Sign at the gym: “This exercise program will push you to your limit!” Contemplation: Hmm, maybe that’s what I need to get into shape.
Online ad promises: “Couch to 5k in 6 weeks.” Contemplation: I know someone who did that, and they said it was easy. Maybe . . .
Facebook post from a friend: “Just ran today's 10 miles, enjoying a juice, never felt better!” Contemplation: A smile of kindred spirit? Or the guilt of not living up to some measure of success?
Have you considered taking up running, even though you hate it? Have you signed up for a “boot camp” thinking that’s the only way to motivate yourself?
Maybe a friend attended your weekly yoga class and left saying “That's not exercising.” Leaving you wracked with a mixture of shame and confusion?
We live in an exercise focused culture. Many sources point to a good workout as the cure for whatever ails you. We know that exercise is an important component of health, but is your exercise routine supporting your optimum health or causing decline and trouble? As an Ayurvedic practitioner, I find that counseling people on their exercise routines, as they relate to Ayurvedic health, is a difficult task. You may think I am often trying to get people to start exercising. In reality, I am often telling people that they are overdoing it or that they need to modify the type of exercise they are performing. They typically don’t like to hear that advice!
Is Your Exercise Routine Supporting Your Optimum Health?
Ayurveda is a wisdom tradition, and it can bring clarity to situations that often baffle us. In fact, the whole focus of Ayurveda is on skillful living. It teaches us that nothing is right for everyone and everything is right for someone. We don’t need to adopt a particular style of exercise because our friends do it. My medicine may be your poison. By understanding our body type and what it needs to be healthy, we can make exercise choices that are right for us. To better understand this, I’ll try to go further than just telling you how to exercise, by helping you understand why a particular type of activity may be better for you than something else.
Ayurveda is the science of the three base energies of life—the doshas of vata, pitta, and kapha. And these doshas are great things! They allow us to live and control the various functions of our bodies. The more challenging side is their sensitivity to change. The doshas respond to stimulus, and tend to get out of balance over time. And they can get out of balance in many ways.
How The Doshas And Elements Influence Us
We each have all three doshas present and active in our body, but often we have one in particular that figures prominently in defining our body type. It needs extra care to maintain its balanced state over time and keep us healthy. Our choices around exercise can have a significant effect on this dosha.
To understand how this applies to each of us, we must first recognize the doshas themselves. Each dosha reflects the qualities or attributes of its primary “element” or building block. These elements may prove easier to understand on an intuitive level than the dosha. Careful observation allows us to connect with the qualities of the elements.
Reflects Qualities of Air
Reflects Qualities of Fire
Reflects Qualities of Water
|Mobile, Dry, Subtle, Light, Cold, Changeable||Spreading, Sharp, Intense, Light, Hot||Stable, Heavy, Slow, Solid, Cool|
These qualities are significant because they are felt within our bodies and experienced in the mind as the doshas change and influence us.
We can feel the restlessness of air element in a busy mind or a body that cannot sit still; vata dosha is affecting us.
We experience the spreading intensity of fire element as anger in the mind or as heat in the body; pitta dosha is on the rise.
We sense the dense dullness of water element as our inability to get motivated or as heaviness in the body; kapha dosha is prominent.
The influences of the elements are noticeable when we slow down and experience their qualities. So what are we trying to balance? Some of the influences of the doshas are normal, and some are problematic.
This is when we can benefit from the assistance of an Ayurvedic professional who will help you sort out your natural state from your imbalanced state. An Ayurvedic practitioner will observe your body from an Ayurvedic lens and determine your doshic body type. They will catalog your complaints and illnesses and connect them to imbalanced doshic energies. Most people find this to be of value, as trying to determine our body type by reading a book or taking a dosha test online will often reveal mixed results.
Like Increases Like
We usually need to balance or stabilize the dosha most closely connected to our body type. Using the Ayurvedic tenet of “like increases like,” we see how our exercise choices affect our doshic energies. By choosing exercise programs that match the qualities of our body type dosha, we push that dosha out of balance. Over time and repetition, this can cause problems (like increases like), and over time this may lead to illness.
When we know our Ayurvedic body type, we can seek an exercise program aimed at keeping us healthy by using another Ayurvedic tenet; “treat a quality with an opposite quality to attain balance.”
|Balancing Vata Dosha||Balancing Pitta Dosha||Balancing Kapha Dosha|
|Movement Patterns||Slow, Stable, Regular, Emphasizing Routine||Smooth, Flowing, Emphasizing the Idea of Water||Fast, Irregular, Changing, Emphasizing Lightness|
|Intensity||Low Intensity, Strength Based Movement||Moderate Intensity, Non-Competitive||High Intensity|
Finding Balance by Using Opposing Qualities
Notice that the qualities recommended for exercise are the opposite qualities of the dosha/element itself. For example; we keep vata dosha in balance with our exercise choices by using opposing qualities to those of the air element.
Because many of us come from a place of imbalance, this may feel awkward at first. We may even feel that we are going against our nature to balance ourselves. But there is a painful truth about our human nature: When our doshic energies have become imbalanced, we are drawn to things that make the problem worse. This can be a challenging situation to traverse.
As an imbalanced vata, we may be drawn to run, perform fast vinyasa yoga, or kickboxing. We may prefer to “mix it up,” doing something different each day. These patterns and activities emphasize the qualities of vata and increase the dosha.
As an imbalanced pitta, we may be drawn to individual sports where we are often victorious, or hot yoga where we “burn brightly.” We may thrive on competing with ourselves and constantly upping our performance. These mental and physical activities emphasize the qualities of pitta and increase the dosha.
As an imbalanced kapha, we may be drawn to do no exercise at all, visit a regular yin yoga class at the same time each week, or go through the same weight lifting routine while lying on the bench. These routines and habits emphasize the qualities of kapha and increase the dosha.
Many of my clients find that this lesson in Ayurvedic exercise physiology is maddening! In fact, I must carefully choose when to reveal these facts, if at all, or I may lose the client before healing begins.
I know healthy people with a vata body type who are runners and nicely balanced pitta individuals who compete and win.
Of equal importance to the activity is the mental approach you take while performing it. One of the interesting aspects of the doshas is that they can be altered through how we think and how we act at the same time. We can reduce the influence of a dosha using our powers of thought, concentration, and intention. Our breathing can also play a role in keeping a dosha in balance.
Here we use opposing qualities to promote balance.
|Balance Vata||Balance Pitta||Balance Kapha|
|Mental Focus||Attentive, Focused, Calm||Detached, Relaxed, Fun||Active, Intense, Daring|
|Breath||Deep, Slow, Regular||Less Attention to Breath||Faster, Forceful|
As a lively vata, we approach running by doing it calmly and with focused attention. We move more slowly and steadily into our vinyasa yoga class using our deep, slow Ujjayi Pranayama (Breath of Victory).
As a competitive pitta, we strive to have fun, releasing our desire to win and allowing ourselves the luxury of not keeping time.
The steady graceful kapha steps out of routine by attending different classes than normal, attempting the arm balance we often skip in yoga or using a forceful Bhastrika Pranayama (Bellows Breath) as we speed walk the mall.
Ayurveda is non-judgmental in its teaching and teaches us how the doshas will respond to stimuli. We choose, and observe the result. It’s also important to remember that exercise is only one aspect of keeping the doshas calm and balanced. I always tell my clients that the choices they make in one area of life can be offset by choices they make in other areas of life. Each week is a mixture of activities affecting our root energies, and we must seek to harmonize through the sum of the parts.
By example, a pitta person dedicated to hot yoga must follow a strict anti-pitta dietary regimen, use cooling herbs internally, cooling oils on the body, and cooling aroma therapies. Perhaps over time they will naturally be drawn to leave the hot environment for the cooler yoga room!
An appropriate physical program can be an important part of your Ayurvedic lifestyle. The successful approach is usually walking the middle path, avoiding extreme types of activities, and promoting a peaceful lifestyle.