All About Vata :: Weathering Winter and Balancing the Body-Mind

Vata is the dosha in Ayurvedic medicine, comprised of air and space. Light, cool, and dry in nature, and it governs all movement and processes in our mind and body internally —including processes like blood flow, elimination, breathing, and the movement of thoughts in your mind. And it also governs all movements outside in nature; the wind, the air, the subtle growth of plants and trees. If we want to understand what vata looks like, or feels like, just peeking outside into the winter landscape will tell us; Vata is cool, rough, dry, and mobile. It’s harder to see and feel these effects in our day to day modern lives, but our everyday is also abundant in Vata; we’re doing, thinking, inputting, sponging up and uploading at a constant clip, just as the plants, trees, wind and animals are doing their vital work for superpowered spring beneath the ice and snow, our bodies are attempting to thrive beneath the never-ending influx of movement and over activities in our lives.

Because Vata rules winter, it’s easy for us to look at vata balancing through the lens of winter; the time in the year when our environmental balance is most deeply impacted by this most mobile of doshas. Though vata dosha can fall out of balance any time of year, winter is an almost certain time that we experience vata imbalance as athletes. Athletes’ lives are already susceptible to high levels of vata because we are constantly emphasizing vata in our lives; in addition to working, thinking, working on screens, hustling to balance all of the plates we keep in the air, and doing our regular body functions, we ALSO are moving more than most…which exacerbates vata all the more.  During the winter, we’re being blasted by the onslaught of vata not only from inside our bodies but outside our bodies as well.

But with a little bit of care and balancing its rhythms with our own life patterns, we can stabilize the mobility of this ever-flowing dosha in our highly active lives. The following principles apply to balancing vata all year round, but in particular, balancing through the vata-dominant winter.

What is “vata”?

Vata translates to “wind,” in Sanskrit, which makes perfect sense when you consider that this is the dosha associated with flow and all movement in the body and mind. Vata controls the circulation of blood, and oxygen in the body, the journey of food through our digestive tract, not to mention every movement we make with our bodies including everything we hear, say, and see. If the body was a car, vata dosha would be the key that needs to be put into the ignition to get the car to start; without the movement inherent to vata, pitta, and kapha doshas would become inert.

What are the qualities of vata dosha?

Vata is…

  • Cold
  • Dry
  • Light
  • Rough
  • Mobile
  • Subtle

Those who are vata-dominant have a tendency to think quickly and move quickly, and to be creative, dynamic, flexible…and sometimes overactive. They speak quickly and are known to easily stray off-topic or to appear scattered. They have bubbly personalities but are also prone to worry, and anxiety. Vatas tend to be naturally thin and small in frame; Vata manifests in the body as subtlety, which means that those dominant in this dosha tend to have sharp features, small eyes, and thin bones and skin.

What does vata in balance look like?

Vata dosha in balance looks like lean, lively, energetic bodies flowing with creative and calm energy.

What does vata out balance look like?

When vata is out of balance in body or life, it makes us feel ungrounded and erratic. Difficulty sitting still, anxiety, insomnia, dry skin, and digestive issues such as gas, bloating, loss of appetite, constipation and irregular elimination are all signs in Ayurvedic medicine that vata is vitiated. In athletic bodies, frequent injury to bones, ligaments, and joints also is indicative of unbalanced vata.

So, how do we balance vata?

As with anything, the best way to balance vata is with opposites. Since vata dosha is cold, dry, rough, mobile, and light anything (and everything!) that is warm, moist, smooth, grounding, and comforting and still will help to pull vata back into balance. Think warm soup, sitting by the fire, oil massage, cozying up reading a book, practicing yoga.

Because vata is erratic, routine also helps to balance vata. Because vata is mobile, anything that involves slowing down – in body and mind – also helps vata to balance. Listening to relaxing music, spending time in nature, and taking deliberate breaks from screens and digital inputs also will feel those with an excess of vata feel their best.

For athletes and highly active people, these practices are all the more important, particularly in the wintertime when the environment outside is literally embodying vata (cold! rough! mobile! dry!) Embracing all things slow, stable, calming, soothing and stabilizing will help us to balance vata all year, but in the winter embracing this mentality will help us to be balanced all year long.

Warm foods, like soup, are optimal for balancing vata.

Eating and drinking for vata:

Vata is dry, cool, and light, and foods that are oily, warming, and heavy offer some balance to promote proper digestion. Rather than following a set of hard and fast rules, the best practice is to eat for your dosha, and to learn to witness the ways that foods impact your constitution AND reduce vata in your being (working with an Ayurvedic practitioner can help you to identify what this looks like!

Foods that help to balance vata:

Foods that are salty, sweet, and sour

  • Rice, whole wheat, and oats
  • Sweet, heavy fruits like avocado, banana, mango, plums, berries, and peaches
  • Cooked vegetables to aid digestion
  • Warming spices like cardamom, cumin, ginger, cinnamon, cloves, fennel, and sage
  • Natural sweeteners like maple syrup and honey (but use them sparingly)

Foods that serve to further unbalance vata:

  • Pungent, bitter, astringent foods
  • Barley, corn, rye
  • Light, dry fruits like apples, pears, and pomegranates
  • Raw vegetables, salads, and specifically those with a lot of seeds
  • Black beans, chickpeas, and kidney beans
  • White sugar, most liquors, and coffee

To balance vata, meals should also be served warm, and beverages are best enjoyed at room temperature or warm—not iced! This means salads, smoothies, cold drinks, ice cream, and even that random cold sandwich won’t serve you very well when vata is elevated, especially in the winter!

Smart sweet treats balance vata, especially during exercise.

Moving for vata:

Many athletes are already high in vata because it’s their natural constitution (prakruti) and so they are drawn to exercises with a lot of movement, such as running, cycling, skiing, and other high-intensity endeavors. To stay balanced, these types need to balance their avidity for high-impact, fast-paced movement with exercises and movements that create stability, strength and stamina. Resistance exercises, weight training, yoga practices with longer holds, meditation and breathing practices are all exceptional. Even making modifications to our favorite high-paced activities can be helpful for balancing vata; going for a long hike in the mountains instead of a trail run, going out for a gentle spin instead of a hammerfest on the bike, or doing a strength-training workout with heavier weights and slower, more stable movements will all serve to balance out excess vata. Winter is a particularly poignant time to embrace this philosophy and these practices; winter is NOT the time to attempt to “regain fitness,” instead, this time of year is when we build a strong base, boost immunity, and bolster the entire system to take on a mobile and active spring and summer!

Activities that emphasize slower, steadier paces are optimal for balancing vata in winter.

The bottom line:

When the energetic, creative vata dosha becomes unbalanced, it can manifest as restlessness, anxiety, and insomnia and digestive challenges. If the imbalance is sustained, this depletes the immune system, prevents nutrient absorption, and ultimately sacrifices performance of body and mind – whether you’re an elite athlete or just a high achiever. But, by bringing more warmth and stability into our days, we can maintain an equilibrium, stay strong and balanced all year long.