by Jenna Wolf
photos by Hannah Stalnaker
If you’ve ever stepped foot into the world of yoga, it’s likely you’ve already met yoga’s sister science of Ayurveda.
Self-care rituals like the neti pot, oil pulling, and drinking warm lemon water are all birthed from Ayurvedic medicine. That golden turmeric milk on your favorite coffee shop menu? That’s Ayurveda, too.
The practice of Ayurveda dates back 5,000 years to the Vedic period of India and is considered one of the oldest holistic sciences there is.
Most often, yogis are the first to dip their toes in her ocean of healing wisdom. A traditional yoga practice is designed to cultivate a relationship between your mind and body through a series of asanas (postures) and breath. Ayurveda is the practice of how you relate to the rest of your life. From nutrition, beauty, bowel movements (real talk), and how to manage illness before it becomes disease.
Ayurveda acknowledges health as a continuous and participatory process that embraces all aspects of life. There is no “one size fits all” Ayurvedic routine or remedy. Every individual is considered entirely unique.
Introducing Ayurveda into a yoga practice is a beautiful way to begin understanding this vast system of healing knowledge. As guru Sri Pattabhi Jois says, “Yoga is 99 percent practice and one percent theory.” The same holds true for getting to know Ayurveda.
The 5 Elements and 3 Doshas
Ayurveda views the world and the body as composed of five elements, also known as the Pancha Mahabhuta: earth, water, fire, air, and empty space.
Doshas in Ayurveda refer to your unique mental and physical constitution, which influence your personal well-being.
The first is vata dosha, a combination of the elements space and air. The second, pitta dosha, a hot combo of fire and water. And the third dosha, kapha, an earth and water duo.
Each person possesses all three doshas in both mind and body, but usually one or two dominate. According to Ayurveda, the dominant doshas determine one’s physiological and personality traits, as well as general likes and dislikes.
How Doshas Relate to a Yoga Practice
The first step to bringing Ayurveda into your yoga practice is learning to see the qualities of each dosha in action. When it comes to balancing the qualities of the doshas we follow the Ayurvedic principle of “like increases like, and the opposite balances.”
The qualities of vata dosha are like the falling leaves on a crisp and windy fall day: dry, light, cold, mobile, subtle, and rough.
A person with a vata predominant constitution is blessed with a quick mind, and abundant creativity. They usually grasp concepts and ideas quickly but then forget them just as quickly. They are generally tall, and lean with fine hair, slender, and small features.
In a yoga class they may have a difficult time sitting still, or holding poses for long periods. Vata types lend toward being naturally flexible and even hyper-mobile. Often their work lies in building strength, stability, and patience.
A balancing asana practice for a vata individual should be one of creating warmth, steadiness, and nourishment as these qualities are opposite of this doshas natural tendencies.
• Set the intention of your practice around drishti, or focal points, to help aid in balance and concentration
• Bring awareness to keeping firm pada and hasta bandas – hand and foot connections
• Soften joints, move out of the ligaments/tendons and into the belly of muscles to avoid hyperextension of the joints
• Include ujjai pranayama—“victorious breath”—to keep the body warm and strengthen the core
The qualities of pitta dosha are like eating hot chicken on a sizzling summer day: oily, sharp, hot, light, liquid, and acidic.
Pitta types possess many of the qualities of fire. They tend to have warm bodies, penetrating ideas and have an affinity for blazing new trails in business and in life. The pitta body type is one of medium height and build, with ruddy or coppery skin, and angular features.
In yoga they tend to be strong, sweaty and competitive. Pittas typically build strength quicker than they find flexibility. Creating good alignment habits early is an easy way to avoid injury.
Asana practice for a pitta individual should encourage compassion, teamwork, and be done with relaxed effort in an unheated space.
• Set an intention to expend your energy evenly throughout the practice
• Have fun! Do not take yourself or the pose too seriously
• Incorporate mudra—yogic hand gesture—to stimulate the mind and maintain focus
• Simhasana pranayama—“lion’s breath”—is most beneficial for pittas as it focuses on the exhale, releasing toxins, and cooling the body
The qualities of kapha dosha are like going for a long hike on a rainy spring day: heavy, soft, cold, wet, and static.
Kapha types are blessed with strength, endurance and stamina. They have thick skin and their bodies and muscles are well-developed. Their features are large, welcoming and soft. While they may be slow at comebacks, their long term memory is excellent.
As yogis, they like things slow, steady, and familiar. Since kapha types are more prone to depression and weight gain, it is important to maintain a challenging and regular yoga practice. Staying motivated might be difficult initially, but once the benefits are reaped the dedication will come easily.
Asana practice for Kapha individuals should be one of creating space, warmth, and buoyancy.
• Set an intention of metta—”loving kindness”— toward yourself and others
• Dynamic vigorous vinyasa, with twists that invigorate and cleanse are particularly good as they stimulate sluggish digestion and increase blood and lymph flow
• Challenge kapha’s natural endurance with long holds of five breaths or more
• Include bhastrika pranayama—“breath of fire” or “the bellows breath”—to stimulate internal heat and clear the airways
Yoga and Ayurveda are two branches of the same great tree of vedic wisdom that envelop everything in the universe we all exist in. Connecting them could be the most powerful medicine on earth.