How to Have the Perfect Yoga Practice for Vata + 6 Poses
Yoga is an excellent tool we can use to stay centered at any time of the year, but it is particularly helpful during fall and early winter when an excess of the air and space elements of vata may cause us to become more spacey, scattered, and anxious than usual.
The concept of aligning the mind, the body, and the breath through mindful movement allows us to arrive in the present moment. This shift of the mind, away from thoughts of the past or the future and into the now, is a powerful way to find our center and calm.
However, not all yoga practices are calming to vata. Because the air and space elements have the qualities of light, fast, cold, and mobile, a practice that centers and calms vata should incorporate the opposite qualities: warming, grounding, and slow. Some of this can be achieved through the poses themselves, while attention to the practice environment can further support.
Creating the Practice Space
Creating a practice space that is a comfortable temperature is important when working to calm vata. Notice if you are avoiding getting started because the air temperature is too cold.
In addition, lighting should have a warm quality and not be too bright. Some LED and fluorescent light bulbs have a cool, blue tint to them that may further aggravate vata. If you are unable to change the lighting in your space, consider introducing lamps in which you can change out the bulbs to something that has a warm yellow hue.
Finally, minimize distractions. Gentle music without words may be calming, but try to minimize background noise, or people and pets wandering in and out. Sometimes we can’t make the space perfect; just do your best and don’t worry about the rest. To practice yoga in a less-than-ideal environment is better than to not practice at all.
Beginning the Practice: Connect with the Breath
At the beginning of the practice, spend several minutes bringing the awareness to the breath and experience the sensations of the breath moving in and out of the body. Focus on slowing and deepening the breath before moving on from this pose. This can be done seated in Easy Pose (Sukhasana), standing in Standing Forward Bend (Uttanasana) or resting in Child’s Pose (Balasana).
Notice if the mind is busy, and if so, bring it back to the breath, releasing whatever thoughts begin to arise. This may happen over and over during your practice—that’s normal. Each time thoughts that belong to the past or the future arise, gently redirect the mind back to the body and the breath.
Take your time with this first part of the practice. Often when vata is high, the tendency is to keep moving. Allowing time to arrive on the mat at the beginning of practice goes a long way toward coming back to center.
The Practice: Slow Flow
If you desire a practice that includes some flowing, vinyasa-type movements, be sure to practice your chosen sequence slower than you normally would. Instead of a single breath per pose, try holding each for two breaths.
However, sometimes when vata is high, it’s difficult to slow down right away. A few rounds of Sun Salutation (Surya Namaskar) or other flowing sequence can be an excellent bridge to the longer-held poses that follow. Another benefit of this more active phase near the beginning of practice is to generate heat—vata has the quality of cold, so creating warmth through movement will balance this.
Balancing Downward Energy in Your Practice
Apana vayu is the downward moving energy that supports elimination and menstruation, and supports and strengthens the intestinal walls. It is one of five sub-doshas of vata, and when it is imbalanced, you may experience occasional constipation, bloating, changes in your cycle, or a long list of other experiences.
Physically, apana is located in the colon, pelvic cavity, and pelvic organs, so apana imbalances usually relate to this area. Particularly when stress levels are high, the downward action of apana can become blocked because much of our energy moves upward to aid prana vayu and udana vayu, sub-doshas of vata that support the mind.
Forward bends, twists, and seated or lying poses help move apana downward again (known as anulomana, or “correct flow”), and with this we experience a sense of grounding and centering. In addition to Child’s Pose, the following poses are especially helpful for balancing vata and directing the apana energy downward.
Child’s Pose (Balasana). Start on hands and knees and push the sit bones back toward the heels, while the hands rest on the mat with the arms outstretched. While resting in Child’s Pose, imagine connecting with the earth and feel the heaviness of the forehead resting on the mat. Direct the mind to notice the sense of grounding and heaviness in this pose.
Forward Bend (Uttanasana). Start by standing on the mat with feet hip distance apart and toes pointing forward. On an in-breath, raise the arms up overhead. On an out-breath, bend forward and let the hands come down to rest on the shins or the floor. Drop the head and neck and let the head be heavy. The knees can be slightly bent.
Stay here for several breaths. On each inhale, imagine the sit bones reaching toward the sky; on each exhale, drop heavier into the heels and let the head relax further toward the earth. (Note: This pose is contraindicated for posterior disc herniation, vertigo, glaucoma, or high blood pressure.)
Revolved Abdomen (Jathara Parivritti). Lie on the mat on the back with knees bent and feet flat on the mat. Bring the arms out wide like a “T” with palms facing up. On an exhale, drop the knees off to the right as the head looks left. On an inhale, bring the knees and head back to center. On the next exhale, drop the knees off to the left as the head looks right.
Continue this slow, gentle movement for several breaths. On each inhale, drop the knees to one side while the head looks in the opposite direction. On each inhale come back to center.
Knees to Chest (Apanasana). As its other name of “wind relieving pose” implies, this pose is directly related to apana vayu and can be helpful when gas and bloating are present, common vata imbalances.
Lie on the mat on the back with the knees pulled in toward the chest. Lengthen the back of the neck by dropping the chin gently toward the chest and allowing the back of the skull to slide along the mat. Hold this for several breaths. Alternately, rock slowly side to side to gently massage the muscles of the back.
Variation: Start lying on the back with legs outstretched. Inhale deeply, and on the exhale pull one knee in toward the chest. Inhale and release the leg back down to the mat. Exhale and draw the other knee in toward the chest. Continue alternating legs for several breaths.
Half Lord of the Fishes (Ardha Matsyendrasana). Sit on the mat with legs outstretched and the spine long. Cross the right leg over the left and bend the knee. If it is accessible, rock slightly to the left and bend the left knee, tucking the foot back toward the right sit bone. Come back to sit evenly on both sit bones. If you are unable to rest both sit bones on the floor with both knees bent, keep the bottom leg outstretched.
Lengthen the spine to sit tall. You can rest here for several breaths, or if you like you can add a gentle twist. Placing the right hand on the right kneecap, reach the left arm a few inches behind the left hip. Maintaining a long spine and keeping face looking forward (don’t look back yet!), begin to turn the chest toward the left.
If it is helpful, walk the left hand further back while deepening the twist. At the end of the twist, turn the head to look over the left shoulder. Rest here for several breaths. On each inhale, lengthen the spine. On each exhale, pull the abdomen toward the spine and deepen the twist.
Savasana (Corpse Pose). End your practice with a longer than usual Savasana. Aim to spend at least 10 percent of your yoga time in this pose. That means that if you have a sixty minute practice, save the last six minutes for Savasana. If your practice is only fifteen minutes, save at least two minutes to rest in Savasana.
Practicing yoga doesn’t mean you have to set aside a full hour. Even a short practice is extremely helpful for finding your center and pacifying vata. The most important aspect of a centering practice is to maintain a sense of stability and grounding in each pose, mentally and physically. Incorporate these poses into your regular yoga practice, or spend fifteen minutes going through these simple asanas.
Above all, keep vata in check this season by being gentle with yourself and breathing deeply. Your mind will thank you!