Mangala is an Ananda Yoga teacher, a Clinical Ayurvedic Specialist, a Nurse Practitioner, and an Ananda minister/ lightbearer.
Question: Is it time for me to learn more about Ayurveda? How would it enhance my teaching of Ananda Yoga to do so?
Answer: Yes! By learning the basics of Ayurveda as it relates to the practice of hatha yoga and meditation, you can help yourself and your students achieve greater balance and harmony in your lives and asana practice, and to go deeper in meditation practice.
Question: I’m not convinced that it’s worth the effort to study Ayurveda. My classes are going well without it. Besides, isn’t Ayurveda really complicated?
Answer: Ayurveda is indeed a vast and complicated science of life and healing. (Ayur means “life” in Sanskrit; veda means “knowledge,” or “science”; hence Ayurveda translates as “science of life.”) However, as a yoga teacher, you need not study in the depth necessary to become an Ayurvedic practitioner. By learning just a few basic principles of Ayurveda, you can take your own practice to a deeper level—and help your students do the same. Plus, Ananda Yoga is already very much in tune with Ayurveda, given its deep spiritual base and emphasis on working with subtle energy in the body.
Does This Sound Familiar?
Most of us regularly see students exhibiting imbalances in their doshas (Vata, Pitta and Kapha—the three subtle psychobiological energies that constitute and animate each person) and constitutions (the specific mixture of doshas that characterize each individual). With a little knowledge of Ayurveda, you can help them bring their doshas into balance through simple adjustments in their practice. And you don’t have to use any Ayurvedic terminology if you don’t want to!
Let’s look at a few examples that you might recognize:
Where’s the Fire?!
Do you have some students who arrive early and then proceed to talk continually until class starts, despite your efforts to be providing a calm, quiet, sacred space for your class? Or, maybe you’ve had some students who habitually arrive late, miss the warm ups, then move too quickly into a pose (before you finish explaining how to do it safely), and injure themselves. Or, do you have students who move quickly into a pose as soon as you say the name of the next pose, and then come out of the pose just when you’ve led the rest of the class into the full pose and are concentrating on the affirmation? These same students may breathe quickly and shallowly, and the odds are that their minds are not focused (at least not longer than a few seconds) on the awareness of the subtle energy movement in their bodies. They are often bored with how slowly Ananda Yoga moves.
Such people are exhibiting symptoms of Vata imbalance. They are often thin, very tall or short, and usually are very flexible.
Where’s the Peace?
Other students arrive promptly and become impatient or irritated if the class starts late or if others arrive late. They may have intense eyes, and you notice that they look around at others in the class to see if anyone is doing the posture “better” than they are. These people hate it when they can’t do a pose “perfectly” themselves. They tend to push themselves to hold a pose too long or too intensely, perhaps visibly shaking from strain while the sweat drips down their faces.
These are symptoms of imbalanced Pitta, and you’ll often see them in people who are of medium height and build who also have good muscular development.
Where’s the Coffee?
Then you may have some students who like to get ready for your class by lying in Savasana, and then are slow to move into the poses. These are the same folks who typically come out of a pose even before you mention the option of coming out early. If you lead an energetic or physically challenging pose, these students may literally sit and watch you do it rather than attempting the posture themselves.
These students are demonstrating imbalances in Kapha dosha, and they are typically of a somewhat stocky build and are not very flexible.
Ayurveda has suggestions to help all these people move closer to their highest potential in a balanced and harmonious way. Before going into the details of this, let’s briefly go over the basics of Ayurveda and how it relates to Yoga.
The Yoga-Ayurveda Connection
Ayurveda and Yoga are sister sciences, with their roots coming from the vedic sciences of thousands of years ago in India. Ayurveda has as its goals the achievement of optimal levels of health in body, mind and spirit, and then to use this level of health to achieve Self-realization. You could say that Ayurveda’s primary focus is wellness and healing of the body and mind, while Yoga is primarily focused on spiritual healing. To achieve Yoga’s goal of union with the higher Self, it helps to practice Ayurveda’s prescriptions for health of body and mind; and to achieve optimal health, it helps to practice Yoga. Both Yoga and Ayurveda prescribe a life based on the precepts of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. The two sciences are intimately interrelated and share a focus on the development of sattva guna and elevated consciousness in order to achieve both health and Self-realization.
Sattva is one of the three gunas—the subtle, underlying qualities of nature, of life, and of our minds. Sattva is balance, clarity, harmony, peace, love, unity. As a state of consciousness, it represents an inner focus, an inward and upward movement of energy that is involved in soul awakening. Sattva is the point of balance between the other two gunas, rajas and tamas. Rajas is activity, change, agitation, stimulation, passion. It is an outward movement that is involved in goal-seeking and eventually leads to distress, pain and suffering. Tamas is the energy of inertia, dullness, darkness; it is heavy and obstructing. It is a downward motion that leads to decay, disintegration, ignorance, delusion and decreased awareness.
The three gunas are important expressions of our mental and spiritual natures, of our level of consciousness. They influence our doshas (Vata, Pitta, and Kapha), which are more the psycho-physical aspects of our natures. (The doshas will be explained in more detail shortly.)
Yoga and Ayurveda both view the mind as being naturally sattvic (i.e., filled with the energy and consciousness of sattva), and both focus on ways to help return the mind to this state of balanced, pure awareness, even amidst daily activity. Ayurveda gives us insights into how sattva and the other gunas express through each of the doshas. Also, according to Ayurveda, when we are more sattvic (filled with the energy and consciousness of sattva) we help all of our doshas to be balanced.
Vedic/Ayurvedic scholar Dr. David Frawley, in his book, Ayurveda and the Mind, beautifully explains the importance of sattva in our lives and our yoga practices:
When pure sattva prevails in our consciousness, we transcend time and space and discover our eternal Self. The soul regains its basic purity and unites with God. … Sattva as the state of balance is responsible for all true health and healing. Health is maintained by sattvic living, which is living in harmony with nature and our inner Self, cultivating purity, clarity, and peace. Rajas and tamas are the factors that cause disease … To have sattva predominant in our nature is the key to health, creativity and spirituality. (pp. 33–34)
It is this emphasis on sattva that makes Ananda Yoga so easily compatible with Ayurveda. In Ananda Yoga, we are practicing sattva when we focus our attention on being “actively calm and calmly active,” with full awareness of our physical bodies, our thoughts, and the flow of prana/energy within us. Ayurveda says that healing occurs in the pauses between the inhalations and exhalations; Yoga says that this is where spiritual growth occurs. In Ananda Yoga, the focus on the asana affirmations and on tuning into our inner energy flow during the pauses between active poses are both means of increasing sattva. Paramhansa Yogananda said that the ultimate healing is spiritual, where we actually remember and experience that we are one with God. So, whether we are practicing enjoying the pauses between the breath in the practice of Hong-Sau meditation, or the pauses in neutral poses between active asanas, we are developing sattva and are moving closer to both optimal health of body and mind and true spiritual healing, union with the Divine. And we are practicing both Yoga and Ayurveda.
The interplay between the physical and subtle bodies, between body, mind and consciousness, is another shared foundation of both Yoga and Ayurveda. Prana, or life-force, is another important link. The three doshas (Vata, Pitta and Kapha) are considered to be manifestations of prana at the gross level, evolving from the five elements (ether, air, fire, water and earth). Each of the doshas has five sub-doshas; the five sub-doshas of Vata are also called the five Vayus or pranas (prana, apana, vyana, samana, udana—see Section 4 of the AYTT manual). Ayurveda works consciously with the healing powers inherent in the five pranas of the subtle body and their influence on the physical body. Yoga teaches us to tune in to the intelligence of prana, especially via meditation, as a vehicle for spiritual evolution, and transformation and expansion of our consciousness. And of course, in Ananda Yoga we directly work with prana as we consciously direct it into our center and up to the spiritual eye, especially during the pauses between active asanas. Ananda Yoga’s use of affirmations is another aspect that encourages us to actively integrate body, mind and spirit as part of a holistic healing.
Dr. Frawley says that Ayurveda and Yoga together form a complete discipline for maintaining or restoring wholeness in body, mind, and spirit, and for transforming our existence from the physical to the deepest spiritual level of our being. In Yoga & Ayurveda: Self-Healing & Self-Realization, he also says, “The foundation of Yoga should be Ayurveda, and the fruit of Ayurveda should be Yoga.” (p. 64)
Understanding the Doshas
The cosmic life force, Prana, is seen as manifesting in the physical and energetic worlds as three different energies or doshas, which are in turn manifestations of combinations of the five elements: ether, air, fire, water and earth*. The doshas are called Vata, Pitta, and Kapha, and they are present in all of creation. They manifest in you in a unique combination that determines your prakruti (constitution), your nature, your body-mind type, at conception. Because the nature of doshas is to change—and specifically to increase—the doshas of your constitution are in a constant state of flux and are influenced by your internal and external environments. Thus your vikruti (the current state of your doshas) often represents an imbalance from our constitution.
We experience maximal vitality and balanced health when our doshas are balanced according to your unique constitution. When Ayurveda speaks of balanced doshas, it refers to this unique combination of doshas that is your individual constitution. (It does not mean that you should try to get an equal amount of each dosha.) Similarly, the path to health will be different for each person, according to your constitution. And depending on our prakruti and vikruti, there are different approaches to hatha yoga practice that uniquely help you to maintain your ideal balance. In order to know which choices are best for you, you need to understand more about the doshas, your constitution, and your specific tendencies toward imbalance.
The Doshas — A Visual Overview
Being a combination of the elements ether and air, Vata dosha manifests as movement, like the wind. It is fast, cold, light, dry and mobile. It is also inspiration, intuition, enthusiasm, creativity and flexibility. But if Vata dosha increases— i.e., goes out of balance—these qualities can become distorted, resulting in imbalances such as fear, worry, anxiety, insecurity, nervousness, restlessness, insomnia, constipation, pain, tremors, being spacey or confused, etc.
When any of these symptoms begin to occur, balance can be restored by the application of opposite qualities. In other words, imbalances indicating that there is too much Vata means that there is too much of its qualities of cold, light, dry and mobile, etc. The way to bring the Vata dosha back into balance is to apply warmth, heaviness, moistness, and stability—qualities opposite to Vata’s nature. (Please keep in mind that this “balance via opposites” approach is an overly simplistic “prescription.” I’m using it to help you begin to understand the concepts of “like stimulates like” and “opposites balance” as they are used in Ayurvedic treatment of imbalances.)
Vata dosha is said to be located in the large intestine. Physically, Vatadominant people are usually very tall or short, thin, have long necks, small eyes, thin, dry and cold skin, and have variable metabolism. “Variable” and “extremes” are key words in describing Vata dosha.
Pitta dosha is composed of the fire and water elements, and manifests as transformation or digestion. It is moderately quick, hot, light, oily and fluid (moveable). It is also clear perception, focus and concentration of attention and thought, articulate, organized, efficient, precise, etc.
But if Pitta dosha increases (i.e., becomes out of balance), these qualities can become aggravated into being impatient, irritated, critical, judgmental, angry, controlling, perfectionist, etc. Other signs of Pitta aggravation/imbalance include rashes, inflammation, diarrhea, ulcers, heartburn, etc. One of the first lines of “treatment” for Pitta imbalances is to apply qualities opposite to Pitta’s nature: cool, heavy, dry, stable.
Pitta dosha is located in the small intestine. Physically, Pitta-dominant people are of medium build, with well developed musculature, bright, intense eyes, ruddy complexion, warm, oily skin, and have good metabolism and strong appetite. They tend to be competitive.
Kapha dosha is a combination of water and earth, which, like mud, brings stability, cohesion, lubrication, etc. It is slow, cool, heavy, moist and stable. It is also patient, compassionate, unconditionally loving, forgiving, loyal, enduring, etc. But when Kapha dosha accumulates (becomes imbalanced), it can manifest as stubbornness, attachment, procrastination, lethargy, congestion, excess mucus, obesity, hypertension, high cholesterol, edema, excessive sleeping, etc. A general approach to relieving Kapha imbalances uses qualities opposite to Kapha: warm, light, dry, mobile/active.
Kapha dosha in located in the chest and upper stomach. Physically, Kapha-dominant people are heavier built with a tendency to hold excess water and weight. They are strong, with good endurance, large eyes, thick, pale, cool skin, and have low metabolism.
In Part 2 of this article, Mangala builds on this foundation as she writes about working with prakruti (Ayurvedic constitution), the Ayurveda/Ananda Yoga interface, and the use of individual techniques such as asana and pranayama to balance the doshas.
* Don’t be deceived by the simplistic, primitive-sounding names given to the five elements; they are not things, but stages of divine manifestation. In Section VII of Step 7 of The Art and Science of Raja Yoga, Swami Kriyananda explains: “On a universal level, we may say that each of these ‘elements’ represents an elemental stage of creation. The consciousness of Spirit, when it becomes condensed grossly enough to enter into material manifestation, becomes the cosmic energy, or ‘ether,’ out of which the physical universe appears. This energy condenses into cosmic gases (the ‘air element’), which in turn condense to form the fiery stars. As fiery matter cools, it becomes molten (the ‘water’ stage of cosmic manifestation). As it cools still further, it becomes solid; thus it reaches its fifth, and final, elemental stage of material manifestation, known as the ‘earth’ stage.”
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