Ayurveda, Depression, & the Season of Kapha

We are in the belly of winter. Long periods of low light and extreme weather challenge our ability to move as much as we might like and this can affect our mood and our overall health. If we are to compare the seasons to Indian medicine (the practice of Ayurveda), this season of slow, dark days can be likened to the dosha, “Kapha”, wherein the qualities of density and heaviness are believed to be imparted to us.

In India, living with the understanding of attaining balance within one’s “dosha”, one of three biological energies, is an ever present way of life; a belief system that encompasess every facet of wellness, internal and external, from cradle to grave. In the West, it is considered an alternative health practice and, admittedly, some of the finer details are often lost. I like to say that I know enough about Ayurveda to get myself in trouble. As I’ve expanded my understanding, I’ve noticed relevant correlations that seem important to take note of, and I try to share this awareness with my students.

Ayurveda is a holistic system of traditional Indian medicine; it’s sanskrit meaning is, “Life-knowledge” which is centered upon one of three “doshas”: Pitta (fire/water), Vata, (air/ether) and Kapha (earth/water). The triangulation of the three doshas rise out of the various elements that help form the stability of one’s life- fire, air, water, earth and ether. It is typically believed that everyone has a combination of these elements, which ultimately determine our personality/physical traits and our emotions; and that there are very few people who embody only one dosha entirely. Rather, it is the combination of these elements that make one unique. Of course, most of us do have a dominant dosha or two, and within a trinity of perfect balance, this is typically the dosha that expresses itself most visibly when out of balance.

Depending upon our dosha for guidance, the foods we will want to choose to eat, the exercises we will find balance in, and the lifestyle we choose to live are then selected to best serve the body in attaining equilibrium. In Ayurveda, balance is paramount, and suppressing natural urges is seen as unhealthy, potentially leading to illness. However, honest self-awareness concerning these urges are stressed as well, especially in the areas of food quality and intake, sleep, and desire. For example, it may be the desire of a Vata to always eat fresh fruits and veggies, but to qualify balance, one notes that when the Vata dosha is manifesting dry, itchy skin, or anxiety, foods containing more fat will, in fact, offer a healthy counterbalance to the primary out-of-balance desire. In Ayurvedic practice, it is believed that each person can bring more balance into their life with modification of their food intake and environment in order to increase or decrease the expression of doshas that are out of balance.

My favorite analogy about Ayurveda is found in the image of a mountain. When the three doshas present themselves to the mountain, we will find Pitta, the dosha of fire, will approach quickly, burning its way to the very top. Pitta people are the CEO’s, the athletes, the people who check things off their lists yesterday. This “type A” Dosha, which thrives upon goals and challenges, tend to wear glasses when out of balance, because the heat that burns within also burns out the eyes. Along with the increased susceptibility to heart issues and strokes from burning too hot, they gray early, and anger issues spark under stress.

When Vata, the air dosha, approaches the mountain, just like the wind splits in half and goes easily around the mountain, so does the person with dominant vata flit around through their lives. These quick thinkers talk a lot, and are typically slender, delicate and wispy. A true vata has trouble holding on to mass of muscle or curve and may struggle as they age with brittle bones and dry skin. No matter what they eat, it seems to escape in the very air that blows through their constitution. When unbalanced, they can find themselves being distressed with anxiety and stress and absent mindedness. These are the writers, the artists, and musicians of our time. Like the wind flows through the air, so does their intuition seem able to reach through time and space and they thrive when life offers renewal and the freedom to be creative in their lives.

Kapha is the dosha of earth and water. In a way, they simply are the mountain, but as water is persistent, the slow steady pulse of Kapha finds its way through the mountain, creating rivers without effort . Grounded, nurturing, reliable, this dosha tends to be the least favorite dosha of our time and culture due to the fact that Kaphas have the strongest tendency to struggle with weight and typically have thicker bones, broad shoulders, wide hips and hobbit feet. Considered the “worst dosha” from a modern culturally aesthetic perspective, they have sturdy constitutions, strong teeth, and healthy skin and typically find it easy to give of themselves to others. This dosha is voluptuous, strong and hearty, with full lips, and lustrous hair... but, the struggle with being sedentary is real, and when out of balance, dominant kapha people can suffer from depression and obesity. These are the nurturers and caregivers, the teachers, the doctors. They are loving and kind, patient partners and parents- and they tend to be amazing cooks, because, they love to eat and create delicious, rich food.

We now find ourselves in Kapha season. Movement becomes slower, rising times later, and motivation to move becomes reluctant in the winter. This is the time of year when depression or lack of motivation can set in as our Northern climate brings the sun close to the horizon, robbing us of daylight and warmth. To counter the weight of Kapha season, there are few things as empowering as the way it feels to find your way to the middle of a room, hitting a steady headstand, and hold it for five minutes with grace. When you do that, you feel strong. When the heart lifts and legs and arms push away from the floor to lift into a backbend with a perfect arch of the spine, adrenal glands, kicking adrenaline into the body to infuse it with energy. Inversions and backbends are masterful at moving lymph around as well, improving your immune system’s ability to fight off viruses and bacteria. We can literally use backbend as a pick-me-up throughout the day, instead of coffee. Not only does that stuff pick us up, but there is a bonus prize that the energy boost found in backbend happens to lack the adrenal sapping quality that is a side effect of coffee; and, healthy adrenals also enable us to cope better with stress and exposure to disease.

In Montana, we sadly have one of the highest rates for depression related suicide in the nation. In response to that devastating reality, behavioral clinicians work with evidence-based perspectives and promote behavioral change in order to reduce or eliminate depression and anxiety; their dedicated research indicates that the centering and calming practice of yoga is highly effective at reducing the symptoms of depression at a higher statistical rate than is found with medication alone. While medication can be helpful for some, studies do show that most antidepressants show to be little more effective than placebo- and while they can and do work for some, a steady practice of yoga, coupled with the cognitive skills taught in behavioral therapy, elevates mood beyond placebo or medication. These findings are exciting, because they offer us all the very real, and accessible opportunity to step forward, taking charge of our mood by simply finding our way to our mats on a regular basis, no matter what our medication choice may be. While yoga is most certainly habit forming, there are no negative side effects of a regular yoga practice, which is pretty fantastic, considering how effective it has been shown to be for reducing depression and other mood disorders.

In this season of Kapha, I’m moved to address and provide balance to the diminished mood we collectively feel by offering the awareness that we can move beyond painful feelings through devotion to our practice of yoga. Though this is Kapha season, and depression and general malaise is frequently worsened in this season of minimal daylight hours, the point of Ayurvedic medicine is that things can be done to move into balance. Yoga has been clinically shown to be one of those things. In that spirit, I’m offering an uplifting workshop focusing on Yoga for Depression on February 11th, from 10:00-1:00, wherein we will focus on heart-opening backbends and upon the grounding stability of inversions and headstands. This is an intermediate workshop where some experience will be helpful as we journey together. In the next few weeks, our classes will hone in on building strength for these poses, and I hope to bring light, hope and awareness to those who are feeling down or unmotivated during these chilly Montana days that stretch out for so many months.

I look forward to seeing you on your mat in the weeks to come as we work toward emotional balance.


(Note: Treating depression is a very personal journey. If you or someone you know is hurting from the effects of depression, please do consult with a licensed behavioral clinician who can best come up with ideas that will support your safety and help you to create an integrated plan for healing, or call 9-1-1 for emergency services. Know you are not alone and that there are viable answers- we hope that yoga will offer some of those answers in collaboration with guidance and support from your wellness team.)