Yoga and Ayurveda
How It Can Inform and Deepen Your Yoga Practice
Ayurveda and yoga are sister sciences. Yoga addresses all facets of our health and offers us a way of life that is in harmony with our truth. Ayur means life, while veda means knowledge or the study of; this “science of life” can support your yogic practices and all aspects of your well-being.
Ayurveda is a holistic approach to health which has passed the test of time for thousands of years – it can be considered the birth of healing practices. Many ancient healing philosophies borrowed from ayurveda, including those of Tibet, Greece, and China. Many modern practices also have their roots in ayurveda, such as reiki, homeopathy, and herbology. Ayurveda’s tenets can be followed during any point in history and in any circumstance despite what remedies are available or not – they appeal to our common sense and emphasize the need for balance as a state of health; this largely explains how the healing science has survived so long and continues to inform us today.
Ayurveda has given us the ability to describe virtually any matter by means of 20 qualities, or gunas. They are organized into 10 pairs of opposites:
- Heavy Light
- Dull Sharp/penetrating
- Cold Hot
- Oily Dry
- Smooth Rough
- Dense Liquid
- Soft Hard
- Static Mobile/spreading
- Cloudy Clear
- Subtle Gross
These qualities can describe and categorize the elements, foods, seasons, medicines, times of the day, phases of life, and processes in the body. We all physically consist of the elements. We breathe air (air), there is fire in the body that keeps its temperature level and acids that break apart food (fiery water), our bones and tissues are made of minerals and absorbed matter (earth), and most of our cells are empty space (ether).
Here are the five elements described by the gunas:
Ether/Space: light, cold, subtle, clear, soft, smooth
Air: mobile, dry, cold, subtle, hard, clear
Fire: Hot, sharp, spreading, dry, light
Water: Liquid, heavy, dull (it has a dulling effect), cold, static, smooth
Earth: Heavy, static, gross, rough, dull, hard
We are all made of these elements, yet we are different from one another. We do not all use energy the same, which is where ayurvedic “types” appear. There are three main “types” of energy use in the body, which are called doshas. There is vata (ether and air), pitta (fire and water) and kapha (water and earth. Pronounced, kappa) doshas. Some people have a lighter body frame, tend to be cold, and/or like to do many things at a time (vata dominant), others have more fire in the body – warmer skin tone, penetrating eyes, strong digestion and perhaps a propensity towards anger or irritation (pitta dominant), and others still tend to be of denser build, even temper, and soft, kind features (kapha dominant). All three energetic types are present in the body, but one or two usually dominate your physicality and overall character. There are various questionnaires available to help identify your dosha/constitution, although the best idea would be to have a professional help you.
How does any of that help at all? If you know how you are – physically, mentally, and emotionally, you can help yourself stay in balance. If you know what qualities (what gunas) you tend to accumulate or deplete, you’ll have a better understanding of what activities and responses are most helpful to you. A basic principle of Ayurveda is that opposites heal – like qualities aggravate like qualities. Here are a few obvious examples to help illustrate this: if you have a headache, feel irate, or have a sour/acidic feeling inside the body – what use is a rigorous yoga practice to you? The body is trying to tell you there is excess pitta accumulating and that you should apply the opposite qualities to come back into balance. Take it easy on the exercise, stay away from people who throw you off – in other words, cool down! On the other hand, if you feel stuck to your bed, heavy, down, or cloudy, a faster paced and challenging yoga practice may do you better.
These are all simple ways that elementary Ayurveda can help you immensely! Use the list of gunas to inform your yoga practice and to decide what activities to conquer each day. There is so much more that Ayurveda offers if you’re interested in continuing your research. Every food, for example, has a particular effect on the body (heating, cooling, sweet, etc.). If you have excess pitta, you may think that any cold food will do to help balance you internally – nope! Many meats, yogurt, tomatoes, and oranges actually have a heating effect on the body – aggravating your already pitta aggravated state. Better choices would be melons, minty water, or oatmeal, which are all cooling.
A few well organized and reputable resources are:
The Ayurvedic Institute’s website – based largely on Dr. Vasant Lad’s expertise in the field.
Good overview and very clear recipe/ingredient lists for each dosha or guna.
This shows the different paces and qualities of practicing yoga for vata, pitta, and kapha types.
“According to Ayurvedic principles, by understanding oneself, by identifying one’s own constitution, and by recognizing sources of doshic aggravation, one can not only follow the proper guidelines to cleanse, purify, and prevent disease, but also uplift oneself into a realm of awareness previously unknown.” – Dr. Vasant Lad M.A.Sc.
- Jessi Hughes