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By Natasha Friedman



No two people are the same. So, no two yoga practices should be the same either!

There are a thousand and one factors that influence what your yoga practice might look like. Your experience, aspiration, amount of time and energy, specific interests and preferences, physical strengths and limitations, on and on…

As a yogi, it is important to consider your natural constitution. In Ayurveda, this is known as prakruti and is based on the predominant dosha, or body type. Your constitution affects many aspects of your life—from what you look like to how you deal with challenges, and everything in between.

As your constitution is such a major influence, understanding it is a powerful way to develop an effective practice. In this article, we’ll take a look at the strengths and weaknesses of each dosha, and how you can use these to reach your highest potential through yoga and meditation.

Kapha, Pitta, Vata… What Are These?

In a nutshell, traditional Indian medicine identifies the three types that define every individual’s physical characteristics and mental tendencies:

  • Kapha: Governed by the Earth and Water elements, the main words to describe a kapha-dominant person are solidity and stability. The body type is large and heavy, with a tendency to gain weight easily. The hair is shiny and abundant, nails are thick, eyes are large and lustrous, and the skin is smooth and moist.Kapha people have relaxed personalities. They are calm, loving, and enjoy stable relationships. They like sleeping and eating. They are creatures of habit and are prone to attachment.
  • Pitta: Pitta, a combination of Water and Fire, creates a body that is balanced, athletic, and well-defined. Naturally athletic, pitta people are active and energetic. They have an average build and fine hair. Skin is prone to freckles and acne.Pitta people are highly competitive and ambitious. They can be perfectionists and critical of others. They are generally very good speakers and enjoy a good argument.
  • Vata: Vata people, governed by Air and Ether, are light and mobile, both physically and mentally. Sometimes very tall, they have slender builds with prominent joints and are prone to be underweight. The hair is thin, skin tends to be dry, and their features generally are very refined. Vata-dominant people are usually the most flexible, even hypermobile.The vata personality is characterized by creativity and a love of new things. They are very fast thinkers and full of exciting ideas, but sometimes can get lost in a whirlwind of mental activity.

Everyone has some features from all three, but most people express two primary doshas, with the third less prominent. This means that there are actually ten basic types:

  1. Kapha
  2. Pitta
  3. Vata
  4. Kapha-Pitta (both kapha and pitta, but kapha is stronger)
  5. Kapha-Vata
  6. Pitta-Kapha (both kapha and pitta, but pitta is stronger)
  7. Pitta-Vata
  8. Vata-Kapha
  9. Vata-Pitta
  10. Kapha-Pitta-Vata (an equal balance of all three; quite rare)

doshaIf you’re not sure which you are, you can go to an Ayurvedic doctor and get a full consultation. An experienced practitioner can pinpoint your exact constitution based on your pulse, tongue, eyes, fingernails, and other details.

Otherwise, you can take an online quiz to get a basic idea of what you’re dealing with.

According to Ayurveda, your dosha must be considered when you decide what you should eat, when and how much you should sleep, what exercise you should do, and what your yoga practice should be like.

In a previous article, I wrote about the principles of an Ayurvedic diet, so you can look there for more details.

The point of being aware of your constitution is not to try to create an equal balance of all three doshas in your being, since this is not natural for most people. Instead, you want to restore the balance of doshas according to your prakruti, the natural proportion you were born with.

The same is true for spiritual practice more generally. There’s no one right cookie cutter program for everyone, but different paths and practices are more harmonious for different individuals.

Now that you understand your constitution and tendencies, let’s take a look at how to develop a yoga practice suited to your dosha in order to counteract your imbalances and make the most out of your natural strengths.

Recommendations for Kapha-Dominant People

Yoga

In kapha-dominant people, the inner fire (agni) tends to run low. This can result in sluggishness, drowsiness, poor digestion, low energy, and excess body weight. To counter this, choose a practice that is active and dynamic.

The good news for kapha people is that you probably have a lot of vitality—much more than people for whom pitta or vata is dominant. This means that although your energy might be heavy and more difficult to get moving, once it starts moving you’ll have a lot of power.

  • Surya namaskara: Sun salutations are dynamic and increase heat in the body, making them very effective for kapha people. By cultivating resonance with the Sun, considered the source of all activity on Earth, sun salutations balance out the cold, inert nature of kapha.
  • Manipura asanas: Any asana that activates manipura chakra will help burn off excess kapha. Many manipura asanas are also very physically demanding, which is healthy for stimulating a slow metabolism and doesn’t allow for over-relaxation in the practice.

Meditation

Kapha people are generally calm and steady, which carries over into meditation.

However, they tend towards dullness and sleepiness, and they are more likely to get stuck in patterns. There’s a danger of the practice becoming just another habit.

Keep yourself fresh and alert in meditation by doing some yoga or exercise beforehand. It helps to meditate in a place with a lot of light.

Be very vigilant about dullness. Maintain a firm, upright posture, with a commitment to staying clear. If you get drowsy, focus on your inhalation for a few breaths, visualize a bright light, or even open your eyes for a minute.

Experimenting with new techniques and constantly reminding yourself of your motivation can help keep the spark in your practice. Devotional practices like prayer, Blowing on the Embers of the Heart, or singing bhajans are also very good.

Recommendations for Pitta-Dominant People

Yoga

For pitta people, the main challenge in yoga is the restlessness of the body. These types will often love a more dynamic practice, with lots of sun salutations and moving quickly from pose to pose, but this is exactly what they don’t need!

Since it can be difficult for fiery people to go directly into stillness, they can start their practice by channeling their intense energy.

Go through a few rounds of surya namaskara, but with the emphasis on awareness, observing the inner stillness even while the body is in motion. Gradually decrease the speed of the performance and take longer pauses between rounds to center in the Heart. As the breathing pattern slows, this almost guarantees that the mind will also settle down.

Once some of the physical restlessness has been burned off, you can go into a practice that emphasizes grounding and stability.

Include a lot of forward bends and poses that don’t require much effort. These engage the parasympathetic nervous system, or the “rest and digest” aspect of the nervous system (as opposed to “fight or flight”).

Try to deeply relax in every asana. Hold them for a long time and feel Stillness in every cell of your body. Even if you feel the urge to move, witness this impulse and absorb the energy without reacting.

Meditation

Pitta people have a fire inside. They can be very intense and focused, and dullness is usually not a problem.

There are two main challenges that pitta-dominant people might run into in meditation.

First, trouble relaxing. As I mentioned earlier, unharnessed fire energy brings a lot of physical restlessness. Until the body is settled, it will be difficult for the mind to become calm. That’s why it’s good to start with a more dynamic practice before settling into meditation.

Second, the pitta personality is competitive, perfectionist, driven, and highly active. This is a double-edged sword in spiritual practice.

It’s great to have a lot of passion and intensity. They say in Jewish Kabbalah that the Shekhinah (the feminine presence of God) gets bored with those who worship Her just correctly and within the rules: She wants people to be on fire with Divine Love!

Pitta people aren’t ones to slack off in their practice or let it turn into a routine.

However, when this drive comes from the ego, from a need to be the best or to make something happen, it becomes yet another barrier to realization. It can get you stuck more firmly in the idea of being the doer, developing an inflated spiritual ego, and make you prone to burn out.

So, become friends with the idea that letting go doesn’t mean giving up. Cultivate surrender, a deeper octave of relaxation where activity is maintained while the sense of acting is dissolved.

Consecrate before every practice and, afterwards, dedicate its fruits to the benefit of the entire Universe, as a reminder that your practice isn’t for yourself.

Practice blindfolded or alone if you’re always comparing yourself to others.

Finally, be compassionate towards yourself and humble in acknowledging your limits. Rest when you need to.

Recommendations for Vata-Dominant People

Yoga

Vata people are extremely active thinkers. The mind is always moving, and moving fast. This can make it hard to stay focused and relaxed during yoga.

To settle down into the practice, it helps to work with the breath. Stay constantly aware of the breath, especially how it moves in your abdomen, and feel how it slows as you relax into each asana.

Give plenty of time for the kaya sthairyam (the immobility of the body) phase of the asana, connecting deeply to your body and feeling the stillness in every cell.

If you’re stuck in the mind, going into the body will pull you out of mental loops and into the present moment, since the body is only ever in the present.

Predominance of the Air and Ether elements mean that vata people often lack vitality. This manifests as physical weakness and low energy. Vata people also often feel ungrounded, like they are lost in a colorful swirl of thoughts and plans and ideas, but somehow the connection to the concrete reality they inhabit is lost.

Practicing a lot of grounding asanas helps with both of these problems. Asanas for muladhara chakra will both increase physical energy and bring mental peace, stability, and security.

Best of all is to meditate and practice muladhara asanas while on the bare ground, to directly absorb Earth energy.

Meditation

Mental agitation is the main vata challenge in meditation.

If you spend most of your meditation time chasing around your thoughts, try starting your practice with Capturing the Uncaught Mind, trataka, walking meditation, or any other technique to calm the mind.

Come back as much as you can to a sense of stillness and relaxation in the body.

The awareness of the pauses in the breathing cycle is a potent tool for calming the mind throughout the practice of meditation (and yoga). Sink fully into every pause, enjoying the feeling of timelessness.

Vata loves change, excitement, and new things. Vata people, therefore, are always eager to try new techniques and explore other practices.

This is great for getting a wider perspective and keeping high energy in the practice. However, it makes it hard to go deep into anything.

It is said that if you want water, don’t dig fifty shallow wells. Dig one deep well.

It’s good to keep learning, living with a sense of curiosity and wonderment. But you should have a solid foundation.

I recommend choosing a practice or technique that resonates with you and sticking with it every day, at least for six months or so until you can really see where it’s taking you. Along with that, you can feel free to experiment and try new things, but your practice will have a backbone to hold it up.

doshas

Conclusion

I hope this article gives you some new directions to try out in your practice! Remember that these are just guidelines based on general principles. What resonates with you, keep and enjoy. What doesn’t, just let go.

A basic knowledge of Ayurveda is extremely helpful for maintaining a healthy lifestyle and getting the most out of your yoga practice. I highly recommend studying it as much as you can.

 

Natasha is a Hridaya Yoga teacher and frequent contributor to our blog. You can read all of her posts here.

What Restricted Vegetables Can Show Us about the Yogic Lifestyle

By Natasha Friedman

There’s nothing as mouth-watering as the smell of garlic and onions simmering in a pan full of spices.

Which makes it a bit disappointing (for me, at least) when you start practicing yoga and hear that you’re not supposed to eat them. Or, even worse, when you come to live at a yoga center and find that your favorite allium vegetables are strictly off the menu.

I spent three months this year serving in the kitchen at the Hridaya Yoga Center, and by far the most common question I heard from new students was “Why don’t you use onions and garlic?”
It’s a simple question, but the answer is a little complicated. To explain it fully, we’ll have to go on a brief journey through the basics of Ayurveda, the yogic diet, and tantric theory.

Divine Medicine or Demonic Potion?

There is an interesting Hindu legend about the origins of onions and garlic. According to several sacred texts, when Vishnu was serving the nectar of immortality to the demigods, two demons named Rahu and Ketu snuck into the line. Right as Vishnu put the nectar into their mouths, the Sun and the Moon told him that they were demons. Vishnu immediately beheaded them.

A mixture of demon’s blood and divine ambrosia spilled on the ground, and from this odd combination, onions and garlic emerged.

These vegetables also offer an odd combination of almost divine medicinal properties and potentially destabilizing mental effects.
Garlic, especially, is an incredible natural healer. It’s known for:

  • Boosting the immune system
  • Treating colds and flu
  • Purifying the blood
  • Treating infections, including skin fungus, toothaches, and ear infections
  • Preventing heart disease
  • Improving digestion

In Ayurvedic medicine, garlic-based treatments are used for everything from fixing digestive disorders to relieving asthma—even reversing hair loss!

So, if onions and garlic are so great for the body, why are yogis not supposed to eat them?

Ayurveda in a Nutshell

To understand the story with garlic, onions, and yoga, you’ll need the basics of Ayurvedic dietary principles.

In Ayurveda, all foods can be classified according to two main metrics.

Ayurveda DoshaFirst, there is which dosha they work on. Dosha means constitution, or basic body type and energetic or mental tendencies. Every person falls into some combination of the three doshas: kapha (earth/water), pitta (fire/water), and vata (air/ether).

Depending on which is predominant, you will need to eat, sleep, and exercise in a certain way to maintain a healthy balance.

In general, like attracts like and, if left unchecked, imbalances cause greater imbalances. If you are a kapha person, for example, you might naturally prefer to eat sweet, heavy foods— things that increase kapha. You are actually recommended to avoid these foods and, instead, choose pitta foods to boost the inner fire or vata foods to lighten and reduce kapha.

  • Foods that increase kapha: Bread, pasta, oats, most nuts and dairy, avocado, bananas, coconut, papaya, squash, olives, tahini, and sugar. In general, foods that are sweet, moist, heavy, and have a cooling effect on the body.
  • Foods that increase pitta: Brown rice, corn, millet, tomatoes, carrots, sour fruits, green chilies, onions, garlic, and hot spices. In general, foods that are spicy, sour, increase digestion, and have a heating effect.
  • Foods that increase vata: Wheat, cereals, crackers, apples, dried fruit, lettuce and raw greens, broccoli, popcorn, and coffee. In general, foods that are light, dry, and have a cooling effect.

You can see that our friends onions and garlic fall firmly into the pitta category. That is why they’re so amazing when you get a cold and want to dial up your immune system. (The digestive fire is a purifying force responsible for burning out infections.) However, if you are already pitta-dominant or just don’t want more fiery energy in your life, eat them with caution.

The other Ayurvedic metric is the three gunas. According to the yogic tradition (dating back as far as the Bhagavad Gita), the gunas are fundamental qualities or principles that underlie all of manifestation. They are at work in all matter, including human bodies and minds.

  • Tamas: The principle of inertia, heaviness, and downward motion. A tamasic person will be dull, lazy, insensitive, and dominated by lower impulses.
  • Rajas: The principle of outward motion, activity, and acceleration. Ambition, greed, agitation, competitiveness, and desire are all rajasic characteristics.
  • Sattva: The principle of balance, purity, and stillness. Sattva is the neutral point between all extremes that allows for transcendence. A sattvic person is peaceful and harmonious, which greatly supports the spiritual practice.

Everything you eat influences the balance of the gunas within your being. The more sensitive you are, the more you will become aware of the effects that diet has on your physical and mental state.

  • Sattvic foods: Light, easily digestible foods. Fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds, legumes, plant-based oils, mild spices (turmeric, basil, ginger, cinnamon, etc.), unrefined natural sweeteners (honey, molasses), organic dairy products from well-treated animals.
  • Rajasic foods: Hot foods and strong spices, onions, garlic, eggs, coffee, and chocolate.
  • Tamasic foods: Meat, fish, poultry, alcohol, fermented foods, food that is stale, over-processed, no longer fresh, or difficult to digest.

For obvious reasons, a yogic diet aims to be as sattvic as possible.

Tamasic foods are best avoided. Eating them will make you neither more spiritual nor more effective in other pursuits, but definitely less healthy.

Rajasic foods are a more complicated story.

In general, it’s not advised to eat a rajas-dominant diet: it will make you too hot and agitated, and these foods are hard on your digestive system.

 

Ayurveda-hridaya-yoga meditationIf your spiritual path is more on the ascetic, Vedantic side of the spectrum—all about transcendence, not making use of the energies of the world—you are recommended to avoid them completely. They will stimulate desire and generate too much energy, which will disturb your practice.

However, there are some situations in which you may want to bring some rajas into your diet.

 

For example, if you are living in the normal world (not an ashram or spiritual community) and you have to maintain a career, family, or whatever else alongside your spiritual practice, you might want some extra fire under your bum to stay active and get things done.

Some rajasic foods are actually very healthy in small doses, like strong spices that boost a weak inner fire and kill intestinal parasites. You’ll also notice onions and garlic, with all their medicinal value, solidly on the rajasic list. They speed up your whole system and act as potent aphrodisiacs to boot.

Rajas and Tamas: Should You Deny These Energies or Can You Use Them?

By now, I hope it’s clear why there are no onions and garlic in the Hridaya Dining Room. Although their boost to the immune system (and flavor) is very appreciated, the mental agitation they induce is not so helpful—especially during retreats!

That doesn’t mean there’s anything inherently wrong with them, or inherently wrong with anything. Any energy ultimately can be transformed and sublimated. This fundamental mutability is the basis of Tantra.

In fact, the tantric traditions, in general, make strong use of rajasic and, even, tamasic energies.

For example, the Panchamakara, or “Five M’s,” is a tantric ritual centered around five substances that are forbidden in conventional Hinduism: madya (wine), mamsa (meat), matsya (fish), mudra (parched grain), and maithuna (sexual intercourse). All of these are elements of rajas or tamas.

Tantrikas would use the meat of an uncastrated male animal, since it is considered the most rajasic.

The fundamental belief is that all energies come from the Self and lead back to the Self. What takes you down can bring you up.

By increasing these frequencies within a controlled setting, they can catapult trained practitioners into a higher state of consciousness.

That said, when it comes to energies that can easily lead you astray, it is good to always reflect and decide whether they’re aligned with your current practice, whether you have the tools to deal with them beneficially, and if your intention is pure.

Conclusion: A Personal Note

Full disclosure: I used to eat tons of onions and garlic (and Sriracha, and hot chilies, and cayenne pepper…) before coming to live at Hridaya. I didn’t really feel that they affected me so much.

While in retreats and serving as a Karma Yogi, I didn’t eat onions or garlic for several months. But, at some point, when I ate a garlicky sauce in a restaurant, I noticed a surprising difference in myself the next day: agitation and restlessness like I hadn’t felt in almost my whole time at the school.

I had been so acclimated to this energy that I wasn’t aware of it, and I had to get it out of my system entirely just to perceive what used to be normal.

In general, the more sensitive you become, the more care you might have to take with your diet. With a strong yogic practice, you might find foods you used to eat a lot now make you feel sick, heavy, or just not in the right state. It doesn’t mean your body has become more fragile but that it’s becoming more finely calibrated, attuned to more refined frequencies.

 

Ayurveda food

 

It might also change with your practice. If you are a kapha-type person, you might be fine eating a lot of spicy pitta foods, but if you work a lot on manipura and grow a huge inner fire, that same old hot sauce might give you a rash.

That’s why there are very few hard and fast rules for a yogic diet. There are plenty of recommendations: the doshas and gunas from Ayurveda, yin and yang polarity from macrobiotics, insights from physical health sciences, and moral considerations that lead many yogis to vegetarianism.

The most important guideline is simply to listen to your body. Nothing happens in a vacuum, and when you want to put anything into your system, it is best if it provides an energy that you want to give back to the world.

 

Natasha is a Hridaya Yoga student and a frequent contributor to our blog. You can read all her posts here.