Recently one of our yoga teachers asked me why, after a hot yoga class, one of her students always walks away with noticeably red eyes. I explained to her that the eyes are pitta organs and that it sounds like this student is likely of the pitta constitution and taking hot yoga classes is aggravating that dosha. She asked what she could suggest to her student to help prevent it, and I gave the the only honest answer I could: that he should probably stop doing hot yoga.
That may not be the answer that she will want to give or that he will want to hear, but it’s the truth. Unfortunately, we are an out of balance society. The foods we eat, the stresses we take on, and the actions we make often cause us to become completely out of sync with our natural state – which is a place of total balance and peace. While doing yoga at all is certainly a wise choice to bring us back to center, Ayurveda suggests that we should be mindful as to which styles of yoga we do. There is no one yoga practice that is good for every body. Luckily, Ayurveda has some pretty common sense ways to figure it out.
According to Ayurveda, each of us has our own unique constitution; our own personal combination of earth, water, fire, air and ether. To live a life in health and harmony means to honor the elements prevalent within us and seek to keep them in balance. We can do this through our daily routine, diet, herbs, exercise, meditation practices, and even the styles of yoga that we choose to practice.
Ayurvedic healing rests on the premise that like increases like. This means that we should pay attention to the qualities within and around us, and understand that adding two (or more) similar qualities together intensifies them. For instance, if we are naturally someone who is always cold and we decide to eat ice cream on a winter’s day, we are going to get even colder. If we have little energy and are feeling physically and energetically heavy, the decision to sit at home on the couch all day is going to make us feel even lazier. Likewise, eating hot and spicy foods on a hot summer day will make us hotter. Once we begin to think in these terms, it becomes easy to recognize foods and actions that will keep us balanced or throw us off center.
As an Ayurvedic Yoga instructor in a studio that offers several styles of yoga, I see day in and day out how the practices impact people. In fact, this is why several years ago I stopped teaching hot yoga all together – I couldn’t find peace of mind by offering hot yoga to a group of people that shouldn’t be doing hot yoga. It wasn’t creating health and balance, even though they loved it. I felt that I was doing a disservice to our students, whether they knew it or not.
So which style to choose? Kaphas are those people that have a lot of earth and water in them. This makes them physically more solid, with cool, moist skin and a tendency towards heavy mucus production. They are often more slow moving and energetically heavy. Kaphas are generally easy going, lovable and sweet. In order to balance the elements within them, they need to pick a yoga practice that gets them moving, builds heat in the body, and stimulates energy. Good yoga styles for them include Ashtanga, Vinyasa, Kundalini and Jivamukti. Practicing in a heated room is excellent for kaphas. It’s okay for them to push themselves, since their natural tendency is to go slow and take it easy. Yin or Restorative yoga, with their very slow pace and low-to-the-ground postures, are not the best yoga styles for kaphas.
Pittas are people with an abundance of fire and water. They are usually athletic, driven, competitive, and hard working. They have a strong internal furnace, and so are often naturally warm. They often have a light or reddish complexion and hair color, freckles, and a muscular build. Their fiery nature gives them strong opinions and makes them push themselves to their limit. Pittas, therefore, should learn to back off during their yoga practice. Their best rule of thumb, when doing yoga, is to only go at 70%. To push themselves to their edge will only aggravate the pitta dosha. Unfortunately, pittas love to do a challenging practice in a super hot room – it feeds their sense of accomplishment. They should instead focus on backing off and being nonjudgmental of themselves and those around them. A slightly slower, more gentle yoga practice is what is best for them. Good yoga styles for pittas include a slower paced Vinyasa, Gentle, Yin, or Restorative yoga. Practicing in a heated room is most definitely not a good idea for pittas, especially when it is hot outside.
Vatas are people that have a lot of air and ether in them, which makes them highly mobile, ungrounded, cold, and dry. They often have narrow frames with less muscle and fat, and very busy minds. They are fast moving and tend towards nervousness and anxiety. They should really focus on slowing down when practicing yoga, as this will help calm and ground them. Therefore, Yin or Restorative yoga are excellent choices for vatas, as is a slow flow-based practice. Iyengar yoga is great due to its focus on alignment, which brings mindfulness to the practice for vatas since they tend to rush into postures without much thought or attention. The room should be warm where they practice, although sometimes too much heat can drain them quickly. Kundalini yoga can occasionally be too rapid and stimulating to vatas, and should therefore be approached carefully.
The hard part with this is that we often crave that which keeps us out of balance, which is why those fiery pittas love hot yoga, and why kaphas often don’t make it to yoga at all. When we are truly ready to makes changes in our lives to find a more healthful state of being, we can make small changes in every aspect of our lives (including our yoga practice) to make a big difference. Even if we aren’t ready to change our style of yoga, we can remember these simple guidelines per constitution in any yoga class: vatas should slow down, pittas should back off, and kaphas should work harder.