Ashtanga Yoga & the Pitta-dominant Personality. ~ Debbie Kadagian

Via elephant journal
on Feb 14, 2013
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Coming from the perspective of Ayurveda, Ashtanga yoga attracts quite a few pitta-dominant people.

According to the science of Ayurveda, all living things consist of five elements: space, air, fire, water and earth. For the purpose of diagnosis, these five elements are divided into three doshas: vata (space and air), pitta (fire and water), and kapha (water and earth). Each of the three doshas has definitive qualities.

Pitta qualities include: hot, sharp, spreading, disciplined, bright, ambitious, perfectionist and competitive. It is most often pitta-dominant people who have the ability to get things done in our world (a la Steve Jobs). Suffice it to say, Ashtanga yoga practice is hard, and one might say it requires a combination of discipline and ambition.

Many of us come to yoga practice and feel like we’ve found something very familiar to us.

Still others come to yoga to help with an addiction, and others, because they want a yoga body. Whatever the reason for showing up, we all begin with that first, wonderful sun salutation.

As we go deeper into the practice—slowly, but surely—we find ourselves living more in rhythm with nature (i.e., getting up closer to sunrise for our early morning practice, eating our biggest meal when the sun is at its peak, having a light supper and then early to bed).

Our bad habits often diminish. It can be brutally uncomfortable to go out for a late night meal, drink alcohol then get up early for an early morning practice. This lifestyle we find ourselves adapting is called dinacharya in Ayurveda. Dinacharya means right lifestyle; living with the rhythms of the day.

There are Ayurvedic lifestyle guidelines and suggestions for practitioners, and often these healthy lifestyle changes occur naturally as we get further into a regular Mysore practice. All these shifts and changes are very good things.

The interesting thing though, is this pitta nature.

Over years of practice, I’ve come to realize many Mysore rooms have pitta-dominant energy. Ayurveda states very clearly, pushing ourselves too hard in exercise (or asana), and sweating profusely, is not favorable. This can leave us depleted for the rest of the day, or we might find ourselves irritated later in the day and not know why. Exercising to 50 percent of our capacity is ideal, leaving good, calm energy for the rest of the day.

If one of the qualities of pitta is intensity, it makes sense to say pushing ourselves hard will increase this intensity (which is not necessarily a good intensity). If we practice Ashtanga yoga, we know it is hard. It requires dedication, commitment and a certain amount of that pitta-nature. We may desire mastery of the harder postures. We may have heard it’s good to push ourselves harder.

It’s important to know the difference between when it’s good to push ourselves—because we are just being lazy, which is not too common for a pitta-dominant person, but still possible—and when to pull back because we are trying too hard to get the posture, meanwhile, not listening to our bodies which are telling us it’s too much.

Why do we need to push ourselves so hard? So we can put our leg behind our head? Of course, many of us see someone doing this and we think, I want to do that too.

But we can’t limit our focus to the fruits of our labor. Pattabhi Jois (the founder of Ashtanga yoga) explained, “Just do your work and all is coming.” Someday, with a steady, committed practice, that posture may just happen when we least expect it. Pushing too hard contradicts the goal of life.

Ayurvedic lifestyle supports our lives being lived in a way that we can achieve total wellness and harmony between mind, body and spirit, including natural resistance to disease causing conditions. In order to create this harmony, it is necessary to create balance. If intensity is too strong in us, we need to find a way to balance it.

It’s not necessary to try so hard to get the posture, have sweat dripping off us, all while looking around the room to see who is doing what we can’t. This will create imbalance, and certainly not achieve the purpose of having a yoga practice, which is ultimately just to be a better, kinder, more loving person with a little enlightenment thrown in.

Indeed, even Aldous Huxley said, “It’s rather embarrassing to have given one’s entire life to pondering the human predicament and to find that in the end one has little more to say than, ‘Try to be a little kinder.’

To go through this practice with calmness and ease—and not worry about the outcome, but keep on keeping on—is such a perfect metaphor for life.

A very wise, compassionate man, Dr. Vasant Lad, said about our to approach our asana practice:

“Asa means existence, and asana means physical posture. Sthiram sukhanam asanam means being stable and comfortable, both physically and mentally, while in a particular posture. In the ancient Vedic concept of physical exercise, comfort is most important. While sitting or moving comfortably, prana moves more deeply into the tissues. When you sit easily in a single, stable position for some time, the flow of prana brings the doshas back into their homes in the gastrointestinal tract. This brings clarity to the mind, lightness to the body and alertness to the senses. It unfolds peace and bliss in the heart and expands the consciousness. These are the benefits of asana.”

In other words, there is a fine line in ashtanga yoga we must be mindful not to cross. Let’s not try so hard to get into some of these difficult postures if it means we are falling on the wrong side of that line.

Peace and bliss in the heart, and expanded consciousness sounds good enough to me.

Now, if only I could get back up in karandavasana someday…



Debbie KadagianDebbie Kadagian is an ayurvedic health counselor, an avid ashtanga yoga practitioner, married for 22 years with a son (at Naropa University) and a daughter (at NYU). She is currently at work on a documentary entitled: Healing the Mind: the Synthesis of Ayurveda and Western Psychiatry. She can be reached at [email protected] and


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Ed: Bryonie Wise


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15 Responses to “Ashtanga Yoga & the Pitta-dominant Personality. ~ Debbie Kadagian”

  1. Scott Miller says:

    History does not support your ideas here. Pattabhi Jois (with his crooked teeth and crazy body proportions) was clearly vatta. Richard Freeman, Chuck Miller, Maty Ezraty, David Life, and David Swenson are all clearly vatta types as well. They were attracted to the practice in connection with Ashtanga's vatta friendly, movement-orientation. It appeals to movement lovers. Vattas love to move. Iyengar, though, is pitta. If you want to feel some pitta energy check out a master Iyengar class. All the sturdy, balanced, purposeful, overly practical pittas on parade will change your thinking here I think. Real pittas actually don't like Ashtanga as much as vattas because pittas really don't like to sweat. They have enough internal fire as it is and it's not practical enough for them. Of course, kaphas should be the ones flocking to Ashtanga, but, as we know, it's not going to happen. Desikachar is kapha and avoids Ashtanga like the plague. Isn't it interesting that the 3 hathayogic styles that Krishnamacharya taught ended up being popularized by people with the different doshas?

  2. Thaddeus1 says:

    As my teacher David Garrigues says (in paraphrase), "Bring on the fire. There is no shortage of things (re. samskaras) to burn through."

    I'm not opposed to Ayurveda, but as an ashtanga practitioner I can see how we could potentially do a disservice to ourselves in interpreting our practice through a lens whose vision is orientated strictly towards bodily health. As a practice of yoga, ashtanga is not necessarily focused on the "health" of the body per se, but more on purifying one's existence in the body. This is not to say that there is not an arena for productive dialogue between these two world views, but I believe such conversations are often overly simplistic.

  3. Kidstone says:

    Interesting perspective. I don't know if I'm pitta-dominant or not, but I do know that when I stopped trying so hard in my ashtanga practice, and mellowed my mind a little, I felt better about not only my practice, but my life.

  4. Debbie says:

    Very thoughtful response. I'm going out on a limb here and saying that I believe Pattabhi Jois was probably pitta/vata. Yes, the crooked teeth indicate vata, but the bald head, the benevolent desire (ambition) to "spread" the ashtanga system, the discipline required to do so, the way he commanded attention in a guided class, all are indicators of a good, healthy pitta dosha present (not imbalanced). Vata likes to move, for sure, but likes change very much, and if vata is the dominant dosha, it may be more difficult to stick with the unchanging sequence of ashtanga yoga practice, amongst other things. Certainly it is up for debate. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

  5. Scott Miller says:

    Absolutely right, Thaddeus.

  6. Myrna M says:

    Believe it or not, I am kapha/vata and I looove Ashtanga! I am more kapha than vata. I can sleep for 8 or 9 hrs. and enjoy sitting on the couch for hours, daydreaming and reading. Ashtanga is the only physically challenging thing that I do in my life. I love the "prana charge" that it gives me for the rest of the day. I always look forward to practicing. I really feel that it staves off aggravated kapha. It keeps me from being lazy, slightly depressed and unmotivated.

  7. BBolder says:

    For years I've been struck by the same thing as the author. Note she was not trying to describe one of the pioneers of the practice (Jois), but the people in the classes. Personally, I've always thought the real pittas are the teachers (and especially the women teachers)!

    This assessment probably depends on the style – power yoga obviously attracts power yogis – which on one hand makes sense, even as it does not. Because while we all know the value of balance, we're all attracted to what is comfortable, which usually is what we already have and don't need more of.

    The reason I'm writing this is because I'm a major pitta, and if I keep promoting balance, maybe one day I'll actually practice it.

  8. Lisa Quish says:

    Very interesting article and intelligent comments from readers who clearly live their own practice. A few thoughts and questions;

    In response to Scott, I have always found it interesting to make a guess at my students dosha and as per yourself and Debbie’s debate re crooked teeth v bald head of Jois I guess it remains unknown factually what dosha he was but I was not surprised to see Myrna’s response either and a friend of mine who I could have sworn from temperament and appearance was a pitta Kapha ( if that is possible Debbie?) turned out to be a pitta vatta.

    Which brings us along to Thaddeus and what I believe he is saying is that theoretically speaking practice of itself is the predictor of what feels right or wrong through trial & error on the mat. Shandor Remette from yet another school of Hatha says, ‘theoretical information should never be imposed upon the practice, instead it should be used as a method for observing one’s behaviour. It must not interfere with the natural movements of the limbs and the pranic force’.

    I think that the debate is wonderful and I currently feel that my practice is becoming more fluid and circular, as I learn more through a combination of practice, study (yes back to the theory) I realise that alignment for me now means steadiness and lightness in an asana but that takes time to come and has been cultivated through my teaching, practice and love of Ayurveda.

    Thanks all & Debbie I will be doing a thesis soon for my500hr and feel more questions coming hopefully you will be happy to engage as my theme starts to grow limbs!

  9. Dash says:

    This is interesting, Debbie. Thank you!

    I noticed something at the Ashtanga Confluence last year – that there are two predominant male bodies who gravitate towards Ashtanga and have an ability to do the practice "well".

    The first type is the long-limbed, tall and rangy man – like RIchard Freeman or Chuck Miller. The second type is the smaller (shorter than 5' 9") , but well-proportioned man – similar to David Swenson. There were few "large" guys, or men with bulky muscles, there doing the practice, in comparison to these two other groups.

    (What this means as it applies to Ayurveda, I have no idea, but I thought it was interesting to note – and, btw, I must admit that I didn't notice the women as much, since I prefer the male form!)

    Now, I know that the Confluence attendees were self-selecting and the nature of that weekend filtered out newer students, who had been practicing for only a short time – and who's bodies had not undergone the physical change that does happen when you become a regular practitioner. Regardless, the rigorous nature of the Ashtanga practice requires a fit, light and flexible body. And, it develops a fit, light, flexible body – when done consistently for a long time. It brings great health and wellness on many levels and, when done correctly, balances and grounds us. Which is what it was designed to do, yes? I may be mistaken, but I think Krishnamacharya said in Yoga Makaranda that Primary and Second series were appropriate for ALL humans, really, and both series were designed as regular "maintenance" for the body to keep it healthy and strong.

  10. Kali says:

    I am primarily vata with a tendency to imbalance due to lifestyle choices. I love Ashtanga but in order to practice it I must have a long standing and continuous practice of a much slower, less intensive asana practice which will prepare me for it and counter it to some degree. I do best with viniyoga styles with gentle dynamic movement focusing on the breath, working into holding static postures for Several breaths. I’ve tried to make a switch to faster dynamic sequencing on a daily basis. Usually for one week or so I feel amazing and then suddenly very depleted, or I pull a muscle. As my personal constitution is so prone to joint inflammation and stiffness, ashtanga is just more than needed I think. And more than one hot yoga class in a week absolutely leads to a cold. The body is amazing.

  11. Debbie says:

    yes, I will be very happy to engage!

  12. Beth says:

    I am a kapha and Ashtanga is by far the most challenging practice, yoga or not. Cultivating a light, airy movement and intense dedication to the sequence is alien to a grounded, watery kapha. For this reason, I believe that because of this challenge, an Ashtanga practice is good for me. The challenge to cultivate airiness by constantly lifting my body off the earth and the fiery, severe dedication to and repetition of the sequence balance my excess kapha (even though I cringe to admit it). Each time I practice, I feel like I am in an alien place, but when I finally reach the end, especially on days I challenge myself to stay focussed and dedicated to each asana, I feel I am truly balanced.
    As far as the types of people Ashtanga attracts, I agree that pittas and vattas are most drawn to Ashtanga, but that doesn't mean Ashtanga is always good for them — it could be aggravating their constitution.
    Oh, and nobody considered Jois could have been tridoshic — crooked teeth, bald head … and luminous, watery eyes. Hmmmm?

  13. […] that’s just going backwards. How will less effort get me there? Surely common sense says that more effort will get you there. If I stop trying I may never get […]

  14. Ramani says:

    Hey folks, Ayurveda would teach that your ashtanga practice is DISEASE FORMING. Take note. Yesi it might be ok for kapha, but that is about it. For those of you who think that since yoga is about spirutality and pushing your body is ok since this is yoga and not Ayurveda think again. Those yogis who pushed their body to extremes had GREAT control over SUBTLE energy and could transmute things through mantras, prana control, and intention. Sorry but that takes the great majority of you out of the picture who do need to take care of your body. Ashtanga was taken for a sequence for young teenage boys taught by Krishnamacharya. IT was never intended for the masses.

  15. omshantimomma says:

    Interesting conversation in the comments, I've enjoyed reading it. Wanted to clarify though, Krishnamacharya was Jois' teacher, I would think if a designation must be applied, he'd be the " founder", yes?