With the growing awareness of Ayurvedai in the West, a more complete picture of the yogic path is beginning to emerge. This path reconnects the knowledge of two of India’s greatest ancient sciences. Together, they comprise a whole whose two sides, like those of a coin, are inseparable. Ayurveda brings to Yoga an understanding of how to remain physically and emotionally healthy while on the path to enlightenment. Yoga brings to Ayurveda a deeper purpose for remaining healthy, that purpose being to attain enlightenment.
Pranayama, the yogic art of breathing, comes from the root words prana and ayama. Prana means “life force” and ayama means “expansion, manifestation, or prolongation.” The practice of pranayama therefore is the practice of expanding our own prana so that it harmonizes with the universal prana. This results in oneness; the merging of a person’s own consciousness with universal consciousness. It is in this union that we realize we are not simply a limited physical body, but are, in fact, an immortal spirit.
Pranayama is breath control on the physical level and prana (life force) control on the subtle level. This is achieved through conscious inhalation (puraka), exhalation (recaka), and retention (kumbhaka) of breath along with focused attention on some particular part or area of the physical or subtle body, such as the heart or sixth chakra (the so-called “third eye”) at the middle of the forehead.
An early extant text of Hatha-Yoga (which includes pranayama) is the Hatha-Yoga-Pradipika, written by Svatmarama. Later important texts include the Shiva-Samhita and the Gheranda-Samhita. The Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali, the most famous of all Yoga texts, was written over a thousand years before the Hatha-Yoga-Pradipika. While describing the eightfold path of Raja-Yoga (which includes Hatha-Yoga), it does not go into great detail on either pranayama or asana, but instead explores the philosophy of Yoga and gives an overview of its methodology. The Hatha-Yoga-Pradipika, on the other hand, contains detailed descriptions of proper preparation for pranayama, along with instruction on its practice and warnings against its improper use.
The mastery of prana is one of the main goals of the yogi or yogini on his or her way to enlightenment. Control over pranic flow opens the door to higher consciousness and mastery of the illusion of time and space within the physical body.
Classical Ayurvedic texts, such as the Charaka-Samhita, do not specifically mention pranayama. However, these texts deal extensively with the subject of prana and its functions in both health and disease. Modern Ayurvedic practitioners approach the yogic pranayama techniques from the perspective of health maintenance and disease management, and not as much from the spiritual perspective.
Writings on the functions of the subtle body have been produced by many great yogis and sages throughout the ages. The most prolific modern author to research and recommunicate these ideas is David Frawley, author of Tantric Yoga and the Wisdom Goddesses, Ayurveda and the Mind, and Yoga and Ayurveda. These three texts are recommended for deeper exploration of this subject.
The practice of pranayama has always been surrounded by an air of mystery. Since such practice is a gateway to yogic powers (siddhis), gurus have traditionally been hesitant to teach it until the disciple was able to prove his or her readiness. Readiness meant achieving a significant degree of success with the yamas and niyamas as well as asana. These practices prepare the body and mind to manage the increased vibratory energy that comes with heightened prana. Inappropriate or immature use of pranayama has been stated to cause great harm both to the body and the mind.1 In addition, the reckless sharing of the knowledge of pranayama is understood to dissipate its potency.2
Many great yogis have known of the dangers of pranayama when performed incorrectly: “...faulty practice puts undue stress on the lungs and diaphragm. The respiratory system suffers and the nervous system is adversely affected. The very foundation of a healthy body and a sound mind is shaken by faulty practice of Pranayama.”3
Imbalances caused by the improper practice of pranayama have been observed by both yogis and Ayurvedic practitioners alike. When a person begins to practice prematurely, before diet and lifestyle have been properly regulated, a person is in danger of heightening the prana while the energy channels (nadis) are still obstructed. This results in the prana charging recklessly through the body causing both physical and psychological imbalances.4
A common cause of imbalance is attempting to progress too quickly. By aggressively practicing pranayama without the proper preparation, the well-being of the student is at great risk—even death is possible.5 Hence, gradual, slow progress is recommended.
Some of the dangers of pranayama lie in the bandhas and kumbhakas, which cause pranic disturbances if performed improperly. Bandha means “bondage” or “holding,” referring to the contraction and holding of a body part. This is the method by which yogis control and channel the flow of prana, ultimately guiding it into the central canal, sushumna-nadi. Kumbhaka is the restraint of the breath. Both of these practices powerfully interact with the pranic energy, and can lead to catastrophic consequences when performed improperly. The three major bandhas are:
(1) Jalandhara-bandha: Here the chin is brought down to the notch at the top of the sternum. This regulates pranic flow to the brain, lungs, and heart. It is performed at the end of inhalation and during retention. This pushes prana-vayu downward toward the chest.
(2) Uddiyana-bandha: Here the abdomen is contracted and drawn in, which lifts the diaphragm up into the chest. It is performed at the end of exhalation, during bahya-kumbhaka (retention following exhalation).6 Brahmananda’s commentary on the Hatha-Yoga-Pradipika states that this is the natural experience of exhalation and does not have to be consciously practiced7.
(3) Mula-bandha: Here the perineum is contracted. This increases the upward flow of udana-vayu and decreases apana-vayu.
With proper practice and combination of these three bandhas, the energy of apana-vayu moves upward to unite with prana-vayu in the chest, which has been forced downward. Their unification pushes the fused energies into the sushumna-nadi where the ultimate benefits of pranayama are realized.
The ideal environment for yogic practices in general is one that is bug free, clean, quiet, and safe with provisions and a moderate climate. Cleanliness aids healthfulness. Quietude assists the inward journey of the practitioner. Safety dissipates fear. Provisions negate the need for gathering or earning. A moderate climate that is bug free assures comfort. The yogi or yogini, free of concerns, is now able to focus on his or her practices. While historically a yogi might have had to build a hut in a non-populous area, today ashrams provide the ideal setting.
Pranayama serves several purposes in Yoga. First, it is the method by which the nadis, particularly the ida-nadi and pingala-nadi, are purified to allow prana to flow into the central channel, the sushumna-nadi.
In the ordinary state, prana flows with regularly alternating dominance through the ida-nadi and the pingala-nadi. The effect of this back-and-forth fluctuation is mental activity. Prana-vayu (one of the five major modalities of prana) functions within the superficial mind (manas), which processes the world in which we live. Attached to the five senses and dominated by the superficial mind, which is filled with idle chatter, prana-vayu carries the energy of emotion.
When the nadis become purified through proper lifestyle and the practice of pranayama, prana is drawn into the sushumna-nadi and is carried upward by udana-vayu (the upward moving modality of prana). Then prana becomes the energy of immortality and guides the unfolding of our consciousness. Breathing and metabolic rates are extraordinarily slow, mental chatter stops, and the yogi experiences bliss—that which has no words.
Pranayama is also a preparatory practice for the deeper stages of meditation. Toward this end, pranayama begins the process of balancing the flow of energy through the ida-nadi and pingala-nadi, which relate to activity in the right and left sides of the brain.8 Pranic energy normally resides in these channels, but when they become pure and their flow balanced, the prana moves into the sushumna-nadi. Once there, the mind of the yogi becomes still, the fluctuations of thought disappear, and consciousness expands. The further stages of dharana (concentration on a single point) and dhyana (sustained concentration or meditation) focus and hold the yogi’s attention within the void of the sushumna-nadi.
Through pranayama performed properly along with appropriate bandhas, kundalini, the “serpent fire,” which usually lies dormant at the base of the spine, awakens. Then it rises through the sushumna-nadi and the yogi’s consciousness is liberated.
A third purpose of pranayama is the extension of life.9 Prana is life, and its mastery through pranayama prolongs life. With proper practice the yogi is able to control prana in such a way that there is no dispersion of the life force.
Ayurveda teaches that one fundamental cause of disease and death is parinama, or time in relation to motion. In other words, the faster we move, the faster biological time moves forward. This motion is not only physical but mental as well. The result is aging, decay, and death. Through pranayama and meditation, the motion of the mind slows and can even be stopped. The result is the elongation and possible suspension of biological time. In the stillness created, the body is relaxed and prana flows freely without obstruction through the physical body to heal and repair any damaged areas.
Ayurveda recognizes three bodily humors (doshas) called vata, pitta, and kapha (wind, bile, and phlegm), which are closely related to three energies prana, tejas, and ojas—life force, “fire/glow,” and subtle energy. Whereas the doshas function primarily on the anna-maya-kosha (physical body), their energetic counterparts function primarily on the mano-maya-kosha (subtle body).
Mind (manas) and intellect (buddhi) are both superficial aspects of and operate within the broader field of consciousness (citta). Manas processes the ordinary physical world, and buddhi also has two aspects, a higher and a lower. The lower aspect, which is attached to the senses, organizes the sensory input from our world and compartmentalizes our experiences so we can learn from them. The higher aspect is not attached to the senses. It draws knowledge and wisdom from atman, which is connected to the cosmic stream of knowledge, the “Great” (mahat). From this connection, a person receives “higher guidance” to act in ways that are sattvic and not sensory based (rajasic and tamasic).
Prana manifests within our mind and consciousness as enthusiasm for life. Its normal function provides motivation for living. Tejas is the aspect of fire that provides illumination. Its normal function provides motivation for knowing truth, and its outward expression manifests through our intellect. Ojas, the substance that provides the mind with stability, manifests in our consciousness and mind as contentment.
In the sushumna-nadi, tejas can be understood as dormant kundalini energy. Heightened prana is the force that raises kundalini though the central nadi, which is stabilized and supported by ojas.
Yogic practices purify the nadis and remove obstructions to the flow of kundalini. They also increase the activity of prana, which stokes the fire of kundalini. As kundalini awakens, it rises through the central channel. Ideally, this brings about peacefulness, higher consciousness, and powers (siddhi). There are, however, potential complications.
Whereas the ideal balance of the three doshas is determined at conception and the ordinary person strives to maintain balance, a yogi strives to steadily increase the subtle energies of prana, tejas, and ojas. As prana rises consciousness expands, as tejas rises perception expands, and as ojas rises contentment deepens. When all three energies rise proportionally, a person maintains health and balance physically and emotionally while gaining the benefits of practice. However, when prana or tejas rise without ojas, serious complications manifest.
As prana rises within the body, it tends to dry out ojas. This is simply a function of its dry, air-like quality. Similarly, as tejas rises, it tends to burn out ojas, a function of its fire-like nature. Ojas, being comprised primarily of water, functions to protect, though it is in danger of becoming depleted as prana and tejas rise. Once depleted, the result is serious imbalance in both the physical and subtle body.
Ojas is responsible for containing prana and tejas (kundalini), as the latter rises through the sushumna-nadi. If ojas becomes depleted, kundalini energy exits the sushumna and rages like a wildfire through the body and mind causing destruction. Ayurveda understands this to be the cause of many imbalances.
Symptoms of low ojas include poor stamina, easily losing mental or emotional balance, chronic irritability, and sensitivity to minor environmental, mental, or physical stresses. Disturbances of prana appear as anxiety, hyperactivity, depression, and uncoordinated thought processes. Finally, tejas imbalances manifest as gullibility or cynicism. The exact nature of the imbalance can be determined by knowledgeable yogis or vaidyas (Ayurvedic practitioners), who then can administer a prescription to restore balance in the system.
It is not only the sushumna that is in danger of this imbalance. These three subtle energies also function in the manovaha-srota and the samjna-vaha-srota. These are the channels of the mind and of consciousness. If ojas becomes depleted, the mind becomes unstable and the stream of consciousness is interrupted. The result is disturbed emotions, pathological thoughts, and susceptibility to influences from the subtle worlds. Western psychologists would classify this as psychosis.
Knowledge of the subtle energies of the body, whether through Yoga or Ayurveda, teaches that proper preparation is required before an aspirant attempts to utilize yogic techniques such as pranayama. Yogic texts have clearly warned unprepared students, without going into detail to explain the physiology behind the warnings. Knowledge of the subtle energies of prana, tejas, and ojas makes clear why proper preparation is necessary.
Yoga doctrines teach that preparation means practicing the yamas and niyamas as well as following an appropriate diet. In addition, it is stated that persons of kapha nature may need to practice the six yogic kriyas, or purification practices.10 These practices include: dhauti, basti, neti, trataka, nauli, and kapalabhati.
Knowledge of the three subtle energies makes clear the importance of assuring that ojas is healthy before a person begins to practice the yogic techniques which activate prana and tejas. Ojas is strengthened by activities that provide stability and nourishment. Hence, healthy and consistent daily routines combined with proper diet lay the foundation for building ojas.
The yamas and niyamas of Yoga articulated by Patanjali provide a living foundation for Yoga practice based on integrity, insight, discipline and morality, which leads to the fortification of consciousness. Without this, true enlightenment becomes impossible and any apparent gains made will simply inflate the ego and bind the practitioner further to the endless cycle of life and death.
Ayurvedic regimens called dinacharya (“daily work”) set forth daily routines unique for each person’s constitution and are designed to protect ojas. While for the most part deemphasizing moral and spiritual considerations, Ayurveda sets forth regimens to protect the body and mind. To preserve and maintain ojas, these regimens manage the three pillars of life: rest, digestion, and sexual energy.
Hence, practice of the yamas and niyamas combined with Ayurvedic lifestyle and dietary regimens appears to offer the aspirant the most complete preparation for his or her quest. They make it less likely that complications will arise on the journey.
Proper diet is an important part of the classic Hatha-Yoga path. However, there are some modern yogis who de-emphasize it.11 Yoga traditionally emphasizes a moderate diet consisting of sweet, nourishing foods such as grains, some beans, milk, ghee, and honey, as well as fruits and vegetables. Sour, salty, and pungent foods are to be avoided. Alcohol and meat are strictly prohibited. In addition, only fresh foods should be consumed.12
In general, sattvic foods are preferred over rajasic or tamasic foods. Sattvic foods are foods that are fresh and pure, and produce clarity in the mind and health within the body. Rajasic foods create agitation and tend to be spicy, while tamasic foods are heavy and produce mental dullness and disease. Meat, canned food, and old food fall into this category.13
The sweet taste is the most powerful for increasing ojas; thus the yogic diet is formulated to build ojas. Care must be taken, however, as many sattvic foods such as fruits and vegetables do not build ojas. Hence, to assure that ojas is plentiful, the aspirant should consume milk, ghee, grains, and some nuts in addition to fruits and vegetables.
Proper digestion is necessary for the body to produce ojas. Without proper digestion, ama (internally created toxicity) is created instead of ojas. Ayurvedic texts thus outline regimens that not only include what to eat, but also how to prepare food and eat it in ways that protect agni (the body’s internal fire that digests food). A healthy agni is essential to producing ojas. There is much Ayurvedic literature available that addresses the unique dietary needs of each person according to his or her constitution, and the student of Yoga is well advised to pursue such reading or consult with a practitioner of Ayurveda.
When practicing pranayama, the yogi observes several effects. First, sweating may occur, a sign that the nadis are being purified.14 In addition the yogi may observe tremors or shaking as well as various other neurological sensations, including seeing colors and lights and hearing inner sounds.
Pranayama also has been reported to have the following physiological effects: improved circulation, purification of the lungs, physiological support for the liver, spleen, and kidney, stimulation of peristalsis improving fecal excretion, sharpening of the intellect, and improved memory.15 Pranayama is further understood to be effective in treating conditions of the respiratory, circulatory, and nervous systems, which are most directly dependent on pranic flow.16
The practice of pranayama decreases the rate of respiration and elongates the breath. As yogic texts equate breath with life, they interpret this to imply that life is elongated as well.
Pranayama cultivates the prana-agni or the fire that digests prana. It is this digestion that transmutes prana into its higher form, where it acts as a force for the transformation of consciousness. It is also this agni that is responsible for purifying the nadis.17 Inhalation feeds the fire. Retention purifies the prana. Exhalation rids the body of its waste by-product. As the prana-agni slowly builds, the body begins to lightly sweat. This aids the purification of the subtle nadis.
Prana-agni is the heat associated with the kundalini, but it is not limited to the kundalini. Prana-agni converts breath into life on the physical level and life into immortality or enlightenment on the subtle level.
Ujjayi: This pranayama is performed by inhaling through both nostrils, as if drawing water up a pipe. A hissing noise is made in the back of the throat during inhalation. Inhalation is followed by retention, and exhalation is done through the left nostril, which reduces mucus in the throat, builds the digestive fire, and purifies all tissues and nadis.18 Ujjayi also aerates the lungs, decreases phlegm, and tones the nervous system. It has been recommended that those individuals suffering from hypertension or coronary artery disease perform this pranayama without retention.19 This mild form of pranayama increases prana, which secondarily increases tejas. Excessive practice increases vata and pitta in the physical body.
Surya Bhedana: Solar Breathing is performed by inhaling through the right nostril (pingala), followed by retention, and then by exhalation through the left nostril (ida). This form of pranayama heats the body, increasing both tejas and prana. It is a moderately aggressive pranayama that pacifies kapha, increases pitta, and is neutral to vata. According to the medieval Hatha-Yoga-Pradipika, this is beneficial for diseases of vata.20
Nadi-shodhana: This technique, which is also called “alternate nostril breathing” or anuloma-viloma,21 is performed by sitting in the appropriate posture and inhaling through the left nostril (ida), followed by retention, and exhalation through the right nostril (pingala). The process is repeated beginning with inhalation through the right nostril, followed by retention and exhalation through the left nostril.22 This pranayama is often considered to be the most basic type and the most effective for purifying the nadis. Alternate nostril breathing increases prana. Its effect on tejas is mild in the short term; however, excessive practice will still stoke the fire of tejas. It is considered the best pranayama practice for individuals of vata constitution as it is gentle and creates calm. In healthy individuals it pacifies vata and is neutral to pitta and kapha.
Bhastrika: This breathing practice is described as mimicking the action of a bellows (bhastrika) blowing on a fire.23 As the name suggests, it consists of a series of rapid inhalations and exhalations. The exhalations are made by forcefully contracting the lower abdominal muscles and pushing air out of the lungs. The inhalations are made by releasing these contracted muscles and allowing the breath to passively flow into the lungs. Some Yoga authorities recommend against practicing this technique until the nadis are purified by alternate nostril breathing.24 Several variations exist for bhastrika, including inhalation through the right nostril and exhalation through the left. This pranayama is very aggressive and requires the most preparation. It is also among the most important as it arouses kundalini and drives it though the three granthis (obstructions), located in the first, second, and sixth chakras.25 This awakening occurs only with repeated practice and proper preparation and can take lifetimes to achieve. Bhastrika is very heating and is not for those with weak constitutions or eye, ear, or blood pressure pathology.26 Ayurveda considers this form of pranayama to increase pitta. It is best for those of kapha constitution and may be practiced in limited amounts by those with a vata constitution.
Bhramari-Pranayama: This breath is similar to ujjayi, but instead of a hissing sound is accompanied by a humming sound, like a bee makes (bhramari). The classic texts describe the sound of the bee in great detail: The sound on inhalation resembles a female bee and on exhalation a male bee.27 This form of pranayama has been reported to be beneficial in the treatment of insomnia.28 A cooling breath, bhramari increases prana, pacifies pitta, and may aggravate vata and kapha. The cooling action of the pranayama prevents a rapid rise in tejas.
Sitkari: This is performed by inhaling through the tongue, which is slightly protruded from the mouth while the lips are pursed, followed by retention and then exhalation through both nostrils.29 Sitkari increases prana and cools and pacifies pitta, while possibly aggravating vata and kapha. The cooling action of the pranayama prevents a rapid rise in tejas.
Shitali: Similar to the previous pranayama, shitali is performed by sticking the tongue further out between the lips and curling it into a straw. Inhalation is followed by retention and then exhalation takes place through both nostrils. Described as a cooling breath, it soothes eyes and ears and has been noted to remove illness of the spleen, liver, and gall bladder, and to eliminate fever.30 This pranayama also increases prana. It is cooling and pacifies pitta while possibly aggravating vata and kapha. The cooling action of this practice prevents a rapid rise in tejas.
While pranayama can be practiced in many postures, siddhasana is the most highly regarded.31 Still, any posture that keeps the spine erect is considered adequate for practice.32
While different ratios of inhalation to exhalation and retention have been mentioned, it is often recommended to begin simply by equalizing the lengths of inhalation, exhalation, and retention. This is called sama vritti pranayama33. In order to achieve this, a person may first have to keep retention following inhalation to a lesser amount, slowly building up over time until it is equal to inhalation and exhalation. Retaining the breath after exhalation, or bahya-kumbhaka, is not recommended for beginners. Once the student is competent in sama-vritti pranayama, bahya-kumbhaka can be added beginning with a lesser amount of time and working up to an amount equal to the other phases.
Another way to practice pranayama is with ratios that are not equal. Called vishama-vritti pranayama, the standard approach is to work toward a ratio of 1:4:2:1, that is, inhalation, inner retention, exhalation, and outer retention respectively.
Knowledge of the principles of Ayurveda is essential for every student who begins to walk the path of Yoga. With this knowledge, students learn the reasons behind the practices of Hatha-Yoga and are able to walk their paths in a safe and rewarding manner. If problems do arise on the path, students should consider seeing a practitioner of Ayurveda to gain the insight and direction necessary to heal themselves.
1. Swami Vishnu-devananda, Hatha Yoga Pradipika, Containing the Commentary Jyotsna of Brahmananda (Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass/Om Lotus Publications, 1987), pp. 11 and 19 and chapter 2, sutras 15–17.
2. Ibid., chapter 1, sutra 11.
3. B. K. S. Iyengar. Light on Yoga (New York: Schocken Books, 1976), p. 434.
4. Vishnudevananda, op cit., p. 56.
5. Ibid., chapter 2, sutras 15–17.
6. Dr. K. S. Joshi. Yogic Pranayama (Delhi, India: Orient Paperbacks, 1983), p. 38.
7. Vishnu-devananda, op. cit., p. 74.
8. Ibid., p. 5.
9. Ibid., chapter 2, sutra 3.
10. Ibid., chapter 2, sutra 23.
11. Iyengar, Light on Yoga, p. 426.
12. Vishnu-devananda, op. cit., chapter 1, sutras 58–60.
13. B. K. S. Iyengar, Light on Pranayama (New York: Crossroad, 1999), p. 43.
14. Vishnu-devananda, op. cit., chapter 2, sutra 12.
15. Iyengar, Light on Pranayama, pp. 48–49.
16. Hans-Ulrich Rieker, The Yoga of Light: Hatha Yoga Pradipika (London: Georg Allen & Unwin, 1971), part 2, chapter 6, sutras 56–57.
17. David Frawley, Yoga and Ayurveda (Twin Lakes, Wis.: Lotus Press, 1999), p. 114.
18. Vishnu-devananda, op. cit., chapter 2, sutras 52–53. [Ed.: The prescription to exhale through the left nostril is not universal.]
19. Iyengar, Light on Yoga, p. 443.
20. Vishnu-devananda, op. cit., chapter 2, sutra 50.
21. Ibid., p. 51.
22. Ibid., chapter 2, sutras 7–10.
23. Ibid., chapter 2, sutras 59–62.
24. Ibid., p. 81.
25. Ibid., p. 83.
26. Iyengar, Light on Yoga, p. 450.
27. Rieker, op cit., part 2, chapter 6, sutra 67
28. Iyengar, Light on Yoga, p. 451.
29. Rieker, op cit., part 2, chapter 6, sutras 56–57.
30. Ibid., part 2, chapter 6, sutras 53–55.
31. Vishnu-devananda, op. cit., chapter 1, sutra 38.
32. Iyengar, Light on Pranayama, p. 55.
33. Ibid., p. 61.
Yoga Nidra means yogic sleep. It is a state of deep conscious relaxation and is a form of pratyahara--the turning inward of awareness. It is considered to be an active or preliminary form of meditation, though many of the benefits of meditation are also realized through this state of consciousness.
In the state of Yoga Nidra the body appears to be asleep but awareness is acutely present. The mind does not wander aimlessly or drift into dramas or dreams. Rather, the “witness” emerges. It is that part of the self that watches our experience from a place of detachment. Unemotional and absent of thought, awareness of the witness brings about great joy and peace.
Yoga Nidra is not a technique, but rather a state of consciousness. There are several techniques that can lead a person into this state. In the method taught at the California College of Ayurveda, the participant is led on a conscious journey of awareness inside their body. At first, the mind is directed to focus on singular parts of the body learning to identify blockages to the flow of prana (energy). These blockages create tension. As the practitioner succeeds in letting go of the tension, prana flows freely and higher awareness develops. One of the early realizations is that the body is not a solid structure but rather a densely packed field of energy. At this time the practitioner realizes that he or she is neither their body nor their mind. The practitioner then asks him or herself the most basic and important question: “Who am I?” The answer is not found through the intellect but realized through the experience. We are that which lies beyond the body and the mind. We are nothing more than the embodiment of consciousness. The product of this state of awareness is pure bliss.
According to the teachings of Yoga and the other great philosophical traditions of India, we are Pure Consciousness experiencing life though a body and mind. Blockages, called nadi, exist in the subtle channels of our body. There are 72,000 nadi. While most of those nadi are related to the functions of the body and mind, there are specific channels related to consciousness. To one degree or another, we all experience a certain amount of blockage within these channels. This blockage causes us to forget our true nature as Spirit and the wholeness inherent in all of existence. As a result, we experience separation and suffering. The practice of Yoga Nidra is an active practice of purifying these channels bringing about a return of greater awareness. While higher awareness is certainly the most important goal of this practice, the benefits are felt not only in the channels of awareness but in all 72,000 nadi. In other words, prana flows more freely in the body and mind supporting the healing process. The practice of Yoga Nidra is one of the most beneficial practices for self-healing.
How to Achieve the State of Yoga Nidra
Yoga Nidra is most commonly achieved through guided meditation or instruction from a teacher. The teacher uses his or her voice to guide the awareness of the student and takes the student deeper within. The teacher’s voice is the first focal point. The teacher guides the student to examine individual parts of the body and to seek out areas of holding, control, or tension. These are areas of disturbed pranic flow. Following the teacher’s guidance, the student then relaxes those areas, allowing the prana to flow more freely. The teacher’s voice guides the student through the body. Each body part is the second focal point of the process. At the end of the process, the entire body is deeply relaxed, the student has remained awake, and now is the state of consciousness called Yoga Nidra.
The Origins of Yoga Nidra
No one knows the origins of Yoga Nidra for certain. The term is quite ancient. It is mentioned in the Devi Bhagavata wherein Lord Vishnu reclines on Naga Shesha and creation manifests as if creation is the manifestation of his dream. The term is also mentioned in Hatha Yoga Pradipika and Taravali. However, in none of these references is there instruction or great explanation of the concepts.
One of the earliest “modern” teachers was said to be Paramyogeshwar Sri Devpuriji, who died in 1942. He was said by his devotees to be an incarnation of Lord Vishnu. One of his disciples was Bhagwan Sri Deep Narayan Mahaprabhuji who lived in Rajasthan. He lived from 1828 to 1963. Yes, that is 135 years. He was revered by his devotees as an avatar (a divine incarnation). Some of his writings about Yoga Nidra are preserved and they are quite beautiful and poetic. Bhagwan had two main disciples to whom he is said to have passed on this knowledge. One was Swami Muktananda (1908 – 1982) and the other was Swami Sivananda (1887 – 1963).
Modern Yoga Nidra
What is practiced and called Yoga Nidra today comes from this lineage of teachings. Modern teachers have developed their knowledge into a variety of similar but different forms. One of most well known modern teachers is Swami Satyananda Saraswati who passed in 2009. He was the founder of the Bihar School of Yoga. He is often credited with reviving this knowledge. It is said that he had a vision of Swami Sivananda who blessed him as Swamiji left his body in Rishikesh. Through that vision, Swami Sivananda is said to have passed on the knowledge of Yoga Nidra to Swami Satyananda. It is widely believed that Swami Satyananda developed his own approach or his style of Yoga Nidra, which some believe was influenced by the Tantric practice of Nyasa or focusing mantras on body parts and organs. One of Swami Satyananda’s disciples is Swami Janakananda who went on to found the Scandinavian school of Yoga in 1970. Swami Janakananda and his disciples have strongly promoted Yoga Nidra and sponsored a considerable amount of research on the subject, some of which has been published, demonstrating the different brain wave patterns while in the Yoga Nidra state of consciousness.
Another proponent of Yoga Nidra was Swami Rama, the founder of the Himalayan Institute who passed in 1996. While I do not know from whom he learned Yoga Nidra, he did develop a unique approach to taking students into that state of consciousness. Most recently in 2006, Richard Miller, the founder of the International Association of Yoga Therapy developed his own style of Yoga Nidra and brought it into VA hospitals in order to help heal soldiers with PTSD. He discusses his studies in a recently published book. He calls his technique iRest.
My Own Journey into Yoga Nidra
In 1987 I was very ill with an autoimmune disorder that left me crippled. During my healing process, I went to see a healer who had been trained in the Philippines. He laid his hands on me and, as a result, my body temperature rose from 99° Fahrenheit to 105° over the next two days. It then stayed between 103.5° and 105.5° for the next two weeks. During that time, I came into awareness of the witness within me, that part of myself untouched by the disease. I also developed an extraordinary ability to perceive the subtle flow of energy in my body. For two weeks, I laid in bed spending time conscious, witnessing and examining my subtle body, aware that I was not this body. In that state, I became conscious of blockages in the flow of energy (prana) and how to release them through conscious intention. As I mastered that ability, I began to heal. As my fever came down, I lost the acute ability but remembered clearly that state of awareness and strived to recreate it in order to continue my healing process. I had limited results until I found a recording of guided meditation by a teacher named Mary Richards, who passed away in 2009. I let her voice guide me and I returned back to the state of conscious deep relaxation and once again began to perceive the flow of subtle energy and remove remaining blockages. I practiced this technique twice per day for the next 10 years as I combated severe Chronic Fatigue following the autoimmune illness. With no trace left of the condition by 1997, my practice was reduced to once per day and then in recent years to a few times per week, preferring instead to focus on mantra meditation.
I began to teach programs to my patients and the public in Conscious Deep Relaxation in 1993 and taught regularly until 1997 until my work with the California College of Ayurveda consumed much of my time. I only learned of the name Yoga Nidra in 2005 and came to realize that I had been practicing this technique for 18 years through the Grace of the Divine. I had stumbled upon this state of consciousness and did not know that such a long tradition existed.
In 1999 or perhaps 2000, I visited the Sivananda Yoga Retreat in the Bahamas. As part of my service, I taught the senior teachers the process of conscious deep relaxation for the purposes of their own healing. In 2009, I was asked by the head spiritual teacher at the ashram, Swami Swaroopananda, to begin teaching workshops again after a 13-year hiatus, and this time to train additional teachers. Naturally, I was honored and this seemed like an appropriate next step for the work that had begun within me 23 years earlier. As such, I conducted the first teacher training program in 2010.
Yoga Nidra is an extraordinary technique for both developing consciousness and for self-healing. In our deepest states of relaxation, the physiology of the body returns to a state of balance from which healing occurs. Yoga Nidra is not magic. It works within the laws of nature. Where healing is possible, Yoga Nidra will maximize the ability of the body and mind to heal itself. Yoga Nidra supports the immune system, the nervous system, the endocrine system, and all of the organs of the body. Yoga Nidra is an outstanding complementary approach to supporting the healing process of patients suffering from cancer, heart disease, autoimmune disorders, chronic fatigue, pain, and much more.
Have you ever wondered why some asanas seem to leave you feeling calm, still, centered, and balanced while others seem to leave you agitated, sore, and off center?
Take the case of a thirty-one year old woman who came for treatment with repeated neck pain and nervousness. She had been practicing yoga for six years and could not understand why she was having such difficulty. Our work with Ayurvedai, the 5,000 year old "knowledge of life," helped this woman to understand how the Yoga asanas she had been practicing affected the movement of energy in her body. She found out that some of the asanas she had been practicing aggravated the subtle energies of her body. She also learned new asanas, which were more in harmony with her unique energetic balance. With this new knowledge she was able to modify her practice and eliminate her neck pain and nervousness while bringing greater well being to her body and mind.
In addition to the profound dietary and lifestyle advice that Ayurveda is most well known for, Ayurveda also sheds profound new light on the practice of Yoga. Yoga and Ayurveda are in fact, two paths intertwined in such a close relationship that it is hard to imagine traveling down one of these paths without knowledge of the other. Yoga is the ancient art and path of preparing the body and mind for the eventual liberation and enlightenment of the soul. Ayurveda is the ancient art and science of keeping the body and mind healthy so that individuals can pursue the goals in life that they have set for themselves.
The popularity of Yoga in this country has been growing steadily since Swami Vivekananda first brought the ideas of Yoga to the West in 1893. While Yoga found a welcome home in the West, its sister, Ayurveda was left behind in India. Today, just over 100 years later, Ayurveda has landed on this distant western continent in search of its sister; in search of its other half. Ayurveda does not come to this country empty handed but brings with it many gifts. It brings with it the knowledge of how to keep the physical body healthy and how this relates to one’s spiritual journey. It brings a gift specific to the yogi: the knowledge of how the asanas affect each one of us. Ayurveda sheds light on which specific asanas are best for each individual.
The Vedas, the oldest known writings and teachings, are the origins of both of these ancient arts. The Vedas are comprised of five books. One of them, the Yajur Veda, is considered by scholars as the origins of the knowledge of Yoga. Ayurveda has its roots within the Rig and Atharva Vedas. According to Dr. David Frawley, a Vedic scholar; "Yoga is the practical side of the Vedic teachings while Ayurveda is the healing side." In practice, both of these paths overlap a great deal.
Classical yoga has, as a part of its traditions, an aspect which addresses health and health practices. It is not simply asanas for differing conditions, but purification practices as well. In the same vein, Ayurveda is much more than dietary principals. Ayurveda can be seen as the science of understanding how we interact with our environment and how to alter our environment in such a way that it is harmonious with our deepest nature. Ayurveda is the science of how energies interact. As such, Ayurveda addresses our entire lifestyle, including exercise and Yoga. Ayurveda sees each individual's path toward perfect health as unique; hence Ayurveda can help us to understand which Yoga asanas are best for each individual as well as understand how the different forms of Pranayama affect us.
Ayurveda and Yoga are so closely related that it is argued as to whether Patanjali, considered by many to be the father of Yoga, and Caraka, often considered as the father of Ayurveda, may have in fact been one and the same person. The name "Caraka" translated means "the wanderer" or "the traveler." It is surmised that in his travels around India he may have been known by different names. While the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali are the definitive work on Yoga, the Caraka Samhita is considered the definitive work on Ayurveda. Whether Patanjali and Caraka were indeed one person will never likely be known.
Philosophically, both Yoga and Ayurveda are rooted in the same basic philosophy of Sankhya, one of six schools of classical Indian philosophy. The foundation of this philosophy can be described as follows:
1. There exists a fundamental state of pure being that is beyond intellectual understanding and which all life consciously strives for. This is the state of enlightenment or self liberation (Moksha).
2. Suffering is a part of our lives because of our attachment to our ego or self-identity (Ahankara).
3. The path toward ending suffering is the path of dissolving or transcending our ego (Ahankara). In doing so all fear, anger and attachment are eradicated.
4. To achieve this goal, we must live a purely ethical life. These practices are described as the Yamas and Niyamas of the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.
5. Any disturbance within the mind or body interferes with this path. Ayurveda is the science of keeping the biological forces in balance so that the mind and body may be healthy.
Ayurveda is based on the idea that there exist three forms of the life force called Doshas. They are Vata, Pitta and Kapha. We are all made up of a unique combination of these three forces. This unique combination, determined at the moment of conception, is our constitutioni or Prakruti. These forces constantly fluctuate according to our environment which includes our diet, the seasons, the climate, our age and many more factors. The current state of these three doshas most commonly defines our imbalance or our Vikruti. Since we all have a unique constitution, and unique imbalances, it makes sense that each person's path toward health will likewise be unique. This is a major principal of Ayurveda. In addition, what will keep each of us healthy is also unique. Understanding our prakruti and our vikruti offers each of us the potential to make correct choices for ourselves along our paths.
To understand these forces and how they interact with our environment it is necessary to understand the five elements. The ancient Vedic people defined the world by what they saw around them. Without the benefit of fancy instrumentation, it was easiest to define the world by what they knew. Hence, the five elements became a way to describe all things. The five elements of the Ayurvedic system are: earth, air, fire, water and ether. These elements are not meant to be taken literally but are to be seen as metaphors or ideas. When something is hard or dense, they said that it had a lot of earth in it. Something, which is moist, was said to be composed of water. When something was light and had great movement they said it was made up of a lot of air. If something was hot they said it had a lot of fire in it. The last element is harder to describe. Ether is the idea of connectedness. It is that which connects all things together and is the space that the other elements fill.
Whether we are talking about diet, the weather or yoga, all things can be described in terms of these five elements and this includes the three doshas. Vata is said to be made up of air and ether. It is compared to the wind and is said to be light, drying, cooling and capable of movement. Pitta is said to be made up of fire and water. Considered to be mostly fire, it is said to be hot, light and neither too dry or moist and is immobile, though it can be easily moved by the wind (Vata). Kapha is said to be made up of water and earth, which combine like mud. Kapha is heavy, moist, cool and stable.
The importance in understanding the Doshas is that like increases and like opposites balance each other. Hence, that which has similar characteristics as the Dosha will increase it and that which has opposite characteristics will decrease it. Knowing this we can adjust our Yoga practice, diets and other factors from our environment to affect these forces in ways that help us to create greater balance and harmony.
The three Doshas fluctuate constantly. As they move out of balance they affect certain areas of our bodies in certain ways. When Vata is out of balance, typically in excess, we are prone to diseases of the large intestine like constipation and gas, along with disease of the nervous system, immune system and joints. When Pitta is in excess we are prone to diseases of the small intestine like diarrhea along with diseases of the liver, spleen, thyroid, blood, skin and eyes. When Kapha is in excess we are prone to diseases of the stomach and lungs, most notably mucous conditions along with diseases of water metabolism such as swelling.
Another pillar in the construct of Ayurveda is the understanding of the three Gunas--qualities of nature. This is the science of Ayurveda applied to the emotional and spiritual aspects of an individual. Understanding the qualities of nature leads to greater understanding of our selves and our spiritual journey along with how our lifestyle choices and actions affect that journey. The three Gunas are Sattva, Rajas, and Tamas and all things can be described as a combination of them.
That which is sattvic is said to be light, clear and stable. Sattva is the state of being which comes from an awareness of our connectedness to God or Purusha and in which we manifest our highest expression and most virtuous qualities. The pure state of Sattva can be said to be that of enlightenment.
That which is rajasic is said to be active, agitated, turbulent or motivated. Rajas is the state of being which comes from a distraction from our truest essence. In this state we are unaware of our connectedness to our spirit and as such manifest the emotions we've come to label as "challenging". These emotions include fear, worry, anger, jealousy, attachment and depression. Rajasic action is the cause of pain and suffering.
That which is tamasic is said to be heavy, dull, dark and inert. In this state we are expressing our darker nature and become harmful to others or ourselves. The actions include violent or vindictive behavior toward others along with self-destructive behaviors such as addiction, depression and suicide.
The importance in understanding the gunas is that, like the doshas, like increases like. When we live a lifestyle that is tamasic, we increase the influence of Tamas within ourselves and bring about destruction. When we live a lifestyle, which is sattvic, we increase the influence of Sattva within us and enhance our spiritual growth and evolution. Cultivating Sattva brings freedom from disease while the manifestation of rajasic and tamasic behaviors causes disease. Understanding these principals allows us to structure our environment, diet and yoga practice in ways that support our spiritual growth as well as our well being.
Understanding the principles of Ayurveda allows us to apply these principles to many aspects of our lives. Let us take a look at the implications of Ayurveda on the practice of Yoga.
In order to understand how the principles of Ayurveda affect our practice of Hatha Yoga we must first understand the energies of movement. All movement and activity is, by its very nature, rajasic and heating to the body. Yet, some movements are more heating and others are less so. Likewise, some movements are more rajasic and others are less so. Those which are less so can also be said to encourage greater Sattva. Generally speaking, the slower the movement the less rajasic and the less warming to the body and mind. The faster the movement, the more rajasic and the more heating. In this context, Hatha Yoga, along with other disciplines like tai-chi, is inherently less rajasic than jogging or aerobics, for example. It can also be said that any form of movement practiced with great awareness is more sattvic. Those that are practiced with distraction or less attentiveness are more rajasic. Thus one way to enhance our experience of Yoga is to practice slowly and with greater awareness of how we are feeling and what our breath is like. To practice yoga without awareness is to invite injury; to practice with awareness is to invite learning about us.
It is questionable if any movement can be purely sattvic. The inherent nature of movement is rajasic, as rajas is the principal of energy and movement requires energy. Hence, the sattvic qualities of one's nature are most advanced in meditation where one can find silence and stillness and become pure awareness.
It is important to note at this time that, while movement is by nature rajasic, this does not make it bad for us. That which is rajasic serves the useful purpose of stimulating our bodies and minds, allowing for activity to take place. We could not function in our world without a part of us being rajasic. When we transcend our rajasic nature and become enlightened, we no longer function in this physical world in the same way.
Taking the principles of movement into account we can begin to see that people of vata constitution or imbalance are most supported by a yoga practice which is calming, quieting, and yet warming. People of pitta nature or imbalance are most supported by a yoga practice which is calming, quieting and less heating. People of kapha nature are most supported by a yoga practice which is stimulating and warming. Each individual has different needs. To practice in a way that does not support you is to invite greater imbalance and the related consequences.
In developing a healthy yoga practice, students must not only take into consideration their constitution and imbalance but also their age, the season of the year, and the times of day they practice. These influences affect the balance of energies in our bodies and hence this must be reflected in a healthy yoga practice.
The influence of the season, your age, and the time of day are not as important as your overall vikruti—imbalance--when designing a yoga practice for yourself. These should be seen as the factors that modify your practice but not the factors that create it. Your vikruti is, in fact, the single most important determinant of your entire lifestyle regime. It is even more important than your constitution! When you are in near perfect balance you can create a program based almost entirely on your constitution, the seasons, and time of day as the most important determinants. This program will help you to stay in balance.
In Ayurveda it is understood that at different times of our lives different doshas play a greater role. This is a part of the natural fluctuation of these forces. It is said that when we are born our bodies and minds are more affected by kapha and that this is true until puberty. During this time our bodies are growing at a rapid rate requiring a greater influence of the earth element. Hence, during this time in our lives, kapha is likely to be increased, regardless of our constitution, unless we take measures to balance it. From puberty until around our retirement years, the influence of pitta increases. This is because these are our years of greatest productivity requiring a greater influence of fire. The later years after retirement are the time of our lives most dominated by Vata. This is a time of reflection and the influence of ether increases. During each of these periods, we must pay attention to the effect our age has on us and modify our practice appropriately. In this sense, when we are young, our bodies can better tolerate the more aggressive styles of yoga. As we age we need to practice more calming asanas.
The seasons also affect a healthy practice. Remember that like increases like. Hence the season of cold dampness increases kapha. The season of warm weather increases pitta. Both the windy season and the season of cool dryness increase vata. In different parts of the country these take place at different times, and hence placing the names of traditional seasons upon them can be confusing.
During the kapha season it is best to alter your Yoga practice to help balance its influence. Hence, a practice which is more stimulating and warming is better at this time. In the pitta season a practice which is not as warming is best. In the vata season a calming practice supports greater health.
Finally, the time of day we practice will affect the balance of the doshas. Kapha naturally increases within us during the hours of 6:00 until 10:00 in both the morning and evening. This is the time when we are moving slowly in the morning and slowing down toward the end of the day. Pitta naturally increases between the hours of 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. This is the time the digestive fire is at its height, and in the day times parallels the movement of the sun to its peak. Vata naturally increases within us between 2:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. This is a time of transition from night to day and back again.
Most people practice yoga in the early morning. This is the most sattvic time of day when there is greater stillness and quiet and the energy of our environment is most sedate. The time of vata is closely related to sunrise and sunset. Before 6:00, during the time of vata, a quieter and gentler practice is recommended. During the sunrise and sunset, vata is most stimulated, so calming asanas at these times are best. After 6:00 in the morning, the time of kapha, a more stimulating practice is appropriate.
Putting this into examples: Let's say you are of a vata nature or imbalance (vata is the most common imbalance), it is the cool dry or windy season, and you are 67 years old practicing Yoga at 5:00 a.m. Your health would be best served practicing a routine to balance vata (vata routine described later). Suppose you are of pitta nature and of vata imbalance. Practice a regimen that will balance vata first. Then modify it later so that it does not aggravate Pitta. As you are balancing Vata you may modify your program so that is it warm but not extremely heating. With this in mind let's take a look at some yoga asanas.
The asanas which are most suitable for vata are those which are calming and grounding by nature. This will balance the tendency for those with a vata imbalance to be "spacey" and agitated or nervous. These asanas will help allay fear, worry, and anxiety on the emotional level and also improve vata physical imbalances such as constipation, lower back pain and joint pains. These asanas compress the lower abdomen or cause the lower abdomen to become taut. The lower abdomen, pelvis and large intestine are the main residence of vata in the body. In addition, asanas that strengthen the lower back help to alleviate vata. In general, most yoga asanas are good for bringing greater balance to Vata since most asanas are calming to the mind. There are, however, some which are more exceptional and some which should most certainly be avoided. The following will focus on these since it would be tedious to list every asana.
One exceptional asana is Uttanasana (forward flexion from a standing position). To perform this asana, stand erect with your feet about a shoulder width apart. The arms may be raised over the head as you reach to the sky or you may wish to bend the elbows clasping the opposing arms just above the elbow as you let your forearms rest on or just above the crown of your head. Keeping your back straight slowly bend forward from the hips as you exhale. Bend as far forward as you comfortably can. Your hands may touch the floor in front of your feet. Remain crossed as you hold the opposing arm, or if you are very flexible, place your hands just behind your heels. For the less flexible, the hands may be placed upon blocks which rest on the floor. Let gravity assist the lengthening of your spine. All standing asanas tend to be grounding if awareness is placed on the feet honoring the connection between your body and the earth. It is important to note that this asana can put quite a strain on an injured lower back, so care should be used and there are many modifications that may be made by an alert Yoga instructor. If the lower back is simply tight, a condition related to imbalanced vata, this is an excellent asana. The seated version of this asana, Paschimottanasana (seated forward bend), will have similar value and may be easier if your back is sore. Vajrasana with forward bending, (Child's Pose) is another excellent asana for bringing compression to the pelvis and Vata region. To perform this asana, sit upright with your knees flexed and placed underneath your buttocks. Keeping your arms to your side, bend forward from the hips until your head is resting on the floor in front of you. If you do not have the flexibility to place your head on the ground, place a folded blanket or a pillow on the floor in front of you for your head to rest upon. Compression asanas are excellent for constipation and for chronic gas. Another very good compression asana aiding the lower back and constipation is the more advanced Yoga Mudrasana (The Bound Yogic Seal).
Supta Virasana (supine backward bend) is another exceptional asana for vata. To perform this asana, sit in Virasana. Move the legs out to the side of the pelvis so that the buttocks slide down in-between both legs. Place the hands on the soles of the feet and lean back onto the elbows. This may be enough extension for many people. If you are flexible enough, gradually lower your back down to the floor. Your hands may lie by your side or be stretched above the head to achieve greater lengthening of the spine. While this stretch does not compress the pelvis, it creates a mild extension of the lower abdominal muscles and lower back. This action increases the pressure in the pelvis again alleviating vata. According to Dr. Vasant Lad, this asana is particularly useful as a part of treatment for Vata type asthma conditions. Another asana which extends the lower back and places pressure on the pelvis is Dhanurasana (Bow Pose). To perform this asana, lay on your stomach with your arms to your side. Lift the head, shoulders, and chest off of the mat and bend both knees. Reach back and take hold of the ankles. Let your legs draw your chest further into the air so that your body weight rests on the pelvic region. This is essential for the maximum relief of Vata.
Sitting asanas like Virasana, Siddhasana, and Padmasana are very calming poses which sedate vata's agitated nature. These meditative poses are excellent for calming the nervous system, a common site for vata imbalance. Calming the nervous system aids in the healing of anxiety, nervousness, sciatica, and muscle spasm. Padmasana (Lotus Pose), while calming and sedating, also moves energy upward toward the head. This is not very grounding, but can be helpful in alleviating vata type depression. Placing attention on the tailbone during this pose helps make this a more grounding asana for vata. The most calming pose of all is, of course, the Supine Savasana (Corpse Pose).
People of vata nature should avoid certain asanas. They should particularly avoid those which are overly stimulating to the nervous system, such as repetitive Surya Namaskara (Sun Salutations) and those which place excessive pressure on sensitive joints in the body. The cervicothoracic junction is one of these areas. This is the bony region where the neck meets the shoulders. Here, large vertebrae stick out like "sore thumbs". People of vata nature and imbalance tend to have weaker bones, less fatty padding, looser ligaments, and are more susceptible to pain. For these reasons, Salamba Sarvangasana (shoulder stand) and Halasana (plow) should be avoided or modified by placing a blanket under the shoulders for extra padding. This also decreases the extreme flexion the neck is placed in. Even still, people of vata nature or imbalance should not hold these poses for very long or they will risk injury.
The best asanas for pitta are those which are calming and not overly heating. People of pitta nature or imbalance tend to be more assertive and intense individuals. Calming poses help sedate their intensity, and their sattvic nature helps these people to transcend the emotions of anger and resentment that they are more prone to. By alleviating pitta, these asanas are good as part of the treatment for such conditions as ulcers and hyperacidity, liver disease, and acne.
Asanas which help balance pitta are those which place pressure on the naval and solar plexus region. This region is the residence of pitta, which resides in the small intestine and directly affects the liver and spleen and helps regulate the strength of the digestive fire.
An exceptional asana for bringing balance to pitta is Ustrasana (Camel Pose). To perform this asana, sit in Virasana and then extend the knees to a right angle so you are standing on your knees. Place your palms on your buttocks. Move your thighs and pelvis forward as you extend the lower back. Allow your hands to fall onto to the heels of your feet. Gently extend your neck. Remember to breathe while in any posture. This asana opens up the abdomen, solar plexus, and chest allowing for freer movement of energy through these regions. Other excellent solar plexus extension poses for pitta is Dhanurasana and Bhujangasana (the cobra). These asanas can play a role in the treatment of ulcers and hepatitis. To perform the Cobra, lie face down with your feet together and ankles extended. Bend the elbows and place your hands flat on the floor by your lower ribs. Less flexible individuals may choose to place the palms on the floor at shoulder level. Upon inhalation, extend the elbows and raise the head, chest, and abdomen off the floor while keeping the pelvic bones on the floor. The head may be held in a neutral position or in extension.
Compression of the abdomen helps to alleviate pitta as well. [Authors note: It is my hypothesis that compression decreases the flow of energy through the solar plexus (site of the third chakra), sedating pitta while extension increases circulation through the solar plexus breaking up stagnation and freeing up the circulation. There is no reference for this.] Both compression and extension are important to keeping the pitta in balance. Exceptional abdominal compression asanas for balancing pitta are Janu Sirsasana and Paschimottanasana. To perform Janu Sirsasana, sit on the floor with both legs extended out in front of you. Bend one leg forward and place the sole of the foot against the inside of the opposite thigh. Bend forward over the extended leg from the hips, keeping the back straight. Along with compressing the solar plexus and pelvic regions, both Janu Sirsasana and Paschimottanasana stretch the lower back and hamstring muscles.
Yoga asanas which should be avoided for people of pitta imbalance or constitution are headstands. Headstands are heating to the body, and much of this heat accumulates in the head and the eyes. The eyes are organs controlled mainly by pitta, as they are involved in metabolism of light and visual impressions. For this reason, headstands can contribute to the onset or make worse diseases of the eyes. Individuals with diabetes should avoid all inversions, as a complication of this condition causes hardening of the small blood vessels in the eyes. This makes them more susceptible to damage from the increase in blood pressure in the head. People with glaucoma should avoid inversions as well, due to the increase in intraocular pressure. If a person of pitta constitution chooses to do headstands, perhaps because they have no serious imbalance, then the headstand should be held for a very short period of time.
Asanas which are most suitable for kapha are those which are more stimulating and heating to the body. These help to balance the heavy, slow, cold, and sedated nature of kapha. Asanas best suited to individuals of kapha nature or imbalance are those which open up the chest. The stomach and chest are the areas where kapha accumulates. In the chest, kapha takes on the form of mucous. These asanas are excellent for the prevention and treatment of congestive conditions like bronchitis and pneumonia, as well as constrictive conditions such as asthma and emphysema.
Exceptional asanas for kapha are Ustrasana and Setu Bandhasana (Bridge Pose). To perform this asana, lie flat on your back with your arms to your sides. Allow the palms to face down toward the floor. Using your elbows and forearms, raise your trunk off of the mat as you keep your head and feet on the ground. Next, extend the head and increase the arch of the spine so that there is a smooth arc from your heels to your head. If you have the strength, you may place your hands on your thighs and support your body weight with your head and feet. As a gentle alternative to this posture, a person may lie on their back in extension over a bolster and a pillow. For a demonstration of this, see Yoga: the Iyengar Way, page 80. Both of these do an excellent job opening the chest allowing for greater circulation of energy through this region. These asanas also affect the flow of energy through the heart chakra, aiding the development of compassion and unconditional love.
For those of Kapha nature and imbalance, the calming and sedating effect of most asanas needs to be balanced by other asanas that are more stimulating and heating. Surya Namaskara (Sun Salutation) is a very good aerobic exercise for kapha when done repetitively, and helps in the treatment of obesity and depression, which are two common kapha conditions. This group of movements can perhaps be said to be the ideal asana for kapha, as it is very active, creates heat, and opens the chest. The strength enhancing asanas, like Vasisthasana (Sage Pose), also increase the heat of the body and are excellent as well. People of kapha nature can best handle strength poses, as their joints and muscles tend to be strong and stable. Increasing flexibility is extremely important for those of kapha nature, as it is the tendency of kapha to become overly stiff or rigid. The sun salutation is the ideal asana for Kapha as it is very active, creates heat, and opens the chest. There are twelve parts to this asana.
To perform the Sun Salutation, begin by standing erect with the feet touching each other. Bend the elbows and bring the palms together in the middle of the chest. This is position one. Raise the arms above the head and extend the neck and torso backward. This is position two. Bend forward and bring the hands to the floor. Keep the knees straight. This is Uttanasana and is position three. From this position lunge backward with the left leg as you bend the right knee. The knee of the left leg may lie on the floor. The foot of the right leg should be between both hands. This is position four. Bring the right leg backward and place it by the left leg as you bring your buttocks high into the air. This is the "downward facing dog" position. This is position five. Allow the elbows to come to the floor then glide your body forward into Bhujangasana (Cobra Pose). A variation includes keeping the knees and pelvis off the ground in this pose with less extension placed upon the lower back. This is called "upward facing dog". This is position six. Position seven returns us to downward facing dog. Next, lunge the left leg forward as we bring our pelvis low to the ground. The left foot is placed between the hands and the knee is bent, held close to the chest. This is position nine. Bring the right foot forward as you return to Uttanasana (standing forward bend). Extend upward to a standing position and raise the arms once again over the head extending the back and head as in position two. This is position eleven. To complete the cycle, return the hands to the chest, palms together. This is position twelve. Sun salutations are excellent for anyone during the kapha hours of the day. People of kapha nature should do the most repetitions, and they should be performed with greater speed. While in general, people of vata nature should avoid this asana, it may occasionally be performed very slowly and with great awareness. This will decrease its vata aggravating tendencies. People of pitta nature should avoid this series or should do limited repetitions, preferably during Kapha hours, as it is very heating.
Few asanas are harmful to kapha, as their nature allows them to benefit from all forms of stretching and movement. However, two weak areas of the body for kapha individuals are the lungs and the kidneys. Asanas which place excessive pressure on the lower abdomen, if held for too long, may aggravate the kidneys. Asanas like Dhanurasana (Bow Pose) is one such pose.
Awareness of breath while practicing yoga is very important, as it is an aid to the awareness of the body. If a pose is creating pain or if a person is stretching too far, most often, the body will react with an alteration of breathing prior to an injury taking place. This alteration may be a shortening of the breath or an increased rate of breathing. In this way, awareness of breath leads to awareness of the body. Practicing with awareness increases the sattvic nature of one's practice of yoga, and as such enhances ones spiritual development.
People of all constitutional types should perform the asanas with slow, quiet, and full breaths. This type of breathing calms vata and pitta. People of kapha nature should breathe in the same manner when performing gentle stretching asanas but should balance the calming, sedating effect of these asanas and the accompanying slow breathing pattern with active and strengthening asanas which allow the breath to become quicker and shorter. This form of breathing warms and stimulates the body and mind and hence brings greater balance to kapha.
Pranayama, the art of yogic breathing, is an art shared within the tradition of Ayurveda. It has been associated in the West as a part of the yogic practices for affecting the flow of energy through the body and for creating an experience of both blissfulness and oneness with the cosmic life force. Ayurveda compliments this knowledge by describing how the different forms of pranayama affect the three doshas and how pranayama can be used in practical ways as a part of the healing process. Like all things of nature, the different forms of pranayama can be understood as heating or cooling and sedating or stimulating.
Lunar pranayama, the act of inhaling through the left nostril and exhaling through the right nostril, has a cooling and calming effect upon the mind and body. Thus this form of yogic breathing helps bring balance to pitta and its subtler mental counterpart, Tejas.
Solar pranayama, the act of inhaling through the right nostril and exhaling through the left nostril, has a heating and stimulating affect on the body and mind. Thus this form of yogic breathing brings greater balance to kapha and its subtler mental counterpart, Ojas.
Vata, and its subtle mental counterpart Prana, are balanced by alternating the two breathing techniques or by inhaling and exhaling through both nostrils simultaneously with attention and awareness. This action is calming and is neither too warming nor too cooling.
These forms of pranayama mentioned are a good general practice along with one's Hatha Yoga practice. It is generally recommended, however, that a person practicing pranayama be of strong body and mind. This is a person who has prepared themselves with years of Hatha Yoga practice and has been trained by an experienced pranayama teacher. These basic forms of pranayama can be practiced by anyone with minimal instruction who understands their Ayurvedic constitution and Vikruti, and is willing to begin slowly and practice on a regular basis. The first time they are practiced, however, should be with a trained practitioner who can teach the finer points.
While recommended as a general practice, pranayama is especially important for those suffering from respiratory ailments. These breathing techniques can be very useful as part of an overall program for allergies, asthma, sinus conditions, and chronic colds.
Bhastrika, the breath of fire, by its very name tells us of its energetic properties. This form of yogic breathing involves forced exhalation through the nose with natural inhalation. This action is very heating and stimulating. It is best performed by those of kapha constitution and avoided by those of vata and pitta. According to Dr. Versant Lad, "This exercise is the equivalent of running two miles." It is a good part of a complete program for the treatment of obesity as it stimulates metabolism and increases the breakdown of fat.
Sheetali, a form of pranayama where one inhales and exhales through a rolled up tongue, is a form of pranayama which is cooling and hence a natural part of the process of bringing pitta into balance.
Both Bhastrika and Sheetali circulate the pranic energies more aggressively and as such require greater instruction. They should not be practiced without the guidance of a trained practitioner of pranayama.
Yoga is defined as the "union" with god or Purusha (That which is without form and not of the material world). There are many paths to this state of enlightenment. The major branches of the yoga tree defined by Georg Feuerstein describe these different paths. There are, of course, as many paths as there are people. Ayurveda, by viewing each person as an individual with unique gifts as well as unique challenges, helps us to understand how each of us may be naturally more attracted to one path and more repulsed by another.
Bhakti Yoga, or devotional yoga, is the path of learning about us through learning about our heart and our ability to love unconditionally. This unconditional love is for all people, including us and for the Divine. This path is most attractive to those of kapha constitution as in their more sattvic expression, devotion is a natural state. The gift of love, compassion and devotion are kapha's natural gifts and the path of Bhakti yoga can help them to discover it. While this path is for all that choose it, those of strong vata or pitta natures may find it more difficult as it does not stress their natural gifts.
Jnana Yoga, the path of discernment, often referred to as the "path of the sage", is the path of becoming clearly perceptive to truth. In this way, one becomes capable of distinguishing false imagination from absolute reality. This path requires a person to directly dissolve the ego, which acts as a filter and distorts the truth. Understanding Ayurveda, we may postulate that this very difficult path is most suited for those of pitta nature, who in their more sattvic way of being allow the fire which burns in the mind to burn away false imaginings from reality. The path of Jnana yoga emphasizes the natural gifts of pitta. This path may be more difficult for those of greater vata and kapha nature.
Tantric yoga, the path of transcending the self through sacred ritual and the worship of deities, emphasizes the realization that all that is around us is divine and that nothing separates the unholy from the holy. Through ritual, all things are honored as sacred. The path to the embodiment of these principals appears to be most suited for those of vata constitution who by their nature tend to be more open to experimentation, ritual and the abstract. This path to the esoteric suits the nature of vata well, as they are often more sensitive to subtle energies of their bodies and surroundings. In their more sattvic expression, people of vata nature are divinely inspired and their creativity is just one of their gifts to the world. Tantric yoga may be a more difficult path for those of strong pitta and kapha natures.
Karma Yoga, the path of selfless action, is the path of surrendering the self or ego through service. This path of learning about our selves and finally transcending ourselves is a path suited for all constitutional types. All individuals are bound to the physical world by their karma. In this context, karma refers to any action which springs from the ego and sets in motion a cascading series of effects. This is a particularly useful, though challenging, path for those of pitta nature who by the nature of their intensity are often most focused on achieving through their work. Selfless action creates balance to their otherwise rajasic nature.
In Ayurveda, balancing the effects of the doshas is only one half of the formula to creating health and well being. The other half is developing a more sattvic lifestyle and learning to express our more sattvic nature. Our sattvic nature is that aspect of ourselves, which through an awareness of our connectedness to Spirit, allows us to express our highest or most virtuous qualities. In this state we realize three fundamental truths:
1. All things material are illusions. This includes not only our expensive toys, but also our emotions and our thoughts.
2. The universe is unfolding perfectly and we fit into that perfection, even with our challenges.
3. We are all spirits growing and evolving. Until we become enlightened we will continue to have challenges.
When we realize these three truths, three results become apparent:
1. We need not be attached to anything material, since all is transient. With this realization we can let go of our idea of ourselves and in the process let go of depression and oversentimentality.
2. If the universe is unfolding perfectly we can have faith and trust in this process. Hence, we can let go of fear and worry.
3. We all have challenges and hence it becomes unnecessary to judge others or ourselves since each of us is perfect for where we are in our continued evolution. With this realization we can let go of all judgment and the anger, resentment, and hatred associated with it.
Yoga, along with meditation and proper lifestyle in harmony with one's nature, is the Ayurvedic path toward balancing the doshas and enhancing sattva. Through this path each of us can reach our full potential and achieve the goals in our life we have set. In this light we can begin to see Yoga and Ayurveda as separated children of the Vedic teachings being reunited in modern times. Both bring gifts to help guide us along our paths. Blessings upon your journey.
1. Caraka Samhita: Translated by R.K. Sharma and Bhagwan Dash. Chowkhamba ©1972
2. Ayurvedic Healing: By Dr. David Frawley. Passage Press © 1989
3. Ayurveda; The Science of Self Healing: By Dr. Vasant Lad Lotus press ©1984
4. Living Yoga; A comprehensive Guide for Daily Living: Edited by Georg Feuerstein, Stephan Bodian with the staff of the Yoga Journal. Yoga Journal, ©1993
5. Yoga; The Iyengar Way; By Silva, Mira and Shyam Metha. Knopf ©1992
6. Ayurveda Home Study Coarse: By Dr. David Frawley. ©1992
7. Yoga and Ayurveda Workshop Notes: Margo Gal.
8. Integral Yoga Hatha: Yogiraj Sri Swami Satchidananda. ©1970
In our Western culture, many people use Yoga asana as a stretching tool to keep the body limber and agile. To this extent there is no better practice. Traditionally, however, Yoga postures are a part of a much greater spiritual journey. Yoga is a complete science of helping the mind to become clear or pure. A clear mind is not affected by stress and a clear mind produces a healthy body. While the health benefits of a mind at peace are irrefutable, what is even more exciting is that a person with a clear mind is also aware of their deeper spiritual nature or connection. We say in Ayurvedai that all disease is the end result of forgetting our spiritual nature. Hence, Ayurveda and Yoga strive to help a person re-connect to their true nature through direct experience.
Yoga and Ayurveda are so closely related they are often looked at as two sides of one coin. In fact, Ayurveda is the healing side of Yoga, and Yoga is the spiritual side of Ayurveda. Together they encompass a complete approach to the well being of the body, the mind, and the spirit.
With even a little knowledge of Ayurveda, the practitioner of Hatha Yoga can refine their practice so that it is in harmony with their internal balance of energy. As with diet, herbs, aromas, etc., some Yoga postures are best for one person while others can cause greater imbalance. Knowledge of one's constitutional balance (a balance between what are known in Ayurveda as the vata, pitta, and kapha doshas) can allow the Yoga practitioner to use asanas to improve their health and well being.
Those people with an imbalance in vata dosha tend to experience greater lightness, coldness, and mobility. They may suffer from weight loss, immune weakness, constipation, cold hands and feet, and anxiety or nervousness. For these people, calming and grounding yoga poses are best. Standing postures such the tree pose (Vriksasana) and mountain pose (Tadasana) root the feet into the ground and reduce anxiety and nervousness. Poses which compress the pelvis, such as seated forward bend (Paschimottanasana), aid in reducing constipation, while strength poses such as the crane (Bakasana) aid circulation. Fast-paced poses such as repetitive sun salutations (Surya Namaskara) performed rapidly may increase nervousness over time, and poses performed without attention to detail in position may injure the joints. While the proper poses bring about balance, improper poses can cause greater imbalance.
People with an imbalance in the pitta dosha tend to suffer from excess heat in their bodies. They feel warm and may have a multitude of skin conditions such as acne or psoriasis. They may also suffer from diarrhea, burning eyes, and liver weakness. Calming and cooling poses which compress the solar plexus help balance them, while poses which extend the solar plexus help dissipate heat in the body. Poses such as the cobra (Bhujangasana) and the bow (Dhanurasana) are examples of poses which dissipate excess heat. Those people of pitta imbalance need to avoid overheating themselves with their Yoga practice. Aerobic forms of Yoga causing profuse sweating should be avoided as should inverted poses which increase the heat in the head.
Those with a kapha imbalance tend to experience excess heaviness, sluggishness, coldness, and dampness in their body. They suffer from congestion, weight gain, and lethargy. Stimulating and heating forms of Yoga suit their needs well. Aerobic forms are recommended though they should begin slowly and work their way up in aggressiveness. The sun salutation, as the name suggests is quite heating and performed with repetition, is perhaps the best Yoga sequence for Kapha imbalance. Its aerobic nature alleviates lethargy and assists with weight loss. Poses which extend or open the chest reduce congestion and aid breathing. These include the upward bow pose (Urdhva Dhanurasana) and the bridge pose (Setu Bandha Sarvangasana). While meditative poses can be performed by those of kapha nature or imbalance, they must always be balanced with active postures to avoid an increase in lethargy.
Yoga poses themselves are not a complete healing program. They are a part of a complete regimen for balancing the body and mind utilizing all of the components of Ayurveda. This includes proper diet, herbs, aromatherapy, color therapy, sound therapy, meditation, detoxification, rejuvenation, and creating a harmonious lifestyle. The individual who follows an Ayurvedic program is assured of creating an optimal environment in their body for healing to take place. In an optimal environment, the body can reach its greatest potential. We say in Ayurveda that where there is harmony there is health, and where there is disharmony there is disease. Ayurveda and Yoga combine to lead a person on the path to perfect harmony and optimal health.
Patanjali, author of the Yoga Sutras, laid out the path for using Yoga as a guide to enlightenment. He said: "We must proceed gradually through all of the steps of yoga practice." Yoga postures are just one step of the process of preparing the body to be able to manage both the increase and the heightening of energy that occurs with spiritual practice. Asanas, along with proper lifestyle (including proper diet, disciplines, and restraints), are the foundations upon which spiritual growth can occur. Once the proper foundation has been achieved, the deeper practices can begin.
Both Yoga and Ayurveda incorporate meditation and breathing techniques in their practices. Meditation as a tool can be used both for healing as well as for spiritual awareness. While Ayurvedic techniques focus on the healing component of meditation, Yoga focuses on its spiritual components. Regardless of one's focus, meditation clears the mind and relaxes the body, resulting in both healing and spiritual awareness. There are many forms of meditation which act like tools; helping the practitioner to achieve their desired end result. While some individuals resonate with one particular type more than others, for the most part meditative techniques are tools and all of them have value for the right person.
Healing ourselves with Yoga and Ayurveda is indeed a journey. It is not a quick fix or a magic pill. It heals us at the core of our nature, in essence through the transformation of consciousness. It is a discipline in harmony with all of nature. As we practice, we grow and evolve as people. Stress is reduced, harmful emotions dissipate, sorrow is no longer, joy and peace return to our lives. Our internal energy builds and our eyes shine radiating the light that is life itself.
"Who burns with the bliss and suffers the sorrow of every creature within his own heart, making his own each bliss and each sorrow. Him I hold highest of the yogis." Bhagavad Gita translated by Swami Prabhavananda.