Ayurvedic Sub-Doshas And How To Best Nourish Them

Just like reality is layered, so too is the body comprised of concentric fields that stack on each other and overlap, working with each other in order to create perfect health in this manifestation vehicle we call the body. By understanding the layers in the body and what their functions are, it becomes easier to see and hear the inner workings by the symptomatic language the body is speaking.

A Look at the Layers

Compartmentalization helps the mind “break down” giant concepts into smaller parts so that understanding is easier. When dealing with the mind-body-spirit connection there are so many moving parts and components to consider when dealing with both dis-ease and evolution, it helps to take the entire concept apart and look at what we are made of so when we “re-member” ourselves we become a fluid field of working parts married in wholeness to ourselves.

In yogic philosophy there are five main body sheaths, or fields: the physical (anamaya kosha), the pranic (pranamaya kosha), the mental field (manamaya kosha), the wisdom body (vinyanamaya kosha) and the bliss body (anandamaya kosha). The prana is also thought to be “divided” into five main vayus (winds) which describe the way in which prana manifests and moves in the body: prana vayu, apana vayu, samana vayu, udana vayu, and vyana vayu. 

In Ayurveda, the seven layers of body tissue are called “dhatus” (including the plasma, blood, muscles, fatty tissues, bones, nervous system and reproductive tissues). There are also three main bodily constitution types, or “Doshas” which represent the elements in the body and how they manifest:

Vata – as Air and Ether

Pitta – as Fire

Kapha – as Water and Earth

These 3 Doshas include 15 sub-doshas which I would like to explore in this article, for in the awareness of them I have personally more easily been able to access where the body might “break down” and where attention might need to turn for healing.

Vata and Its Sub-Doshas

We begin with Vata – of Air and Ether...the element team that is thought in Ayurveda to be the dominant elemental field, for it is both “the space in-between” and the very concept of form itself. Vata is most akin to prana, the life force energy coming into the body through the breath, so in the first 5 sub-doshas we see that each one is related to one of the 5 main pranas in the body as listed above.

Prana sub-dosha literally describes and governs the life force energy that comes into the body via various modes: food, breath, herbs, beverages, sounds, smells, touch and all sensory input. This sub-dosha governs the level of vitality in every cell of our body and every thought in our head.

The nervous system is mostly affected by any imbalance in this sub-dosha as prana is responsible for the maintenance and balance of all physiological processes including the homeostasis of the body in general. If this sub-dosha is out of alignment it is best to utilize meditation and pranayama practices as well as nervous system nourishing herbs. Prana can also be brought into balance by getting the proper amount of rest for your body, processing stuck emotions and walking in nature.

Vyana sub-dosha has its home in the heart. This flavor of prana is the regulator or “guardian” of the cardiovascular system, the blood, and nutrient delivery. With stuck or imbalanced vyana sub-dosha, cardiovascular problems could arise as well as body stiffness, cold hands and feet as well as a blocked anahata chakra. In order to bring this sub-dosha back into health and balance it is important to stretch the body, get massages regularly and consume herbs/foods and use oils that are heart supportive such as hawthorn berry and rose.

Samana sub-dosha governs the prana in the stomach area and digestive system. How well we are able to assimilate the nutrients from our food and process unused waste products out of the body is dependent on a healthy samana subdosha. How we process and “digest” our mental and emotional experiences can be greatly affected by this sub-dosha as well. Dietary changes as well as exercises which massage and open the navel chakra and work the lower two bhanda locks are useful in balancing samana in the body.

Udana sub-dosha is the governing prana over the outward expression of energy, thoughts and action. Memories, speech, and the exhale breath are all under udana's care. Issues that arise from an imbalanced udana subdosha include problems with the lungs such as asthma and bronchitis, diaphragm upsets like hiccups, excessive burping or throat conditions including sore throats, hoarseness and even thyroid conditions can be related. When one is unwilling to express themselves this subdosha is suppressed and can thereby afflict it.

Foods and herbs which support and soothe the throat, act as an expectorant for the lungs, and improve memory are indicated (horehound, lemon, cherry bark, ginkgo biloba, mullien). Taking quiet time in nature is also beneficial for this sub-dosha as is warm oil treatments on the body like sesame oil self-massage and panchakarma.

Apana sub-dosha is the main Vata component that often displays irregularity. It is the imbalance of this sub-dosha that is to blame for many problems associated with Vata and is therefore key to be aware of. It governs the downward flow of prana in the abdomen ruling such actions as elimination, menstruation, child-birth, urination, and ejaculation and is often called the “descending wind.” Navel births can often disrupt this subdosha as can other surgeries of the lower abdomen because the incision affects the air pressure and regulation within this region of the body. Generally, herbs are turned to in order to bring apana subdosha back into balance, but specific massage/bodywork techniques can also help tune into the air in the belly and restore its proper function.

Pitta and its Sub-Doshas

A balance of the elements of fire and water in the body manifests as the Pitta dosha. It is the governing element over the various layers of our digestive capacities in the body/mind/spirit complex and can be more deeply understood by looking at the five subdoshas which comprise this dosha.

Alochaka sub-dosha has action in the eyes and governs the literal way in which we take in light and transform that information into images/impressions/information (think “see” neurotransmitters firing). With the assistance of this subdosha we are able to gain mental clarity and reach deeper spiritual insights around how we “see” reality. It brings luster to the color of the eyes themselves and when this subdosha is compromised, eyes become dull and lifeless, dark and hollow to the point where you can literally see how someone has “lost the joy of living.” One may only feel clear and certain about their path and the direction they are headed when this subdosha is in balance and harmony. Using a neti pot affects this subdosha as does practicing kalpalbati breathing (the shining skull). Herbs for the eyes like bilberry and eyebright are also recommended.

Sadhaka sub-dosha resides in the “heart-mind” where many believe the soul sits. On a physical level it is over the functions of the heart itself such as the heartbeat and flow of the blood. On a psychological level, it helps us to process emotions and mental concepts, “digesting” them for deeper insights into how we live our lives and helping us to anchor more firmly on a spiritual path. When one builds up emotions around the heart which block the flow of authentic expression and disallow one to feel and live from the heart, this subdosha is compromised. Also, when one always refers to the head and logic over feeling and intuition the fires of sadhaka burn less bright within the soul. Living from the heart helps to strengthen this aspect of self as does using practices such as HeartMath (bringing awareness and coherence to the heart waves).

Other assistance for this sub-dosha can be found with rose oil, rose quartz, malachite, brahmari mudra, and hawthorn berry.

Ranjaka sub-dosha is the aspect of Pitta which governs the actual color in the body as well as enthusiasm for life in the body. The spleen, liver and blood are all under ranjaka's dominion and conditions which affect these such as skin discolorations, cirrhosis, high cholesterol, hepatitis, chronic fatigue syndrome, emotional overload and blood issues are included. If this subdosha is imbalanced one will feel joyless about life, weak in the body and mind and even appear discolored. In order to balance this dosha it is required to relieve the spleen meridian, nourish the body with whole foods and include specific herbs which strengthen the affected organs and systems such as shilajit.

Bhrajaka sub-dosha is all about the skin and how it is able to process and receive light and nutrients. Without a healthy bhrajaka pitta in the body, the skin will manifest rashes, discolorations, eczema, acne and other skin conditions. The person with this subdosha afflicted would also likely feel “irritated” on one or multiple levels. The complexion of the face is determined by this aspect of pitta and therefore herbs which nourish strengthen the rakta dhatu – one of the seven layers of body tissue manifesting as blood (largely made up of the fire element)– will assist this subdosha. You can nourish rakta by increasing the available iron in the body by ingesting meats and veggies high in iron as well as herbs that assist in the absorption of iron such as cumin seeds and mint. 

Panchaka sub-dosha governs the pitta of the digestive fires known as agni. Its main job is breaking down foods to prepare for nutrient assimilation. This subdosha is also considered in the breaking down of ideas and concepts into usable information and experience. It is closely related to the bhuta agni – or the spiritual fire of the belly and Manipura chakra. It is imbalanced by over-consumption of salty, pungent and sour foods. In order to bring this sub-dosha into harmony it is recommended to use general Pitta balancing herbs like fennel, cardamom and cinnamon and to practice meditation, drink lots of water and “contemplate the navel.” Literally.

Kapha and its Sub-doshas

The interplay and foundational force of the elements earth and water manifest together in the body as the Kapha dosha. This constitution is generally slower moving, heavier and thicker as it sludges along like the earthen mud of our nature, helping us to feel grounded and solid in our bodies. To better get an understanding of this dosha, the sub-doshas are introduced.

Bodhaka sub-dosha is found in the mouth and is the beginning of the digestive process consisting of the saliva. The teeth and gums are coated by and taken care of thanks to the function of this subdosha which also insists that taste buds are pristine for drawing up the essence of the foods taken into the body. This subdosha is also relevant in the early stages of intimacy through kissing and the exchange of bodily fluids which allows two people to communicate via fluids – which initiates a chakra exchange of energies and subtle information telepathically. When this sub-dosha is out of whack the enamel on the teeth will be compromised and one might lose taste in the mouth. There can also be receding gums or dry mouth.

In order to bring this sub-dosha back into balance it is important to drink the proper amount of water. Adding ghee to the diet will help nourish this sub-dosha and herbs which strengthen the gums and teeth can be used such as white oak bark, peppermint and neem.

Tarpaka sub-dosha governs the mental qualities of the Kapha dosha which includes the brain and cerebrospinal fluid and the lubrication thereof. Being slow and steady, grounded in nature, the Kapha sub-dosha tarpaka helps to instill a sense of peace and steadiness in the body/mind complex and one who is imbalanced in this sub-dosha might feel mentally unstable and even “thirst” for a greater sense of calm or peace in their life. Dementia and its various stages can also result from an imbalanced tarpaka as it assists in the storing of each and every one of our sensory experiences in the brain. Herbs that feed the brain/nervous system as well as those that help lubricate the body (like aloe) are recommended.

Sleshaka sub-dosha takes the idea and bodily experience of lubrication (as mentioned above) and brings it into the joints as the synovial fluids. This subdosha can also be thought to be the quality which assists us in moving easily through change in the exterior world.

Practices like yoga and martial arts, plus spinning and dancing, can assist in strengthening the joints as well as this sub-dosha.

Avalambaka sub-dosha rules and governs the heart and the lungs, though it can be found moving throughout the body, helping to distribute nourishment everywhere it is needed. Some would call this subdosha the king of all Kapha due to its importance in seeing to it that the entire kingdom of the body receives sustenance. If imbalanced, the entire body can suffer, especially the lungs, and so herbs and practices which support the health of the respiratory and circulatory system are indicated (including pranayama and yoga nidra).

Kledaka sub-dosha is final in the list of subdoshas, though far from the least of these. This Kapha type is found in the stomach and the digestive system, acting as the “great protector” and regulator of acids. Kledaka has a strong healthy co-dependent relationship with Pitta fires in the belly, as the two must work intimately and honorably together in order to allow for both the proper breakdown of foods and nutrients as well as the assimilation of them. Aloe vera is another helpful herb for this sub-dosha as it does not interfere with the processes of the belly, unlike antacids which can greatly disturb Kledaka.

There is so much more to know about the many layers of the body tissues and doshas, this has been but a glimpse into the fascinating workings of the elements at play and how they manifest you as a pristine, rejuvenating divine machine. By knowing more of the subtle workings of the body we may become more aware of when they falter, and find greater ease in restoring health and wellness by fine-tuning our consciousness in their direction. When the body talks, it helps to have interpretive skills, and that is how I see knowledge for the layperson of the sub-doshas.