Mangala is an Ananda Yoga teacher, a Clinical Ayurvedic Specialist, a Nurse Practitioner, and an Ananda minister/ lightbearer.
Part 1 of this article covered some of the basics of Ayurveda, including sketches of the three doshas, how they are related to the five elements, and how the doshas manifest in us. Now we will begin to explore the Ayurvedic constitution and the connections between Ayurveda and Ananda Yoga:
A person’s Ayurvedic constitution may be dominated by one dosha, or more commonly, there are dual-dosha constitutions, which are referred to by naming the most dominant dosha first, followed by the second most dominant dosha. For example, two of the most common constitutions are Vata-Pitta and Pitta-Vata. It is very rare to be tri-doshic, which would mean that there is an equal amount of all three doshas in the person’s constitution.
Although it is fairly easy to get a good idea of a person’s two most dominant doshas, determining one’s exact constitution (prakruti) is a rather complex process. One factor complicating the determination of prakruti is that as our guna-natures evolve into being more sattvic, it can seem as though our prakruti is changing. For example, when you consciously become more peaceful and calm (more sattvic), that doesn’t mean that you are becoming more Kapha. It means that you’ve become a more sattvic version of your own constitution.
Another Ayurvedic principle to learn is the main location of each dosha (see illustration on page 5 of the previous issue of Awake & Ready!). Again, I’ll offer a simplified approach that is nevertheless helpful. Vata’s main home is in the large intestine; other important sites include the abdomen, low back, spine and joints. Pitta’s main home is the small intestine; also lower stomach, liver, spleen and eyes. Kapha’s main home is the upper stomach and the chest; also, all connective tissue, and the synovial fluid in the joints. According to Ayurveda, whenever we squeeze or open one of these main dosha areas in our asana practice, we help to balance the corresponding dosha. The same holds true of bringing awareness to the location.
Ayurveda uses a vast array of treatment modalities to restore balance to imbalanced doshas. The basic dosha qualities that have been introduced here are just a taste of the qualities and characteristics that Ayurveda assigns to the doshas. Also, the application of opposite qualities to balance doshas is valid only with minor imbalances. Once imbalances have evolved into actual diseases, applying opposite qualities will not be adequate for a cure. Still, understanding these simple approaches will help us keep our doshas balanced and learn how to recognize signs of imbalance. Ayurvedic treatments include diet, lifestyle, herbs, purification and rejuvenation, aromatherapy, colors, gems, mantras, as well as yoga postures, pranayama and meditation. (Most of these are addressed in Ananda’s annual Ayurvedic Healing and Yoga Retreat in Kerala, India—www.expandinglight.org/kerala.) Here I am addressing only a beginning, simplistic approach to balancing doshas through the practice of yoga postures, pranayama and meditation.
Applying Ayurveda to Ananda Yoga
Because sattva balances all doshas, we can start by reviewing how to approach our asana practice in a sattvic way. When we are in sattva, we are closely identified with our aspiration to be in attunement with the Divine. Thus, sattvic qualities to bring to our asana practice also include clarity, harmony, purity, love, light, peace, receptivity, truthfulness and compassion. Bringing the vibration of these qualities to our every movement will go a long way toward helping us balance the doshas as well as move toward attunement with the Divine.
The following is a brief overview of how asanas can help pacify/balance each of the doshas. Of course, all of us are combinations of all three doshas, and determining your particular constitution is beyond the scope of this article. But even if you don’t know your constitution or that of your students, there are some general guidelines to assist you.
Ayurveda starts “treatment” by addressing the dosha that is most out of balance. Since Vata is the lightest dosha, it tends to go out of balance most easily in everyone. So if you didn’t get any clarity on your primary dosha constitution from the above sketches of the doshas, focus on the Vata-pacifying routine, assuming that for most people, there’s always at least some Vata imbalance. If you know which dosha is your primary constitution (or which two doshas), practice the routines that best keep those doshas balanced. If you have a dual-dosha constitution, pay attention to keeping both of the doshas balanced, giving priority to whichever of these two doshas is currently imbalanced or has the greater tendency to become imbalanced.
Another concept that you’ll hear in Ayurveda is, “Balance your primary dosha without imbalancing your secondary dosha.” But remember, even if Vata is not a significant part of your constitution, it’s important for you to pay attention to balancing Vata, because of its instability and tendency to go out of balance. As Ayurveda would say, balance your Pitta but be sure not to simultaneously imbalance Vata. This means learning what’s important for balancing both Pitta and Vata. (We explore strategies for doing this in the Ayurveda and Yoga courses that I teach at The Expanding Light)
Another way to get a good idea of your current state of balance or imbalance (vikruti) is to review the above brief descriptions of characteristics of imbalanced doshas. We tend to go out of balance most easily in either our primary dosha or in Vata. So if, for example, you find that you tend to have several of the characteristics of imbalanced Pitta, it would be good for you to follow the Pitta pacifying routine.
Balancing the Doshas through Asana
Since this article is or Ananda Yoga teachers, I haven’t included any specific asanas for each dosha because I think that you can figure those out if you follow the general guidelines given here. Also, it’s important to avoid rigidly thinking that a certain pose is good for, or bad for, any dosha. In Ayurveda, the typical answer to a question such as, “Which yoga postures are good for Vata?” would be, “It depends.” There are so many factors to be considered that it’s impossible to cover them in an article. For you Pittas, who like to read reference materials, there is an excellent reference for the doshic effects of different asanas: Yoga for Your Type: An Ayurvedic Approach to Your Asana Practice by Dr. David Frawley and Sandra Kozak. And for you Vatas, well, you’ll likely be content to figure it all out intuitively.
However, you will find that there are a variety of interpretations among Ayurvedic Yoga Teachers as to how to classify the asanas for the doshas. For example, Dr. Vasant Lad in his Ayur*Yoga Teacher Training classifies some postures quite differently than do Dr. Frawley and Ms. Kozak. Is one right and the other wrong? No. That’s the beauty or frustration (depending on your constitution) of Ayurveda.
For example, the question of whether an asana will aggravate or pacify a dosha may depend on where your awareness is, how long you hold the pose, your prakruti, and your vikruti. In addition, the time of day, season, weather, and other environmental factors can be significant influences. So use books as references, but rely also on experience—your personal experience as well as your students’ experiences. And you might consider attending one of our Level 2 Ayurveda and Yoga courses at The Expanding Light to learn more details than are possible in this article.
I’d like to end this discussion by sharing my belief that you can make almost any posture good (balancing) for almost any dosha by how you practice the pose and where your attention/awareness is.
One example is Bhujangasana (Cobra). Some say that it is aggravating to Vata. That could be the case if it is done in too extreme a fashion (pushing way up and bending the spine backward too much), or if it is held too long, but if you focus your attention on grounding the legs and pelvis into the floor, and the gentle flexibility of the spine, it can be very good for a Vata who needs grounding while also wanting to be creative and uplifting. It can actually teach a Vata how to accomplish both of these qualities simultaneously. Similarly, if the focus is on the chest and lower rib area being expanded, this makes it more focused on the Kapha and Pitta areas and shouldn’t be so aggravating to Vata.
Another example is Surya Namaskar. If done quickly it can be aggravating to Vata (overstimulating and too much quick movement). If one feels more agitated or aggressive after doing an intense practice of Surya Namaskar, that’s an indication that Pitta has been aggravated. If done slowly and with awareness of the body, feeling grounded and/or in tune with earth energy and the movement of prana through the body, it can be balancing, or at least not aggravating, for both Vata and Pitta. Obviously it is naturally most balancing for Kapha because of its inherent intensity and movement.
Let’s Get Back to Your Students
Remember the examples of students in the beginning of the article? The first group of students were exhibiting signs of Vata imbalance, the second group were Pitta aggravated, and the third group had imbalanced Kapha. I said that you could help them even without using any Ayurvedic terminology, and you can. However, I’ve found that it can be very helpful to use the language of Ayurveda as a means of depersonalizing feedback to students.
For example, if your Vata were out of balance and you were speeding through the asanas, to which of the following would you respond better?
Option A: “Please slow down! Your rajasic restlessness is driving the rest of us nuts.”
Option B: “Oh, it looks like we have some aggravated Vata energy that needs some balancing. Let’s all tune into our breath and see how slowly and deeply we can breathe for a few minutes. And while we’re doing this, let’s sit and be very aware of how grounded we feel.”
I think you can guess which I would recommend.
And I promise you that the overly intense Pitta is not going to respond well to any direct attempts to quit pushing so hard. But Pitta has a great sense of humor, so if you can gently help them see the humor of the situation—they’re busy being overachievers in a class that they’re taking to help them learn to relax!—then they might actually hear you and change their ways. It’s usually an issue of awareness.
Your Kapha students are to be congratulated for even being willing to come to class and move their bodies. It helps to encourage them to use their natural physical strength and endurance by holding poses for a relatively long time (rather than telling them that it’s good for them to do a more stimulating, dynamic practice.) Also, they may need encouragement to find adaptations that their bodies can do when a pose is very challenging for them physically. Help them feel that it’s okay to do their own version of the pose, rather than thinking that they have to do it like their Vata-Pitta teacher. This is especially important if a person is Kapha-Pitta or Pitta-Kapha, as their perfectionist, competitive Pitta nature may get easily discouraged if their Kapha dosha “holds them back” from an “ideally” held pose.
Unless we learn how our doshas tend to get aggravated/ imbalanced and make us behave in ways that fail to promote health and spiritual growth, we’ll never notice when that happens. By learning the language of Ayurveda, we can learn to be better observers of our behavior, our thoughts, our emotions. And as a result of that increased awareness, we can learn to choose alternate ways of being and behaving. By understanding and honoring our individual constitution (prakruti), we can focus our yoga practice in ways that will help restore the balance and harmony of a sattvic version of our constitution. Thus we can become healthier and happier physically, mentally and spiritually.
If you’d like to dive deeper into integrating Ayurveda and Ananda Yoga, please see Ayurveda and Yoga Therapy