Jivamukti Yoga founder, Sharon Gannon, wrote a special essay for my book, Heathy, Happy, Sexy. It didn't make the final edit, but it was so beautiful, I wanted to include it here in our blog. Enjoy!
Ayurveda and Yoga by Sharon Gannon
My first experience with ayurvedic healing happened in the early nineties. I am in a small town in South India. The air is stifling. It is the afternoon and I’m sitting on a rusty metal bench in a tiny, dirt-floor room with 4 other people all waiting to see the doctor. I have come with a friend of mine to offer support. She hasn’t been feeling well for the past week or so. She says that her body aches all over; she has lost interest in food and finds it difficult to get out of bed in the morning. She feels not only physically tired, but also emotionally depressed, with a recurring feeling of “what’s the use?” hanging over her like a dark cloud. Finally the doctor calls us into his office. He asks her what’s the matter, and she tells him how she has been feeling. He then asks her a matter of fact question: “So, madam, do you want to feel better?” to which she replies, “Yes.” “Okay then get up. Spread your feet apart, stand up straight, release your arms by your sides,” he commands in a heavy Indian accent, and although somewhat startled by his tone of voice, she obeys. “Now start the shaking of your body, lift your right foot off the floor and shake it, then your left, now each hand and arm, shake your head, let your jaw relax, move around—move, move—get down on the floor and roll around—move, come on, don’t stop—shake all over.” He had her movin’ and shakin’ for a good five minutes without a stop, while I just sat in a corner and watched. Then he said, “Okay, you will feel better now, please give me 20 rupees.” We paid and walked out of the Ayurvedic clinic—both of us laughing uncontrollably. My friend was cured of her malaise by moving her body. You could say she shook her sickness off.
Since that first encounter I have learned that ayurvedic doctors will often prescribe shaking your body when you don’t feel well as the first step in the treatment of sickness. Personally I have often used shaking as medicine to provide a boost when I was feeling stressed or out of sorts. Through intentional shaking, you not only increase circulation of blood, but also circulation of prana—the universal life force that animates and connects the physical body to more subtle aspects of a person—emotional, mental and spiritual. When prana is flowing through one’s body, the result can be felt as “upliftment,” optimism and even ecstasy. Many ayurvedic and yogic practitioners say that the first things to do when ill health occurs, before ingesting any type of medicine, are:
- Mentally concentrate on the area concerned and imagine that it is being charged with prana—positive life force—and consciously breathe into the area where pain or lethargy is felt.
- Bring the concentration of prana into physical movement by shaking, whirling, rolling and/or performing yoga asanas.
- Massage the body, preferably with oil.
Shaking, as well as the above modalities, are ways to bring forth life’s essential vitality: your old unconscious ways of being get shaken up, and you can then reset your objectives. Our culture is founded on the concept and practical application of confinement—some examples being all that is viewed as normal in our lives: animals in factory farms, pet birds in cages, dogs on leashes, bridles and saddles on horses, fenced in land, trees planted in rows, bonsai trees, dammed up rivers, as well as human beings living in cramped apartments or houses, property lines clearly defined, not to mention the confinement of our bodies in clothes and shoes which inhibit freedom of movement. For those of us constrained by those cultural norms, shaking is nothing less than a radical, revolutionary action. Shaking was my introduction to ayurveda and my curiosity has only increased over the years as I have deepened my studies and practice of yoga and tried to understand their relationship, as well as how a vegan lifestyle fits it to these ancient systems.
Ayurveda and yoga are sister sciences used conjointly in India for centuries to bring about health and happiness, two important goals of life. Although possible, it is difficult to arrive at a state of happiness without health, and vice-versa. Ayurveda teaches us how to have a long and healthy life, and yoga gives us a reason to live by teaching us how to most efficiently use this precious life to attain enlightenment—ultimate happiness. The Sanskrit term ayurveda means science or knowledge of life, and the word yoga means to join, referring to reuniting with the Divine source of all existence—that whose nature is bliss, boundless joy, eternal happiness.
These two self-help systems, and they can be considered self-help systems because they are designed to help the small self reunite with the eternal Self—the source of all healing and happiness—have been around for thousands of years and were first described in the ancient Indian Sanskrit texts, the Vedas. To grasp how ayurveda and yoga work to bring about healing and happiness we must first understand that these ancient texts provide a holistic view of the individual and do not limit a person to just a physical body. The ancient texts describe each person as having not one but five bodies: a physical, energetic, emotional, intellectual and bliss body. Or in Sanskrit terms: anamayakosha, pranamayakosha, manomayakosha, vijnanamayakosha and anandamayakosha. These “bodies” are like sheaths or coverings, which together comprise the jiva or individual soul giving it mobility by providing it with a complex instrument with which to navigate through material life and even beyond.
Of all the five bodies the energetic, or pranamayakosha, is the bridge which links the physical body to the more subtle aspects of the person and ultimately to the universal blissful soul or atman. Because of the importance of the energetic body to the health of the whole body, many ayurveda and yoga practices focus on techniques to increase circulation and balance and direct prana—the vital life force—with the intention to balance and integrate all the bodies of the self. When all the five bodies are working together there is a feeling of completeness and wholeness. When they are in conflict, disease results, which can show up in the physical body as well as in any of the bodies. For example a person can appear to be physically healthy but feel ill at ease in their mind or in their heart.
In the traditions of both ayurveda and yoga, the body is not viewed as separate from the mind, so when we talk about health it isn’t just confined to health for the physical body without addressing the more subtle aspects the mind. The Sanskrit word for mind is manas. Manas means mind, yes, as in intellect and thinking, but more precisely it means the mind and heart together. One’s thoughts and feelings comprise manas. Yoga and ayurveda perceive that true health and happiness can only be attained when the thinking mind and the feeling heart come together and are not in conflict. When that harmony is achieved the physical body benefits, as do all the bodies, which together comprise the individual entity.
In order to create a true state of health for the individual we must consider the whole person, so it is important to know what constitutes a whole person—what each of the five bodies is made of. Here is a simplified explanation: The physical body is composed of the food we eat, as well as the five elements and the water we drink; the energetic body is made of prana or life force; the emotional body is made of feelings; the mental body is made of thoughts; and the spirit body is the soul, the composition of which is bliss. The soul is always blissful and happy. The experiences of life are designed to increase the bliss of the soul. Because of various karmas that are ripening, a person may or may not allow this inner bliss and happiness to filter into his or her mind and physical body. When a person ignorantly identifies with the physical body as separate from the mind, or with the mind as separate from the heart, or with the heart as separate from the soul, for example, the result is usually unhappiness, stress, suffering and subsequent illness. The systems of ayurveda and yoga are concerned with bringing about health and happiness for body and mind. They recognize that this health and happiness must come from the inner source, the soul, which is always blissful. The job of any health-promoting system is to remove obstacles to allow the inner Self, the blissful soul, to shine through the various layers of body and mind. This is an important consideration when we are trying to understand the relationship between ayurveda and yoga. Both systems are practical, not theoretical, and they both focus on removing obstacles through the modification or elimination of toxins to bring about the sought after goals of health and happiness. Ayurveda and yoga both use as their foundation the inherent perfection and natural happiness of the true Self or soul.
Health and happiness become suppressed due to toxins. Toxins may be physical or mental. Physical toxins may come from the food we eat, the air we breathe and the environment we live in. Mental toxins come from negative emotions such as anger, jealousy, greed, sadness, etc. All toxins appear in our system according to our karmas, or the actions we have taken in our past in relation to others and our self. Our karmas will determine our physical makeup at the time of our birth. Each of us has a particular body type that expresses our personality. Ayurveda refers to these constitutional types as doshas. Ayurveda and yoga deal with purifying our karmas by eliminating physical and mental toxins and rebalancing the doshas so that a healthy and happy individual can shine through.
Ayurveda deals mainly with the elimination of toxins from the physical body and yoga with eliminating toxins from the mind (or manas). Of course the body and mind are integrally connected and what you do to the body affects the mind and what you think and feel affects the body. Training your mind to let go of habitual negative emotional responses can eliminate toxins from the mind. Ayurveda helps you choose the best diet for your body type or dosha. Yoga helps you to choose the best diet for your enlightenment. As you learn to consciously direct the actions of body and mind you are able to let go of toxic negative emotions, all of which contribute to a lack of self-confidence. When toxins are let go of, true Self-confidence results. True Self-confidence comes about when the self can connect to the source of happiness through the eternal Self or soul—the atman, whose nature is composed of satchidananda: truth, consciousness and mostly bliss. Diseases both physical and mental come about from being ill at ease, not comfortable and not happy, and this discomfort can be traced to a disconnection to the atman, to one’s eternally blissful soul. The physical body cannot be ignored; after all we are spiritual beings having a physical experience. We cannot experience health or happiness by depriving others of health or happiness. When your food choices come from a place of compassion, then you are more likely to quickly bring the body and mind into harmony and achieve your goal of health and happiness. A vegan diet is the most compassionate diet because it causes the least amount of harm to the animals, to the planet, to other human beings and to ourselves. Eating a vegan diet not only contributes to physical health, but to mental health as well, by helping an individual overcome negative emotions by promoting gentleness and kindness over greed and selfishness. I realize that some ayurvedic practitioners advocate eating milk products, especially ghee and even some meat, for physical health reasons. I cannot align myself with this reasoning. Perhaps at one time in our historical past we did not have the consciousness to realize the impact of our choices on the planet and ourselves. But today it could not be more crystal clear. If we are to utilize the sacred wisdom from the past, then we must be able to discern the essential truth in that wisdom and utilize it for the happiness of all and let go of any self-serving motives. I have met such an enlightened ayurvedic practitioner, Dr. Gabriel Cousens, who at his Tree of Life vegan clinic in Arizona gave me a full-on, 7-day, ayurvedic panchakarma treatment without the use of any animal products, using coconut oil to replace ghee. I think he represents compassion in action, able to honor tradition while rebirthing it into a vital application for the present world—true spiritual activism.
We all want to be happy; some of us even want enlightenment. The enlightened sages tell us that our true nature is happiness. But if that is so then why is it so hard to be happy? How do we reconnect to this happiness? Yoga teaches that what ever we want in life we can have, if we provide it for someone else. So if we want happiness then we should focus on contributing to the happiness of others. In order to do that effectively we must find ways to allow goodness, kindness and compassion to override the self-centeredness of our ego, which tends to hold on to and identify with toxic negative emotions.
If we want to move towards health and happiness we might try to understand who we are as individual physical personalities. Sickness could be thought of as an imbalance of energy. Determining your ayurvedic constitution can be a valuable first step towards good health. Once you know what elements may be predominating in your system then you can take actions to counteract the ill effects that may be caused by imbalances of the doshas. Dosha is the Sanskrit term that describes a person’s physical and mental disposition or constitution. The doshas are drawn from the natural elements that make up our world. These elements are: Ether, Air, Fire and Water. Each of us is born with a body composed of combinations of these elements in different degrees, making each body unique:
- The combination of ether and air results in vata dosha.
- The combination of fire and water results in pitta dosha
- The combination of water and earth results in kapha dosha
Vata, pitta and kapha each have their own attributes. These attributes show up in qualities of mind and physical body. The general attributes associated with Vata are talkative, impulsive, excitable, touchy, restless, intellectually active, reflective, moody, creative, imaginative, changeable, fearful, imaginative, unpredictable, anxious. The general attributes associated with Pitta are responsive, knowledgeable, judgmental, critical, sociable, passionate, fiery, fanatical, logical, precise, intellectual, aggressive, ambitious, and physically active. The general attributes associated with Kapha are passive, peaceful, calm, cool, firm, careful, quiet, stable, steady, sturdy, stubborn, greedy, possessive, caring, tolerant.
It is interesting to note that although the dosha system is thousands of years old and of Indian origin, in our western medical system we have a similar typing developed by Dr. William Sheldon (1898-1977), who was an American psychologist who devoted his life to observing human bodies and temperaments. He grouped body type and temperament according to the way that the human embryo develops in the mother’s womb. He named these three elements: Endomorphy, Mesomorphy and Ectomorphy, for they seemed to derive from the three developing tissue layers of the human embryo during gestation. The ectoderm develops into the brain and nervous system and so would correspond to vata dosha; the mesoderm contributes to muscles and the circulatory system, so would correspond to pitta dosha; and the endoderm grows into the organs of digestion, which would correspond to kapha dosha. Just as in the dosha system, no one person is totally and exclusively only one type. We all are made up of components in various degrees with one component usually dominating.
Although I am a yoga practitioner and I admit my knowledge of ayurveda is very limited, still I have found that a basic understanding of the doshas has enhanced my practice and provided me with direction as well as a greater degree of tolerance so as to better assist the students who come to me for instruction.
In a person’s lifetime, the three doshas provide structure. Infancy and childhood is a time for kapha, pitta predominates during the active time of adulthood, and vata governs old age, a time for reflection. In a typical Jivamukti Yoga class we go through all of the three doshas but in reverse as to how they appear in a lifetime. For example, the beginning of the class is under the direction of vata, when there is chanting, listening to the teacher give a teaching and mentally setting your intention for the practice. After we have focused the mind, we move into the pitta portion of the class, when we move the body in a series of asanas creating heat. The class culminates with cooling and calming down into quiet relaxation and meditation, a time for kapha. So each yoga session can be like a profound rebirthing.
Chanting the sacred syllable OM is a good way to begin a class as it provides a sort of preview to the experiences that will unfold during the rest of the class. OM can be broken down into these three sound components: AH-OO-MMM, which corresponds to the three doshas, vata, pitta and kapha, respectively. The vata processes control activity from the navel to the feet. The pitta processes control activity from the navel to the heart. The kapha processes control activity from the heart to the top of the head. So while chanting ah-oo-mmm, one should be able to feel these doshas operating energetically in their body in the following way:
AH: The sound vibration is felt in the lower part of the body from the navel down to the feet. Feel the sound vibrate there. This will bring grounding to any imbalances of vata.
OO: The sound vibration is felt from the navel upward and around the heart area. Let it circulate there, balancing and cooling the fiery pitta dosha.
MMM: This sound can be felt as vibrating in the throat and into the head, bringing calmness and serenity into the brain and throughout the nervous system by balancing the kapha dosha.
The three humors of the body—gas, bile and phlegm—correspond to these three doshas. When there is too much gas, there is an imbalance of vata, the air/ether element; when there is too much bile, there is an imbalance of pitta, the fire element; and when there is too much phlegm, there is an imbalance of kapha, the water/earth element. Because all imbalances are imbalances of energy, yoga addresses this with practices that may include pranayama and asana to help release, balance, and direct energy in a more positive healthy way. Yoga asanas are appropriate for all dosha types, but to achieve the most benefit there should be a different emphasis for each person according to their dosha. A yoga teacher who knows something about the doshas can use that knowledge to better diagnose when particular students are having trouble in a class and then be able to help these students work to overcome the imbalances of the doshas.
Once I was teaching a yoga class where the focus was on ayurveda. I began by giving a brief but intriguing summary outlining the characteristics of the three doshas and had promised that during the class we would discover what dosha each person was. At some point I instructed everyone to go up into a headstand and to silently count their breaths. After about 2 minutes I asked a person whom I suspected was a typical kapha type to tell me what breath they were on, to which they replied 30. I then asked the red haired student next to them, who was now doing many difficult variations what breath they were on, to which they shouted loudly in pitta like fashion “108.” Then I turned to a student who had just come down out of the asana and was in child’s pose, “how many breaths did you hold your headstand for?” “Oh I forgot, I think I lost count.”
The following provides simplified, generic guidelines for how to identify doshas as they might be expressed through the behavior of yoga students in a classroom setting and how the teacher can help particular students according to their dosha. Of course these guidelines can be applied to oneself as well.
Vata types tend to be talkative, impulsive, excitable, touchy, restless, active, and moody.
They often will give up too soon and “space out,” sometimes just sitting down and watching the rest of the class, checking their cell phone or leaving in the middle of a class to go to the bathroom. They lack will power and stamina. Their breath will come in stops and starts with much hesitation. Or they will start out fine but won’t be able to sustain themselves. They want a light practice and don’t want to work hard. They may be undecided as to which asana they want to do. That is why they should come to class and be told want to do. Left at home they won’t be able to decide or to concentrate. A home practice, unless it is a fixed series, will be difficult for a vata personality to sustain. When vata is in a state of equilibrium they may have bursts of energy and want to do many asanas or take many yoga classes. But this commitment is usually short lived. Pain for them is excruciating, they have low tolerance and can burst into tears at the slightest discomfort.
What to do? Vata needs to develop steadiness, stability, endurance and the ability to bear a certain amount of discomfort. They benefit from removing distractions from their practice—encourage them to leave their bags and turn off their phones. They need to concentrate on making their breath even and smooth. Sun salutations, standing asanas, as well as inversions, forward bends and lateral twists will help.
Pitta types usually can bear a lot of pain, as their tolerance level is high. They sweat easily and profusely. Pittas will show mastery over asanas faster than other types. They put maximum effort and enthusiasm into their practice. They can become prideful of their accomplishments and can become too strict, rigid and dogmatic in their practice.
What to do? Pitta needs to concentrate on slow, full breaths and not be in a hurry. They should not get overly dramatic and fanatical. Realize that the vata’s natural tendency will be to compete, but instead of competing with others, they can be encouraged to use their natural aggression to challenge themselves towards developing slow full breaths. Instead of winning, which pushes us into the future, help them be in the present moment. Sun salutations done with smooth slow steady breathing is good for pitta. They should stay in inversions and twists while working to develop good mental intentions. Back bends are very good for them if they are able to direct their energy towards letting go of negative emotions while in the backbend instead of pushing themselves to impress or be the best. All asanas should be done with special attention to the mental state. They must strive to overcome anger and pride while practicing asanas.
Kapha types can tend to be lazy and give in to inertia. But once they become committed to a practice they tend to stick to it. They tend not to get too excited about asanas. They exert their effort in a non-aggressive way at a slow pace without fear. They are usually happy go lucky. They don’t complain much, and usually don’t ask many questions, content to allow understanding to naturally arise in time with practice.
What to do? Kapha needs to let go, especially of the exhale. They need to concentrate on exhaling as much as inhaling. Kaphas like to conserve and so have a tendency to hold their breath. They benefit greatly through the practice of vinyasa and sun salutations. Inversions and back bending are also very helpful in balancing kapha dosha due to the hormonal and circulatory stimulation that these asanas provide.
The systems of ayurveda and yoga have been borrowing from each other for centuries so much so that it may be hard to decipher just what came from where. In our contemporary times, when we practice yoga or ayurveda we can’t help but to receive benefits from both systems. This merger took a dramatic turn during the 13th century C.E. when a small group of yogic practitioners known as the Nath yogis in northern India under the leadership of Swatmarama yogi, codified the practices of yoga into a book known as the Hatha Yoga Pradipika. The book was revolutionary for many reasons. The title means to shed light on how to attain yoga: happiness, bliss and ecstasy, Self-realization, the realization of the oneness of being beyond all duality—that in itself is a pretty impressive promise! The book was meant to provide a supplement to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, written well over a thousand years before, which dealt primarily with mental obstacles to enlightenment. The Hatha Yoga Pradipika provided more practical, hands-on techniques to overcome obstacles and eliminate toxins. At the time of publication it was assumed that a yogi should not only be a master of yoga but also be well versed in the practices of ayurveda, so it comes as no surprise that the techniques described in the Hatha Yoga Pradipka contain elements no doubt borrowed from the ayurveda system by these adventurous yogis from the 13th century, who were able to blend ayurvedic and yoga methods into a system that worked in tandem to increase health and happiness. We all owe a great debt to them.