Ayurveda for Yogis
As a lover of Yoga, you have probably heard of Ayurveda, but did you know that the two are actually sister sciences? It’s true; over five thousand years ago, the Vedic culture of India gave birth to both Yoga and Ayurveda. For those of us familiar with the incredible depth and breadth of the Yogic tradition, the thought of learning an entirely new Vedic science has the potential to feel slightly overwhelming. But in reality, many aspects of the Ayurvedic tradition may be surprisingly familiar to you already—and not merely on a theoretical level.
Yoga and Ayurveda emerged from shared philosophical roots, and therefore have a fair amount in common. In fact, your yoga practice may have already offered you experiential insights into some of the areas where Yoga and Ayurveda overlap. For example, you may be familiar with sattvic, rajasic, and tamasic energies, the seven chakras, or the myriad of subtle energetic pathways in our bodies, such as ida nadi (the lunar, feminine pathway), pingala nadi (the solar, masculine pathway), and sushumna nadi (the central channel).
Certainly, both Yoga and Ayurveda have their own unique merits, but they were designed to be practiced in tandem, each enriching the other in mutually enhancing ways. So if you are looking to deepen the impact of your study and practice of yoga, why not introduce yourself to a few foundational elements of Ayurveda?
Ayurveda: The Sacred Knowledge of Life
Like Yoga, Ayurveda is a Sanskrit word. The Sanskrit root ayuh means “life,” while veda means “sacred knowledge,” so the word Ayurveda literally translates as, “the sacred knowledge of life.” According to Ayurveda, life is the confluence of the body, mind, and spirit—making Ayurveda an inherently holistic approach living, intended to support the whole of who you are. Yes, it is a comprehensive system of medicine, but also a pathway toward optimizing wellness on every level. In fact, the Sanskrit word for health, svastha, describes an authentically harmonious state in which the body, mind, soul, and senses are infused with an abiding sense of Self, wellness, and even bliss.
Ayurveda celebrates our uniqueness, guides us toward increased self-awareness, and provides a rich array of simple and elegant solutions to potentially complex imbalances. At the end of the day, Ayurveda helps us reclaim balance in our lives so that we can fully enjoy ourselves and serve our communities. And without question, bringing Yoga and Ayurveda together amplifies the impact of both traditions.
Five Introductory Concepts
As a starting place, it is helpful to have a basic understanding of some of the lenses through which Ayurveda views the universe. These are foundational tools for understanding the laws of nature, identifying various states of health or imbalance, and for charting a course toward improved wellness.
The thing is, Ayurveda is simultaneously deep and intuitive, so even a cursory level of knowledge can be quite profound. And if we choose to apply the wisdom of Ayurveda in our day-to-day lives, inviting an expanded level of self-awareness, and a deeper commitment to self-care, the potential for life-changing transformation is immense.
1. The Five Elements
According to Ayurveda, the five elements—earth, water, fire, air, and ether (space)—are the building blocks of nature. They combine to form every substance, every cell, and all five are present in everything, but typically, one or two elements are predominant. Each of these elements has a unique set of characteristics that influence our every experience.
In developing a relationship with each of the five elements, we can learn to align with and benefit from those that will be most supportive at any given time. For instance, the elements can easily be incorporated into your yoga practice:
The earth element lends us a sense of grounding, stability, and contentment. It can be accessed by lying on the ground, using the breath to connect with the earth, focusing on connecting your feet to the ground beneath you, and by evoking the earth’s stability through the practice of restorative, standing, and balancing poses.
The water element bolsters flexibility, fluidity, and flow. It can be invited into your yoga practice by inviting fluidity into the breath and into your movements. This connection can be amplified by introducing a playful level of freedom in your poses, as in Free the Cat Cow.
The fire element delivers illumination, focus, passion, and the ability to transform. The energy of fire can be evoked by bringing a sharp sense of focus and intention to your mat, and by practicing asanas (postures) and pranayamas (Yogic breathing exercises) that kindle the digestive fire.
The air element supports movement and communication. All bodily movements align us with air, as does tending to the breath. During your yoga practice, you can deepen your relationship with the air element by observing the movement and energy of prana—the vital life-force energy within each of us.
Ether is the space within which everything occurs. It encourages expansive consciousness, perspective, and clarity. Ether can be invited into your yoga practice or your day-to-day experience by connecting with Divine consciousness, reaching beyond the limitations of the self, emptying the mind, and inviting the energetic body to expand and take up more space.
2. The Twenty Gunas
Ayurveda identifies twenty primary gunas, or qualities—arranged as ten pairs of opposites— that can be used to describe every imaginable substance or experience.
One of the foundational principles of Ayurveda is that like increases like and that opposites balance. The gunas are one of the easiest ways to grasp this concept because they so clearly illustrate these opposing energies that can be used to maintain balance:
|Slow (Dull)||Sharp (Penetrating)|
In Ayurveda, the gunas are used to identify the qualitative nature of an imbalance, and to illuminate the path toward improved health. It is critically important to understand that all of the gunas have value, and that it is possible to have an over-abundance of any of them.
When this occurs, Ayurveda suggests that we reduce our exposure to substances and experiences that increase that quality, and favor substances and experiences with an opposing energy in order to restore the proper sense of equilibrium.
For instance, if we’re feeling spaced out and flighty (which reflects an excess of the light and mobile qualities), we can bring the heavy (think grounding), and stable qualities into our yoga practice with standing or balancing poses.
3. The Three Doshas
Vata, pitta, and kapha (the three doshas) are particularly useful in understanding one’s Ayurvedic constitution and current state of balance because a dosha serves to simplify a complex combination of elements and qualities into a single functional entity—each with its own unique personality.
The following table outlines the key functions, elements, and qualities of the doshas:
|Essential Functions||Movement, Communication||Transformation, Metabolism||Structure, Lubrication|
|Primary Elements||Air + Ether||Fire + Water||Water + Earth|
As we become acquainted with the doshas, we naturally gain critical insights into our strengths, vulnerabilities, and often even our signature character traits. All three doshas are present in everyone, but the unique ratio of vata, pitta, and kapha within each of us determines one’s prakriti (constitution)—a personal blueprint for optimal health.
That said, any of the doshas can accumulate beyond healthy limits, and when they do, they tend to upset our sense of equilibrium, and disrupt our health.
When a dosha is provoked, Ayurveda offers a vast array of balancing therapeutic strategies—which may include dietary adjustments, lifestyle practices, or herbal remedies. In fact, one way to calm an aggravated dosha is to practice vata-, pitta-, or kapha-pacifying yoga, a tailored approach to yoga that effectively soothes vata, pitta, and kapha, respectively. You can read more about it in our Yoga Department.
4. The Importance of Agni
According to Ayurveda, perfect health relies on robust agni (the metabolic fire), whereas every imbalance or disease can be traced back to a weakness in the digestive fire. In this way, healthy agni is the very cornerstone of health. It is responsible for digestion, absorption, assimilation, and the transformation of food into physical tissues, energy, and consciousness.
It stands to reason, then, that tending to and protecting agni can dramatically improve one’s health. Simple adjustments like eating at consistent times, being fully present with our meals, and observing proper food combining can powerfully bolster the strength of agni. We can also assess which doshas need the most support and follow a vata-, pitta-, or kapha-pacifying diet.
In general, Yoga is incredibly supportive of agni. And pranayama can also be a potent ally for balancing and strengthening agni. For instance, kapalabhati is especially balancing for kapha; sheetali is particularly balancing for pitta; and nadi shodhana is exceptionally balancing for vata.
5. The Power of the Individual
In Ayurveda, everything is medicine and everything is poison; it all depends on the context and the individual concerned. So we look to one’s constitution, current state of balance, and age—alongside the current climate and season—to determine which therapeutic strategies will best support and improve one’s well-being. This approach is refreshingly individualized and empowers each of us to pursue a very personal path toward optimal health—one that we can refine over time, as our needs evolve and change.
In fact, our needs can and do change in subtle ways from one day to the next. This is why we are encouraged to view our yoga practice through fresh eyes every time we meet our mat. Ayurveda guides us to pay attention to the energies that seem to foster balance, as well as those that feel counter-productive in any given moment, and ultimately, to listen to and respect the wisdom of our bodies.
Enriching Your Life with Ayurveda
Hopefully, this brief introduction has piqued your interest, and perhaps inspired you to allow Ayurveda to begin to inform some of your day-to-day experience. Of course, how much you choose to engage with Yoga’s sister science is entirely up to you. Chances are, even the essentials we’ve discussed here might enrich your self-awareness or well-being in some way.
And certainly, if you dig deeper, the potential benefits are as vast as the tradition itself. Should you choose to explore Ayurveda further, you have a wealth of resources available to you, and we sincerely hope that we can continue to support you along the way.