Bringing Ayurveda to Your Yoga Practice (Part 1)
by Jenny Thomas
Yoga is considered the sister science of ayurveda—the other side of the same coin. When using these therapeutic disciplines together, they can offer powerful healing as well as overall health and well-being.
The great thing about ayurveda is that it considers each of us as constitutionally unique. There is no “one size fits all” ayurvedic practice. Our constitution, our nature, is known as our prakruti, and it remains the same from birth. But we are influenced by our lifestyle choices and our exposure to stressors, events, and other things in our environment that can lead us into a state of imbalance, or vikruti. When working toward a balanced state of health in ayurveda, the goal is to achieve a better understanding of how our thoughts and activities affect our state of physical and mental health. This will help us bring more balance to our lives, eventually guiding us back into balance according to our prakruti—our natural state of constitutional equilibrium.
When working toward a balanced state of health in ayurveda, the goal is to achieve a better understanding of how our thoughts and activities affect our state of physical and mental health.
Meet the Doshas
Your prakruti is represented by the three doshas, each of them a combination of two of the five elements (earth, water, fire, air, and space). The first dosha is vata, a combination of the elements space and air. The second dosha, pitta, is a combination of fire and water. And the third dosha, kapha, combines water and earth. Although we each possess some amount of all three doshas, most of us are predominantly one dosha. However, some people may have an equal or near equal amount of two doshas, and some an equal balance of all three (tri-doshic). With the knowledge of your constitution, you can attain a better understanding of which daily practices, activities, and foods support your constitution.
How the Qualities of the Doshas Relate to Yoga Practice
According to ayurveda, being familiar with the doshas and the gunas (qualities) of the elements is the first step in knowing how to bring more balance to your life.
Vata’s role is to support healthy movement; its gunas are cold, dry, light, mobile, subtle, clear, and rough. People with a predominantly vata constitution will see these gunas in their body and mind. For example, they are often lean and tend to have dry skin, curly/kinky hair, cold hands and feet, and irregular digestion (tending toward bloating, discomfort, and constipation). They are also often active, restless, and creative. In addition, vata types tend to be hypermobile and may lack strength or stability. In a yoga class they may have a difficult time sitting still and desire to move quickly. They may naturally gravitate toward a fast-moving style of yoga such as vinyasa or Ashtanga.
Pitta’s role is to transform (think metabolism on a physical level and perception on a mental level); its gunas are hot, sharp, penetrating, light, oily, liquid, and spreading. People with a predominance of pitta dosha often have medium builds, warm bodies, oily skin, penetrating ideas, sharp intelligence, and hair that is straight, thin, and shiny with a tendency for premature graying. They tend to sweat easily, have warm hands and feet, and a fast digestion. They also tend to be driven and alert. In a yoga class, pittas will likely be competitive, often pushing themselves to the edge. They are focused and determined and like to be challenged. They may gravitate toward a very physically demanding yoga practice such as Ashtanga, power yoga, or hot yoga.
Kapha keeps the body lubricated and nourished; its gunas are heavy, slow/dull, cold, oily, liquid, smooth, dense, soft, static, sticky, cloudy, hard, and gross (i.e., the opposite of subtle). People who are predominantly kapha often have a larger build. They tend to be strong, with great stamina and endurance. Their skin is usually cold, clammy, and oily, and their eyes large. They tend to gain weight easily and to sleep deeply for a long time. They are said to be compassionate, calm, tolerant, loving, and forgiving. The kaphas in yoga class will likely want things slow and steady. They may gravitate toward restorative or Yin Yoga. They may be uncomfortable being challenged, and motivation might be initially difficult; however, once they experience the benefits of physical movement, they will easily sustain a regular practice (because kaphas tend to be very loyal and have an easy time sticking with things).
According to the principles of ayurveda, illness is caused by imbalance, or vikruti—a departure from balance according to one’s prakruti. Having too much of any guna will lead to an excess of the related dosha or doshas and can lead to that imbalance. To bring balance, we must invite more opposing gunas into our lives. For example, from an ayurvedic point of view, eating foods or participating in activities that possess many of the pitta gunas (eating spicy foods, going to hot yoga, or doing competitive sports) may bring imbalance from excess pitta (which may show up in the form of irritability/anger, loose stools, inflammation, skin redness, etc.). Therefore, someone with excess pitta will need to bring in cooling, heavy, slow, static gunas.
Likewise, as the seasons change and different gunas are introduced into our environment, this can also cause imbalance. We can adapt to the seasons by inviting in opposing gunas. Think cooling foods and activities during the summer (pitta season). Fall is predominantly vata, so introduce things that are warming, grounding, and nourishing. Winter is both vata (earlier) and kapha (later), and spring is kapha time, so think warmer, faster, and dryer to bring balance to kapha. (Depending on where you live, the gunas in the seasons may vary from what's described above.)
Ask yourself what you can do or eat to create balance in order to bring yourself back into constitutional equilibrium.
To begin your exploration of ayurveda, observe which gunas are present in your life, particularly in your yoga practice. Notice whether there is an excess of any gunas and whether that excess may be contributing to any kind of imbalance to your health (for example, trouble falling or staying asleep, irritability, or indigestion). If so, then ask yourself what you can do or eat to create balance in order to bring yourself back into constitutional equilibrium. For example, if you’re feeling irritable (an excess of pitta), try cooling practices and foods like non-strenuous activities (gentle yoga), coconut, aloe, and a gentle backbend like bhujangasana (cobra pose). You may want to avoid competitive and/or strenuous activities and spicy foods until you feel more balanced.
Stay tuned for articles about each dosha and how to apply ayurvedic principles to your personal practice and/or teaching.