The Ayurvedic Approach to Fitness
The human body was designed to move, as evidenced by the three hundred and sixty joints in the human skeletal system, and we all know that exercise is critical to maintaining optimal health. When engaged appropriately, and according to one’s individual needs, exercise can be a potent catalyst for improved health. Unfortunately, modern life requires more and more of us to lead extraordinarily sedentary lives, which makes movement and exercise more important than ever.
Benefits of Proper Exercise
Proper exercise gives the body a critically important outlet for movement, which in turn, helps to maintain fluidity in the tissues, alertness in the mind, and lubrication in the joints. Exercise also supports the body’s pathways of detoxification—kindling agni (the metabolic fire) throughout the tissues, while improving digestion, circulation, elimination, and lymphatic flow. Beyond that, exercise activates natural pathways of rejuvenation by helping to release accumulated tension, clearing stagnant mental and emotional energy, improving our ability to relax, and supporting sound sleep. All of these benefits are understandably critical to our experience of optimal health. Ideally, our fitness routines are both grounding and energizing, and truly help us to feel our best—body, mind, and spirit.
Is There Such a Thing as Too Much?
However, we live in a culture that glorifies exercise, hard work, and pushing the limits in as many ways as possible. This worldview has undoubtedly infiltrated our perspective on exercise. How often do you hear phrases like these:
- No Pain, No Gain
- Push It
- Go Big or Go Home
- Just Do It
- Feel the Burn
As with many things, we have an obsessive relationship with exercise, and we’re generally conditioned to think that more is always better, and that pushing ourselves to the limit is unquestionably preferable to taking it easy in our activities. But Ayurveda offers a different view entirely.
The Ayurvedic Perspective
One of the most elegant aspects of the Ayurvedic tradition is its incredible devotion to the individual. While there are aspects of the Ayurvedic lifestyle that are generally good for everyone, Ayurveda acknowledges that each of us is unique, and that what might be fantastically therapeutic for one person can be categorically harmful for another. The same is true of exercise. Ayurveda’s fitness recommendations depend on one's constitution and current state of balance, age, the surrounding climate, and the season. By nature, exercise is qualitatively light, sharp, hot, mobile, clarifying, and drying. One of the foundational principles of Ayurveda is that like increases like and that opposites balance, which means that, ideally, we are mindful of how each of these qualities might interact with the energies already at play within our bodies, or with the broader context of our lives (as with the current climate or season).
At first glance, this perspective can feel a bit complicated, overwhelming, or overly limiting, but with a bit of education, the Ayurvedic approach is actually quite intuitive. More importantly, it celebrates your uniqueness and offers an approach to fitness that will best serve your specific situation. This tradition does not offer one path to peak performance, fitness, and overall well-being. Instead, there are many—each tailored to the unique needs of the individual. Ultimately, the Ayurvedic approach to fitness is about you, your path, and the practices that are best going to serve you, in particular, in your journey toward optimal health.
Principles to Live By
In general, Ayurveda recommends that we exercise at just fifty percent of our capacity—until we break a mild sweat on the forehead, under the arms, and along the spine, or until the first sign of dryness in the mouth.1 You can help to ensure an appropriate amount of effort by breathing through your nostrils throughout your workout. This can feel challenging at first, but it definitely gets easier with time and practice. Most people find that they gradually develop a tolerance for more and more intensity, as their nostrils adapt to being the primary passageway for the breath during exercise.
Ayurveda also recommends that we exercise during the kapha time of day, from about 6–10 a.m. and p.m. These times of day are ruled by kapha dosha and are therefore infused with a sense of groundedness, stability, and strength that helps to counteract the inherent lightness and mobility of physical activity. And actually, because the qualities of exercise oppose the qualities of kapha, being active at these times of day can counteract any tendency toward sluggishness, heaviness, or mental fog that might otherwise dampen your sense of well-being.
If exercising during the kapha time of day is out of the question for you, find a time that works for you and your body, being especially mindful of any vata or pitta aggravation you may be experiencing. Exercise has far more in common with vata and pitta than kapha, so exercising during pitta times of day (10 a.m–2 p.m. and 10 p.m.–2 a.m.) and vata times of day (2–6 a.m. and p.m.) can easily provoke these doshas.
Beyond these generalities, you can further improve the benefits of your fitness routine by tailoring it to pacify the specific dosha that needs the most support in your system.
How Do I Know Which Dosha to Support?
As a starting point, it is helpful to know your constitution and current state of balance. If you are new to these concepts, our simple Ayurvedic Profile™ quiz can help you determine yours. As a general rule, exercise to support your current state of balance, which is generally a reflection of all the various influences that may be affecting you at any given time—your constitutional tendencies, your age, the season, and your lifestyle. So if one or more of your doshas is aggravated, focus on pacifying whichever one is the most elevated. If you are relatively balanced, you can exercise to support your constitution, pacifying those doshas that are most predominant within your system—and yes, it is definitely possible to create an exercise routine that combines the needs of more than one dosha. When you find that you are relatively balanced for a long period of time, you may also choose to adapt your routine according to your Stage of Life, and make slight refinements as the seasons change. Vata Season occurs during the fall and early winter, Kapha Season encompasses the winter and early spring, and Pitta Season is late spring through the summer.
Remember, when an imbalance is present (which is the case for most of us) one should focus on pacifying whichever dosha is most aggravated. The beauty of this system is that you can always refine your approach as your needs change.
In the resources below, you can learn how best to pacify each of the doshas—both in your exercise routine, and in the broader context of your life: