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Ayurveda: The Missing Link in Yoga

Ayurveda, India’s native system of holistic, preventative medicine, teaches you, as an individual, how to create a life of vitality, mental clarity, and emotional balance for yourself by aligning with the forces of nature and developing the potentials of the mind. It provides a conceptual framework to make intelligent choices on diet, exercise, lifestyle, and meditation. Yoga practices are also optimized when applied within an Ayurvedic framework. Read on to find out how.

What is the Basis of Ayurveda?

Ayurveda defines balance as unique to each person, based on one's natural proclivities. In a nutshell, Ayurveda agrees with modern physics that matter and energy are interchangeable and vibrational or wavelike in nature. The metaphors used to describe states of matter are earth, water, fire, air, and ether.  Earth as matter in what we perceive as a solid state, compact, stable, and still; water as liquid state, fluid, smooth and flowing; fire as heat and light that for us originates in the sun, air as wind, gaseous, cool and irregular, and ether as the vacuum of space within which everything exists. Our physical bodies are of course comprised of matter in these various states. Bones are more earth, blood is both liquid and fire due to it's warmth and color, and so on. From these five elements, Ayurveda posits three doshas, or groupings of qualities, known as Vata (air and ether), Pitta (fire and water), and Kapha (earth and water). Each of us is born with a specific admixture of these doshas inherited from our parents and environment, usually one of them dominant. This personal admixture strongly influences the natural tendencies of the body (well-built vs thin, oriented towards sports vs. intellectual pursuits, and so on ), and general disposition (kind and nurturing vs. bad-tempered). Based on this admixture (in my case, Pitta 60%, Vata 35%, Kapha 5%), Ayurveda makes recommendations for maintaining optimal health, typically using “opposition therapy.” For example, since my Pitta (fire) element is so high, Ayurveda suggests that this tendency toward overheating, competition, and aggressiveness be countered in the summer and fall (high pitta seasons) by eating mostly cooling and sweet foods like almonds and milk, and that when I practice Asana I do so being careful to check competitiveness.

What is Hatha Yoga?

Hatha is the path of discipline (tapas), effort, and subtle energy manipulation. The first limb of Hatha Yoga is the practice of asana, and in this sense most of the physical postures performed in studio yogas are a part of the Hatha Yoga tradition. In Hatha the purpose of Asana is to create “steadiness, health, and lightness of body” in terms of calming the doshas and controlling Prana, not sweaty physical exercise. Asana itself is not an end, but simply a means to strengthen and purify the body in preparation for the practice of pranayama and meditation. The Asanas discussed in the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, an original source text of Hatha Yoga from the middle ages, are mostly seated and floor poses that engender stability, ensure flexibility of the spine, and improve digestion and the fire element in the body. Hatha also insists on dietary restrictions as a prerequisite for yoga practice, emphasizing mitahara, the reduced intake of food: “eat slightly oily and sweet food, leaving one quarter of the stomach empty.” In contrast, studio yogas ignore the impact of food choices on success in Yoga, and hold up yoga poses as an end in themselves, focusing on their physical / anatomical characteristics only. The Sivananda sequence and teachings are a modern system that stays close to the original Hatha Yoga model.

How Do Hatha and Ayurveda Interface?

Both Hatha Yoga and Ayurveda agree that the goal of exercise, dietary regimes, and lifestyle changes is the ability to sustain mental, emotional, and bodily equilibrium in a constantly changing environment. This is what balance, or Sattva in Sanskrit, is. Being in touch with the more subtle energies of being keeps you grounded, aware, and responsive to your constantly evolving needs and environment. It also allows natural healing processes to kick in, creative juices to flow, intelligence to arise, and compassion to develop.

The principle of Individuation

Dosha theory provides tools to allow you to make the right choices for your particular situation on a moment-to-moment basis. The state of balance and equilibrium and the way to get and to stay there varies from person to person. A vigorous physical activity would benefit a person experiencing dullness of mind, for example, but not someone with an agitated nature. This common sense and practical approach to self management is codified in the Ayurvedic concept of Dosha mentioned above. The system provides not just awareness of our tendencies — both helpful and self-destructive — but also techniques to counter or encourage them as they arise.

The Practice of Asana

Ayurveda renders the practice of yoga postures intelligent, effective, and pleasurable. Yogic exercises (Asana) have an impact on the physical body, the energy body, and the mental body. This impact varies widely depending on which poses are chosen, how they are approached, how long they are held, the breathing patterns used, and so on. Ayurveda provides the language and direction for us to decide how best to practice Asana, or any activity, really, to reach and maintain a state of inner equanimity.

The Importance of Mitahara

If you do not have your eating habits under control, you are definitely sabotaging your own yoga efforts. You may be surprised to learn that Hatha Yoga, like Ayurveda, stresses the importance of diet. Both systems stress eating properly according to your body chemistry and both also stress mitahara, or the controlled intake of foods. In practical terms, this means cutting food consumption in half.  In fact, both systems assert that diet and exercise are two sides of the same coin, and that neither can really work well without the other. If you practice yogasana but eat foods that cause congestion in the lungs and inflammation in the joints, or if you regularly overeat, you are undoing the gains you made in the physical practice and promoting disease in the body and mind. Just working on one aspect of life without the aligning with all the others is a recipe for — if not for outright failure — then making your goals much harder to achieve.