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The Sisters: Ayurveda & Yoga

Ayu in Sanskrit stands for life and longevity, and Veda is knowledge. But Ayurveda is not just herbs and concoctions for treating an ailment, it is an understanding of a holistic and interconnected way of life—of how unique each of us is and how each individual connects to the five elements that make up matter. 

Yoga in its broadest sense means union or merging. It is the union of body, mind and soul, which involves, but is not limited to, physical postures, breathing practices, and a resulting state of meditation, along with the eight limbs of yoga. 

As sister sciences, Ayurveda and yoga compliment each other beautifully. They both originated several thousands of years ago. If Ayurveda guides you to live well mentally, physically, and spiritually, yoga is an inevitable tool to reach that goal. Ayurveda on the other hand, is the navigation system for becoming a better yogi.

How are Ayurveda and yoga a part of each other?

योगश्चित्तवृत्तिनिरोधः तदा द्रष्टुः स्वरूपे अवस्थानम्

Yogash chitta vritti nirodhah tada drastuh svarupe vasthanam.

—The Yoga Sutras of Pantanjali

Revered as the one who propounded the science of yoga, Sage Patanjali’s basic definition of yoga loosely translates to “yoga is the removing of the fluctuations of the mind.”  Yet another sutra describes vyadhi (illness) as one of the obstacles to attaining the Self. An obstacle here is defined as “that which scatters the mind”. The knowledge of Ayurveda helps remove these obstacles from the path of yoga. 

Swasthya is a Sanskrit term for health, or to be rooted in the Self. Health is not just absence of physical ailments, but dynamism, confidence, and a peaceful state of mind. Ayurveda defines health as a state when body, mind, and spirit are in harmony. A person cannot be healthy if one’s mind is stuck in pettiness and tormented by worries, anger and hatred. Worries, anxiety, overthinking, chronic stress in the mind can manifest as psychosomatic and mental disorders. 

Yoga helps in achieving both these goals of Ayurveda—keeping the mind balanced and preventing illnesses. The authoritative texts of Ayurveda, such as  Ashtanga Hridayam and Charak Samhita, describe not only the treatments and diet, but also guide us on how to live one’s life, how to behave, where to go and where to not go, and what to do and what to not do at what time of the day and year, the seasonal regimen called ritucharya, and healthy daily regimen called dinacharya. 

Ashtang Ayurveda and Ashtang Yoga

One of the eight limbs of Ayurveda is Rasayana, or the science of rejuvenation, which includes the best ways of sustaining health and youthfulness in addition to promoting a healthy life. Ausadh (medication) Rasayana includes descriptions about drugs and medications, Aahar (food) Rasayana tells us about diet in accordance with seasons and time. Similarly, Achara Rasayana (behavioural disciplines) includes the code of conduct and behavioural aspects one needs to follow in order to be healthy. In Ayurveda, unwholesome behaviour has been described as the primary cause for a number of illnesses. Too much anger or too much stress, for example, can lead to cardiac problems, infertility and digestive problems. The code of conduct in Achara Rasayana focuses on having a calm mind and a life free of worries by following guidelines such as  

  • Being truthful, honest, and trustworthy
  • Being free from anger, hatred, and violence
  • Having control over sense organs
  • Maintaining regular sleep/wake timings
  • Being free from ego and overindulgence
  • Maintaining physical hygiene, purity
  • Being calm, composed, cheerful, and happy
  • Indulging in charity and service
  • Having faith in almighty, reading spiritual texts regularly, and practicing dhyana (meditation) regularly.

The above points are also emphasized in different verses of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras that explain the attainment of Samadhi which is an equanimous state of mind. Also, these very points form the basis of Ashtanga Yoga (eight limbs of yoga). The eight limbs of yoga are

  1. Yama(abstinences)
  2. Niyama(observances)
  3. Asana(Postures)
  4. Pranayama(breath control)
  5. Pratyahara(sense withdrawal)
  6. Dharana(focus)
  7. Dhyana(meditation)
  8. Samadhi

Truth and non-violence are parts of Yama, while contentment and happiness in addition to physical purity and hygiene are parts of Niyama. Likewise, sense withdrawal, meditation and study of scriptures are also parts of the Ashtanga Yoga. The eight branches of yoga support each other; the practice of asana (postures), for example, is necessary for pranayama and together they help in internalizing yama and niyama.

Yoga helps us follow the code of conduct in Achara Rasayan given in Ayurvedic texts and achieve the balanced and contented state of mind that is required for a healthy and complete life.  

Today, several studies have established that people who practice yoga have reduced levels of stress hormones like cortisol and epinephrine which hamper the functioning of the brain and nervous system. Stress, anxiety and limited understanding of life not only affect mental health but are majorly responsible for the psychosomatic diseases and lifestyle disorders that the modern generation is grappling with.

Digestive issues, infertility, high blood pressure, diabetes, heart attacks, migraines, and impaired immune system—all these diseases can be avoided with a regular practice of yoga and by leading a life of discipline.  In essence, the code of conduct described in the Achara Rasayana aims to provide not only good physical and mental health, but also great spiritual growth for complete well-being, and yoga helps achieve these by helping us overcome anger, anxiety, and stress, and improving our ability to have control over sense organs. 

Yogasanas, Pranayama, and the Basis of Ayurveda

Ayurveda provides the diagnostic tool for yoga. The whole science of yoga is based on the principles of manifestation described in Sankhya Yoga of the Bhagavad Gita. It is the similar principle that forms the basis of Ayurveda.

According to the Sankhya philosophy, only two ultimate entities exist—the purusa (spirit, universal consciousness) and the prakriti (primordial matter). The prakriti has three qualities described by sattva, rajas and tamas. The mind, senses and the five elements are formed by different combinations of these three gunas.  The five elements—earth, water, fire, air and ether-make up our physical body by combining to form blood, plasma, muscles and other dhatus (tissue systems). The different combinations of the five elements form the tridoshas- vata, pitta and kapha.

Illnesses manifest as a result of imbalance in one or more doshas. The various postures in yoga and the breathing techniques like bhastrika pranayama and nadi shodhan pranayam bring a balance to the tridoshas, strengthen the nervous system, circulation, digestion, respiration and reproduction in addition to toning the internal organs as well as the overall body.

Importantly, which yoga asanas and pranayamas are suitable for which individual, what asanas balance which dosha is decided based on the individual’s prakruti, an examination based on the science of ayurveda. Ayurveda basically helps in strengthening and maintaining the physical body which is composed of the five elements and yoga not only helps the physical body but also purifies the astral body and causal body. 

Yoga for Balancing Vata Dosha

For vata types, making yoga part of your daily routine will ground you and keep restlessness at bay. Practice it at the same time every single day. 

Tips for Vata Types

  • Pick asanas that work on regions and organs related to vata dosha including intestines, lumbar, pelvis and colon.
  • Do only the slower version of Surya Namaskar.
  • Include forward bends, twists, slow inversions. Also, asanas like tree pose, warrior pose, and mountain pose can be practiced.
  • Take longer rests at the end of practice.
  • Avoid cooling pranayamas like Shitali and Kapalbhati, practice alternate nostril breathing, ujjai and bhramari, instead.

Yoga for Balancing Pitta Dosha

Pitta types have a tendency to go for the tougher postures and more rigorous forms of asanas, but in order to balance the excess pitta, you need to practice cooling and grounding asanas that help you slow down. 

Tips for Pitta Types 

  • Pick asanas that work on pitta organs like the abdominal region, the seat of digestive fire.
  • Asanas like Ardha Matsyendrasana, Dhanurasana, Bhujangasana and Chandra Namaskar, are recommended, as are forward bends and heart chakra opening poses.
  • Among breathing techniques, cooling pranayamas like Shitali can be practiced.

Yoga for Balancing Kapha Dosha

To balance excess kapha, asanas should be slightly more demanding and rigorous. These asanas can focus on the chest and abdominal regions.

Tips for Kapha Types

  • Practice backbends. Asanas like ustrasana or camel pose, salabhasana or locust pose, handstands, shoulder stand, and bow pose can all help reduce kapha.
  • Try medium- and fast-paced sun salutations.
  • Jump from one asana to another to get the blood flowing.
  • Do not rest in shavasana for too long at the end of the practice. 

Mudras: The Magic of Yoga Ayurveda!

The five fingers in our hands are associated with the five elements—thumb with fire, index finger with air, the middle finger with space, ring finger with earth, and the little finger with the water element. The mudra pranayama makes use of this knowledge to influence the five elements in the body. 

Surya Mudra is a classic example of how mudra pranayama is based on the science of Ayurveda. It is practiced by placing the ring finger at the base of the thumb and at the same time using the thumb to apply slight pressure on the ring finger while keeping the remaining three fingers straight. Tending to your breath while keeping both hands in this gesture is known to improve metabolism and help fight obesity.

Mudras are an effective and easy way to heal illnesses and discomfort, balance doshas, bring one’s mind to a space of quiet and stability, and regulate one’s sleep and metabolism.  

Similarly, Samana Vayu Mudra is one of the most important mudras to balance the tridoshas. It also balances all the five elements in your body, and increases vitality and health. For this mudra, bring all the four fingers—index, ring, little and middle finger—together and curve them to tough the thumb. Do with both the hands and keep them on your lap. Take 8–10 long deep ujjayi breaths while holding this mudra. How long must one sit in this mudra depends on an individual’s capacity, dosha imbalance, and body type. 

Check in with an expert Ayurveda physician for a holistic consultation of your state of health, which doshas need tending, prognosis, treatments and dietary and lifestyle tweaks to achieve the perfect state of health or Swasthya—where the body is fit, the mind is calm and steady, and you are at peace with yourself. 

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