Yoga For Your Dosha

“I should really be doing yoga, shouldn’t I?” I hear from many of my massage clients. They see that I am fit, assume I practice some yoga, maybe they think I am a teacher, I am their conscience about their own fitness level, flexibility, stress level, and even for the foods they eat. We are a culture so adept at “guilting” ourselves into what we do, not to mention the “keeping up with the Jones’s” mentality that we are all susceptible to in successful climates. I encourage many people to develop their interest in yoga, but if they are new to it, I especially encourage them to seek a conscientious teacher who takes time to introduce them to the concepts, the philosophies, and the depths of the postures, because people do get hurt practicing yoga. It may be that they don’t have enough personalized instruction, maybe they do not ask for help, maybe they just try it at home with a video with no one to correct them. The other possibility that is less often considered has to do with the energetic; the energetic of each person and how that fits with the energetic of the yoga.

Yoga is a sister science to Ayurveda, “The Science of Life”, an ancient practice of medicine and healing originating in what is now India and Pakistan over 5000 years ago. Ayurveda is based in the premise that there are 5 elements that dictate the energetics of all things in our world: earth, water, fire, air, and ether or space. These elements combine to form the doshas, like a constitution, present in all living things. Kapha combines Earth and Water, Pitta combine Fire and Water, and Vata combines Air and Ether. Most of us humans are a combination of 2 doshas, with one being more dominant. Where that dosha is dominant is an important question: is it in the physical body and where? The mind? The emotions? Given a survey, which can easily be found by most any internet search and in any book about Ayurveda, a person’s scores add up to show a general predominance for one dosha over the others. This information is important when choosing a yoga practice, especially one that is focused on the asanas, or postures.

A strongly Vata practitioner is someone deeply dedicated to what they are doing at the time. When they choose a project, a job, a class, a teacher, a boyfriend or girlfriend, and a type of yoga, they are dedicated 210%; until they find something more interesting! Vatas are impulsive, they change their minds a lot, shift midstream even. Yet they are creative, gregarious, open-hearted, and open to all kinds of experiences. But Vatas have limited energy, and they tend to use it all up at once. Their bodies do not retain calories or minerals well, and they lack reserves. Though they will often be drawn to yoga with a lot of movement and challenge, because it reflects their tendencies, what they really need is calmness, structure, stillness, and restoration. Many types of Hatha Yoga can be tailored for Vatas, but until a Vata really knows themself and how to pace themself in a class, it is good to stick to a purer type or a conscientious teacher who can be trusted to guide them into the postures and adaptations suited for their constitution. Kali Ray TriYoga, White Lotus, Viniyoga, Svaroopa, Phoenix Rising, Anusara, Yin Yoga, Tibetan, and anything titled “restorative” are examples of yoga that may be best suited for those of strongly Vata-dominant constitution. Iyengar may attract a Vata with its structure, but the class should not be too rigid or demanding. Kundalini can be transformative and heating, but too much intensive breathwork can unground the Vata. Kripalu style may also be good, but again must be mitigated for the degree of physical challenge and length of time in postures. A Vata should be looking for yoga that is flowing and gentle, with plenty of breathwork and meditation, an emphasis on structure and stillness, and which requires a level of commitment. They should be wary of types of yoga that have the word “Power” in them, cause excessive sweating, move quickly from one posture to another, require the feet to frequently leave the ground (Ashtanga), or classes that lack emphasis on breath and meditative focus. Vatas become easily “burned out”, overworked, depleted, and can be deranged in their dosha from an ungrounded practice. Sports that are best for Vatas are walking, swimming, dancing, hiking, and gardening, and the yoga practice should reflect the gentler nature that is within them.

Now, the Pitta dominant practitioner wants a challenge. Pittas are go-getters, they are competitive, driven, ambitious, organized, time-managers, condensers of information, and they will listen to the opinions given herein and still do whatever they please!! Pitta is fire, transformation, digestion, and temperature is the most predominant attribute: HOT. Being sporty and competitive, Pittas are instinctively drawn to yoga styles such as Bikram, Ashtanga, Power Yoga, Iyengar, and Kundalini. What they must be very careful of in these styles is not to become overheated, not to become too competitive and judge themselves against their neighbor or teacher, and not to burn themselves out if they also tend to be Vata in their second dosha. Fire + Air creates dryness, or the air can fan the flames and increase heat and inflammatory conditions. For the Pitta who is highly competitive, or tends toward Vata secondarily, the more flowing types of yoga are more suitable: Kali Ray TriYoga, White Lotus, Viniyoga, Svaroopa, Phoenix Rising, Kripalu, Anusara, Tibetan, Yin Yoga, Jivamukti, and even some restorative. The goal is to promote “keeping one’s eyes on one’s own paper”, compassion with self and others, calmness and coolness, a peaceful refuge from the day’s onslaught, and rejuvenation and restoration before heading back into the melee of the ambitious life lived by the Pitta dominant person. Often a Pitta is already engaging in some form of sport. Team sports are good for them but also demanding physically. They may be long distance runners, cyclists or spinners, triathletes, and so on. Their yoga practice must complement and sometimes counteract this activity level. If they are physically so active, it is almost a given that they are mentally highly active and need rejuvenation from their yoga. Pitta-Kaphas may be less likely to use their bodies than their brains and benefit the most of the Pittas from the more physically demanding yoga like the Ashtanga and Power yoga. If their secondary dosha is Kapha, they are more suited to these types of yoga because the Kapha brings coolness and endurance. Bikram may still be too hot, but Kundalini may truly motivate the Kapha and elevate the Pitta.

For Kaphas, it is important to note first that A) Few people are truly, singularly Kapha, and B) Just because a person is carrying extra weight does not make them a Kapha dominant person. A purely Kapha person is a complete homebody, does not tend to get out and join classes, might be reading this article but is not going to change anything because they are comfortable with the status quo and not interested in exploring other possibilities. Food and other comforts are of primary importance. A pure Kapha might get on the floor and start to stretch, but upon encountering resistance might roll over and decide to take a nap…think Winnie the Pooh. Kaphas are very nurturing, and when in balance, they are calm and peaceful. Being in balance for a Kapha, however, means being aware of the need for movement and making sure there is engagement in activities. Having some Vata or Pitta in the constitution helps with this. The Kapha-Vata combination is usually quite talkative and creative, can get off-track and distracted, goes through periods of crazy activity followed by periods of much-needed retreat. The Kapha-Pitta is intermittently sporty, often a weekend warrior type who has innate strength and endurance, but may not consistently engage in physical activity. In either combination, more active and intense yoga styles are generally indicated. Kaphas need vigorous pranayama, or breathing, exercises. Unless they have a strong secondary Pitta and are warm-natured, they also need to stimulate all metabolic activity in the body, and raise the internal temperature. These are the folks best suited for long, vigorous practices like Ashtanga, Power Yoga, Bikram, intensive Iyengar, and Kundalini to bring the earthly energies up into the higher chakras. Those with a lot of Kapha in their constitution are well regarded in Ayurveda because they possess natural endurance, immunity, longevity, resistance, and lovely qualities like peacefulness, contentedness, gleaming skin, thick wavy hair, and large brilliant eyes. Again, all of this is for a Kapha who is in balance. Utilizing a purifying and activating, as well as enlightening, yoga practice to maintain balance allows a Kapha dominant practitioner to access and reap the benefits of all these delightful traits.

Because Yoga and Ayurveda are sister sciences, bringing the two together in search of an appropriate yoga practice is essential. Yoga is a personal journey, a path to betterment of oneself for the sake of all others. It is to be engaged in with ernestness, seriousness, and commitment; yet it should provide balance, joy, and a sense of freedom. Using the dosha as a foundation for seeking an appropriate practice can narrow the field and help a new practitioner more easily identify the yoga that is right for them, and may even help a seasoned practitioner understand the ways in which modifying their practice might enliven and bring more balance to their journey. Reading more about each dosha will also help any practitioner in any yoga class take more care with their body and know their own needs and limitations. In any given class, for instance, Pitta-Kaphas might step it up a notch and move through asanas with more vigor and power, while Vata-Pittas might tone it down and be more gentle with themselves and not take the “advanced options” all the time. Finding a yoga instructor who understands the doshas is like finding a personal guide on the path to balance, understanding, and maybe even enlightenment!


References: “Not All Yoga Is Created Equal” by Jennifer Cook for Yoga Journal

©Copyright 2012,  By Amber Lynn Vitale




A Field Guide to Yoga Styles

The practice of yoga has literally exploded in the US. According to a 2005 Yoga Journal/Harris Interactive survey, an estimated 16.5 million Americans practice some form of yoga. That number has certainly grown since then. As an “industry”—if we can call it that—yoga generates more than $3 billion in revenue annually.

This hasn’t gone unnoticed in medical circles. Many clinicians who practice yoga themselves areexploring ways to bring it into their clinics. Several prominent medical centers now offer yoga-based programs for everything from physical rehab to adjunctive cancer care (read Once Considered “Fringe,” Yoga Enters Mainstream Cancer Care from the Spring 2011 edition of HPC). Researchers are exploring yoga’s effects on multiple sclerosis, diabetes, HIV, COPD, arthritis, hypertension, and chronic low back pain, among other disorders.

Though many people relate to yoga simply as a form of recreation or stress reduction, it is actually a very deep and complex practice aimed at harmonizing physical, mental, and emotional functions. The Sanskrit word, “Yoga,” translates as ‘to unite.” It is certainly a lot more nuanced than, say, a spin class or an aerobics workout!

Yoga has been around for thousands of years, but there are many new manifestations of the traditional practices. The sheer variety of yoga styles—traditional and modern– can be bewildering for patients and clinicians alike. It is important to understand the distinctions between them, as not all styles are appropriate for all people. Like so much of health care, the choice of yoga practice should be individualized, taking into account overall health, specific challenges, temperament, commitment level and other personal factors.

Finding a Safe Practice

When people say they’re taking “a yoga class,” they are usually referring to one of the many versions of Hatha Yoga, the yoga of physical discipline. It’s a good idea to ask a patient what the class is called. If there is not a definitive name for the style, ask what they do in the class. This will give you an idea of the rigor, intensity, instruction level and attention to safety.

People with chronic medical conditions can certainly benefit from regular yoga practice, but they should be careful about the style they practice, and always respect their bodies’ needs and limitations. For example, inversion postures—anything from a forward bend to a handstand–could be a concern for people with high blood pressure, glaucoma, retinal detachments, atherosclerosis, a tendency to form clots, and spinal conditions.

Many yoga asanas (poses) are purported to help with specific conditions. But the postures themselves are only one aspect of practice: how someone moves from one asana to another is just as important. It may be true that Wheel Pose (Upward Bow or Urdhva Dhanurasana) is helpful for backaches, sciatica, and menstrual disorders, but this does not mean someone should just jump into a backbend with no training, preparation, or support! The pace, intensity, duration, and temperature of a class really matters. That’s where the expertise of a well-trained teacher makes a difference.

As an Ayurvedic practitioner and health counselor, I encourage people to develop their interest in yoga, but if they are new to it, I urge them to seek a conscientious teacher who takes time to introduce the concepts, philosophies, and depths of the postures, and who can guide them to practice levels appropriate to their health status. Yoga is generally very safe, but people can get hurt if they don’t know what they’re doing.

The sheer diversity of practice styles and colorful names may make yoga seem like a forest full of exotic birds. Don’t worry! Here’s a “field guide” to help you determine which styles are most appropriate for which patients. Over the years, I’ve found three styles—Kali Ray TriYoga, Jivamukti, and White Lotus—to be particularly beneficial and safe for patients with medical conditions, though others may be just as effective.

Gentler Yoga Styles

Kali Ray TriYoga is a flowing, continuous, and smooth style that is generally quite serene. That said, the nature of these postures still demands strength and flexibility. This is good for high-stress patients who need to slow down but want to feel they are using their bodies. Because of the slower, meditative pace, this is a good style for home practice using DVDs. One of Kali Ray’s advantages is that the relatively slow pace gives students time to figure out and perfect each posture or movement. For lethargic or unmotivated people, this style may not be stimulating enough.

Jivamukti Yoga can be physically challenging, but also spiritually engaging. Classes proceed through various poses, but also involve meditations, chanting, readings, music, and even discussions. Focus may sometimes be on a single posture. There is room for a practitioner to take things at her own pace, and gradually increase in intensity. This makes Jivamukti a suitable style for many types of people.

Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy is another modern yoga style that provides hands-on instruction and facilitation. A major goal is to guide the postures and the breathing to facilitate the release of both physical and emotional tensions and blocks.

Yin Yoga focuses on connective tissue in the lower spine, hips and pelvis to gently stimulate the flow of Qi in the meridians. In this way it is quite different from many other practices that are focused more on movement and contraction of the muscles. Yin Yoga is much like self-myofascial release, as postures are held 3-10 minutes to facilitate full unwinding of restricted tissue. The long duration of the postures also encourages a more meditative practice, with a resulting benefit of stress reduction.

More Vigorous Styles

More powerful and physically challenging forms of vinyasa yoga include Ashtanga and Power Yoga. There are also several other more vigorous forms worth considering.

Ashtanga, popular with celebrities, this style is fast-paced and vigorous with lots of continuous movement and breathwork. Practitioners will sweat and will definitely get their respiration rates up! Instructors and experienced students will often jump—literally–from one pose to another. This is a great style for someone who needs vigorous exercise, who needs to sweat and purge, and whose joints are generally in good shape. Those with injuries, circulatory blockages, extremes of blood pressure, or other physical disabilities should be careful with Ashtanga. They can either “walk” through the postures or start with a gentler style. Likewise, pregnant women should avoid Ashtanga, as the jumping from pose to pose could be detrimental.

Power Yoga is, in a sense, a more Westernized form of Ashtanga. It is quite similar, but adapted to health clubs and commercial yoga studios. Some instructors add heat to this, warming up the room to increase flexibility and sweat. From a physical health perspective, it has many of the same virtues as Ashtanga, and the same drawbacks.

Bikram & “Hot” Yoga popularized (and commercialized) in the 1970s and 80s by Bikram Choudhury, is a modern synthesis of traditional poses practiced in a room heated to 100° F or higher, to simulate the climate of the Indian subcontinent in which yoga originated. Because it induces so much sweating, this is an excellent style for helping people purge toxins. Practitioners say the heat also increases oxygen intake.

The postures in Bikram yoga are traditional Hatha, but are held longer than in vinyasa (“flowing”) styles, and are repeated. The sustained postures and heat make this a physically challenging style that increases heart rate as much as strength and flexibility. Very thin people may be depleted by the excessive sweating. Those who tend to be warm/flushed under normal circumstances may overwhelm their thermoregulatory capacities. Bikram and any other “Hot” yoga style should be approached cautiously by patients on medication for blood pressure and other cardiac concerns. Those with low blood pressure, inflammatory conditions, or a tendency toward low blood sugar are probably not the best candidates for hot yoga. It is definitely not a good choice during pregnancy.

Urdhva Dhanurasana (Upward Bow or Wheel Pose)

Iyengar Yoga is a venerable style in which postures are held for long periods, and instructors givedetailed focus on the alignment and subtleties of each position. Iyengar instructors are highly engaged with students, offering plenty of hands-on instruction. This style works well for patients with medical concerns who are drawn to the structure and vigor, but might be harmed by faster-paced styles. Iyengar gives them the space to back off if they find that a posture exacerbates symptoms. That said, the duration and intensity of the postures makes this style challenging for people who are severely debilitated or lacking endurance. Iyengar is best avoided during pregnancy unless a woman is already an experienced practitioner.

Self-Development Through Yoga

In its essence, yoga is more than physical exercise; it is a pathway for self-development. Popular yoga styles such as Kundalini, Ananda, Anusara, and Kripalu are highly focused on self-evolution, consciousness and spirituality.

Kundalini Yoga uses postures, dynamic breathwork, chanting and meditation to awaken energy at the base of the spine. It is extremely important to have a live instructor for this type of yoga because of the intensity of the energy it can generate. Patients with physical or emotional blockages might find that this type of yoga—if not properly guided—can exacerbate symptoms.  If a patient is practicing Kundalini yoga, work closely with him/her to monitor any medical conditions.

Ananda Yoga is a great option for people with medical conditions who seek more from yoga than physical health improvements or increased physical function. Ananda yoga emphasizes traditional poses and silent affirmations used to deepen and enhance the more subtle aspects of each posture. The goal is to align body, energy, and mind. Any time postures are held, rather than “flowed through”, there is room for students to ask questions and express concerns.

Anusara Yoga blends precise biomechanics with human spirit. The practice is “heart oriented” and seeks to unfold a posture from the “inside out”, without forcing or subjugating the body to something unnatural or difficult. This is a highly devotional practice, less about the outward physical effects it will yield.

Setu Bandhu Sarvangasana (Bridge Pose)

Kripalu Yoga, introduced by Amrit Desai in the mid 1960s and developed at the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health in Massachusetts, this style blends physical, emotional, and spiritual exercises and aims at developing a student’s intuition and innate wisdom while helping to release physical and mental tensions. The Kripalu approach involves holding postures to the level of tolerance and beyond, so it may not be appropriate for people new to yoga or for those who have serious physical concerns.

This “field guide” is hardly an exhaustive list of all the Hatha yoga styles now being taught in the US, but it does cover many of the most popular ones you and your patients are likely to encounter. If a patient with medical conditions is expressing interest in yoga, encourage him or her to start with a gentler style, and make sure to follow-up and ask about some of the postures they are practicing as they get involved.

For patients who are already fit or physically active, yoga can complement their workouts, helping to create balance, strength and flexibility. For those in generally good health, but suffering from the aches and pains of aging and sedentary lifestyle, yoga is an excellent means of awakening the body and restoring natural movement. Along the way, your patients might find their way to better emotional and spiritual health as well!


Amber Lynn Vitse, CN, LMT, is an Ayurvedic practitioner, certified nutritionist, and massage therapist practicing in Knoxville, TN. She graduated from American Health Sciences University, Florida Vedic College, Alchemy Institute for the Healing Arts, and has years of education in Integrative Nutrition and Body Therapies. She is also the Director of Ayurveda Education for Nature’s Formulary, a US based supplier of Ayurvedic herbal medicines.

“A Field Guide to Yoga Styles”

©Copyright 2012,  By Amber Lynn Vitse  –   Holistic Primary Care,  Vol. 13, No. 1. Spring, 2012