Ayurvedic Fitness

An Individual Approach to Enjoying Life

A recent survey asked the question, “Why is it that 80% of Americans do not exercise regularly?” By far the most common response is that people are too busy and simply can't find the time. Could this be why more than ten million Americans are exercising less today than just three years ago, because they are just too busy? Could it be so simple? It has been my experience that when people like something they find time for it. I believe the real reason why 80% of Americans are not exercising regularly is simple. It’s because they do not enjoy it. It’s a “workout", something you have to do, not something you look forward to. Making exercise fun again will not only keep us doing it but will deliver numerous health benefits from exercise not available from our conventional approach.  

For years we have been encouraged to exercise by the experts because of its pronounced health benefits. People who exercise regularly on the whole have less chronic disease, but only recently studies have shown some not so good effects of exercise. Many reports have linked too much exercise with compromised immune systems. The problem is, that at the present time the experts don’t know - how much exercise is good and how much more is harmful? There can be no standard answer to this question that will apply to everyone. The fact is that we are all different and have individual requirements for exercise. This understanding of individual body typing is not by any means new. Arguably the first system of body typing was in ancient India’s Ayurvedic (science of life) medicine where ten unique mind-body types are identified, each with its unique strengths, talents, likes and dislikes. Understanding who you are can help you determine how much exercise you need as well as the type of activity that would be best suited for you.  


Who Are You?

In elementary school girls and boys alike are required to run the mile under ten minutes in order to pass the class. This can be quite a feat depending on your body type. When Sara was ten she came to me in tears to get a note so she would never have to go to gym class again. She had just run the mile for time and although she gave her heart and soul she finished in eleven and a half minutes failing the class. She was humiliated and could not face her class ever again. She was a KAPHA body type that is typically hypometabolic with big bones an easy going nature and much more endurance than speed. She tended to be a little more on the heavy side as kapha types will hold on to more water. Working with her coach I directed her to a sport more suited to her body type and she came back to see me a year or so later with a big smile on her face as she told me she just returned from the regional championships as a race walker, this being a sport much more suited to her nature. To my total amazement she went on to tell me that her favorite class was now gym and she just joined the basketball team. She said, “It’s really cool - the little and faster vata and pitta types dribble and pass the ball as us bigger kapha types stay under the basket and get rebounds.” For the first time in her life she felt she belonged on a basketball court.  

The VATA body types as Sara mentioned are faster and actually more hypermetabolic. Opposite to the Kapha type they tend to think quick and forget quick and have little endurance. They are great in quick short bursts and would find a mile run an incredibly difficult endurance event. They don't hold on to much body mass and are usually trying to gain weight. When they get out of balance they can tend to worry, become anxious, constipated and have trouble sleeping.  

The PITTA body type is more fiery by nature and is the type that would excel in the one mile run under ten minutes. They are typically more competitive, agile with a medium muscled frame. When they get out of balance they can over heat, get irritated and even complain of skin rashes and indigestion.  


Sport by Body Type

Vata types will typically excel in quick sports requiring quick short bursts of speed and agility. These individuals are like highstrung thoroughbred race horses, always on the go, very restless and even jumpy at times. They love fast, vigorous activity but can’t handle too much of it if they are going to stay in balance. If anything, vatas need to slow down and nature often forces them to, since their endurance is not great and they tire quite easily. Vata types are quick to get involved in fitness programs but because of their constantly changing interests, they are also quick to give it up.  

Pitta types excel in individual competition requiring strength, speed and stamina. They are fiery both in personality and desire to win. They are highly motivated and driven and are often not satisfied unless they have won. They are natural leaders and are attracted to individual sports because of their strong ego and natural competence in most sports. Pitta types must be careful not to get overheated and must learn how to enjoy themselves regardless of the final score.  

Kapha types excel in endurance and mind-body coordinated skills. They are great under pressure and are naturally calm, stable and easy-going under pressure. They are often late bloomers both physically and mentally. They love the camaraderie of team sports although these don't usually give them the aerobic exercise that they need. Because of the hypometabolic nature they will tend to be more lazy and need motivation when exercising. They love team sports but must be sure to get plenty of stimulating and vigorous exercise as well.  


Minding Your Body

In addition to knowing your mind-body type and its requirements, it is also important for your mind to know how to listen to your body. We have heard the term “listen to your body” for years only no one has ever told us how to do it. In the past we have been taught to listen to our body by jogging at a pace that allows us to hold a conversation with our partner. To me this technique sounds more like listening to someone else’s body rather then your own.  

Inadvertently many of us have been conditioned to distract our mind from our body during exercise. Oftentimes exercise is found too boring unless we have a TV to watch, a book to read or a magazine to flip through. It seems we have resigned ourselves to the fact that exercise is mindless and boring so we engage our minds in one activity while our bodies do another. High-tech distraction devices have emerged on the scene as virtual reality workout centers and TV-ridden cardio theatres fill health clubs. People can now exercise beyond their tolerance without the boredom and without feeling the pain. No pain-no gain has been replaced with, if we distract you, you won't feel it.  

The degeneration of even moderate levels of exercise has been recently documented in a landmark study by Dr. Kenneth Cooper, who is considered a leading authority and visionary in the field of exercise physiology. His recent findings fly in the face of all our current exercise standards yet match up perfectly with the exercise requirements laid down over 5000 years ago in the Ayurvedic texts. He found that when people exercise at 60% of their maximum heart rate for four hours a week or more, they will produce a significant amount of harmful exercise induced free radicals which are the leading cause of aging, disease, cancer and death. Mind you, current exercise requirements state that we need to get the heart rate over 60% before any cardio-health benefits are gained. The results of this study were so controversial and radical the fitness industry for the most part the industry has chosen to ignore Cooper’s advice. He says if you insist on exceeding this limit then you must take large doses of antioxidant supplements to combat the harmful effects of moderate exercise.  

Does this mean we should be restricted to a walk around the block to ward off this free radical onslaught? The Ayurvedic approach to fitness, which made its more public debut about 1500 years ago as the original martial arts of China, utilized physical techniques in order to access one’s full human potential. It is in this light that I discuss a new approach to how and why we exercise. The human body is unlimited in potential, it is just a matter of knowing how to access it. In this case less will definitely be more.  


The Secret to Lifelong Fitness

In Ayurveda, the first requirement for health, fitness and longevity is that the body’s life force or “prana” must flow effortlessly into every cell of the body. This is accomplished primarily via the breath. It is with the proper use of the breath during exercise that will bring harmony between the mind and body and create a measurable experience of calm and rejuvenation into each workout. Most of us do not realize that our body responds to exercise as an emergency. The fight-or-flight nervous system gets maxed out even during moderate exercise. This emergency response during each workout not only produces stress-fighting degenerative hormones but it is likely the key factor in America’s chronic aversion to exercise. Normal people would never intentionally subject themselves to an emergency day after day after day. Yet when we ask people to engage in regular conventional exercise that is exactly what we are asking. It is no wonder that eighty percent of America doesn't do it. To make exercise fun again we must replace the degenerative emergency response with a rejuvenative calming one. It is this experience of calm, like the eye of a hurricane, that will act as a hub as we engage in the most dynamic physical, mental or emotional activity. In nature, the bigger the eye of the hurricane, the more forceful the winds. It is this experience of calm that we seek to reproduce in the midst of even the most extreme stress. In athletics and in life, when people are at their best they often find it effortless and euphoric. When tennis great Billie Jean King was at her best she said, “I would transport myself beyond the turmoil of the court to a place of total peace and calm.”  


Creating the Eye of the Hurricane

If you were to see a bear in the woods, you would most likely take a quick upper chest gasping emergency breath. This breath would trigger a fight-or-flight response in your nervous system as the upper lobes of the lungs are primarily innervated by the sympathetic nervous system. The kind of gasping mouth breathing much like a hyperventilation breathing pattern is a normal breathing response to extreme stress. Unfortunately this how most people breathe during exercise triggering the same neurological response. In contrast, the nerves that would calm, rejuvenate, regenerate the body are in the lower lobes of the lungs alone with the majority of the blood supply. The problem is that most people never breathe into these lower parasympathetic dominant lobes. The most noteworthy reason is that the rib cage has what’s called “elastic recoil” which means it is constantly contracting and squeezing on the heart and lungs 24 hours a day. Over time the rib cage can literally become a cage making it very difficult to breath into this lower lobes thus forcing us to breath through the mouth into the upper lungs and triggering a minor but constant emergency.  

Exercise can act as a double-edged sword where it can either incur stress or remove it depending on the quality of the breath. The best way to consistently breathe into the lower lobes of the lungs is by nasal breathing. The nose is really an intricately designed breathing apparatus that will prepare the air perfectly for access into the lower lobes. In short the nose filters, moistens and rarafies the air so it penetrates the lower lobes. Probably the most unique feature lies in the turbinates of the nose which act as turbines to swirl the air into vortices that drives the incoming air into the small and distal alveoli of the lungs. It is when these distal lobes are fully perfused that the body produces a neurological state of composure even while under extreme stress - thus the eye of the hurricane.  


Your First Ayurvedic Workout

Go for a walk and for the first ten minutes breath deeply in and out through your nose as you walk fairly slow. Here you are exercising your lungs first making sure that each breath is deeper, longer and slower than the one prior with the emphasis on comfort. It is this experience of comfort that you will be taking into higher levels of exertion. Then begin to walk faster and then faster and be sure to maintain the exact same rhythm of the breath you established from the beginning. At some point you will notice it becoming more difficult to get the air in through the nose and an ensuing urge to take a mouth breath. When your exercise forces you to take your first mouth breath, you have just then lost the eye of the hurricane and your body was at that moment forced into an emergency response to maintain that pace. At that time, immediately slow down and recapture the original deep, long and slow rhythm of the breath. Once it is reestablished, try to walk faster again, telling your body you want more performance. When the breathing gets labored and you open your mouth, then slow down on cue again, constantly telling your body you want more performance and we will not create an emergency. Soon your body will accommodate a higher level of a natural and more permanent fitness.  

Because of the years of lower rib cage constriction you will more than likely find this difficult at first. But, what you couldn't do the first day you will find yourself effortlessly doing within two or three weeks, comfortably breathing through your nose. When this happens you rib cage is not a cage any more - rather twelve rib-like cleavers that can massage your heart and lungs up to 28,000 times a day. When this starts happening, a natural calming influence stays with you all day while you deal with all kinds of extreme stressors. This is the first step of living in the eye of the hurricane and the provider of the most important health benefits of exercise.    



The above article was printed with permission from Dr. John Douillard.

Dr. John Douillard, Founder of LifeSpa Ayurvedic Retreat Center, Ayurvedic Practitioner and Author