How are Yoga and Ayurveda Connected?
You’ve probably heard that yoga and Ayurveda are sister sciences, but what exactly does that mean? What does one really have to do with the other? And how do you know if the yoga classes you’re taking are well aligned with Ayurveda? Basically, you might be wondering: What does Ayurveda have to do with yoga and how can it help improve my yoga practice?
Yoga and Ayurveda are sister sciences because they both come from the Vedas. The vedas are ancient wisdom texts, and there are 4 of them. Yoga was first recored in the Rig Veda. Ayurveda is also in the Rig Veda in that it mentions medicinal herbs and plants, but is largely found in the Atharva veda which goes deeper into health and disease. All four vedas are written in Sanskrit, ancient, and live within the same worldview.
What is Ayurveda & How Can it Help Me?
The Vedic worldview, or understanding the thinking in the time these wisdom texts were recorded, is really important to the connection between yoga and Ayurveda. First, we need to understand what yoga is. Most of us these days think of Yoga as yoga asana, the movement classes we mostly practice here in the states. These classes are great, and beneficial in a million different ways- but to really understand the Vedic worldview of yoga and her sister Ayurveda, let’s drop that movement class definition of yoga.
What is (ancient) Yoga?
Yoga, as it exists in the Vedas, is a science of self evolution and discovery that alters the consciousness of an individual. It’s a spiritual path. It moves the practitioner from a state of disconnection towards one of unity, or yoga. Yoga, or union, means that a person’s understanding of reality has fundamentally shifted to include everything. There’s a Rumi quote that says: “You are not a drop in the ocean; you are the entire ocean in a drop.” Yoga is a science that takes that knowledge from cerebral to experienced.
Perhaps you’ve heard of Patangails 8 fold path of yoga. This is just one yogic system of several. In this system, there are different practices that lead the practitioner towards a state of Samadhi, or unity consciousness. One of the steps on the path is Asana- but here, it just means to sit. All the asanas that are actually a part of ancient yoga are about sitting. Sitting well, and breathing, and paying deep attention. I bet you can already visualize how this application of asana is rather different than the flow class you dropped into.
Yoga is Spiritual Development & Human Evolution
Join me now in staying away from good and bad and right and wrong and labeling. My personal opinion is that there’s a time and place for just about everything, and there’s more than one way for everything too. However, if we really want to understand something, it’s usually good to get back to its roots.
So, in Yoga’s original form in the Vedas it’s all about spiritual development. And if spiritual anything gives you the stay-aways, you can think of it instead as consciousness development. Or even human evolution. It’s about getting you to a state where you understand the bone structure of the universe. I cannot tell you what you’ll find there, it’s all about experience.
In order to do these yogic practices that evolve you consciousness, you need to be well. That’s where Ayurveda comes in. If you’ve ever had a bad cold, or a flu, or strep throat you know good and well that when you’re ill, that’s the only thing you can give your attention to. Ayurveda is the sister to yoga that keeps your vehicle, the body, in optimal shape so your spirit can do some legit road trippin.
Ayurveda Keeps You Well So You Can Practice Yoga
Within the worldview of the vedas everyone already understood that the body, mind, and spirit were one unit that all needed to be balanced and well. The idea that a person’s mental health has a physical effect on the body is just a given truth. There was an understanding of interconnectedness. Ayurveda is there to prevent problems from ever happening and then catch the slack when they do.
Ayurveda offers an understanding of the interconnectedness of human beings to nature as its eco system. It helps you see how the same basic elements and principles are driving all of creation so you can live in ways that help you to not accidentally swim up stream.
When, inevitably, there is a disturbance in your system Ayurveda offers tools to help restore balance. Most of these tools come in the form of food, herbs, nature, and awareness practices. However, this ancient system is so intricate that it even included surgeries when they were necessary.
There’s a beautiful idea that nothing is inherently good or bad for you, that everything can be used as medicine for the right person at the right time. To me, this resonates as deeply true.
How Yoga & Ayurveda Work Together
Yoga develops your consciousness & Ayurveda keeps you body well so you can keep practicing.
Okay, so how does all of this apply to a modern day yoga class where sitting is probably the one asana that you skip? Movement has a strong effect on the body. The way we move informs how we feel. We can either move in ways that restore balance, or aggravate it. Ancient truths will always apply because everything is nature, everything is governed by the same forces and elements, and we can either be working with them wisely, or sad salmon on a death trip upstream.
Let’s dig a little deeper into those forces and elements that govern everything. The five elements that compose the universe are earth, air, fire, water, and either. These elements combine to create three fundamental doshas.
The Doshas of Ayurveda
- Pitta is composed of fire and water.
- Vata is composed of either and air.
- Kapha is composed of earth and water.
Nature has a natural ebb and flow to her, so these doshas ebb and flow in strength throughout our day, lives, and year. The more we learn to recognize their presence the more likely we are to be able to choose movement practices that help keep us in a state of balance instead of aggravation.
For example, picture November. November, where I live, is windy, cold, and dry. Moveable, changeable, cold, and dry are all qualities of air and either, or Vata Dosha. Because there’s already so much vata energy present in November, if i choose movement practices that are also very moveable, changeable, fast, cold, and dry, I will probably start to have salmon syndrome. In contrast, if I practice slow, steady movement with deep, full breathing, I’ll probably feel more balanced.
It really is this simple. Don’t fight with Mother Nature.
Recognizing the Doshas in a Yoga Class
You’ll know you’re in a yoga class that’s aligned with Ayurveda if it feels like the teacher is considering what’s happening in nature and that informs the speed, intensity, and type of movement you do. So, a hot summer day in the middle of July might have a more slow and steady feel to it with some extra cooking breathing practices while a cold day in January will have more vigorous movement, intensity and heat. It’s simple in its complexity. It’s an awareness of the great balancing act that is life, and using movement as a tool to help.
If you want to take a deeper dive into the doshas download the Free Doshas Ebook. It’s a much deeper look into each dosha, how to recognize them, and how to work with them.
For now, Let’s also look into the 3 forces, or energetic states called gunas that we find all throughout the universe. These three gunas exist in all matter and generally are more related to the psychological nature, where the doshas are physiological in nature. The three gunas are:
The Three Gunas of Ayurveda
- Sattva, relating to consciousness.
- Rajas, relating to activity.
- Tamas, relating to stability.
In general, the yogi is seeking the sattvic state of being. A yogi will use food, movement, breath, and other practices to create and stay in a sattvic state. This is not to say the the other states are bad, not at all. Everything has its place, and it’s a great balancing act.
Sattva is the energy of pure consciousness. It is saintly. It is a calm, peaceful, gentle, and harmonious way of being. Foods that help increase sativa are pure fruits and vegetables cooked in high quality olive oil. A Sattvic state is a balanced state, so it can only exists when rajas and tamas are doing well.
Rajas is the energy of passion, movement, activity and has a fiery quality to it. Foods that increase rajas are garlic, unions, peppers, and spices. Basically, anything that wakes you up a little too much is in nature. In a modern yoga asana class doing a dozen chaturangas really fast, getting overheated, and overworking can all aggravate rajas. In contrast, nadi shodhana, or alternate nostril breathing, sitali, or cooling breath, and slow steady movement like holding warrior poses, or malasana squat could all be balancing to rajas.
Tamas is the energy of inertia. When there’s too much of it it becomes laziness, ignorance, and lethargy. When you’re in the middle of experiencing too much tamasic energy you’ll probably crave fried, heavy foods and want to stay put on the couch. I bet you can already see how those things will aggravate tamas even more. If instead, you sick to light, whole foods that are minimally prepared and move you’re going to start to feel better. In a yoga class that might look like sun salutations, or kapalbhati pranayama. It could look like choosing to go to a flow class instead of choosing a restorative class.
Ayurveda in a Group Yoga Class
A yoga teacher will have an easier time working with the doshas than the gunas in a group class setting. The doshas can easily be found in the current season and will apply an overarching truth and framework for everyone in the class. If it’s mid July, everyone is experiencing an abundance of pitta dosha.
Of course, at the individual level there’s tons of room for specificity. Is this person is the blaring air conditioning all day and really dried out from that? Are they in the vata stage of life on top of that and really struggling to feel warm and hydrated even though it’s 100 degrees outside? Are they eating nothing but frozen strawberry popsicles and wondering why their appetite is waning??
As much as I wish there was space for that kind of attention to detail in a group yoga class, that’s just not possible. At at a bare minimum, notice if the classes you’re choosing have an awareness of seasonality. If so, the teacher is working with the doshas at some level and trying to help restore and maintain a sense of balance.
Using the Gunas in Your Yoga Practice
The gunas are phycological in nature and more easily utilized in an ayurvedic yoga therapy session. One class of people could be working with both excess and depleted versions of all the gunas, and so it can be impossible to pick something that will balance everyone. Generally, all yogic classes are working towards a static state, but how you get a person there has a lot to do with where they are starting.
So you have a few options. One is to have an awareness of your own state of being and wisely choose classes and teachers that help balance you out. So again, if you know you’re in an overly tamasic state, stay away from the restorative class and hit up the flow class. If in contrast you know you’re in an overly rajasic state then find a grounded teacher who can help steadily slow you down with breathe and movement.
The same applies to your home yoga practice. It’s not always about doing what you want, but what you need. Paying attention to your own gunas will help you have an awareness of what you need. Mindfulness, devotion, and self love will help you practice what you’re lacking even when you really don’t want to.
Another option is to work one on one with an Ayurvedic Yoga Therapist who can give all of their attention to your specific set of circumstances, imbalances, and needs. This can be especially helpful if you feel like you’ve been stuck in one state for a long time, or you’re at a loss for what tools to use to help you regain a sense of balance.
A Summery of Yoga & Ayurveda’s Connection
Okay, let me wrap all of this up in a bow for you. Yoga and Ayurveda are sister sciences that both come from the Vedas, or 4 really ancient wisdom texts. Yoga is a science of self evolution that changes a person’s consciousness and Ayurveda keeps the physical body well so the consciousness can have a chance to evolve.
Ayurveda wants to keep you balanced, so you can stay well. There are three physiological doshas: vata, pitta, and kapha that need to stay balanced. And, there are three phycological energetic states or gunas found in all matter that also need to stay balanced. More specifically Rajas and Tamas must be balanced for there to be a sattvic state.
Because Ayurveda is based on understanding and working with the laws of nature everything that we do, eat, think, consume, and experience can either bring us closer or father from balance. Movement is a powerful tool that can either balance or imbalance us. Yoga asana classes, either at home, in a studio, or with a private therapist, can either help move us more towards a balanced state of being, or aggravate us even more.
I invite you to check in with yourself! Are you using yoga asana in a way that serves you? Does it help make your more balanced. I hope so!! If not, okay, let’s change that. I hope you have the information you need to pick classes and practices that have at least a gentle awareness of where these beautiful, ancient practices come from and that work with that wisdom.
This article is also an Ayurveda Podcast!