By Anne Williams
Originally published in Body Sense magazine, Autumn/Winter 2007.
Guests at spas and massage clinics have long enjoyed the benefits of treatments influenced by Eastern cultures. Most recently, the five-thousand-year-old healing system from India known as ayurveda has been causing a buzz. Ayurveda is both a traditional medical system and a philosophy that creates harmony and balance in life. While there are some spas in the United States designed as ayurvedic medical centers where ayurvedic physicians provide medical ayurveda, most American spas and massage clinics do not focus on the treatment of disease. Instead, they adopt elements of ayurveda that focus on positive life choices, general detoxification, relaxation, enhanced spiritual awareness, and gentle exercise.
Ayurvedic body treatments might be viewed as an intervention to shift awareness, restore vital energy, and promote mental harmony. The foundation of traditional ayurveda is the belief that everything in the universe is composed of five elements: air, fire, earth, water, and ether. These elements intermix to form three doshas (vata, pitta, and kapha) that govern a person’s body type, mental and emotional characteristics, and personality. In ayurveda, health is defined as a balanced dosha state; an unbalanced dosha state allows disease to take root. Ayurveda teaches people to make choices that promote dosha balance and avoid activities that cause imbalance.
Ayurvedic physicians use a detailed examination process to determine which dosha needs to be brought into balance by being pacified or strengthened. In most spa and massage settings, a questionnaire is used to gather general data about clients’ dosha states before their ayurvedic-inspired body treatment. To find out more about your personal dosha makeup, log on to www.massagetherapy.com and download the complementary dosha questionnaire, then compare your findings to the dosha profiles described below. Readers can also view a diagram of the dosha clock and find out how to have a dosha-mindful day.
People with vata as their dominant dosha are influenced by the elements of space and air. The word vata means to move or to enthuse, and so it is not surprising that vata is the dosha most likely to become unbalanced, as vatas tend to move quickly and often. Vatas are highly active and have difficulty gaining weight despite the fact that they are fond of sweet foods. The vata mind is restless, sensitive, and flexible, and a balanced vata is creative, filled with enthusiasm, artistic, and open-minded. This sensitivity of mind however often causes the unbalanced vata to experience conditions like emotional insecurity, anxiety, and panic attacks.
Vatas are easily aggravated by situations that are overstimulating and should minimize their exposure to noisy social gatherings, overindulgence in TV or Internet surfing, confrontational situations, and intense or stressed friendships. If vata is your dominant dosha, seek quiet calming music, people who talk gently, warming foods, and a structured routine.
In the spa or massage clinic, a vata is treated with firm, slow massage strokes that calm the body’s energy. A classic treatment for vata is the shirodhara treatment, which pulls the mind’s eye to one point, promoting calm, clear thought. In a shirodhara treatment, a thin stream of sesame oil is poured directly onto the forehead, or applied in a pendulum-like motion that pauses for a moment each time the stream of oil reaches the area between the eyebrows, which is sometimes called the third eye. The purpose of the treatment is to center the mind and body, to increase relaxation and inner peace, and to settle vata disorders like anxiety and insomnia. People who receive shirodhara are often surprised by how intense the treatment feels, and it is not uncommon for people to visit internal places that have long gone unexamined. Shirodhara leaves the client feeling open, clear, grounded, and focused, but a period of quiet rest is required after the session.
In Sanskrit, pitta means to heat or to burn, so pitta is considered the dosha of transformation and is composed of the elements fire and water. The pitta mind is aggressively sharp with a clear memory and the ability to precisely articulate thoughts and ideas. Pittas are ambitious, organized, and focused, with a tendency toward emotional intensity, irritability, and jealous behavior. When pittas are in balance, they are confident, bold, and brilliant. When they are out of balance, they are irritable, aggressive, impatient, and critical. Pittas tend to drive themselves and those around them, sometimes to overexertion, and so time for relaxation must be planned.
If pitta is your dominant dosha, avoid overheated rooms, overexposure to the sun, and warm, restrictive clothing. Eat small but regular meals (every two hours), drink plenty of cool water, and balance mental activity with outdoor time in shady cooling environments. While pittas are strong and determined in an argument, too much confrontation leads to imbalance.
At the spa or massage clinic, a pitta will enjoy a variety of massage techniques and respond to the soothing aromas of jasmine, lemongrass, sandalwood, and gardenia. A classic ayurvedic treatment for the dominant pitta is pinda, where muslin bags full of rice, herbs, and milk are used to massage the client. The heat from the mixture warms the muscles and stimulates local circulation, thereby decreasing muscle and joint pain. The unique and unmistakable scent of the herbal mixture is soothing for the mind and senses.
Kapha means to keep together, to embrace, and also phlegm. Kapha is the most stable of the doshas and this stability functions as both physiological and psychological strength in the human body. Kaphas speak slowly and precisely after carefully considering their position on a topic. They are the most loyal, patient, and compassionate of the dosha types, with a loving and emotionally secure nature. The stability and grounded nature that gives kaphas their reserves of strength and their steadiness of personality also makes them reluctant to change or release possessions. When kaphas are out of balance, they sleep too much, overindulge in food, have a predisposition to laziness and may exhibit greedy, possessive behavior.
If you have a dominant kapha dosha, get plenty of vigorous exercise, paint your rooms in bright colors, and play upbeat music. Overeating, oversleeping, and eating very salty or very sugary foods aggravates kapha and leads to boredom and listlessness.
In a spa or massage clinic, kaphas respond to vigorous massage techniques and stimulating body treatments. A classic treatment for kaphas is udvartana, a treatment in which herbal powders or pastes are rubbed into the body to stimulate circulation and cell renewal, smooth the skin, tone the body’s tissues, support detoxification, and relax the body. Originally, udvartana was a beauty treatment that was (and still is in some treatment centers) used with a specific diet, herbal teas, incense, showers, bath, and music in a forty-day course to return the body to radiant health. The paste used in the treatment is called ubtan and is made from nuts, seeds, and unprocessed flour to which oils, spices, and milk have been added. This mixture, often containing a fair amount of mustard seed powder, is warming and stimulating for the body, which aids the detoxification process. After the session, the client is likely to feel invigorated and energized.
Ayurvedic treatments often begin with an herbal foot soak to welcome and purify the client. Indian head massage accompanies the foot soak to relax the head, neck, face, and shoulders. In India, head massage is an art form and often includes the stimulation of marma points, which are vital energy centers used to restore the body to normal function, balance the body’s energies, and either energize or relax the body as is necessary for improved health.
A treatment popular with all dosha types is abhyanga, which means oil massage, and might be performed by two therapists working together on the same client in a coordinated manner. The strokes and massage oils should be varied depending on the dosha of the client. Sessions often end with oiling the ears, a treatment called karna purana. It is practiced to relive itching or dryness in the ears, to settle the vata dosha through the sense of hearing, and to relax the mind. Another way to finish a session is with a swedana treatment in which the body rests in a herbal steam bath after massage.
While the multifaceted aspects of ayurveda are too complex for inclusion in most spa environments, these sensuous treatments provide an opportunity to understand the body’s unique needs better and to experience the smells and sensations of an ancient healing tradition that has gained more relevance in today’s fast-paced world.