Yoga and Ayurveda
by Deborah Knox
Vata, pitta, and kapha are the three mind-body principles, or doshas, in Ayurveda, the blend of which determines our individual constitutional makeup. Understanding which yoga styles, postures, and pranayama techniques support or weaken each dosha can help us address short-term and long-standing imbalances. Following the wisdom of Ayurveda, we can bring ourselves back into natural alignment with life.
Meaning "that which blows," vata is related to the elements of air and ether. It provides the motion necessary for our physical, mental, and emotional processes. Vata types are mentally quick, alert, flexible, and creative. When out of balance, vatas feel over-amped and ungrounded, and may suffer from mental and physical restlessness, insomnia, or anxiety. They’re the ones who eat while talking on their cell phone while on a treadmill. Vata energy can be very uneven, marked by spurts of frenetic activity followed by exhaustion. This dosha can get aggravated by dry, cold, and windy weather; overstimulating environments; travel; lack of routine; and a lot of change.
You can ground (earth) and soothe (water) excess vata by bringing the Mother principle into your life—learning how to calm and nurture yourself. Slowing and quieting down. Keeping warm and moist. Establishing self-care boundaries and a supportive routine.
Poses that work on the colon (the bodily seat of vata), intestines, pelvis, lumbar spine, and sacroiliac balance vata by bringing energy back down into the base of the torso. Spinal twists and inversions of all kinds soothe this dosha. Sitting and standing forward bends are choice poses, particularly for insomnia; boat, plank, staff, and plow are also powerful vata-reducers. To support grounding, work with standing poses such as mountain, triangle, warrior, and tree. Avoid back bends, such as bow, cobra, pigeon, and arch, which increase vata, or hold them briefly. If you enjoy vinyasa, do sun salutations S-L-O-W-L-Y. Let child’s pose lead you back to your innate innocence and trust. End your practice with a long Savasana (20–30 minutes); it is really okay to do NOTHING for a while.
Activating breathing practices such as those used in Kundalini Yoga can aggravate vata, so only use them when you are feeling balanced and in need of clearing or energizing. Integrating and deeply relaxing, alternate-nostril breathing is a better ongoing practice for you. The bhramari (bee) breath, named after its high-pitched resonating sound, also calms vata.
Keywords: calming, grounding, warming, slow, routine, contemplative.
Because vatas tend to be hyperflexible, they can injure themselves while doing yoga. By getting a strong start in an Iyengar-based practice, which emphasizes proper alignment, you can build strength and grounding while teaching your body the correct yoga vocabulary. Since Ashtanga Yoga can be very stimulating, keep an eye on whether you are feeling more ungrounded or shaky afterwards, and pay attention to moving consciously and properly to avoid injury. (But use this style medicinally if you are running cold or are energetically blocked.) You can benefit from Bikram’s heated classroom and the regularity of the 26-posture series; watch for overstimulation and be sure to rehydrate afterward. Kripalu Yoga is also recommended as its heart-opening, nurturing approach can get you out of your head. Classical Sivananda incorporates many corpse poses after each short series of active poses, inviting stillness, integration, and relaxation—nectar for any vata.
Signs of Balance
Greater groundedness, clarity, calm, open-heartedness.
Associated with the elements of fire and water, pitta is pure vitality, enthusiasm, and intensity. Meaning "that which cooks," pitta regulates our digestion, metabolism, appetite, and vision and forms the basis of our intellect and capacity for discernment. Solidly built, strong, passionate, and ruddy in complexion, pittas sunburn easily, lose hair early, and burn the candle at both ends. Embodying the ennobling characteristics of warriorship, you are known for your willpower, focus, courage, goal-orientation, decisiveness, self-discipline, and mental acuity. When out of balance, you may become competitive, fast, quarrelsome, dominating, impatient, resentful, intolerant, and fanatical. The bodily seats of this dosha are the small intestine, eyes, and blood. The liver also plays an important role in pitta-related bodily functions. Excess pitta manifests through inflammation, infection, and irritation.
Poses that promote coolness, ease, and lightness of being while releasing heat and stress in the small intestine, central abdomen, blood, and liver are optimal. All forms of standing forward bends and inversions reduce pitta. Sitting poses such as cobbler, hero pose, and yoga mudrasana, and sitting forward bends such as head-to-toe, half- and full-lotus forward bend, and tortoise are also recommended. Work the abdominal area with twists such as maricyasana. Other pitta-reducers include cobra, half-bow, and boat. Experiment with moon salutation; while sun salutation heats, this vinyasa has a cooling effect. Warrior, chair pose, headstands, armstands, and lion increase pitta; if you enjoy these poses, hold them briefly.
Keep your breath cool, relaxed, and diffuse, exhaling through your mouth periodically to release heat. Since ujjayi breathing is heating, consider simply using the yogic three-part breath. Sheetali, which is designed to cool you off, and alternate-nostril breathing are also recommended. As for the breath of fire, if you are calm, clear, and cool, go ahead, but if you are already irascible, wait or warn your friends ahead of time!
Keywords: cooling, heart-opening, noncompetitive, slow.
Approaching yoga as yet another mountain to climb or race to win, pittas gravitate toward the more challenging styles. When choosing among styles, consider how heating or aggressive they are. Since Ashtanga Yoga builds heat, especially if you are doing a lot of sun salutations, add cooling poses such as twists, shoulder stands, or a long Savasana at the end of a session. Bikram Yoga can send a highly pitta person over the edge, so take great care with this style. Iyengar is a solid choice for pittas. Classical Sivananda is also recommended; though it may test your patience, its slower approach can help you overcome the tendency to accomplish and push. Kripalu Yoga, which emphasizes compassion, can help you shift your focus from will to heart. Regardless of which style you choose, work at about 75 percent (rather than 150 percent) of your capacity.
Signs of Balance Less inflammation, acidity, irritation; more coolness, calmness, openness, patience, tolerance.
Meaning "that which sticks," kapha is related to the elements of earth and water. Physiologically, kapha binds the structure of the body, lubricates the joints and skin, and promotes tissue-building, immunity, and healing. It also provides stability, stamina, and strength. Kapha types tend to have a slow metabolism; heavy yet sturdy body; large, soft eyes; and thick, oily hair and skin. When in balance, they are the best friend a person could have—calm, devoted, consistent, tolerant, and patient. However, out of balance, they are their own worst enemy, being prone to mental sluggishness, procrastination, lethargy, weight gain, excessive sleep, and problems letting go. Their innate and formidable capacity to ground and persevere turns to inertia and lassitude. So, when it comes to practice, you have the tough job of kick-starting yourself. Since you flourish in relational contexts, recruit a buddy to practice or go to class with you. Remember Newton’s First Law of Motion: a body at rest tends to remain at rest unless acted upon by some outside force.
The bodily seats of kapha are the lungs and the stomach/diaphragm area. Focus on asanas that open the chest and work the midsection. Headstand, handstand, and bow are premiere kapha-reducers. Back bends such as cobra, pigeon, camel, and locust will greatly serve your lungs. To build endurance, hold standing poses such as forward bend, triangle, revolved triangle, the warrior series, tree, and half moon a long time, and repeat, repeat, repeat. Other effective postures include shoulder stand, plow, lion, and spinal twists. Jumping to transition between poses will give you a better workout. You should also come to love sun salutations more than life itself (and if you practice as a form of worship to the Divine, you actually will!). Finally, use a shorter Savasana (5–15 minutes) to conclude your practice.
Because you need to open your lungs, you can benefit from the vigorous breathing practices of Kundalini Yoga. During asana practice, use the full yogic breath in conjunction with the heating ujjayi breath. Bhastrika, kapalabhati, and right-nostril breathing are also cleansing, energizing, and warming for you.
Keywords: vigorous, stimulating, challenging, assertive, warming.
Unlike vatas, who need to soothe themselves and slow down, you need to move energetically. Sweating is de rigueur. Avoid falling into the comfortable groove of routine by shaking up your program: vary the asanas themselves, change the order in which you perform them, attend different types of classes, experiment with props.
Vigorous and challenging, Ashtanga Yoga is superb for kaphas. Aspire to master the first series so that you can go on to tackle the second series. Bikram Yoga provides the heat and workout you need, but consider adding other styles and poses to your practice so this 26-pose series doesn’t become routine. Classical Sivananda Yoga is not a top pick, as it requires less exertion and emphasizes Savasana, which could easily lead to naptime. Jivamukti Yoga, which incorporates mantras and chants, gives you the opportunity to exercise your naturally strong devotional muscles.
Signs of Balance
Weight normalization; elimination of excess congestion, mucus, and water; a greater sense of detachment.
How to Use Ayurveda
- Create self-care routines for eating and exercise: daily, weekly, monthly, seasonally
- Treat clear signs of imbalance, such as anxiety (vata), irritability (pitta), cold/flu (kapha)
- Inquire into your yoga experience and practice
- Experiment with foods and recipes
- Deepen body care through treatments that balance the doshas
- Commit to a deep cleansing such as panchakarma.
Though it is important to know our "birth" constitution, or dosha, it can be difficult to evaluate by questionnaire alone and can confuse the newcomer to Ayurveda. What is often more practical for us in daily life is to understand when we are out of balance and to identify the dosha associated with the imbalance. By identifying the "wandering dosha" we can then gently lead it back to its proper home and alleviate the turmoil it causes when it begins to move from its natural site.
There are many signs and symptoms associated with doshas being out of balance:
- Vata dryness, coldness, constipation, insomnia, nervousness/anxiety/fear
- Pitta inflammation, acid indigestion/heartburn, skin problems, loose stools, anger/agitation/short temper
- Kapha weight gain, mucus build-up, lethargy, depression/lack of motivation.
Once you have successfully recognized the culprit, you can begin the appropriate "pacifying" routine:
- Vata warmth, moisture, daily oil massage, vata-balancing diet, establishing supportive routines, calming/quiet environment
- Pitta cool down, pitta-balancing diet, calming routines, daily introspection, cooling herbs and spices
- Kapha stimulation, exercise, vary routine, avoid napping, kapha-balancing diet, wake at sunrise.
Deborah Knox is an editor, writer, researcher, and consultant who specializes in natural health, personal and spiritual growth, environmental sustainability, and business.
© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. Originally published in the Winter 2004–2005 issue of the Kripalu catalog. To request permission to reprint, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.