So, you are fully committed to practicing Yoga at home. You have your equipment, you have set aside time and carefully considered your goals and intentions. You have experimented with different teachers and different practices. You are beginning to feel the energetic and emotional benefits of Yoga in addition to the physical ones. Now, it is time to figure out what yoga practice is therapeutic for you and your needs. You may find it interesting to learn that the answer to this question is seldom the type of yoga you LIKE the most. When we begin to look at Yoga as a tool for health and well-being, we can rely on the guidance of Ayurveda, the “sister science” to Yoga. One of the key principles of Ayurveda is the idea that “like attracts like”. This means that a person will be attracted towards the very thing that has the greatest potential to create imbalance.
The first step towards this knowledge is to determine your pakriti, or baseline dosha. There are 3 doshas: Vata, Pitta and Kapha. Each dosha is made up of 2 of the 5 universal elements: ether, air, fire, water, and earth. There are many online tests that will give you a good idea of what elements and qualities drive you. You can also spend a little time reviewing your “type” online and reviewing the strengths and the symptoms of imbalance expected for each dosha. Everyone has a little bit of each of the 3 which make up their basic nature. Most are predominantly a combination of 2 doshas (Pitta-Vata, for example) and some, rarely, are all 3, or Tri-doshic.
Vata is made of the elements of air and space. It is, therefore, light, dry, diffuse, cool and contains the energy of movement – motivated, quick, and agile.
Pitta is made up of fire and water. It is, therefore, hot, steady, sharp and contains the energy of transformation – digestion and assimilation.
Kapha is made up of water and earth. It is, therefore, wet, warm, stable, slow-to-move and it contains the energy of cohesion – bringing things (or people) together.
There is no set prescription of poses for each dosha, but rather an attitude towards practice that will acknowledge your tendencies and assist in bringing you into balance rather than accelerating you towards imbalance.
Vatas, for example, are creative, talkative and energetic when in balance. They may be drawn towards practices with a lot of pose changes and rapid movement, such as sun salutations and power vinyasa classes. However, when this is their primary practice, they are likely to become erratic, depleted of energy and less-focused. A balancing practice for Vatas should be slower, grounded and intentional. This includes, but is not limited to, restorative practices. They can still enjoy a vinyasa flow but may want to keep their eyes downward and focus on exhalations, and lower body strength. Their mantra for yoga is “Slow Down!”.
Pittas, at their best, are passionate and strong, quick to learn and love challenge and change. They are, however easily over-heated so a strong hot yoga practice may bring out their competitive, judgmental and reactive nature. A balancing practice for Pittas will include many seated and prone poses especially twists and forward folding. They can still enjoy strong standing or backbending poses, like Chair or Upward Bow with shorter “holds” or from a well-supported position. Their mantra for practice is “Chill Out!”
Many Kaphas love yoga because their bodies (and minds) are relaxed and content to rest and stretch in a pose as long as possible. They are also drawn to the community aspects of Yoga as well as the sensual smells and sounds often found in a yoga studio. However, Kaphas can be sedentary and heavy in mind and body. A light vinyasa practice with little to no “holds”or rests moving towards deep backbends and inversions (especially early in the morning) will help their warm and loving potential to shine all day long. For Kaphas, the mantra is “Keep it moving!”.
Because we, and everything around us, are all made up of all 5 elements, our imbalances are not always this straightforward. We tend to take on the qualities of the elements in our environment (including our clients, friends, food, climate, etc). In Ayurveda, we also rely on balancing gunas (or qualities). When you feel heavy and dull (qualities of Earth), you opt for a light and mobile practice. If you feel light-headed and diffuse (qualities of space and air) you try to move in a way which is grounded and focused. During the heat of the day or in the midst of summer, you avoid poses that easily burn you out and opt for more stable, cooling poses. There are 10 guna pairs (20 qualities) to guide our practice and lifestyle choices: Hot/Cold, Dense/Liquid, Soft/Hard, Stable/Mobile, Gross/Subtle, Smooth/Rough; Cloudy/Clear, Dull/Sharp, Oily/Dry, Heavy/Light.
One of the things I love best about following Ayurvedic guidance is that you are never doing the “wrong” or unhealthy thing. You are merely doing what you are naturally drawn towards. Knowing the qualities around why you “like” one season, pose, practice or food over another helps you to recognize when you need balance. In seeking improved health and well-being, you do not give up what you love; you simply add in some of the elements you need to keep your strengths supported and balanced.