February 27, 2014

Essential Ayurveda for Yoga Practitioners ~ Adena Harford


Self-realization is impossible without self-healing.

We’re here to be the best humans we can be—that’s why we practice yoga. Asana and meditation are just the beginning. If we do not pay attention to our diet and habits, our yoga practice will eventually suffer or stagnate.

Moving through different seasons, one may start to notice subtle shifts in mood or metabolism, and most certainly moving through different stages of our lives, and the inevitable major life changes and stressors, we’ll be left looking for additional tools to stay healthy and sane.

While yoga is the path of self-realization, Ayurveda is the path of self-healing. Ayurveda is a system of medicine which comes from ancient India. It becomes the science of self-healing through understanding of natural law. These sister sciences don’t function at their optimum strength without each other, and as Ayurveda becomes more popular, yoga practitioners are finding its ancient secrets indispensable. There are three essential Ayurvedic principles which every yoga practitioner should know and practice: the Doshas, the Maha Gunas, and Dinacharya.

“[This understanding] not only ensures that yoga practice benefits our health, but that it is able to actualize our entire human potential.” ~ David Frawley, Yoga and Ayurveda

 The Doshas

Knowing the basic qualities of the the doshas; Vata, Pitta, and Kapha, can help us gauge the effects of our yoga practice on both our physical body as well as our state of mind. Asanas and pranayama practices may be suitable for one constitution, but may cause further imbalance for another.

In Ayurveda, like increase like. If there is a lot of mobile quality—say you’re in a very vigorous yoga class 5 times a week, and the teacher only leads a very short savasana, or none at all—you will increase and aggravate mobile quality, which happens to be associate with Vata dosha. If this becomes an imbalance, it might show up as dizziness, or a racing mind and insomnia, which are all Vata imbalances. Vata dosha is present when we see the qualities light, subtle, cold, mobile, rough and dry. So any habitual increase in these qualities will ultimately imbalance Vata.

Pitta dosha is hot, sharp, liquid and also light. It is important to be aware of Pitta when there is a lot of heat being created, or utilized externally (for example, Bikram Yoga classes and the Summer season). Heat can balance Vata and Kapha, but in excess, will aggravate Pitta, and an imbalance of Pitta can show up as anger, frustration, headaches, and skin or digestive inflammation.

Kapha dosha is also cold, like Vata, but it is heavy, dense, soft, dull, sticky or cloudy, and gross (as opposed to subtle). A simple example of a Kapha imbalance is the common cold, especially one with lots of congestion and mucus production. Obesity is also often connected to a Kapha imbalance. Individuals who naturally have a lot of Kapha in their constitution should be the ones in the hot yoga flow classes, rather than restorative yoga. A strong breath of fire can invigorate them, while it might aggravate Vata or Pitta in excess.

The law of the doshas goes beyond our yoga practice, into an understanding of the rhythms of the seasons, of our lives, and of course, the food we are eating. In order to learn more about the doshas and how they relate to you, you might take a quick assessment of those qualities in yourself. Do a quick web search, and you’ll most likely find an online test from which you can find out which doshas make up your current constitution.

 The Maha Gunas

Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas. These qualities are discussed in both yoga and ayurveda, so they may sound familiar. The Maha Gunas explain the after-effects of our food and lifestyle on our state of mind and emotions. These ‘great qualities’ are constantly changing in and out of one another. They are more subtle than the doshas, at least in their effects on the physical body, but ultimately affect our way of being and our consciousness very powerfully.

The reason we may love being in the yoga studio is that it is a sattvic environment—it is set up to welcome introspection and self-study, with few external distractions. The materials may be wooden or painted with warm colors, and there may be inspiring art on the walls or statues of deities present. Sattva is our natural state of mind; this peacefulness, calm and clarity is what we are naturally drawn towards.

Our life outside the studio may be more rajasic, as is much of our culture in the West. Rajas is the energy that transforms; it is passionate and active, always on the move. While tamas is also still, like sattva, tamas is stagnation, ignorance and inertia. Tamas is not bad, necessarily, and neither is rajas. Without tamas, we would not be able to fall asleep. And without rajas, we would not be able to transform our tamas towards sattva, or bring an idea to fruition.

As our lives are usually full of rajas, it is important to learn how to cultivate more sattva in our internal and external environments. One of the best ways we can do this is by practicing more stillness and silence, keeping good company, and taking in natural, whole, organic foods.


The law of dinacharya is based in the understanding of the doshas and how they rule times of day, but the practical side of dinacharya is all about self-care. Every yoga practitioner should know about self-massage—a daily, gentle massage of your skin with oil is considered to be one of the best longevity techniques in Ayurveda. In general, organic sesame oil is suitable for all constitutions, but Pitta-types may also use sunflower or coconut oil, Vata-types almond as well as sesame, and Kapha-types sunflower or even mustard oil.

Daily oil massage calms the nervous system, keeps the lymphatic system flowing well, improves circulation, and aids in the removal of toxins from the tissues. Oil massage is particularly beneficial for Vata, as the qualities of the oil are opposite of the qualities of Vata — vata being cold, rough, light and dry, and oil being heavy, soft, unctuous and warm (ideally!).

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Editorial Assistant: Cami Krueger / Editor: Bryonie Wise

Photo: elephant archives

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Adena Harford