The concept of Prakriti
Dr. K.M. Shyam Sundar
The author is an ayurvedic physician in Chennai.
A characteristic feature of traditional medicinal systems is that they consider the individual as a whole, rather than just the disease. Treatment is fine-tuned, taking into consideration the individual's constitution, susceptibility to diseases, mental make up, lifestyle and other factors. This has been refined to a very high degree in Ayurveda with its powerful concept of Prakriti. This article aims at providing a general introduction to this concept.
The word prakriti means "nature" or natural form of the build and constitution of the human body. Pra means the "beginning", "commencement" or "source of origin" and kruthi means "to perform" or "to form". Put together, Prakriti means "natural form" or "original form" or "original source". Disease occurs when there is a change in this original form at the psychological or physiological level.
Ayurveda lays emphasis on examining the Prakriti or the natural state of an individual first. The disease vikruthi is examined later. While the expert in modern medicine analyses the disease, the Ayurvedic expert is also interested in the individual who is suffering from the disease.
Prakriti: The three types
All material in the universe, animate or inanimate, is composed of five basic elements or Pancha Mahabhoothas - namely Akaasha, Vaayu, Teja, Jala and Prithvi. Akasha, or space, is omnipresent and all pervading, a substratum to the other four elements and due to its presence one can separate or differentiate material. Vaayu, or air, is responsible for the movement of all types and is vital for the existence of all creatures. Teja, or Agni, is the element of energy or heat. Jala, or Aapa, is the element of water essential for sustenance of life. Prithvi, or earth, is responsible for structure and bulk of the material.
However, in terms of the functioning of living beings, Ayurveda sees all actions based on three basic functions called doshas - namely vata, pitta and kapha. vata is responsible for respiration and control of movement. pitta is responsible for maintenance of body heat and kapha is responsible for maintenance of body form and structure. These doshas are the manifestations of the bhootas in the living systems. kapha dosha consists of Prithvi and Jala, pitta of Tejas and vata of Vayu and Akasha.
Before a detailed description of each Prakriti type, the qualities of each of the doshas are given. These qualities are manifested in the individual's personality.
vata is dry, light, mobile, expansible, quick, cold, rough, clear and astringent in taste. So vata Prakriti individuals tend to have dry and rough skin, are lightly built, quick in their mental process and initiation of action.
pitta is hot, penetrating, slightly foul smelling, liquid, sour and pungent in taste. So pitta prakriti individuals tend to sweat a lot and tend to have a higher than normal body temperature.
kapha is unctuous, smooth, soft, sweet in taste, stable, dense, slow, rigid, cold and clear. kapha prakriti individuals tend to have soft limbs, slow gait and are slow to understand. The cold quality means that their agni or digestive power is low.
The dry quality of vata is manifested in the body as dry skin and thin structure i.e. lean body. The hair, nails, teeth and eyes appear dry. The voice is weak, low, crackling and hoarse. These individuals require little sleep and are hyperactive. The movements of the individuals - especially of the eyebrows, chin, lips, tongue and limbs are quick and unsteady. The expansive nature is manifest in prominent blood vessels. Due to quick action, the individual shows early initiative in work but because of the dry quality he loses strength and becomes tired. Their memory is weak but they have a quick grasp. Due to the cold nature, the body temperature is low and body stiff. The natural desires and craving for food and environment are opposite to the qualities of vata. They have meager seminal fluid and have only a few children. They tend to have a short life span.
Due to the inherent hot quality of pitta, these individuals have a high metabolic rate, a tendency to eat and drink a lot and are often thirsty. They develop moles and skin eruptions. They possess soft and scanty hair and tend to be prematurely grey and bald. They are unable to bear even minimum heat. They are brave and courageous but cannot tolerate exertion. They get easily provoked and upset. The fluid quality makes the body parts, muscles and joints soft and flabby. The high metabolic rate leads to excessive perspiration and excretion. The foul smell of the pitta tends to give them a strong body odor. The quality of heat and pungent taste leads to limited sexual urge, scanty semen and limited progeny. Due to the sharp and quick action, they have a very good intellect, grasping power, memory and are of moderate strength and the life span is medium.
Due to the unctuous nature of kapha, the individuals of kapha prakriti possess unctuous and oily skin. The soft quality of kapha makes the face soft, the looks gentle and clear. The sweet quality gives them a large quantity of semen and they have a strong sexual urge. The stable and steady quality endows them with a well-built and steady body. The dense nature provides fullness to the body and organs. The slow quality of kapha makes the individuals slow in their activities but they have strong perseverance and are emotionally very mild. They have steady and slow body movements. The cold quality results in poor appetite (their agni or digestion is poor) and low body temperature. The steady and dense quality gives them steady joints and ligaments. The clear quality gives rise to a pleasant appearance, color and voice. All the qualities of kapha endow the individual with strength, wealth and energy and also a long life.
Most people are a combination of two doshas i.e. Dwandvaja prakriti. They possess characteristics of both doshas involved depending on the percentage of the combination. A balanced constitution is ideal and extremely rare in which the balanced state of all the three doshas neutralizes the bad or unwanted qualities, support and bring out good qualities of the other.
Prakriti and diet
Dietary requirement should be modified according to the Prakriti (constitution) of the individual. In general, an individual with vata prakriti should take unctuous, warm, and sweet substances. One with pitta prakriti should take cool, heavy, sweet, bitter and astringent food articles and kapha prakriti person should consume food in which dry, warm, light, pungent, bitter and astringent tastes predominate. The diet chart gives the beneficial and non-beneficial food articles.
Susceptibility to diseases
vata prakriti individuals are prone to diseases of the neurological system especially motor functions. The disease mostly affects the lower limbs since they are the predominant seat of vata dosha. Also, these diseases are pronounced during the old age which is the period of vata (vata kala). Some of these diseases are tetany, wasting disorders (muscular atrophy), spasms, hemiplegia, convulsions, headache, insomnia, angina (hridgraha), dysuria, rheumatism (amavatha), osteoporosis (asthisosha), fissures on palm and soles (vipaadika), swelling and stiffness of the thighs (urushthambha), brachial palsy (avabahuka).
Those with pitta prakriti are prone to diseases of the digestive and metabolic systems. The diseases mostly affect the abdomen i.e.. the area between the breast and umbilicus. Also, pitta disorders are pronounced in the middle aged which is the period of pitta (pitta kala) like intense localized burning sensation, stomatitis, acid regurgitation, jaundice, bleeding disorders, bluish discoloration of the skin.
Individuals with kapha prakriti are prone to disorders of the respiratory system especially phlegmatic disorders. The diseases affect the upper parts of the body i.e.. chest and above. Also, the disorders are pronounced during the early ages (childhood) which is the period of kapha (kapha kala). For example: Drowsiness, excessive sleep, obesity, swelling of the neck (galaganda), thick skin eruptions, congestion of the chest with phlegm, polyuira.
Prakriti and the seasons
Human beings constantly struggle against the changing environmental conditions to maintain optimum health and vigor throughout the day and in all seasons. The human body depends on the continuous holistic interaction between internal and external factors. When this interaction is in a state of equilibrium, man enjoys health and when this fails, either due to internal deficiency or hostile environmental factors, the balance is disturbed and leads to disease and disharmony. Environmental factors include the nature of the land, water and various atmospheric phenomena such as temperature, humidity, wind, rain and snow.
Effect of seasons on the prakriti types
In summer, due to extreme heat and its dry and rough qualities, the digestive power is very low and the body loses water due to perspiration. These factors aggravate vata dosha which has similar properties and causes accumulation of vata. The excessive heat, which is antagonistic to the cold quality of vata, prevents it from being vitiated.
During the rainy season, which follows the summer, the sudden change from hot to cold weather results in the vitiation of vata thus causing diseases.
The excessive heat in summer leads to increased exhaustion and reduction of body strength. Heat also results in the increase of the pitta dosha. With the advent of rains on the dry and hot earth, the pungent taste of the land becomes sour and this results in the accumulation of pitta dosha. The cool environment does not allow the pitta dosha to be vitiated due to antagonistic action. Autumn, which follows the rainy season, is hotter and this leads to the vitiation of the already accumulated pitta dosha and results in diseases.
The extreme cold of winter leads to accumulation of kapha. But due to extreme cold, the kapha solidifies. Spring is warm, causing liquefaction of the accumulated kapha and vitiates it causing disorders.
How to diagnose your prakriti?
The examination of prakriti is an important subject and is an expert's work. An Ayurvedic expert adopts two broad methods to determine the prakriti of an individual. They are interrogation and physical examination.
Interrogation involves specific questions put to the individual. The physical examination involves looking for specific physical and behavioral aspects.
The Ayurvedic system of diagnosing Prakriti offers unique insights into understanding and assessing one's health. It is comprehensive in scope, spanning both physical and mental aspects. It is not merely a diagnostic device but also a guide to action for good health. It provides detailed guidelines to adapt one's food and behavior to suit one's prakriti.
But diagnosing our prakriti should not become a rationalization for poor health. It should be a guide for intelligent action to tell us in which direction we should move and how we should act to improve our physical and mental well-being.
Superficially it may appear that some Prakritis are better than others. Each type has its positive and negative aspects. What is required is not regret that one is of the "wrong" Prakriti type or aspire to be of a different one. We need to start from wherever we are. This means that we need to understand where we stand and accept it. Then we need to plan intelligently to attain the most healthy state by realizing our potential. The Ayurvedic understanding of Prakriti provides a way to do both these - to analyze and assess where we stand and to provide guidance to attain perfect health.
Knowledge regarding changes in our digestive power with the varying seasons, has been well understood in society. As per the Ayurvedic view, food is digested by agni within us - just as it is cooked by agni outside. According to Ayurveda, there is a "stimulus-response" relation between the agni within us and the outside agni - namely the sun. When the agni outside is strong (i.e. in summer) the agni inside us (our digestion) is weak and vice-versa. This is reflected in the way in which our food customs have been adapted to seasonal changes.
For Ramnavami, which comes during the summer months, the prasadam is very light and easily digestible. The prasadam for Krishna Jayanthi which comes during winter, is varied and comprises of food articles which are heavy to digest.
For example, during winter, the breakfast taken is more guru i.e. heavy (to digest) than what is consumed in summer; this is in keeping with the greater strength of our inner agni i.e. the power of digestion, in winter. In South India, a variety of sweets are prepared to celebrate Gokulashtami, which is celebrated in winter. In contrast Ramanavami which is celebrated in summer, usually merits only neermoar (diluted buttermilk) and paanakam (a ginger - jaggery lemonade)!
The effect of various seasons on health has also been noted. For example, in Andhra Pradesh, it is a custom to partake of preparations containing neem flowers and leaves at the onset of the Vasantha Rithu (spring season) and to continue taking it during that season. This is indeed a sound practice, since this serves as a corrective measure for kapha dosha, which gets vitiated in this season.