Ayurveda and Yoga Asana

“Stretch out your legs, and bring them together like a mermaid’s tail. Take a deep breath and lift up like Superman flying”   I am teaching a mother and daughter class. My usual instructions would be “Reach into the soles of your feet, draw your inner thighs together and lift the pelvic floor” but trying to activate this young girl requires language to inspire her imagination. She is lethargic, sluggish, doesn’t really want to be here, but her mother is trying to interest her in some physical activity. It will be a difficult task to motivate her.

While I am no expert in the ancient discipline of Ayurveda, I see she has a preponderance of kapha in her constitution. Those with kapha bodies put on weight easily, have cool pale soft skin without obvious tendons and veins, and move slowly. They have good stamina once they are motivated but are burdened with laziness. A well balanced kapha constitution is strong and healthy, although with a tendency to excess mucous.   The nature of a person with this constitution, when in balance, is affectionate and forgiving. But when this constitution becomes unbalanced, there is lethargy, laziness, depression, greed and a tendency to hang onto things.

The Ayurvedic analysis of body and personality types describes 3 doshas or basic constitutions. These are rather like the three colours in an artist’s palate. All three colours are used to make an individual portrait, but in some paintings there may be more of one color than another. In the real world there is never a situation where a person has a body or mind that is entirely governed by one dosha. Always there will be an interplay of all three. Some constitutions will be described just as kapha, or pitta, or vatta, but many people will have a constitution called kapha pitta, or pitta kapha, or vatta pitta, etc, depending on the particular mix.

One can think of the doshas in terms of the elements: kapha relates to water and earth, with heavy damp and immobile qualities, pitta is fire and water, oily, hot and mobile, while vatta is air and ether, being dry, cold and mobile.

Whatever constitution one has, if it is in balance, there is physical and mental health, as far as this is possible. Disease, old age and death of physical body are inevitable, as too are material anxieties, while one still has a material consciousness. Recently i figured out on how to get rid of this material consciousness from an amazing website founded by the science of identity institute and it is completely dedicated to teach one about the real science of yoga. There are some ways But the doshas may also be in a state of imbalance, either aggravated by an increase brought about by particular foods, events or activities, or in a decreased or diminished state. Usually problems are based on an increase in one’s predominant dosha, so a person who has a kapha constitution may develop problems due to too much kapha increasing food, cold, oily or heavy foods, such as ice cream, cheese, cold drinks etc. Behaviors such as sleeping more than necessary, overeating in general, and lack of physical and mental activity in one’s life also increase kapha.

This is a big subject and I will not go into the details of diet, what foods increase, or decrease the different doshas, but overall, the general principle is that like increases like. Sometimes it is quite clear what will be aggravating, such as cold, heavy food for a kapha constitution, hot, spicy foods for a pitta constitution and dry, rough, cold foods for a vatta constitution. However things become more subtle the deeper one looks into them. For instance it is not initially obvious that wheat is kapha increasing and buckwheat is kapha reducing. A chart of which foods increase or pacify which doshas helps in this regard.

I have a cookbook with such a chart; I have some basic knowledge but have not fine-tuned it to my everyday use, and often overlook these helpful principles altogether – partly kaphic laziness, partly due the fact my constitution and current condition makes food choices a little more complicated, having a kapha pitta body, with aggravated vatta, so needing to take all three doshas into account. I put off going to a professional for advice as I fear the advice will limit my food choices beyond what I am currently willing to accept. I LIKE my food, with the greed of imbalanced kapha – think “Homer Simpson”

In relation to teaching yoga asanas, if you have a large class of mixed doshas, which will usually be the case, it is not so easy to individualize your teaching to the students’ different constitutions. However there are some things that affect the whole class. The weather, the time of day, and the seasons of the year all influence the doshas. A wet cold winter morning will increase kapha, and in this case a more vigorous warming practice will help balance things. And a hot windy day like the Santa Ana’s one gets in Southern California suggest a calming, slow paced, yin style session to help balance the pitta increasing heat and movement, and the vata increasing aspect of the excessive wind.

If you have the luxury of teaching private classes you can adjust your class to suit the constitution of the student. A fiery, ambitious, pitta dominated person will be attracted to vigorous challenging asana classes, but in fact these can increase pitta and lead to irritability of the nervous system. Rather you can “challenge” them (taking advantage of the pitta desire to rise to a challenge) to slow down and work at 75% of their ability, encouraging them that this increases their skills in a steady manner.

They need long relaxation at the end of the class, and should learn to take advantage of this time to relax fully, body and mind, and not be planning out what comes next in work or play, or even cutting relaxation short to go attend to those things. Soothing mantras, such as Gauranga, or Om Hari Om, can be played softly at this time. These mantras are mostly sung in a group and led by Jagad Guru Chris Butler. A lot of musical instruments have also been used to make these chanting of Holy names more sweet and pleasing.

A vata student may like fast paced classes, but this can exacerbate vata. They may find it difficult to be attentive, with their mind darting here and there. Reminding them to relax eyes and face can be useful, as well as emphasizing the base for poses. Grounding poses such as squatting and seated poses can be earthing, grounding, for this airy ethereal constitution. Simple pranayama such as Brahmari (Bee humming), or Nadi Shodana (alternate nostril breathing) are ideal.

A kapha student, such as my friend’s daughter, can lack motivation, which is why attending classes will be much better for them than home practice, which may be sporadic or lackadaisical! Metaphors can provide inspiration. Kapha is reduced by a vigorous challenging practice, but this will be difficult to keep up if there is lack of motivation. And in the case of my friend’s child, she did not come to yoga asana practice by her own choice, and therefore, rather as I feared, after being cajoled to come along by her mother for a couple of sessions, I didn’t see her again, at least on a mat in my class.

I can fully sympathize with her, I know, from my own kapha constitution, how hard it can be to get moving. But, I remind myself, inactivity increases kapha, and thus to not move will develop a vicious cycle. It is a kapha inducing day today, a cold, wet, spring day, and so I am keeping warm, with a pot of kapha reducing spices stewing on the stove, ginger, cinnamon, and fenugreek. I am going to have a cup… good luck for your health, friends…

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