Ayurvedic Fitness

An Individual Approach to Enjoying Exercise

A recent survey asked the question, “Why is it that 80 percent 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 genuinely take pleasure in something, they find time for it. I believe the real reason 80 percent of Americans are not exercising regularly is 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 not available from our conventional approach.

For years the experts have encouraged us to exercise because of its pronounced health benefits. On the whole, people who exercise regularly have less chronic disease, but recently studies have also shown some less than positive effects of exercise. Many reports have linked too much exercise with compromised immune systems. At the present time, experts don’t know just 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 medicine, where ten unique mind-body types were 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?

When one of my clients was in elementary school, girls and boys alike were 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 did not want to face her classmates ever again. She was a kapha body type—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 we bigger kapha types stay under the basket and get rebounds.” For the first time in her life, she felt she belonged in the gym.

The vata body types, as Sara mentioned, are faster and actually more hypermetabolic. Opposite to the kapha type, they tend to think quickly and forget quickly 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 tend to worry, become anxious, constipated, and have trouble sleeping.  

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

Sport by Body Type

Vata types will typically excel in sports requiring quick short bursts of speed and agility. These individuals are like high-strung 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 do so, since their endurance is poor 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 impassioned 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 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, so they must be sure to get plenty of stimulating and vigorous exercise as well. Because of their hypometabolic nature, kapha types will tend toward laziness and need motivation when exercising.

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, some standard advice was 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 than 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 montonous, so we engage our minds in one activity while our bodies do another. 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 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 response gets activated 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 80 percent of America doesn't do it. To make exercise fun again we must replace the degenerative emergency response with a rejuvenating, 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 this sate of being 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 is how most people breathe during exercise, triggering the same neurological response. In contrast, the nerves that would calm, rejuvenate, and regenerate the body are in the lower lobes of the lungs, along 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 breathe into the lower lobes, thus forcing us to breathe through the mouth into the upper lungs and triggering a minor but constant emergency.  

Exercise can act as a double-edged sword, either incurring stress or alleviating 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 rarefies the air so it penetrates the lower lobes. It is when these distal lobes are fully permeated that the body produces a neurological state of composure even while under extreme stress—thus the eye of the hurricane.

Your First Ayurvedic Workout

As you walk slowly, for the first ten minutes breathe deeply in and out through your nose. Here you are exercising your lungs, making sure each breath is deeper, longer, and slower than the one before 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, maintaining the exact same rhythm of breath you established at the beginning. At some point you will notice it becomes more difficult to draw air in through the nose, creating the urge to breath through your mouth. 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 stressed into an emergency response to maintain that pace. At that time, slow down and recapture the original deep, long, and slow rhythm of the breath. Once it is reestablished, 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, your rib cage is not a cage any more—rather it is more like the bellows of an accordian, compressing and expanding, massaging 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 life's stressors. This is the first step of living and exercising in the eye of the hurricane, cultivating prana and the harmony between mind and body—the most important health benefit of exercise.



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