The Wisdom of Ayurveda: Pacifying the Pitta Dosha in Summer Months
As the heat rises, Shama Palmer explains how to keep on top of your Pitta dosha in this month’s edition of The Wisdom of Ayurveda.
by Shama Palmer
In Ayurveda, summer is the season of the Pitta dosha. The days are lighter, longer and warmer as more hours of sunlight bring more exposure to the fire element. Ayurveda invites us to pay attention to the qualities of each season, particularly if it is the season of our own constitutional dosha (humour) type.
Remembering a more literal translation of the Sanskrit word ‘dosha’ makes sense of this advice. Dosha means fault, or defect. This points us to the fact that the doshas are unstable and likely to go out of balance. And so, an essential part of health maintenance from an Ayurvedic perspective is to constantly pay attention on the one hand to what aggravates or elevates our doshas, and on the other hand to what pacifies them. We should be aware of this in our lifestyle and food choices, the climates we are exposing ourselves to, and activities we participate in (including our professional and exercise activities).
Awareness of our lifestyle and food becomes particularly pertinent when we are in the season of our constitutional type, as each season has a governing dosha. When we are in a climate which has the same qualities as our constitutional type, we need to be especially careful. For example, a cold and dry climate will potentially put cold and dry qualities up within us in a way that will aggravate a Vata type. On the other hand, a warm and humid climate will help to build the same within us, reducing those cold and dry qualities which can be dominant in Vata dosha types and thereby causing someone with a Vata constitution to experience a greater overall sense of well-being.
Conversely, put a Pitta type in a hot and humid climate and they are likely to experience these qualities increasing within themselves in a way that brings discomfort. A handshake when Pitta is elevated might reveal a hot and sweaty palm in a humid climate! Pitta types may, in fact, find themselves longing to visit cooler, drier climatic regions. We are all affected by the nature of each season but we will experience the effects of seasons and climate differently, according to our prakriti (natal constitution), or possibly our vikriti (disorder/disease).
The qualities of Pitta dosha are said to be hot, sharp, light, spreading, oily, liquid. Therefore, as like increases like and opposites reduce, to keep a Pitta dosha pacified in the summer season, reducing our exposure to these qualities whilst increasing our exposure to the opposite qualities can be a great support to body and mind, particularly for Pitta types. The opposite qualities are cold, slow, heavy, grounding, stabilising. Increasing our exposure to these qualities, particularly during the summer season, can help to antidote the effects of the season. However, be cautious and know that it is important to pay attention primarily to your own prakriti.
For example, Kapha types are already cold and Vata types are said to be cool, so both Kapha and Vata types may still want to keep exposure to cooling substances reduced even during the summer months. Of the three doshas, Pitta dosha can manage best of all the increase in raw foods that we tend to eat as salads in the summer months. Vata dosha and Kapha dosha might find them more difficult to digest, and perhaps too cooling. In fact, Ayurveda would suggest that all three doshas keep salads and raw foods to a minimum. Pitta dosha can digest them best and can eat them first, before warm foods. It is better for Kapha and Vata to eat warm foods first to nourish their less penetrating digestive fires, and then to eat a small amount of salad only.
It’s also important to remember that Ayurveda advises actually that ‘cooling’ rather than ‘cold’ substances are taken, even in the case of Pitta dosha. Ice-cold foods and drinks are not recommended for any dosha as they reduce the agni, or digestive fire. Our agni needs to be kindled, not reduced, so that our systems can effectively process what we ingest. Cold does not mean that we should ingest frozen products, or foods straight out of the fridge. It refers instead to the energetic effect of a substance, which can be heating or cooling.
We have all experienced these energetic effects of foods, though we might not have thought of them this way. Two obvious examples are chillis and mint. Chillis are pungent and heating, while mint is cooling. How many of us enjoy a cooling mint raita alongside a super-hot curry? It is a matter of internal energetic effect rather than temperature. This summer, instead of drinking iced cold water, try sipping boiled water at a tepid temperature throughout the day to stay hydrated.
Particularly if you have a health condition, it’s always preferable to get individual guidance from a qualified Ayurveda practitioner before making any changes to your diet and daily routine. Ayurveda completely values your individual metabolism, and it works most effectively when that is assessed and addressed under the direction of an Ayurveda professional who can take all factors which might be impinging on your health and well-being into account. However, my hope in writing here is that you might get an inkling of the incredible intelligence and yet pure common sense, back-to-basics, very do-able fundamentals of the Ayurvedic way of life, and that that might entice you to bring some of Ayurveda’s wisdom into your own life.
In this summer season, why not try out a little Ayurvedic living? Adapt your lifestyle, activities and food choices, at least in part, to accommodate the nature of the season. If you don’t have a Pitta type prakriti/vikriti, you could adapt to just some of the recommendations given below and see what happens. If you have a strongly Pitta prakriti/vikriti, you could make a commitment for a limited period of time to the Pitta-pacifying adjustments listed below, and see what happens.
If are experiencing heat-related conditions (inflammatory ailments, headaches, conditions with burning sensations), please do seek professional Ayurvedic guidance. It’s a time-tested tradition with proven results.
Below is a selection of Ayurvedic tips for keeping the Pitta dosha balanced and for positively aligning yourself with the nature of the summer season. Please do let me know how you get on with them, or write to me with your Ayurveda health questions. Wishing you wonderful Summer days!
Ayurvedic tips for the summer season
- Reduce/avoid spicy, pungent foods such as chillis, raw onion and garlic, and mustard seeds. Salty, oily and sour or fermented foods should be reduced – this includes yoghurts and cheeses
- Also reduce or avoid the nightshade family of foods, which includes potatoes, tomatoes, peppers and aubergine. These contain glycoalkaloids which can have an inflammatory effect on the joints
- Increase your intake of naturally sweet foods. This is a time of year to consume more carbs for greater energy to carry us through more active days. Take them in the form of wholegrains, which have a naturally sweet taste. Rice, quinoa, barley, oats and spelt are all good choices. The sweet taste is cooling, and pacifies the Pitta dosha
- Bitter tastes will also help to pacify Pitta. Some suggestions include summer season leafy greens, rhubarb and rocket
- Favour spices and herbs that are not so heating. Coriander, mint, and saffron are good. Fennel and ginger (if it is fresh, not the dried powder version) can be a good way to nourish the digestion without creating more heat
- A good choice of oils are cold-pressed olive or sunflower oils
- Alcohol and coffee have a heating effect on the system, whereas a room temperature fresh water with a slice of cucumber or sprig of fresh mint, or mint teas, can have a more soothing cooling effect
- Exercising outside of the Pitta times of day is advisable – avoid exercising between the hours of 10am and 2pm
- Choose activities that are not highly competitive. That famous drive that enables Pitta to attain so much can also have a heating effect on the body and mind. Relaxed activities such as cycling and swimming are perfect choices in the summer months
- Gentle, flowing exercise routines such as slow yoga sequences are a good style to opt for. They are challenging enough to be satisfying, but also place focus on relaxing effort
- The yogic breathing practices of Sitali or Sitkari breath have a cooling effect on body and mind – you can read how to perform a cooling breath sequence in last month’s column, The Wisdom of Ayurveda: Keeping A Cool Head Through Lockdown
- Resting in savasana (also known as corpse pose) on the cooling earth, with a focus on relaxing into the end of effortlessly lengthening exhalations is a wonderful way to ground and calm our system
About the author
Sara Palmer (Shama) is an ayurveda practitioner and registered senior yoga teacher and therapist. If you’d like to learn more about agni, ama, ojas, your constitutional type and self care in ayurveda, Shama is running Ayurveda Living courses online.