Dosha Think It’s Time You Learned About Ayurveda?

Via on Jan 27, 2012
Ginger and Mint in hot water, i.e. herbal tea
Ginger and mint (in moderation for Pitta types)

When I start describing them, so many people become instantly intrigued about Doshas. Yet there is always a moment where I just trail off and can’t really give a person a solid takeaway. Through this article, I aim to share some analogies that might stick just enough to open your doorway to a science that is well worth learning about, especially if you regularly practice Yoga.

One caveat: I’ve taken two Ayurveda intensives, both under Ayurvedic practitioners. While I’ve learned and read a lot on this subject, I do not claim to be an expert. Yet, this is on target since Ayurveda is not about relying on an expert over the long haul. It is a science based on observation, and it encourages people to take more responsibility for their health based on a sense of empowerment about how to approach it.  These are my observations of myself and others as filtered through what I have learned.

The literature on Doshas is extensive. Some writers, like Robert Svaboda, are absolutely genius at taking a reader’s hand and walking them back into the sensitive recesses of the Ayurvedic collective mind to where the concept of Doshas began. And in these recesses is where the seeker finds the power that Ayurveda grants anyone willing to take it up.

Yet still, how can you describe it to someone who doesn’t have time or the faith to pick up a book about it? Here’s a start.

You will find the definitions of the Dosha “types” to be generalizations, because they are. Just as multiplication, division and fractions are simplifications of math when you consider calculus, Doshas are simple, yet highly-practical, entry points to a complex and sophisticated approach to health. To take this journey, you must start somewhere.

While you favor one Dosha or perhaps two, it’s impossible to categorize yourself as one alone. You and everyone represents a very unique interplay of a specific Tri (3) Doshic constitution and your life is a constant fluctuation of these Doshas, inspired by environment, behavior, diet, and your Prakriti (see last Ayurvedic definition, inborn tendency in favor of one or two Doshas). The seasons, the times of day, the people who you surround yourself with will all affect this Doshic ecosystem. One thing is almost always certain however: Everyone has a predominant Dosha (and usually a sub-Dosha that is almost, if not, as influential if aggravated) and this, once identified, is a good place to start looking inward. Ayurveda provides guidelines about this ecosystem; it is a Sanskrit word that means “The study of life,” which encourages everyone (not just doctors) to start studying their own, unique life!

An Analogy 

The idea for this analogy came when I was practicing Tratak one night before bed—the exercise where you gaze at the flame of a candle.

I sat there looking at the candle and realized that it was the best example I had seen of what Doshas are. (I’m pretty sure I’m not the first person to come to this conclusion.) Essentially, Vata is air and ether (space) which is surrounding the flame and embedded in the dry wick that carries the fire (Pitta), which is sustained and fed by both Vata and the solid oil pillar (Kapha).

When you think about the interplay of these three elements in a candle, it is much easier to get your head around what is happening with the Doshas when they swing out of balance. What happens for instance when the winds and air movements (Vata) pick up around a flame? Depending on its strength the fire (Pitta) can become more intense, somewhat out of control, or it can be blown completely out. What happens to a fire (Pitta) when you burn the candle down to the metal at the base of a pillar? It starts to die down. What happens when there is too much wax (Kapha)? The flame can dull because the wick becomes so saturated that it won’t light.

You ;)

Vata (“I Move”)

Vata is considered the master Dosha because it governs air and space and essentially allows for and exists as movement.  When you encounter big changes, when you (are female and you) have your period (as hormones encourage a movement of substances down and out of the body), when you are overworked, when you travel (excessive movement across time zones), when you eat foods that contain a lot of air (beans) or are dry (dried fruits, chips, etc.), this Dosha can become aggravated.

What does this mean, Vata is aggravated? A description of a predominant Vata constitution is in order. Someone with predominant Vata is described (generally) as always moving (in thought or action), rarely able to keep a routine (for eating, sleeping, sex, work, anything), thin and wiry, dry in their skin, hair and nails and often close to burnout! They say yes a lot because they hate confrontation (blocking movement). They say yes to external demands so much that they forsake a routine. What happens then? They become depleted. They become sick. They become resentful but rather than confront it will instead allow it to weather them. They tend to age prematurely. Their biggest need is for routine but it is something that they’ve become allergic to, to the chagrin of their (weak) inner fire (Pitta) and lost (low-weight) sense of groundedness (Kapha).

Pitta (“I Burn”)

Routine, sustenance, self-care, are all essential to keeping the flame (Pitta) burning bright. Predominant Pitta types are the masters of routine—they intuitively know that if they skip a meal, that flame will be compromised. They become grouchy when hungry, aggravated when pushed off schedule. They need breakfast as soon as they step out of bed. They know their exact energy limits days in advance based on the schedule they’ve created. They tend to be pointed in their words, frank. Commander types.

When Pitta is pushed out of proportion, through any combination of hot foods, meats, overwork (excess Vata/wind in the form of unstoppable mind chatter), competition, excessive and overblown attachments, the person’s temperament is not unlike a ready flame on a candle, jumping to bonfire proportions. Pita types can easily lose their identity in achievements, anger, activity, approvals.

The weight of a Pitta type is steady without much fluctuation over time. They have a hard time achieving a twiggy-model look because it is against their energetic build: Their digestive fire is hot and requires regular fuel replacement so they can’t forget about food easily. However they are also much less prone to balloon out or retain a lot of fuel, given that strong fire and the activity level that is its natural outgrowth.

Coconuts on a truck overseen by a monkey
Coconuts (unlike many nuts) have a cooling effect

A Pitta type has a hot temper; they burn things that interfere with their trajectory. But this heat, this flare, is very quick to die down again, and you will often find this person apologizing (for what a Vata and Kapha type would consider quite a swing off the handle) and seemingly forgetting the magnitude of what happened. The feeling, the whole scenario is way in the past by two hours on! But not everyone is like this; some are prone to hold a grudge to their graves …

Kapha (“I Sustain”)

Predominant Kapha types are prone to grudges and even depression. They are the most grounded, steady, conservative members of the Dosha family with endurance both Pitta and Vata could only dream about. They are solid, dependable, manager-types because they don’t overspend their energy. Yet, just the same they tend to retain or hold on to weight, grudges, possessions, beliefs, goals, institutions, relationships, etc.  Indeed, for all this stability is the tendency to get too static, to settle in a bit too much and run into a cycle of hording and self-comfort, eating fatty foods, meats and dairy, all of which exacerbate the Dosha (overflow the wax) more!

The flame is greatly reduced in the overweight types, and the Vata can become a mistaken form of movement (recycled thoughts and patterns)/identity—the person lives in their mind, without proper digestive or initiative fires to help them move, refresh incoming information, and integrate into the real world.

Delight for an excess Kapha depends on external comforts—food, sex, drugs—all of which are temporary highs that degrade the individual in the long run, burying a wick of life until it’s two inches deep in the wax!

Your Own Candle

With this analogy, you can start to take a look at your Dosha profile. There are numerous websites with Dosha tests out there. I like this one in particular as it gives you a pie chart after you answer all of the questions. I encourage people to take this test every few months for a year, especially if you live somewhere that features a lot of seasonal climate fluctuation. You might be surprised to see that one Dosha rises in response, depending on the season.

If you can find a good Ayurvedic practitioner, it’s worth it to go to them early one morning and ask them to assess your constitution. Early morning is a time when you are most natural. Your voice pitch, your pulse, your tongue, your fingernails, these things and more will be looked at as well as how you conduct conversation. A good practitioner will pick up on your Prakriti right away .

Looking at your predominant Dosha, you can start to fold some of the above information in and see if it resonates. Look then to the second most prominent Dosha in your makeup. See what resonates there. Then consider them mixing, in terms of the candle analogy. Just as important, consider them affected by different elements of your environment: the food you eat, the weather, the company you keep, the stress of your job or lack thereof, the time of day (Doshas dominate four-hour stretches of time in rotation, two times each per 24-hour period). These are all very important factors that constantly change and, while it might seem a lot to monitor, your self-care response to these will become more intuitive as your awareness rises.

Example of mixed Dosha, generalized: If you are a Pitta type with a Vata sub-type, you run less of a chance of burning out and more of a chance of burning up, losing your temper more often, ect., since Pitta is really instilled and Vata is more influential upon it. If you are Vata with sub-type of Kapha, you need to watch your flame, make efforts to incorporate activity. Computer programming for endless hours might be what you want to do but try to jump in the pool or go for a jog to stoke the fire.

Diet

Everyone wants to know about diet. According to Ayurveda, food can either be sustenance, medicine or poison. This has a lot to do with quantity consumed and time food is consumed. Cold foods in general are discouraged but may be taken in moderation. High noon is the time on the clock which is governed by Pitta so lunch is advised as the biggest meal of the day and the one meal that may contain any kind of animal protein. In the morning and at night, the governing dosha is likely to be Kapha so meat and heavy foods are discouraged. Everyone says breakfast is the most important meal of the day, but this is a gross generalization that does much to perpetuate the idea that we are all exactly alike, physiologically, which is, frankly, wrongheaded!

Ayurveda helps illuminate your body and your life as it is. If you are a Kapha type, you likely don’t want to eat breakfast until about 10 a.m. (mid morning), and that is encouraged as it is part of your natural rhythm reflecting the time when your inner fire is strong enough to break down the food. Pitta, again is hungry close to awakening, and a nice light, but substantial, meal is suggested. Pitta types are not advised to snack; this really dampens their fire. Vatas are advised to eat lighter meals throughout the day, snacking but according to a routine. My sister is a Vata type and I call her my little bird.

As for which foods are appropriate for which Doshas, the best thing to suggest on this front is that you go online and search the foods appropriate for your Dosha (Google “foods and doshas”). Note: these aren’t gospel so much as guideposts, and if you study further the basis for the food suggestions, the process of selecting what is right for you becomes more intuitive and accurate. Massive changes to your diet are not in order and would do more to confuse your sense of reflection than anything. Imagine yourself a scientist. You decide “hey, bananas are heating and aggravate Pitta if eaten daily, let me cut down and see what happens.”

Test different foods in different seasons as well. Weather changes, job changes, partner changes, these things can all affect your Doshas. Notice how you feel when you eat at different times of the day.

Couple examples of what I’ve noticed in me: I can’t eat soy during my period—it’s Vata aggravating and upsets my stomach. It’s also full of natural estrogen, which could be another issue. I really can’t snack, because I get indigestion and feel toxic. I am predominant Pitta with a Vata sub dosha. If Vata is quite aggravated, I can have light fruit snacks or (cooling!) nuts to build myself back up and feel more grounded. Certain fruits and milk products cause water retention and weight gain in me, as they aggravate the Kapha I do have. Seasonal changes to cooler, dryer weather throw my Vata off; Yoga workshops (wherein a lot of talking takes place and I’ve usually skipped over five or so time zones) do too.

Fasting

I love this underrated topic, and I’ve learned so much, and changed so much, along these lines due to Ayurvedic teachings. I used to do the Master Cleanse (no solids for ten days), which I can totally back for some Doshic constitutions … and discourage highly for others. I did it four times. I mean I really gave it everything. But I always felt I was hanging on by a string of dental floss by day 10. In reality, nobody with a Pitta-Vata or Vata constitution should do such an intense, i.e. no solid foods, fast for more than a few days. They simply transition to quickly into a wasting-away state.

To clear up the system and brighten the flame, appropriate fruit and vegetable fasts are good for Pittas for a few days as long as is tolerated.  Kitcheri fasts are good for Vatas to neutralize the system and bring it into balance. Kaphas are the only ones who can tolerate the Master Cleanse, at length, and who actually benefit most from it. They do well to shed the waste they’ve conserved and some of the extra pounds they may have as well. And this is akin to clearing away that pool of wax that has saturated the top of the wick. You can then find the flame grow up again, the activity level rise, the depression lift, what have you.

In the End

Ayurveda is born from thousands of years of observing the lives of countless people in different environments. This article barely scratches the surface in terms of principles and terminology associated with how food and environment impact individual ecosystems. In essence, Ayurveda is an information ‘gold filter’ that you can put into your consciousness and use with ever-increasing precision as you observe yourself and research your health over the years, through the seasons and changes. The priceless bits of insight are what you capture when your experience passes through this filter. Use them, and they will make adjustment to change, and adaptation to life, more automatic.

An important phrase in Ayurveda (just as it is in Yoga): “Try the modification and see.” The greatest thing I ever learned in an Ayurveda lesson was that the wise doctors say: 80 percent of the time, try to follow the rules and the other 20 percent throw them out the window, because the stress of trying so hard will kill any benefit! I must also quote a beloved Indian thinker, Jiddu Krishnamurti, and say: “I feel that no one can lead another to truth, because truth is infinite; it is a pathless land, and no one can tell you how to find it.” I am just sharing thoughts; if they resonate with you, they were yours to begin with, so you own them.

My Favorite Resources (I am not getting any payment or any kind of kickback to endorse these, or any article or resource linked above; I’ve just found them very useful!)

Prakriti: Your Ayurvedic Constitution by Robert Svoboda

Eat-Taste-Heal: An Ayurvedic Cookbook for Modern Living by Thomas Yarema, Daniel Rhoda and Johnny Brannigan

My Teacher, Jessica Blanchard, who runs a Yoga and Ayurveda center in New Orleans and is informed beyond my imagination on this topic

For kicks: What’s Your Dosha, Baby? by Lisa Marie Coffey, with a forward by Dr. Vasant Lao

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About Emily Alp

Emily Alp has been practicing various forms of Yoga for 15 years and has settled on, and is now a certified teacher of Astanga (emphasizing in practice all eight limbs). She keeps a writer/editor day job that's pretty hard-driving and is exploring how to incorporate a traditional practice and the transformations it brings into modern-day life. She's also diagnosed with celiac so personalized nutrition has long been in the forefront of her thoughts. Ayurveda has transformed her outlook on diet altogether. Born in the US, she lives and works in the Middle East and loves to help Yoga and health infuse society there. To connect, feel free to like her facebook page: www.facebook.com/BuddhifulLifeYoga.

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32 Responses to “Dosha Think It’s Time You Learned About Ayurveda?”

  1. Sheri McCord sheri says:

    Just posted to "Featured Today" on the brand new Elephant Health & Wellness Homepage.

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    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Tanya Lee Markul, Yoga Editor
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  3. Brent Binder drbinder says:

    Emily, This is a fantastic Dosha review with solid references. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Elif Salati says:

    Informative yet easy to read–I needed this introduction. Thanks Emily!

  5. Lorin Arnold Lorin says:

    Posted to the Elephant Journal main page on Facebook.

    Lorin Arnold
    Blogger at
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    Associate Editor for Elephant Food
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  6. BradYantzer says:

    Great writing Emily. Beautiful way with words and imagery. Problem though, who are you to write about Ayurveda after two intensives? The vata Pitta and Kapha diet plans are not Ayurveda. It is quite dangerous for people to just read a book and follow these diet plans. Vata is deeply connected to a persons prana, pitta to their digestion and kapha to thier immune system. So you see, depleting these from your diet with an anti pitta, vata or kapha diet plan is extremely dangerous. Notice another thing…… There are no books in India proposing these diet plans. Atyurveda is a rich and deep wisdom that deserves much more than two intensives before you start writing as an authority.

    • Yasica greenbless says:

      Thanks, Brad! Jess, here. I completely agree and appreciate your feedback. To add: A correction in your references. Dr. Vasant Lad's name is misspelled in your article.

    • Emily Alp emilyalp says:

      Hi Brad,

      Thank you for your feedback. I appreciate that you do not want to see Ayurveda's reputation get battered. I guess my intention with this, as stated, is to note observations, share an analogy, be perfectly honest in my confession that I am not an expert, tell people that a diet is WAY more complex than something Dosha-oriented, etc.

      All of the points you make, if you read above again, are actually addressed. I am telling people to see a practitioner who is an expert. I am telling people that it is a very, very complex science that has been cultivated for thousands of years and deserves some respect.

      I don't tell people what to eat in this article, as you may note. Please kindly read the article again to see this. As for fasting, this is suggested very generally and is not proposed as a diet so much as cleansing routine.

      You clearly know more than I do about Ayurveda and so I would recommend, as I did in the article, that people seek you out and talk to you more in-depth about this. If you can bear with me, I am just trying to turn people on to what you do … people who had no idea about it as well. I actually come from a place where I initially thought Ayurveda was total bunk. But over the course of study, I found it to be so powerful, even with the tiny bit of knowledge I gained. I have seen a major health problem disappear through shifts in my own diet according to the properties of various foods.

      There is a sense of relativity amiss here in my opinion: If I we can get people thinking of food and environment and their body in a different way, this is a start; just like if we can get people away from the processed-foods section of the grocery store, that might be a start.

      Thank you again for your interest.

    • BradYantzer says:

      Emily, I total get how jazzed you are about this. I so appreciate it and know myself what that is like. Thank you for wanting to share what you have experienced and learned. Please accept an apology if i came off hard on you. I just see constantly how sacred ancient knowledge is being destroyed by our selling, selling, selling which is in opposition to the whole spiritual path anyways. If you really want to learn ayurveda i would stay away from anything written for the general public. It is totally bunk. I just posted a research article on facebook today.

      Check this out. http://www.ayujournal.org/temp/Ayu311101-600309_1

      Then tell me after you read it if vata pitta kapha diet plans have anything to do with ayurveda. The article presents concepts from ayurveda the western nutrition has no idea about. It is really good. What we have done with ayurveda is simplified it to sell it. Lost sight of what it really is and all the beauty in that. I am glad you have been able to pick some beauty out of the little that is in the books referenced. What's your dosha baby is probably the worst of the ref books in how much it has slaughtered ayurveda and is teaching quite dangerous information. The little we learn in these books written to sell to the masses is nonsense. If you want to write about ayurveda, lets write the real thing. If you want, I will help.
      Another view for you that you may recognize is to see that yoga is far gone as well. Yoga is just an aerobic class, based off of western exercise physiology. It has nothing to do with real asana. Real asana is only to balance vata. Vata is nothing more than the 5 pranas. The five pranas govern all the sensory and motor functions of the body. This balancing of vata creates health of the physiology as well as opens and balances the channels for pranayama. If you are not doing asana knowing this and how to and why… well, from a yogic lens you are creating disease. This is what is happening to ayurveda as well. Watered down, taught to the masses and let the masses teach the masses. No one ever knows the difference.

      Ayurvedic education is 5.5 years of full time school 11 months straight thru in India. Think about it.
      What you don't know about the ayurvedic education here in the united states is that you have a 6 week course in Sebastpol CA. at the dhyana center. They certify someone as a panchakarma specialist at the same training. http://www.dhyanacenter.com/images/stories/pdf/ab
      This hurts. This hurts because these "practitioners" are then going out and working with people. It is about their health, their lives. Yes, it is all karma, very bad karma.

      One more then i will get off of this….
      I recently did a poll of 25 ayurvedic practitioners. Only one of them had ever opened up one of the original texts of Ayurveda.
      So can I make a suggestion to you to write an article for the masses? Write about the lack of integrity to the education of yoga and how yoga alliance only collects money.

  7. Brad Yantzer says:

    Yes Jess, We really need a real governing board that is more than a money collector like Yoga Alliance (money collector) is to yoga before ayurveda is lost to our capitalism of spirituality (leaning on the BS spiritual cane that “all is good.” It is really really wrong that this lack of education is growing and all that we do is sit back and watch it happen. There is already a raw food ayurveda and all kinds of bastardization of this knowledge happening with products galore coming to the market. We are watching a time tested beautiful medicine be destroyed and the loss is really to those it could help if provided properly.

    • Yasica greenbless says:

      Brad, I agree. The real problem to me is that this author has no idea what she does not know. Ayurveda is so vast and even after studying for years, learning Sanskrit and working as a practitioner in Ayurveda and yoga, writing about Ayurveda as a topic of sacred medicine is something that I would not venture to do publicly unless I really felt I had steeped in the topic for some time, and could support my words with actual practice. I appreciate awareness about the existence of Ayurveda, and that is a noble intention. However, an intention to promote Ayurvedic practices based on pretty limited exposure to the topic is very detrimental to Ayurveda.

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  15. Treeree says:

    So my lunch could possibly look like this: Grapes (an hour berofe)Onions cooked with ghee oilA glass of whole milkA type of fish (fresh not canned) w/ cooked green beansDoes the order in which you eat your food at meal times affect your digestive system? What about the senses of taste(rasas)?Also If red meat takes the longest to digest should you avoid eating it later in the day?

  16. Emily Alp emilyalp says:

    I did provide solid, thoughtful responses for above comments, but am sorry to observe that the string was truncated.

  17. Yasica greenbless says:

    Emily, the book I recommended is not "The Science of Self Healing," but one of Ayurveda's most treasured books written in English, a textbook called "Textbook of Ayurveda, Volume One: Fundamental Principles." Dr. Lad is humbly, one of the most respected teachers of Ayurveda in the world. If you care to know about Ayurveda, reading just one person's guide is not really adequate. Reading one author of American History would pretty much leave you clueless to the truth. Svoboda is an excellent source, but by himself, is just one voice in a sea of wisdom.

  18. Emily Alp emilyalp says:

    Dear Greenbless,

    Thank you again. I will bump it up on my booklist and give it a try! I have great interest in Ayurveda just as I do spiritual texts, historical texts about India, texts about Africa and global development as well as scientific texts about biology, technology, chemistry, sustainability, which I process, synthesize and edit daily as a profession. As a science writer, I am naturally keen on learning and sharing what I learn.

    When I have time to go more in depth on Ayurveda (and given another course coming up I will), I certainly will and I will be most grateful for your guidance in showing me another resource!

    Off to work for me so if I can't respond to you immediately, this is why.

    Best Wishes,

    Emily

  19. Yasica greenbless says:

    Emily,

    I work as an Ayurvedic Practitioner, Nationally Certified Massage Therapist, Registered Yoga Teacher, Herbalist, and business owner as my profession. I also happen to be a cancer survivor. You will understand how some of us healthcare practitioners who devote our lives to studying Ayurveda, and other healing arts, might expect more caution from anyone throwing their hat in the ring, on a whim, about a subject with which they have limited knowledge, which can effect other people's health and wellness. Do no harm.

    Best,
    Jessica

  20. Emily Alp emilyalp says:

    thank you again … quickly, do you mind posting your website and some details so people who read this can contact you since you are a practitioner? Best!

  21. Yasica greenbless says:

    Emily, I'm right here on Elephant Journal and have been assisting as one of the Co-Editors for Health and Wellness. Sounds like you are eager to contribute which is great. I recommend caution around health topics when you are suggesting detailed diets to readers based off of health systems with which your knowledge is cursory. I would love to read some of your science articles!

    Yours in Health,

    Jessica Stone Baker
    The Mindful Body

  22. Emily Alp emilyalp says:

    Dear Jessica,

    Glad to get to know you through this exchange this morning (speaking of the KSA time zone;)) Am at the office, but am compelled to say a last thing, to you and to the readers, and that is this:

    I apologize if I ever suggested an exact diet in the article–in fact, I exercised all the power in my typing fingers to start the piece with my disclaimer of being a novice and end it with the disclaimer that this is a very, very complex science and I am not telling anyone to do anything in particular. I was actually trying to do the opposite in suggesting that the diet as framed by Ayurveda is highly complicated and a person would do best to see a practitioner and discover it.

    One thing as a last-ditch effort to make my intention clear. I commented something in response to Brad that is more aligned with my intention: "There is a sense of relativity amiss here in my opinion: If I we can get people thinking of food and environment and their body in a different way, this is a start; just like if we can get people away from the processed-foods section of the grocery store, that might be a start."

    Coming from a place, as I explained to Brad, that found Ayurveda 'bunk,' I was reaching out to people who may feel the same, to increase their interest and then guide them to people just like you, people who ARE the experts.

    I respect what you do. I respect what you have been through and the knowledge and wisdom you share that is born from this. I am sending gratitude to you for opening my piece up and expressing your concern. I also hope you might write a piece (since I honestly can't spend much more time here)that might clarify what I have gotten wrong in your eyes. I would like to read it.

    A smidge of my writing is slapped up here: http://emilyalp.writersresidence.com/ … I have some pieces that need scanning and am just basically behind with this portfolio … but I hope people find something that strikes their interest. We have a very exciting pop-sci mag coming out of Doha soon, as well that will be listed up top of my portfolio soon, of which I am honored and grateful to be the editor-in-chief.

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