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Using ayurveda to devise a balanced yoga practice

In my many years of practising yoga at home on a daily basis, I’ve always endeavoured to have a “balanced practice”, but over the years my ideas about what constitutes a “balanced practice” have evolved considerably. In fact, rather than talking about a balanced practice, it now think it is more appropriate to speak about a “balancing practice”.

We all have imbalances in our lives, for a variety of reasons. Inadequate lifestyles, unhealthy diets and other external and internal factors all contribute to throwing us off balance. Furthermore, our genetic make up and early childhood experience, what ayurveda calls our Prakriti, predispose us to some kind of imbalance. This is where asana and pranayama practice can be most helpful. By skilfully devising a yoga practice that addresses these factors, we can restore health and use yoga to live a better, more balanced life. I have found ayurveda an invaluable reference to do this.
Ayurveda is a holistic system of healing that uses a constitutional model to provide guidance and help healthy people remain healthy and sick people to get back in balance. Yoga and ayurveda both come from India, and share many concepts and ideas about how the human body and mind function and interact.
In the ayurvedic constitutional model, there are three energetic forces that influence nature and human beings. These forces are called the Tridoshas, Vata, Pitta and Kapha. The foods we eat and the weather are just two examples of the presence of these forces.
Vata governs the principle of movement and therefore can be seen as the force which directs nerve impulses, circulation, respiration, and elimination. Vata is dry, cold and light and correspond to the element air.
Pitta is responsible for the process of transformation or metabolism. Digestion, the transformation of foods into nutrients that our bodies can assimilate is an example of a pitta function. Pitta is also responsible for metabolism in the organ and tissue systems as well as cellular metabolism. Pitta is oily, hot and light and correspond to the element fire.
Kapha is what is responsible for growth, adding structure unit by unit. Another function of the Kapha dosha is to offer protection. Cerebro-spinal fluid protects the brain and spinal column and is a type of Kapha found in the body. Also, the mucous lining of the stomach is another example of the Kapha dosha protecting the tissues. Kapha is wet, cold and heavy and corresponds to the element water.
We are all made up of unique proportions of Vata, Pitta and Kapha. The ratio of doshas vary in each individual. The constitution of the individual (their Prakriti ) is determined by the predominant dosha(s). When any of the doshas become predominant, through lifestyle, diet or other factor, Ayurveda will suggest specific lifestyle and nutritional changes to restore balance. For example, Vata people might be advised to spend their holidays basking in the sunshine by the sea, rather than indulge their taste for speed by going skying, Pitta people would be better avoiding hot curries, but they can indulge in ice cream (a definite no-no for Kapha types), etc.
Asana and pranayama practices have a profound influence on doshas balance and can be used to correct it (or, if misused, can throw us further out of balance). For example, Pitta people will usually do better with slow asana practices associated with cooling and calming pranayama such as shitali or Nadi Sodana, and should avoid heating asana practices such as Bikram and heating pranayama such as Surya Bedhana, especially in the summer. Kapha people will greatly benefit from strong and fast asana practice such as ashtanga vinyasa and warming pranayama practices such a Ujayi and Kapalabati, especially in the winter. Vata people should choose grounding asana practices and warming pranayama practice such a Surya Bedhana.
Over my many years of teaching yoga, I have found however that students are often attracted to styles of yoga who aggravate, rather than correct their natural dosha imbalance. A skilled yoga teacher should be sufficiently versed in Ayurveda to assess his students ayurvedic constitution and help them to tailor a practice that will help balance it. And any serious yoga practitioner should know enough about their own ayurvedic constitution to take it into account when devising a practice that will help them remain in balance in a world out of balance.

Originally published in print by Network Ireland