Ayurveda is an ancient healing science from India that offers a holistic approach to well-being and longevity. The very word “Ayurveda” can be translated as “knowledge of life” or “science of longevity.” Ayurveda emphasizes that to be alive is to be in relationship with all that is. Its teachings guide us on how to live harmoniously with our experience, as we flow through the ever-changing fluxes and phases of life.
Originally, Ayurvedic wisdom was orally passed down from teacher to disciple, but eventually was recorded into various texts. There are several branches of Ayurvedic medicine, such as internal medicine, geriatrics, pediatrics, psychology, ENT (ear, nose, and throat) or diseases above the clavicle, toxicology, surgery, and sexual health. Woven within these branches, aromatic medicine can also be found. Aromatics have been used in Ayurvedic medicine for therapeutic purposes, commonly in the form of incense, herbal oils, and pastes, as well as a vast array of herbal preparations.
Before exploring how aromatic plants can be utilized through an Ayurvedic lens, it is helpful to learn how Ayurveda explains the relationship between the senses and the outside world. According to Ayurveda, we perceive external reality through the five sense perceptions shabda (sound), sparsha (touch), rupa (vision or form), rasa (taste), and gandha (smell), with the five sense organs – eyes, ears, nose, tongue, and skin. The objects of sense perception – or physical matter – are an expression of consciousness, and are derived from the universal elements Ether, Air, Fire, Water, and Earth.
Distilled from the five elements comes the concept of the three “doshas” in Ayurveda: Vata, Pitta, and Kapha. Vata is the principle of movement and is composed of the elements Air and Ether. Pitta is the principle of transformation and intelligence and is composed of the elements Fire and Water. Kapha is the building block material, it has the most physical qualities of the three doshas as it is composed of the elements Water and Earth.
The expression of the three doshas contributes to every body’s unique constitution. This is called “prakruti,” and can essentially be equated to a person’s genetic blueprint. Each being has their own way of embodying the qualities of Vata, Pitta, and Kapha dosha. Most people will have one or two doshas that are dominant in their constitution. Let’s take a look at the doshas in more depth, and see how they can be applied to aromatic medicine.
Ayurveda doshas: vata, pitta, kapha
Vata reflects the qualities of Ether and Air, so by nature, it is dry, light, subtle, rough, mobile, irregular, and cold. A person who has more vata in their constitution may have a thin frame, prominent bones, and dry hair. They could also have a dynamic, creative mind and tend to move or speak quickly.
Vata governs all voluntary and involuntary movements of the body and carries impulses from sensory stimuli to the brain. In this way, Vata has a special relationship to the nervous system, as well as the musculoskeletal system.
If out of balance in the body, Vata can create constipation, gas, bloating, anxiety, restlessness, weight loss, fatigue, insomnia, muscle and joint pain (cracking joints), irregular appetite & daily habits, muscle tremors, ticks & spasms, sciatica, and dry skin.
Pitta dosha is hot, sharp, penetrating, oily, liquid, spreading, fleshy smelling, and light. It is the metabolic fire burning within every being — overseeing our digestive capacity and governing our intellect. Pitta gives energy, intelligence, and comprehension, and has a close qualitative relationship to the blood and muscle tissue. Pitta transforms our sensory perception into understanding. Without Pitta, there is no learning.
A person with a Pitta dominance in their constitution may have sharp features, a heart-shaped face, a red tinge to the skin, red hair, and a muscular frame. They may have a bright, brilliant mind and a competitive personality.
If the qualities of Pitta are imbalanced within a person, they may experience irritability, anger, frustration, sharp hunger, loose stools, acid reflux, migraines, liver issues, rashes, skin diseases, nausea, and inflammatory conditions.
The qualities of Kapha are heavy, slow, stable, dull, dense, damp, cool, oily, and slimy. Kapha gives structure and form to the body and has a nourishing, protective, cooling, and soothing effect on tissues. Kapha is the internal waters and is closely related to plasma, fat, mucus, as well as synovial fluid and cerebrospinal fluid. In the brain is something called “tarpaka Kapha,” which is a sensitive film that our experience is recorded on. Without Kapha, there is no memory.
A person with more Kapha in their constitution may have strong bones, more muscle or fat tissue, and a larger frame. They may have round facial features and a smooth, moist complexion. Kapha predominant people tend to be grounded, loving, and compassionate.
If Kapha is in excess in the body, it can create cold, cough, congestion, edema, weight gain, high cholesterol, high triglyceride, asthma, lack of appetite, mucous in the stool or sticky stools, depression, feelings of attachment and lethargy.
Aromatic plants for balancing Vata
To balance Vata with aromatic plants, we want to think of aromatics that are warming and grounding in nature, as the qualities of Vata tend to be light, cold, irregular, and dry. We can essentially think about plants that have Earthy properties, or even sedative effects to them. Typically, plants that act as a calming nervine can be helpful in soothing Vata, because Vata is so intimately connected to the nervous and musculoskeletal system.
Nutmeg is a pungent and heating herb that can balance Vata through its sedative, nervine properties. Nutmeg can relax the musculoskeletal system and can help reduce pain caused by Vata (excess cold qualities). Nutmeg also works on the digestive tract, easing symptoms of gas, bloating, abdominal pain, and malabsorption. It is said to have an “anuloma” effect, meaning that it helps direct Vata in the right direction. Symptoms such as gas, constipation, or hiccups can occur if Vata is traveling upwards in the GI tract rather than downward and out.
For insomnia, a pinch of Nutmeg powder can be added to warm milk before bed to induce sleepiness. Nutmeg essential oil can be diluted into a carrier oil and applied to the body to help with pain and muscle spasms, or applied to the temples to relieve headaches. Remember, to prevent sensitization and adverse skin reactions, always dilute an essential oil before applying it externally on your skin. For a reference guide on safe dilution ratios, check out our Essential Oil Dilution Chart here.
Tagar, a relative of Valerian, is pungent, sweet, bitter, and astringent in taste and has a heating energy. It is a sedative nervine that promotes a sense of heaviness in the restless mind and body. Due to these warming, grounding qualities, Tagar is extremely pacifying for Vata dosha. The scent of Tagar is strong but has a powerful effect on the body and mind.
Tagar helps relieve insomnia, and musculoskeletal and nerve pain due to its antispasmodic and analgesic properties . It can also help to ease tremors, ticks, spasms, tinnitus, nervous tension, and anxiety. Tagar essential oil can be diluted into a carrier oil, such as sesame oil (which is also warming and Vata pacifying), and applied to the body to soothe Vata symptoms in the muscle, bone, and nervous system.
Aromatic plants for balancing Pitta
To balance Pitta, we want to think about including aromatics that are cooling in nature. Plants that have an affinity for cooling and cleansing the liver and blood generally can have a Pitta pacifying effect. Aromatic herbs can be utilized both internally, topically, and as an incense or essential oil to reduce excess heat. Let’s explore some Pitta soothing aromatic herbs.
Sandalwood is considered to have calming, cooling, and soothing properties which help reduce Pitta in the body and mind. Sandalwood can soothe emotional upset, stress, anger, frustration, and tension. It also has an affinity for the blood and when taken internally or used topically in oils – can bring relief to heat-related skin issues. Sandalwood can be used in the form of an essential oil, herbal oil, or incense, as well as in powdered form internally and as a paste to be used topically for skin concerns.
Coriander comes from the seeds and leaves of Cilantro and is a wonder Pitta pacifying herb. It is bitter, pungent in taste and its energy is cooling. Coriander can help to improve digestion when there is a Pitta imbalance, such as excessive sharp hunger, nausea, or acidity. Coriander also acts on the urinary system and can help soothe burning sensations in the case of a urinary tract infection.
Fresh Cilantro leaves can be taken internally or made into a paste and used topically when there are any heat-related problems with the skin, such as rash, hives, itching, or burns. Coriander essential oil can be diluted into a carrier oil and applied to the belly button to support digestion, or to the temples to soothe a hot frontal lobe headache.
Aromatic plants for balancing Kapha
To balance the heavy, dull, cool, and wet qualities of Kapha dosha, we would want to choose plants that have more stimulating, heating, and drying effects on the tissues. Aromatic plants can have a powerful balancing effect on Kapha because excess Kapha can commonly accumulate in the lungs and respiratory system in the form of excess phlegm or a runny nose. A couple of Kapha pacifying aromatic plants include:
Eucalyptus is pungent in taste, and heating in action. It pacifies Kapha through its expectorant, stimulating, diaphoretic and diuretic actions. It is a powerful aromatic used for colds, coughs, congestion, sinus infections, asthma, and respiratory tract infections . For respiratory support, Eucalyptus can be used in the form of incense, essential oil (in a diffuser), topical chest rub, or herbal steam. Eucalyptus incense smoke has long been employed by various cultures for air purification and illness prevention due to its antibacterial, antiviral, anti-fungal, and anti-infectious qualities.
Vacha has a bitter, pungent, and astringent taste and heating properties – all of which are pacifying for Kapha in the body. Vacha also has a particular action on the respiratory system, where Kapha (mucus) can tend to accumulate, and works as a powerful expectorant and decongestant to break up thick, damp congestion in the lungs. It also has an affinity to the digestive system, mind, and throat. Traditionally, Vacha has been used to help with speech, self-expression, memory, sinus headaches, nasal polyps, poor appetite, excess mucus, and to stimulate thyroid functioning – all of which can stem from a Kapha imbalance .
balancing ayurveda doshas
Viewing the world through the vantage point of the elements and doshas teaches us to observe qualities rather than draw judgments or conclusions. Rather than knowing a dis-ease as the name of a pathology, you see a pattern of qualities expressed in the form of symptoms. Or, rather than judging someone for behaving a certain way, you might remain equanimous and curious, seeing the qualities of a dosha playing out.
For example, instead of feeling reactive or offended by someone’s anger, you may just witness the Pitta qualities of hot, sharp, and spreading enter the field of your open awareness. This outlook shifts our perspective beyond the habit of like and dislike, and invites us to have a more open and inquiring mind.
When integrating the concepts of Vata, Pitta, and Kapha into your aromatic understanding, or when choosing an aromatic plant to support you – it is important to meditate upon the qualities occurring within your body, and similarly, the qualities of the plant. There is a deep listening that is needed, and soon enough, you will intuitively start to see the three doshas patterned everywhere. In every cell of every being, and in every object, living and nonliving, Vata, Pitta, and Kapha are there – orchestrating the symphony of reality.
The exploration of how aromatic plants and the human body connect is a continual journey. But by incorporating a perspective that considers energetic qualities, we open ourselves to a profound level of perception and deepen our understanding of how nature manifests itself. Navigating this path you will marvel at the interconnectedness of life, as it becomes clear to see the entire universe mirrored within.
Article Written By Dawn Gibson
1. V. Dass. (2013). Ayurvedic Herbology East & West: A Practical Guide to Ayurvedic Herbal Medicine.
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*The statements above have not been evaluated by the FDA, and are for educational purposes only. This article is not intended to diagnose, treat, cure, or prevent any disease. This article should not be taken as medical advice. Please consult your physician before you use this information for health purposes.