maximize your sun exposure (within the realm of skin safety) in late Autumn, Winter, and early Spring when cold Vata and Kapha predominate. If you work 8 to 5 make sure you get out at least a little bit during the day to "feel" the sun with your pineal gland.

The following is a wonderful recipe for the Autumn.

Autumn Baked Root Squash Stew


* Butternut Squash, 1 small
* Parsnip, 1
* Sweet Potato, 1
* Kidney beans, cooked, 4 ounces
* Ground beef or Lamb or cubed Tofu or Tempeh, 8 ounces
* Yellow raisins, 2 tablespoons
* Turmeric, 1/2 teaspoon
* Allspice, 2 tablespoons
* Bay leaves, 5
* White pepper, 1/2 teaspoon
* Salt, 1 tablespoon or to taste
* 1 medium to large brown onion, sliced
* Prune juice, 3 oz or 4 to 5 prunes
* Olive oil for sauteeing onions, 3-4 tablespoons
* Water, 3/5 cup


1. Peel and chop Squash, Parsnip, and Sweet Potato into large chunks and set aside.
2. Saute onions in oil until slightly brown.
3. Add crushed Tofu, Tempeh, or ground beef.
4. Saute until meat or tofu is browned.
5. Add powdered spices and salt and keep stirring for 3 minutes on very low heat to bring out the fragrance of the spices.
6. Add chopped vegetables, prunes or prune juice, raisins, and water, and stir for a few minutes.
7. Place in covered baking dish, and place in pre-heated oven at 375 degrees for 35 minutes, or cook on stove top on simmer in heavy pan with lid for about 20 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes.

Serve with a cooked grain such as rice.

Eyton J. Shalom, M.S., L.Ac., has been in private practice in San Diego since 1992. A Magna Cum Laude graduate of UCSD, he began his study of Natural Medicine in 1972. The next 12 years involved intensive Yogic practice, including three years in India and Sri Lanka, where he also began his study of Ayurveda. Eyton became licensed in the practice of Chinese Medicine in 1992, and has been the owner of the Body-Mind Wellness Center in San Diego since 1997. Eyton offers individual and group instruction in both meditation and progressive relaxation. He can be reached by email or at 619.296.7591.