What is Yoga?
Ultimately yoga is a practice of awareness. According to yoga, what might begin as an internal physical practice, extends out to the world as an awareness that all things are interwoven, all beings are interconnected, and all life is exquisitely interpenetrating.
The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit root YUG meaning yoked/joined/or woven together. The body, the mind, the heart are not separate, the physical, mental, and even cosmic, are woven together as part of the whole.
If we were only interested in the physical, we could practice yoga exercises to strengthen where weakness resides and lengthen where tightness holds us back thereby becoming strong efficient physical bodies. However, yoga does offer a deeper awareness wherein our thoughts, our actions, and our character can be shaped to find alignment with a bigger mind, less effort and more flow. Once again, and this time with our hearts and minds, we strengthen where we are weak, lengthen where we are tight and let go where we hold on.
The breath serves two important functions. First and foremost, the breath is a tool of awareness. When we observe the quality of the breath, we automatically slow down, we become present. According to many yogic systems, this is foundational in terms of body awareness, asana, meditation and of course, mindful living.
As well as a tool of awareness, the breath can be a tool of action. We can manipulate the breath to bring about mind body changes. Yoga proposes that when the breath ratio is 1:1 (inhale equal in length to exhale), the body will warm up. When the exhale breath is longer, there is a cooling response. The longer the exhale, the calmer the nervous system
Therefore, we need to know how to control the speed of the breath, and for this we need Ujjayi. One simple exercise will help you to find Ujayii but you will need to really practice it to get it. Open your mouth and exhale saying HHHHAHHHHH, now try again with your mouth closed making the same sound in your throat. Inhale is slightly trickier. Inhale and make a whisper with the back of the throat saying AAAAAhhhhh. When you get it, the breath is a beautiful sound, like music, and when you don’t hear it you are reminded you might be holding your breath.
What are the bandhas and why are they so important? In yoga, applying a bandha means applying a force that will change the energy of the body. At first, this is a learned muscular application at the area of the pelvic floor, the navel centre as well as the throat. Later, as we become advanced in yoga, the bandhas are more subtle, with less muscle needed.
If we wish to move the energy up (called udana in Sanskrit), we start by applying the bandhas on the exhale. If we then hold the bandhas while inhaling, there is more heat, and more energy moving up towards the head. We will see why this is not always a good thing.
Releasing a bandha will bring the energy down (called in Sanskrit apana). When we release the bandhas on the inhale, we are grounding and centering, and in effect staying calm even if performing difficult postures.
Moolha bandha lies at the floor of the pelvis and is associated with the root chakra. By lifting the pelvic floor one sparks the metaphoric flame, and shoots energy up.
Udiana bandha lies at the solar plexus, or power centre. When we pull the belly in and up this fans the fire created by moolha and heat continues up towards the heart and the throat chakras which often need energetic clearing.
Jalandara bandha is located at the throat chakra. In the full jalandara bandha, the chin is tucked down on a lifted chest. It is said that applying jalandara bandha is like putting the lid on the pot, and sealing it, keeping the nutrients in. The same applies here in the body. You do not waste or deplete the body’s essential life force.
It is interesting to note that applying this bandha in partial form is what is responsible for the Ujjayi breathing and is also how we control the speed of the breath.
Asana is the Sanskrit word for posture, and posture is at the core of the physical practice. The literal translation is “seat” and so Asana is the seat of awareness.
Postures as physical exercises will indeed make the body strong and aligned. As well, they have the potential, as the breath does, to heat or to cool, to moisten or to dry, and to enliven areas of stagnation. Choosing postures which nourish where depleted and pacify where there is excess help bring our lives into balance. The way of practicing Asana is wonderfully informed by Ayurveda, India’s oldest medical system and science of life force.
Ayurveda refers to an extensive base of knowledge which represents India’s traditional holistic medicine. It is not possible to separate Ayurveda from its context, from the land it grew out of, from the philosophy and the culture. It is perhaps not possible to fully embrace Ayurveda without a very deep study. However, as a sister science to yoga, knowing a few key points about Ayurvedic principles can transform our practice of yoga.
Balance is not static. In other words, we don’t reach a final peak of balanced health where we can stay indefinitely. We are moving changing, living ecosystems, and it would be a mistake to think things can (or should) be fixed, or firm. As seasons alter, so do we; as the climate changes, so does our system; as the stars, the moon and the sun have patterns, so do we. What is key is for us is to know ourselves and how our unique body type responds to decisions that we make each day. The goal is to make choices that will encourage life energy as we grow and change. Two important tools that you can develop in order to make these choices are knowledge of the five elements and an awareness of your unique Ayurvedic body type.
The Five Elements
The elements of Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Space are central to the idea of balance. In Ayurveda, the belief is that we are all made of a particular combination of these elements, all of us unique, and having some commonalities among us. Our elemental constitution is divided into three different body types or doshas. If we are mostly Fire, we are called Pitta, mostly Earth and Water, we are Kapha, or mostly air we are called Vata. Usually we will be a combination, a Pitta/ Kapha or Vata /Pitta, and some of us are all three doshas called Tri-Doshic.
Our dosha will determine the strengths and weakness of our life force. Whatever brings the life force up (udana) we want to encourage, and whatever brings the life force down (apana), we want to discourage. What is a good choice for one person is not the right choice for another. This is true of food choices, drink, herbs and medicine, career choices and yoga choices. Because we are all different, the way that yoga is practiced -- the intent, the focus, the breath, and postures -- will affect us all in different ways.
Your Ayurvedic Body Type
In order to make choices in your life that are best for you, it is important to develop an awareness of your unique constitution or dosha. Usually, it is very easy to tell which dosha you are when you read its description. If you connect with all three equally, you are most likely tri-doshic. If after reading through the descriptions below you are still unsure, we welcome you to contact us for more guidance.
The dominant source of Kapha nature is Earth and Water. With a relaxed easy nature, a content and loving approach to life, it is hard to ruffle a Kapha’s feathers. They are also known as elegant, sensual, loving, and radiant beyond measure when in balance. The constitution of a Kapha person will be strong, stable, and steady. The body type is bigger bones and rounder features.
When out of balance, however, the earth and water in excess create havoc. A heavy lethargic energy can take over the system and one becomes sticky, stuck, congested, weighted down, and even depressed.
What creates imbalance in a Kapha?
Excessive sleep, lack of exercise, cold sweet, or oily foods in excess, cold wet weather, improper breathing habits, and lack of passion. Isolation is not great for Kaphas because they love community and family so much.
What kind of Yoga practice does a Kapha need?
Fire! Bring it on. Poses that heat the body, such as back bends and chest lifts, are perfect for dispelling excesses. Also important are practices that encourage air and space since a Kapha can get stuck. Poses that bring the energy up like standing poses, balances, vigorous flows that build heat, build confidence, and move energy. Kaphas do well with a One to One breathing ratio, which means a steady pace that is equally proportioned inhale to exhale, like in the Fire Fan sequence of Namaste: The Five Elements.
What is a good pose for Kaphas?
An excellent posture for Kaphas is Virabadrasana (Warrior I) with its upward focus, back extension and chest lifting. The yogic antidote for any form of stuckness, lethargy, or depression is to move the focus up. Energy will follow focus, so with the focus up, the energy will move up. Arms are extended, the abdomen is lengthened, the tailbone is dropped while firming the back leg to increase the chest lift and breathing is a one to one ratio. With the bandhas added in, the heart rate is increased and oxygen will be propelled into every cell in the body. This effectively creates a pump for the lymphatic drainage system, increasing circulation and moving toxins out of the body. The seat of stagnation in Kaphas is the stomach and when out of balance, congestion as well as phlegm can arise. In Warrior I (as in any of the back bending, chest lifting poses) we are stimulating and clearing, or what in Ayurveda is called reducing, stagnation.
In Ayurveda, Pitta is Fire and Water together but mostly Fire. Pittas might get a bad rap because they are so stubborn and bull headed when out of balance, but when all is well, these are noble, expressive, fearless people who don’t give up. They are determined, sharp witted, bold and charismatic. Their bodies are medium build, compact and muscular and therefore make terrific athletes. When out of balance, Pittas can be reckless, prone to rage, and have total frustration with the slow pace of the world. They fall prey to controlling behavior; they dominate and demand. In the body, the imbalance manifests as fevers, inflammation, skin disorders, dehydration and heart disease.
What creates imbalance in a Pitta?
Excessive heat, excessive activity, hot competitive sports, hot yoga, career pressures, late nights and early mornings, salty, spicy food, drugs, and alcohol.
What kind of yoga practice does a Pitta need?
According to Ayurvedic yoga, a Pitta should choose cooling, calming, earthy poses with a ratio of breathing that is longer on the exhale. Of course this is not a Pittas first choice as Pittas love it hot, and want fire. They like a challenge and they like to compete -- so fight fire with fire. Begin by burning off a bit of heat, but then slow down, and instead of choosing poses that take the energy up, choose earth sequences that are still challenging to the mind, but soothing to the body. Forward folds are wonderful, twists are good for detoxification, and roll backs into plough are perfect if there are no shoulder or neck issues. Poses which stay close to the earth, and which link body parts and keep energy contained (called Samana) will go a long way to bringing the Fire into a balanced steady state.
What is a good pose for Pittas?
A perfect pose for a Pitta is Janu Shirshasana which is both a forward fold and to a lesser degree a twist as well. Twists are detoxifying as they bring the heat out of the liver area and small intestine, the seat of imbalance in a Pitta. Forward folds are cooling, especially when done with a 1 to 2 ratio of breath. In this pose, the heart is boldly forward, the back encouraged to open and the upper core strengthened.
Poses that are earthy and create Apana and Samana are good for Pittas and counter the Fire with Earth and Water. But even in practices that use the elements of Air and Space, one can perform them with an easy noncompetitive calming focus.
The dominant source of Vatas nature is Air and Space. Their body types are sometimes very small but mostly long boned and lean. A Vata is swift as a deer, and quick to shift course, being all about movement, and change. Vatas are great artists with imagination, enthusiasm, and sensitivity and these types are given also to take up spiritual practices that might seem esoteric to more grounded practical folk.
Ayurveda warns us that the nature of Vata easily moves towards imbalance, and sometimes they are the most difficult dosha to pacify. Vatas can be flighty, fearful and spaced out, and once a Vata loses grounding, all bets are off. The very first sign could be an underlying anxiousness regarding just about everything. Other signs are small tremors in the body, and tightness around the shoulders and neck. In more extreme cases there is pain in the muscles, joints, and skin, as well as bloating and gas.
What creates imbalance in a Vata?
Dry, cold, windy weather, excessive computer, television, or telephone use, too much electricity in general, and too much sound vibration is hard on a delicate Vata. Things like travel, lack of routine, excessive mental work, cold, raw or astringent foods should be kept in check
What kind of yoga does a Vata need?
When a Vata is out of balance usually Air and Space in excess and so those elements need to be pacified. We need to bring energy down (Apana), as in forward folds and gentle supine or prone postures, and pull energy in (Samana), as in contracted, inward moving poses.
This is similar to a Pitta practice because they also have much upward and outward energy available to them. So we choose practices with as much Earth elements as possible. Because of Vatas love of movement, the Water element is a good match as well. These poses are flowing and graceful, which appeals to Vata’s love of beauty and art. Because Vatas are dry by nature, the Water poses are nourishing, and don’t dry out the body like the Fire poses will. Often Vatas have loads of shoulder flexibility without the strength in the muscles tendons and ligaments to keep stability so it is important to build both core and upper body strength. Also good for Vatas are poses that are held for long periods of stillness.
What is a good pose for Vatas?
A perfect Vata posture is supine hamstring stretch. Begin on your back with your left leg bent and your left foot flat on the floor. Lift your right leg up towards your chest, holding it at the ankle, calf, or thigh – wherever is most comfortable. Ground the tail bone and feel the earth underneath you as though lying in moss in the forest. Lift your head and pull your right leg in as you stretch your left leg long against the floor. As soon as you get to this full expression of the pose, it will be intense and there is a good chance you are holding your breath so concentrate on smooth breathing.
Because many Vatas have long limbs, there is a good chance the hamstrings are tight. A 1:2 ratio of breath will calm the nervous system, which is crucial for Vatas. Don’t forget to switch legs!
Taken from Kate Potter's teachings in The Five Elements DVD