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 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 www.naliniayurveda.com.
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Asst.Ed: Jennifer Spesia
Ed: Bryonie Wise