Ayurveda and Yoga


Ayurveda and Yoga go hand in hand; in fact, the way it’s most commonly practiced in the West today, yoga is actually closer to Ayurveda than to Yoga in the purest sense of the term. Indeed, most people practice yoga for exercise, for health and as a therapeutic tool to heal and improve the functioning of their body and mind. And that is exactly the purpose of Ayurveda. It aims to align the body, mind, senses and soul for optimal health and vitality. The practice of Yoga, on the other hand, in the truest, most traditional sense of the term, is not focused on achieving optimal health, but spiritual self-realization. It is a discipline that transcends the body, and therefore does not dwell on its well-being. So the way most of us practice yoga today, what we are really practicing is Ayurveda. We are bringing our bodies and minds into balance so that our energies can be purified and transformed and we can eventually reach the state of Yoga.bow-pose-dhanurasana1

So what does this mean, practically speaking? It means that to really get the most out of your yoga (asana) practice, it’s important to take into account your own specific Ayurvedic constitution. When you know which of your doshas are out of balance, you can customize your yoga practice to come back into balance, instead of exacerbating your condition.

This, of course, works best in the context of a personal yoga practice, or if you are practicing one on one with a knowledgeable teacher. In a class setting, it’s obviously not going to be as simple to customize your practice. Unfortunately, very few teachers take Ayurvedic principles into account in the way they teach, so they typically don’t offer variations according to the students’ specific needs. But if you, as a student, have some knowledge of Ayurveda and are aware of your constitution and current imbalances, you have a little bit of leeway: you can choose one style of yoga and/or teacher over another, how much effort or gentleness you put into your practice during class, and also what you focus on.

Let’s look at how someone with an excess in each of the three doshas can orient their yoga practice in order to pacify that dosha. If, on the other hand, you are looking to increase a deficient dosha, you would do the opposite. Once you get a general idea of how the doshas work, it’s relatively easy to figure out how to adapt your practice*.

When someone has excessive pitta dosha in their body, this can manifest as being short-tempered, impulsive, competitive, ambitious, hungry– for food, stimulation, challenges; you get the picture. Knowing this about themselves, if they want to calm that excessive inner fire they should choose a Hatha Yoga class to a Bikram class, practice Sitali Pranayam rather than Breath of Fire, and prefer shoulder stand over headstand. In other words, they should consciously choose more cooling practices over heating ones. They might feel more attracted to the heating ones, paradoxically. But it’s the more gentle, cooling practices that will keep them healthy, sane and feeling whole. These fiery people should aim to work at no more than 75% of their capacity, in an easy, effortless way, and look for stillness and calm in each asana.Plow-Pose-Halasana

Someone who has excessive vata dosha tends to have a nervous disposition, changes their mind a lot, gets easily distracted, feels ungrounded and easily overwhelmed. For them, the best practice is one that is calming, controlled and focused on strengthening and grounding. They should choose core strength exercises, work with the breath (this will soothe their nervous system and help them stay focused), and stay in the poses much longer than they are inclined to. Standing poses will be great for them, as long as they keep their muscles engaged and don’t “check out”. They too will benefit from quiet and stillness in their practice.

Finally, someone who has excessive kapha dosha and tends to oversleep, feel depressed, lethargic and heavy, be overweight and stagnate in their life will benefit from a vigorous and quick-moving practice. They will probably be attracted to Restorative Yoga and claim that their favorite asana is Savasana, but don’t let them indulge in more kapha! They need to wake themselves out of their slumber with movement, energetic Sun Salutations, a flowing sequence of Standing postures, dynamic inversions and arm balances (Handstand is excellent for them), backbends, and some strong Ujjayi and Breath of Fire to really get their energy going. Keep forward bends, sitting postures and savasana short, lest these kaphas fall asleep and wake up two hours later wondering what happened.

As you can see, it’s really worth your while to know the general principles of Ayurveda and the doshas, and to be aware of your own constitution and imbalances, in order to make your yoga practice beneficial. It doesn’t have to be as obvious as the examples above, either. Maybe one morning you wake up feeling tired and cold because you didn’t sleep well, and so you add just a few minutes of Breath of Fire to the beginning of your practice, or do a few extra vigorous Sun Salutations.

Savasana

Besides knowing your own body and energies, it’s also crucial to take into account the season, climate and time of day of your practice. This way, instead of fighting against the energies in your environment, you can take full advantage of them and come into harmony, not just internally, but with nature and life in general. So when you practice early on a cold winter morning, you’ll want to practice vigorously in order to increases your internal heat (though be careful not to overdo it– if you exhaust yourself you will feel colder the rest of the day). On the contrary, when it’s noon on a hot summer day, you’ll want to choose gentler, more cooling postures (and really indulge in that final savasana), or if you can, wait until later in the day to practice.

In sum: If you are a yoga practitioner, invest some time learning the basics of Ayurveda and the doshas, stay attuned to yourself to know what you need each day, be aware of your environment– and watch your yoga practice take your health and well-being to the next level.

*Recommended reading for a good introduction to Ayurveda: Deepak Chopra’s “Perfect Health”; and to explore Ayurvedic principles as applied to Yoga, David Frawley’s “Yoga for your Type” and “Yoga & Ayurveda: Self-healing and Self-Realization” and “Yoga for your Type“.