Have you ever wondered why some yoga poses leave you feeling calm and balanced, while others make you feel less grounded than you were before class? Or why sometimes a restorative class can feel more energizing than go-to vinyasa class with that perfect playlist?
Ayurveda—India’s ancient holistic health system—offers some insight into this mystery, as well as some useful tips on how to know ahead of time what you’re in for when you step onto your mat. In fact, in our world of information overload and people being an “expert” on seemingly everything but themselves, the person-specific nature of this 5,000-year-old philosophy feels as pertinent as ever.
Translating to “the science of life” (Ayur = life, Veda = science or knowledge), Ayurveda is a sister science to yoga. Traditionally, they were practiced hand in hand to help people address imbalances and realign with natural rhythms. This latter aspect, harmonizing with nature, is particularly important because both yoga and Ayurveda are rooted in the belief that we are made of the same cosmic intelligence as the sun and stars, so our state of health depends on how in-sync we are with the energies and cycles that govern the rest of the natural world. And we know this from our own experience: the same diets, activities and self-care practices that provide stability and comfort in fall are not the same diets, activities and self-care practices that make us feel energized and full of vitality come summer. In this sense, we are a microcosm of a macrocosm, governed by the same three energies that oversee everything in nature. These energies (dosas), known as vata, pitta, and kapha, constantly fluctuate according to factors like environment, diet, relationships, experiences, age—as well as the energies that manifested when we were conceived (think of this as your yogic DNA).
Since we all have unique genetic blueprint in addition to an amalgamation of different life experiences, emotional impressions and the like, it would follow that the state of our present mind-body constitution is unique—as are the imbalances we each face. Similarly, the exact combination of what will keep each of us healthy is equally unique.
This is how a five people can all take the same group yoga class and leave feeling anywhere from slightly to significantly different. So without knowing much more about Ayurveda and the principles of these governing energies, how do you know ahead of time how you’ll feel as you roll up your mat?
The best way to know which style of yoga will help you to feel balanced on any given day is to consider what type of imbalance is present in your constitution. Generally speaking an imbalance is any experience in the mind-body that is not ideal, as we’d like it to do or as we know it to be when we’re healthy. Some examples include: dry skin, anxiety, fatigue, restless sleep, inability to focus, being self-critical, feeling sluggish and over-attachment to people and things. (It's sometimes hard to distinguish between characteristics that we were born with and those that result from an imbalance, which is why it’s advised to have an individualized introduction to this philosophy by an Ayurvedic practitioner.)
Once you’ve identified what’s going on in your mind-body (again, stress, exhaustation, cramps, heaviness), you simply apply this one principle: Like attracts like and opposites balance.
Think about it. When you’re cold and you drink something cold, you feel colder (well at least not warmer). When you feel sluggish and eat heavy food, you feel heavier. Conversely, when you’re cold and you drink something hot, you feel warmer. And, when you feel heavy and you invite lightness through fresh air, movement, a stimulating activity… you likely feel less sluggish.
Or—you’re anxious (fast moving mind) and are choosing between a fast moving vinyasa class or a slower, grounding flow. Which would balance this “imbalance” in your mind? Two days later you’re feeling depressed and heavy and you can take a yin class (restorative, little effort or movement) or a traditional yoga class with breath practices and all. Which do you think would balance your mind?
This approach may seem like a stretch, but in so many ways we naturally balance like this all day long. We’re tired at night so we rest. We’re sleepy in the morning so we exercise or consume something that’s stimulating to get us going. We’re hot so we remove a layer and on and on it goes.
Yet, when it comes to exercise we don’t use this same processing. We’re more likely thinking about what we like, rather than how we feel. But to meet your true needs and get the most healing out of your time, your answers lie in what’s present in your mind-body—right now.
The Process /
+ Identity what’s “imbalanced” in your mind-body.
+ Choose the something that has the opposite qualities to help restore balance.
Common Scenarios /
You feel restless, distracted, anxious, ungrounded and/or depleted (vata dosha)....
+ Slower flows like hatha flow, vinyasa align, restorative, yin and “deep flow”
+ Or, tailor your usual class —
+ Move carefully with intention at a slow, steady pace.
+ Seek grounding and stability in each pose before moving to the next.
+ Deepen & expand the length of breath through the nostrils to calm nervous system.
+ Avoid overexertion than can lead to fatigue & depletion.
*Slower definitely does not mean easier! Ever hold warrior II for a full minute?
You feel irritable, intense, competitive/comparative, overheated (pitta dosha)....
+ Avoid hot yoga and any advanced class that ignites your competitive, goal-oriented/high achiever side: Restorative, yin, outdoor yoga, yoga classes with aromatherapy are all great!
+ Or, tailor your usual class —
+ Move in a way that is relaxing and soothing.
+ Try to not force the practice but find a steady rhythm.
+ In times of intensity, exhale from your mouth to release heat.
+ End with hands resting on the belly.
+ Avoid inversions like headstand and shoulderstand that can overheat the mind.
You feel heavy, sluggish, lethargic, experiencing ruminative or cloudy thinking (kapha dosha)....
+ Look for classes that will invigorate your body & mind: Heated vinyasa, ashtanga, hatha flow. The key is to move!
+ Or, tailor your usual class —
+ Work to heat the body and create a good sweat.
+ Hold postures for just a few breaths with shorter rests.
+ Breathe in and out through the nostrils to maintain internal heat.
And when in doubt, take a restorative class. With all the busyness, distractions and pursuits that fill our days, we could all use more R&R!