When we speak about finding balance in yoga, we are not necessarily describing a “perfect” tree pose (Vrksasana), but an increased awareness of body, mind and spirit. How does yoga balance our energy? And what does that really mean?
According to the ancient texts, Hatha yoga has three main purposes:
- To purify our body
- To balance our physical, mental and energetic aspects
- To engage in physical practices that lead to higher consciousness
The word Hatha derives from ha (sun) and tha (moon). Practicing Hatha yoga balances the heating energy of the sun and the cooling energy of the moon. The yoga teachings describe the physical, subtle and causal bodies (shariras) and five sheaths (koshas) bound together by wheels of energy (chakras). The subtle body is composed of energy, mind and intellect. Our life force (prana) flows through 72,000 energy channels (nadi).
There are three primary nadi: sushumna, ida and pingala. The sushumna runs up the middle of the body from the root chakra (maladhara) to the crown chakra (sahasara). Ida is on the left side of the body and pingala is on the right side. Ida’s cooling lunar energy nourishes our body with pranic energy. Pingala, the sun channel, brings us strong energy and is governed by the parasympathetic nervous system. Coiled at the root chakra is our kundalini energy. Practicing yoga can uncoil kundalini, allowing the energy to rise up the sushumna to our crown chakra.
Yoga includes asana, pranayama, mantra and meditation. And a well-balanced asana practice includes seated, kneeling, supine, prone and standing poses with the intention of stretching, strengthening and relaxing our physical body. By balancing our energy, we naturally improve our overall body function and sense of well-being.
Developing and adapting a personal yoga practice takes into account age, health issues, injuries, gender, vitality, emotional state and mobility. Other considerations include the time of day and season of the year. As we deepen our practice, our self-awareness increases. We begin to understand why our practice varies from day-to-day and throughout our life. We may follow a vigorous regime in our youth, while a gentle practice may prove beneficial later in life.
Understanding a few key concepts central to Ayurveda and yoga will help explain why the adaptability of yoga is so powerful.
Every living being is composed of the five basic elements (mahabhutas):
- Akash–Space serves as the medium in which other elements can manifest.
- Vayu–Air gives direction to all motion and change and to all functions in creation.
- Agni–Fire governs conversion and transformation.
- Aap–Water governs substance’s ability to change shape without losing its integrity.
- Prithvi–Earth governs the shape and structure of plant and animal.
Plant and animal life are all composed of different combinations of the five elements. The ways in which elements combine gives every substance a unique quality (tatwa).
The 20 tatwas are:
The mahabhutas combine into three basic energies–Vata, Pitta and Kapha. These energies (doshas) are present in every cell and tissue of our body and govern our psychobiological functioning.
Vata is the energy of action, transportation and movement and it is composed of ether and air. Vata attributes are dry, rough, light, cold, subtle and mobile. Asanas good for balancing Vata energy include child’s pose, seated open leg forward bend, shoulder stand and kneeling side plank.
Pitta is the energy of transformation, conversion and digestion (our metabolic system) and is composed of fire and water. The qualities of Pitta are oily, sharp, hot, light, moving and liquid with an acidic smell. Asanas good for balancing Pitta energy include seated forward bend, standing open leg forward bend, locust and twists.
Kapha is the energy of construction, lubrication and nourishment and it is composed of earth and water. Kapha’s attributes are moist, cold, heavy, dull, soft, sticky and static. Asanas good for balancing Kapha energy include dancing Shiva, camel and cobra.
Each person has a unique pattern (Prakriti) of the three doshas-one is usually primary, the other secondary, and the third less prominent. When our doshas are in balance according to our constitution, we are healthy. When doshas fall out of balance, we are in a state of dis(ease). Yoga plays an important role in balancing our doshas.
The pattern of the doshas fluctuates with the cycles of our days, seasons and lives. Late winter/early spring brings forth new life to nourish us and it is dominated by Kapha energy. Summer’s heat and rapid growth is bursting with Pitta energy. Autumn/early winter feels light and dry and it is the Vata time of year. Our life phases follow the same pattern: the energy of Kapha prevails in our youth, Pitta becomes more dominant in the prime of life and as we age, Vata energy increases. The doshic energies also change daily on two equal cycles of twelve hours each:
- Day time:
6 a.m.–10 a.m. -Kapha
10 a.m.–2 p.m. –Pitta
2 p.m.–6 p.m.– Vata
- Night time:
6 p.m.–10 p.m.– Kapha
10 p.m.–2 a.m.– Pitta
2 a.m.–6 a.m.– Vata
Many of us are drawn to that which is not necessarily good for us. To achieve balance, treat with opposites. To counteract light headed-ness, increase grounding, nourishing foods and follow a yoga practice focused on relaxing poses with slow transitions.
Adapt your yoga practice to the time of day and season of the year. For example, a morning practice should be energetic while an afternoon yoga class should be soothing, relaxing and grounding. And a warmer, more energizing practice on a cold winter morning helps balance the prevalent Kapha energy.
May you find balance, health and vitality both on and off of the mat!
[Photo by Hari Prasad Nadig – CC BY]
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