Yoga and Ayurveda are mutually supportive systems of health, spirituality, and well-being. Yoga is an ancient discipline of uniting mind, body, and spirit that developed in India about 5,000 years ago. Ayurveda, which means "life knowledge" in Sanskrit, is a system of health science that was developed at the same time as yoga. Both yoga and Ayurveda were first mentioned in Indian spiritual texts called the "Vedas," which date back to around 3,000 BCE.
Combined Forces for Holistic Health
The path of yoga seeks to unite body, mind, and spirit through meditation, breath work, philosophy, physical movement, and behavior principles. Ayurveda seeks to heal and prevent disease by harmonizing everyday life with the rhythms of nature. This is done through diet, exercise, yoga, herbs, lifestyle, and body cleansing. Ayurveda is considered the sister science of yoga.
Both yoga and Ayurveda offer ways to heal, cleanse, and rejuvenate the body, mind, and spirit. As you move deeper into your yoga practice, it can be helpful to integrate your knowledge of Ayurveda so you can adjust your practice to your own unique constitution and lifestyle. Doing so can help prevent disease, while keeping you balanced, happy, and fulfilled.
Yoga and the Doshas
The foundation of Ayurveda is the principle that all life is made up of five elements: Earth, air, fire, water, and space. These elements combine to create essential forces of nature. These forces create the basic human constitutions, including physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual characteristics. According to Ayurveda, there are three essential constitutions called "doshas." The three doshas are called "Vata," "Pitta," and "Kapha."
Every person has a unique balance of elements, and therefore a unique dosha. When you make poor choices in diet and lifestyle, your dosha becomes imbalanced and your "prana" (Sanskrit for "life force energy") becomes depleted. This, in turn, causes waste to accumulate in the body, mind, and spirit, leading to disease.
A visit to an Ayurvedic practitioner or physician can help you to truly determine your dosha. But, understanding the basic characteristics of each dosha will help you understand how each one relates to yoga. In general, the characteristics of each dosha are as follows:
- Active, imaginative, and changeable
- Inspired, but tires easily
- Prone to anxiety
- Competitive, ambitious; a perfectionist
- Strong and intense
- Prone to anger
- Calm, kind, and patient
- Slow moving, but trustworthy
- Prone to laziness
One yoga style does not fit all doshas. Vata people, for instance, can become agitated by a fast-paced class. They require a floor-based practice that grounds their excess nervous tension. Pittas need an emotionally relaxing practice that won’t overheat them. And Kaphas would benefit from a practice that is challenging, energizing, and warming.
A well-rounded yoga practice can provide balance for any dosha. But to develop the most effective yoga practice for your overall health and well-being, it’s important to take into consideration your dosha, your age, and even the season and time of day when you practice. Warm weather, for instance, increases Pitta. Cool, dry, and windy days increase Vata; and damp cold increases Kapha. So, while your dosha may be primarily fire-based Pitta, you might actually fare better with a warming practice if it’s a cold and damp evening (weather and time that’s beneficial for Kaphas).
Ayurveda and the Gunas
Another basic principle of Ayurveda is the "gunas," which are the three fundamental qualities of nature. According to Ayurveda, and described in the ancient text, "The Bhagavad Gita," the gunas determine the inherent qualities of all created things. The three gunas are called "sattva," "rajas," and "tamas."
Sattva is the state of pure essence. It refers to all that is light, clear, and stable. An untouched flower in the middle of the woods, for example, is sattvic.
Rajas is the quality of creation, motion, action, passion, and change. That which is rajasic is agitated or turbulent, such as the emotions of fear, anger, jealousy, and worry.
Tamas is the state of destruction, inertia, indifference, darkness, and resistance. Examples of tamasic behaviors and actions include addiction, depression, violence, and vindictiveness.
Yoga for Your Dosha
Both Ayurveda and yoga seek to bring forth a sattvic state. As you try various styles of yoga, during different seasons and with different teachers, you might notice that you feel sattvic, rajasic, or tamasic after you practice. If your dosha is Kapha, for example, you might find that a slow-moving class causes you to become tamasic. If you’re Vata, a fast-paced Vinyasa class might be overwhelmingly rajasic.
Learning the style of yoga that suits you best can create a deeply fulfilling practice for a lifetime. Below are a few examples of "asanas" (Sanskrit for "yoga poses") that can help bring each dosha into balance.
Asanas for Vata
Vata will benefit greatly from poses that are calming and grounding. Floor-based, lower body asanas are particularly helpful for balancing excess nervous energy, fear, and anxiety. Vata people should avoid or limit poses that stimulate the upper body — like arm balances and fast-paced, flowing sequences, such as Sun Salutations. Beneficial poses for Vata include:
- Uttanasana — Standing Forward Fold
- Balasana — Child’s Pose
- Virasana — Hero Pose
- Supta Virasana — Reclining Hero Pose
- Siddhasana — Perfect Pose
- Padmasana — Lotus Pose
Asanas for Pitta
Pitta will benefit from a practice that is emotionally relaxing, cooling, and noncompetitive. Poses that compress the solar plexus and those that open the chest can be particularly beneficial. Pitta people should avoid or limit poses and styles that create too much warmth, such as Bikram Yoga. Headstand (Sirsasana) can also be overly stimulating for Pitta. It is helpful for Pitta people to practice during cooler times of the day, such as dawn or dusk. Beneficial poses for Pitta include:
- Chandra Namaskara — Moon Salutations
- Ustrasana — Camel Pose
- Bhujangasana — Cobra Pose
- Dhanurasana — Bow Pose
- Salabhasana — Locust Pose
- Setu Bandha Sarvangasana — Bridge Pose
Asanas for Kapha
Kapha benefits from a stimulating, warming, and energizing practice. Strengthening poses and a powerful, flowing practice will help balance the slow, cold, heavy nature of this dosha. Chest-opening asanas can help prevent the congestive disorders to which Kaphas are prone. Kapha people should avoid or limit cooling, restorative yoga practices. Beneficial poses for Kapha includes:
- Surya Namaskara — Sun Salutations
- Virabhadrasana I and II — Warrior I and II
- Adho Mukha Svanasana — Downward-Facing Dog
- Chaturanga Dandasana — Four-Limbed Staff Pose
- Urdhva Mukha Svanasana —Upward-Facing Dog
- Ustrasana — Camel Pose
Balance It Out
Discovering and developing a personalized yoga practice can be rewarding on all levels: Physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual. As you learn to listen to your body and your essential nature, you can begin to create a path of health and well-being that will be fun and beneficial for the rest of your life!