Ayurveda and yoga are ancient sister sciences philosophically sharing the common ground of Sankya philosophyThe two practices and philosophies influence each other, and can be used to deepen knowledge and understanding with a focus on preventing and treating physical illness. In this article, we’ll be taking a brief overview of the Ayurvedic doshas, and applying that knowledge to the science of backbending.
The Five Elements & Three Doshas
In Ayurveda, the three doshas (also known as constitutions and dynamic biological energies) relate to the five elements (ether, air, fire, water, and earth) that make up our natural world. These elements are represented in the doshas as follows:
VATA encompasses the ether and air element.
PITTA is the combination of fire and water.
KAPHA relates to water and earth.
The doshas express themselves uniquely in each human body — they represent our genetic constitutions. These personal combinations govern physical and mental processes and are considered the blueprint or lifelong map for longevity, health and wellness, according to ancient teachings and texts.
We are who we are because of our specific dosha combination. Everyone’s dosha is in a constant state of change and flux in response to thought, action, emotion, diet, time of day, season and other sensory stimuli. When we cultivate and nurture our inherent individual nature (also known as prakruti, prakriti), we are capable of balancing our natural born state in a way that is healthful.
When we make choices to live against our intrinsic nature it can lead to unhealthy patterns that foster physical and mental imbalances known as vrkriti, or derangement of our healthy normal constitution. In other words: If we are not living within our individual prakriti, over time this can lead to a dis-ease in the body... and ultimately a state of disease.
Nurture Your Nature
In Ayurveda we learn the art of harmony with our internal environment while navigating the external world and our surroundings. We do this through one of the primary tenets of Ayurveda, Like increases Like and Opposites Heal.
Because Ayurveda is a complete system of preventative medicine, it offers us individualized health care tailored to our unique, individual and specific needs. Using lifestyle habits and rituals along with the treatment of dis-ease (imbalance in the body), Ayurveda is a profound tool and scientific modality to manage our doshas. We aim to detect imbalances before they become a disease. This helps us balance daily life and creating harmony of body, mind and spirit.
There is a particular area in the body where each dosha primarily resides. This is called its “seat” or “home.” According to the ancient wisdom of Ayurveda, we must tend to the seat of our unique doshas to maintain our health and wellness. Let’s learn about each dosha.
Vata is considered the space element and is composed of ether and air; it means wind or "that which moves things.”
Vata resides in the colon, pelvis, bones, joints, skin, ears, brain and the nerve tissue. It is the force governing any and all biological activity. Vata has been called the “King of the Doshas” because it is the energy of movement that governs our body’s life force, giving rise to Pitta and Kapha.
Physiologically, Vata governs any of the processes relating to movement in the body, such as breathing, nerve impulses, circulation, muscular and tissue movements, circulation of food, elimination of waste, urination, menstruation, and last but not least, talking.
Psychologically Vata governs the movement of creativity, flexibility, communication, and quickness of thought.
When Vata is imbalanced it can lead to fear, nervousness, anxiety, panic, dry skin, and constipation, to name a few.
Vata’s characteristic gunas, or traits, are mobile, light, dry, rough, subtle and cold.
Vata energy is nuclear and electrical.
Pacify Vata: Stabilizing, Grounding, Nurturing, Calming
Pitta is composed of fire and water and is considered the aspect of our solar energy in the from of agni, or digestive fire (a.k.a. “that which cooks" and also “that which transforms”).
Pitta resides in the digestive organs such as the liver, small intestine, stomach, spleen, pancreas, eyes, blood, and sweat. It is known to be the element of fire, yet it is the liquid part of its nature (think liquid lava or gastric juices). It acts as the carrier of enzymes, hormones, organic acids and bile in digestion, metabolization, and transformation.
Physiologically, Pitta provides the body with the digestion and metabolism transforming the breakdown of complex food molecules to provide energy and heat.
Psychologically, Pitta is our motivational energy and drive, our focus and the radiant light of intellect. Pitta governs all processes relating to the conversion or transformation of energy throughout the body and mind. It is considered the digestive process of thought and food. Now there is some interesting ‘food for thought”
When Pitta is in balance it governs our ability to perceive, experience joy and enthusiasm. It is our willpower, clarity, and sense of adventure.
When Pitta is imbalanced it leads to a critical mind, anger, irritability, obsessive thoughts, depression, addictions, impatience, and jealousy.
Pitta’s gunas are: hot, liquid, oily, sharp, light, moving, and acidic.
Pitta energy is radiant and chemical.
Pacify Pitta: Cooling, Calming, Moderation
Kapha is composed of the elements of water and earth; it translates as “that which sticks.” Kapha is responsible for building up and lubrication; it provides structure while maintaining smooth functioning throughout the body. Think of Kapha like a sticky, helpful lubricating padding and glue that supports cohesiveness.
Kapha resides in the chest area, including the lungs, throat, lymph, head, fatty tissue, connective tissue, ligaments, tendons and fascia.
Physiologically, Kapha is considered the ‘unctuousness’ within the body. It lubricates (the joints, especially), gives bulk to our tissues, stores energy in the form of fat, and relates to cool bodily functions through water, mucus, and lymph.
Psychologically, Kapha is love, forgiveness, compassion, and patience.
In an imbalanced state it manifests as greed, hoarding, depression, inertia, and attachment.
Kapha’s gunas are: heavy, dense, moist, cold, dull, soft, sticky and static.
Kapha energy is physical and mechanical. Kapha in its earthly form is grounding to Vata and Pitta as it offsets their imbalances.
Pacify Kapha: Drying, Stimulating, Expression
Yoga for Your Dosha (AyurYoga)
When we organize a pose for empowering or energetically working within a person’s unique dosha, we can then orchestrate the asana to promote the optimum movement of energy (prana, chi) for the individual’s constitution. In therapeutic yoga, a pose may be given to pacify or help rectify any potential and current issues that are related to the imbalanced state known as vrikriti. Ayuryoga assists in the interpretation and movement (“vayu”) of each dosha and what it needs for restoration, reactivation and mobilization.
When we work with the prakriti (nature) of an individual’s constitution we can implement a personal approach to each asana. We look to where the “seat” of that dosha resides, and harness the energies of the pose to pacify and bring awareness and strength to that specific area.
Gunas, Chakras, and Marma Points
Ayurveda identifies 20 different gunas, or qualities that relate to each dosha: They exist in opposite pairs, and are: hot~cold, heavy~light, oily~dry, dull~sharp, smooth~rough, dense~liquid, soft~hard, stable~mobile, gross~subtle, cloudy~clear.
Our skillful use of the correct gunas assists in pacifying or strengthening what is needed for our specific self. This is the process of how opposites heal. For example, if you are cold, you bring in warmth, if you are feeling tired, you sleep.
Further, there are seven main chakras, plus 72,000 nadis (energy channels) along with numerous marmani (Marma points; similar to Chinese acupressure points). The chakras, nadis, and Mamani facilitate the movement of prana throughout the body (discussed previously above). This is important for Ayuryoga because the marma points reside within or near the seat of the doshas. When these energetic channels are open, prana flows freely and the body thrives with ease.
Yoga asana merges the physical, spiritual, psychological and energetic body using the breath to maintain homeostasis, resiliency and longevity. Let’s explore a few ways we can incorporate backbends to pacify and strengthen each dosha.
Backbends for the Doshas
Needs: grounding, warmth, serenity, balance, boundaries, nourishment, and routine
Props: Sandbags, in a warm space (not hot)
Sphinx with the Sandbags on the marma points of the feet (pada kshipra) and posterior femurs (sphij) coordinate with Vata’s seat. This pose reins in both physical and energetic alignment. The pressure of the sandbags help root the mobile quality of Vata to the ground.
A warm practice space provides the heat needed to allow Vata to comfortably release and drop in, as too-hot and too-cold are triggers for this dosha.
Slow and steady breaths smooth out Vata’s energetic mind, promoting serenity and stability. Lengthening the breath is another way to release anxiety and promote a state of tranquility and clarity of mind; this will also encourage strength, rather than depletion.
Physically, the sandbags help engage the large muscular groups and create a specific boundary within physical alignment for staying connected to the earth. Vatas tend to surpass their normal range of motion, and this comforting pressure re-instills the alignment principles.
Using isometric movement of the upper chest, traction the forearms back. This allows Vata to maintain the posture while still moving in and out with slow, steady, and fluid repetitions. This movement will help build and sustain the creative power center of hara and the Svadisthana Chakra while still providing functional stability!
Visualization is a delightful tool for the creative Vata mind. Imagine that your pelvis and legs are rooted deeply in the mud. Your forearms are the resilient stems supporting you in the water as you hover in a state of balance. Meanwhile, your heart is a blossoming lotus radiating toward the light into the fullness of this pose.
Mantras for Vata:
Enjoy the Perfect Present
Be in the mOMent
Needs: cooling, calming, release and moderation
Props: Block, blanket roll or sandbag, in a cool space (not cold and definitely not hot)
Cobra is considered a therapeutic type of backbend. Using props is a great way to approach a pose creatively, which is great for Pitta. Placing a block between the thighs targets leg activation and piques the PItta mind without too much stimulation and overworking. This is the power of “effortless effort” (70-80% of your full capacity).
The block supports the engagement of the addutors to work efficiently with the pelvic floor and deep core. It also activates the front line marmani (bhaga, bhasti, nabhi 1,2,3,4, surya, and hridayam) and opens the heart.
The blanket roll or sandbag under the upper chest gives support and allows for a more expressive extension of the spine along with opening the liver (vnkri, yakrut) and spleen (vankri, pliha) marmani and meridians. Effort is applied to stretch and open the front line of the body. This helps release stagnation and heat from the liver and spleen. This is especially helpful during summertime, which can aggravate Pitta.
When a Pitta can process and release the sharpness of the mind and drop into the heart, it balances a subdosha of Pitta named Sadhaka Pitta. (heart~mind connection). In the ancient Ayurvedic text, Charaka Samhita it is described as, “hridaye chetana sthanam” which translates to “the seat of consciousness is in the heart”. In Ayurveda the heart is considered the seat of our consciousness. Sadhaka Pitta is the “caretaker of the heart,” processing and balancing our emotions and life events to promote healthy desires, healing, self-confidence and fulfillment within the heart and mind.
When we focus on our exhalation we are releasing heat to cool and pacify the fiery nature of Pitta with relaxed effort, acceptance, and compassion.
Pittas should also bring some playtime fun into their practice so they don’t take themselves so seriously. This is a great opportunity to go into sahaja, or spontaneous movement diving in and out of the depth of the pose, to aerate, release, work, and surrender.
The eyes are also a seat of Pitta, and provide our first intake or digestion of the world. When we close our eyes during our practice we are then able to go within and feel, or embody the pose, leading us into the spiritual realm of Sadhaka Pitta. This softens the Pitta mind’s judgemental and critical chatter, and encourages Pitta to drop into their loving nature and compassionate heart.
Mantras for Pitta:
Less is More
“Less is More - More or Less,” for a strong PItta.
Needs drying, stimulation, space, buoyancy and expression
Props: Weighted block in a warm space (not hot)
The major seat of Kapha resides in the lungs, chest area, lymphatic system, the head, and the connective tissue and fascia of the body.
Camel with a weighted block is quite challenging and a satisfying effort for Kapha. The spinal extension in combination with the heavy blocks provide the extra work needed to deepen the breath and bring more vigor to this very physical pose. The block provides a powerful tool to keep the chest and shoulders open, engaging the bandhas with safe effort. Camel with a weighted block opposes the natural gravitational forces and expends a large amount of energy — which is most beneficial for Kapha. It also allows for precision and alignment with a large load of work, another one of Kapha’s specialties.
A stimulating and strong pranayama, or breathwork, practice is most beneficial when balancing Kapha. Deep abdominal breathing will strengthen the diaphragm, increase oxygenation of the tissues, help massage the digestive organs and omentum, increases lung capacity, lower blood pressure, improve core stability, and release stagnation in the lymphatic system. It also allows one to work harder and more efficiently bringing about a sense of effortful lightness in the body and the pose..
To further the challenge of this camel, inhale to reach back in the deepest expression of the backbend and extension ~Pause~ and then Exhale to bring your arms and block directly above the head. ~Pause~ and repeat.
A clear and distinct gaze upward brings lightness and vigor to the pose. Holding the asana longer is a great way to pacify Kapha too.
Pausing (kumbaka) at the top of the inhalation (puraka) and the bottom of the exhalation (rechaka) is a great way to stimulate the lungs and kapha.
So take that deep breath one more time!
Mantra for Kapha:
Keep going; you got this!