Ayurveda and Yoga
by Patricia Wickman
Ayurveda is the the world’s oldest medical system and a sister science of yoga. Although studying Ayurveda is comparable to swimming across a vast ocean, the wisdom of the Ancients of India is crystalline in its beauty, simplicity and truth. Get to know the five elements (earth, water, fire, air, and ether) and how they present in your own body, mind, and spirit. From there you can discern everything from the types of foods that will bring you most balance to the variety of yoga that will yield the greatest amount of happiness, longevity, and health. Having even just a basic understanding of Ayurvedic principles will enable one to be his or her own medical clairvoyant.
Around the first century A.D., the five elements of Ayurveda, were boiled down to the three doshas called Vata, Pitta and Kapha. Dosha is a Sanskrit word that means “that which causes harm in the body-mind-spirit when functioning improperly.” Vata is the combination of air and ether, Pitta is fire and water and Kapha is earth and water. Everyone has all five elements in their constitution, but generally one dosha predominates and a second one, the subdosha, will follow. For example, a person may be predominantly light and airy (Vata), but may have some tendencies toward fiery conditions such as skin irritations or heartburn (Pitta). This is a “Vata-Pitta” constitution. To discover your dosha and subdosha, visit www.rlyaa.com and download the questionnaire or schedule an assessment with a Certified Ayurvedic Practitioner.
Once you develop self-awareness of how the elements present in you, you can make an informed decision about the type of yoga that will help you enjoy balance and prevent future injuries and illnesses. To choose the right yoga practice from an Ayurvedic perspective is to abide by the law of opposites. If you have a lot of air and ether, choose a practice that is grounding and soothing. If fire predominates for you, do a practice that is cooling and non-competitive. If earth is weighing you down, do yoga that is light on its feet and uplifting.
If Vata is your primary dosha, you have a slow bowel with tendency toward gas and constipation. Your bones are small, you tend to get cold easily and your nervous system is hyperactive compared to your Pitta and Kapha counterparts. Your mind, when imbalanced, will favor the emotions of fear, worry, or anxiety. Although lithe and flexible in your younger years, a Vata person may struggle with stiffness and brittle bones as he or she ages. With this in mind, the Vata person’s ideal yoga program would be one that is slow-moving, smooth, and gentle. Do postures that move the bowels such as forward folds, gentle bicycling of the legs, and apanasana. Standing postures will be grounding and also provide the weight bearing necessary to maintain healthy bones. Also, avoid postures that cause back bending in the area of the kidneys and adrenals. Vata types naturally come by high amounts of adrenaline, so do not need the extra stimulation that extreme backbends provoke. Avoid quick or jerky movements and breathing techniques that cause hyperventilation. Alternate nostril breathing is a fail-safe pranayama practice that will help the Vata person stay calm for several hours and prevent the mind from ruminating.
If Pitta is your primary dosha, your body temperature runs high, you tend toward fast metabolism, quick bowels and loose stools, your bones are medium-sized, and you easily build muscle mass. Your nervous system is not as delicate as a Vata person’s, but is still hyperactive in an ambitious and competitive way. Your liver and blood runs acidic, leaving you vulnerable over time to inflammation in the body resulting in any disorder that ends in “itis.” Your mind, when imbalanced, tends toward hot emotions such as anger, jealously, or hatred. Therefore, the Pitta person’s ideal yoga practice is one that is cooling in nature. Avoid classes that heat you up like Bikram yoga or any technique that is based on competition or pushing yourself to the limit (pittas do this to themselves anyway and do not need any outside encouragement.) Favor sequences that cool the liver such as upper backbends that open the region of the upper stomach to the top of the esophagus. Certain versions of the moon salutation include repetitive, gentle upper back bends that help cool/alkalize the liver. Favor breathing techniques like sitali (curl your tongue on the sides, inhale through your mouth and exhale through your nose) and avoid hot breathing techniques like breath of fire.
If Kapha is your primary dosha, your body temperature tends to be a wet cold, you sweat a lot, your bowels are sluggish and when you do have bowel movements, they are in large quantity and heavy. Your bones are big and strong and you tend to have plentiful amounts of all tissues of the body. You may struggle with being overweight and sedentary. Your nervous system is under active and it often takes a Vata or Pitta friend to help you to get motivated to move. The ideal yoga practice for a Kapha person is an uplifting, active one that includes quicker movements and stimulation. Proceed with caution when you first start, though, to avoid injuring your joints or getting discouraged. It is best for a Kapha person to set an alarm and do their yoga practice first thing in the morning, ideally between the hours of 6 and 10am. This will help you to feel more energized during the day. As the Kapha person’s adrenal glands are quieter, some back bending can be helpful, but again, proceed with caution at the outset. Do postures that reach up to the sky and help you to be less stuck to the ground such as standing postures with your arms elevated above your head. Do stimulating breath practices like breath of fire.
One type of yoga that resonates well with Ayurvedic principles is Viniyoga. T.K.V. Desikachar is the father of Viniyoga and there are teachers throughout the world who are trained in his lineage. More information on Viniyoga appears on various websites including this one: http://www.viniyoga.com/.
Ayurvedic recommendations for yoga are all common sense and ring true, but to implement them is trickier than one may think. It requires stepping out of the ego mind – the place we all love to live where “I am who I am,” “I am right and you are wrong,” “this is who I am and this is who I will always be.” To change who we are and to spend less time with our ego selves requires devotion to self-study and self-care. It asks us to be humble and to have a desire to tap into our higher wisdom. We connect with our divine self and surrender to a Higher Power. Personally, that has always been the most endearing miracle of having a regular yoga practice. You may walk into your first yoga class hoping to firm up your belly and tighten your backside and thighs. If you are as blessed as I was to find wise and skillful teachers, you will get much more than a beautiful body from yoga. You will become adept at peeling away all the ego layers that keep us from connecting with our essence as well as the spirit-core of our loved ones and friends. At the heart of yoga and Ayurveda, is the notion that our bodies are sacred and temporary. They are vehicles for our spirit. One can get stuck on taking care of the body and overlook the higher practices of yoga which include meditation, devotional practices, service, love, kindness, etc. Take care of your body through proper diet, lifestyle, and yoga so you can move beyond the shallow world of Facebook and fast food. Even though living a clean life does not guarantee that you will never get ill or experience hardship, it will help mitigate your suffering and bring you peace that you are doing your part to live to your potential. Today is the day to live a life that is non-cluttered, meaningful, spiritual, balanced, healthy, and full of heart.
Patricia Wickman is a Certified Ayurvedic Practitioner, Certified Panchakarma Technician, and Registered Yoga Teacher. She loves people and enjoys inspiring individuals to perceive their beauty and potential. She lives in Eau Claire, WI with her wonderful husband and two beautiful children. For more information, please visit www.rlyaa.com.