Movement and the Doshas

Movement and the Doshas

Moving Toward Health

Theresa Oswald, MD

Movement is good for our body. But the kind of exercise best for one person may not be helpful to someone else. How do we know what type of exercise is healthiest for us? According to the science of ayurveda, the best exercise for each of us depends on our particular physical and mental constitution, which is formed by a blend of three doshas—elemental forces or tendencies that have a continuing impact on our health. Wellness is marked by a balanced state of each of the dosha.

While all of us have some aspects of all three doshas, one or two doshas take the lead for most of us, and a few people are tridoshic—having nearly equal amounts of all three doshas. Let’s look in more detail at these doshas, what a doshic imbalance means, and how we can optimize our health by using movement to help balance our primary dosha. A dosha quiz can help you determine your primary dosha.

Today the word dosha is used to mean a constitutional identity. In its true, traditional sense, however, dosha refers to an unbalanced, or aggravated, state. “Your dosha” means what is out of balance. Dhatu is the true term for the balanced state. Thus, a healthy kapha person has a kapha dhatu, while someone with an illness caused by kapha has a kapha dosha (imbalance). In this post we follow the current style and use the term dosha to refer to both the balanced and unbalanced states.
The Doshas and Doshic Imbalance

The three doshas are kapha, pitta, and vata. Each represents two of the five elements: earth, water, fire, air, and space. Kapha is made of water and earth; pitta is a combination of fire and water; and vata is a mixture of air and space. Our true nature, prakriti, is the constitution—the specific mix of doshas—we were born with.

When our doshas are balanced, which means close to their original, healthy levels, it is easy to see the best in ourselves. But when lifestyle or other factors cause any of our doshas—especially our primary one—to increase over healthy levels, this change (called an imbalance or aggravation) can lead to a lack of ease in the mind and body, eventually leading to disease. For example, when vata is out of balance, it can cause pain, panic, anxiety, insomnia, or irregular digestion with gas and bloating. Ayurvedic wisdom helps us bring the doshas back into balance, improve healing, and optimize wellness through an integrated approach that includes not only the right kind of exercise, but also diet, relaxation, herbs, and mental reframing. What types of exercise can help us balance each of the doshas?

Exercise for Kapha

Kapha—earth and water—is solid, wet and cool. In its balanced state, it is stable, loyal, nurturing, strong, calm, consistent, and determined. Kapha keeps the body and joints lubricated. When it is out of balance, Kapha may manifest in conditions related to excess moisture or coolness (such as sinus congestion or low digestive fire), or in lethargy or fatigue. To balance a dosha, we need to cultivate the opposite. Thus, for people with a tendency toward a kapha imbalance, vigorous exercise that creates inner heat and a sweat is the best strategy. To get started, walking is an easy exercise, requiring no special equipment other than supportive shoes. Other aerobic activities such as dancing, jogging, cycling, basketball, boxing, and soccer would be helpful in kapha balancing. A kaphic individual may prefer a slow-flow yoga class but would benefit most from a brisk, challenging asana practice with a focus on sun salutations.

A person with a kapha imbalance may find it hard to get motivated to begin, but once a practice is made routine, kaphas are good at sustaining a routine. A kapha-motivating exercise program would be playful, interesting, and adventurous. Having an “accountability buddy” to exercise with is helpful with consistency; a great accountability buddy for walking, jogging, or cycling is a dog.

Exercise for Pitta

Pitta—a blend of fire and water—in its balanced state displays signs of brilliance, alertness, transformation, energy, and focus. When out of balance, it can be fiery and intense. Thus pittic people benefit from exercise in moderation. They shine when doing a cool and calm exercise routine, working at only 70% of their capacity. Examples of pitta-pacifying exercise are swimming, snow shoeing, water aerobics, and morning hiking. Start with a walk during the cool morning hours to enjoy the beauty of nature. This time of day may also hold at bay pitta’s tendency toward competition or intense rumination. Although pittic people prefer a vigorous yoga practice, a fluid, relaxed sequence is a better option. A balanced, moderate-paced yoga class with sustained stretches works best to keep balance. Try not to overdo or become competitive. If exercise is heating, pittas do well with a cool post-exercise shower.

Exercise for Vata

Vata—air and ether—tends toward movement and is cold, dry, delicate, and easily aggravated (thrown out of balance). When balanced, vata is creative, active, light, and flexible. When out of balance, it is like a perpetual motion machine. Vatic people benefit most from exercise that is grounding and that increases warmth, lubrication, and strength—for example yoga, strength training, other indoor exercise, or a walk in the sun. A vatic individual may be drawn toward fast-paced exercise, but smooth and steady movement like dancing, rowing, tai chi, swimming, and cycling improves their endurance and is more balancing. When practicing yoga, slow, steady sun salutations, longer holds in poses, and a focus on stillness and strength are recommended.

Vatas do best with routine and rhythm that nurture but don’t deplete. The mobile, changeable aspect of vata may not favor a regular routine, but routine is grounding. Because of vata’s tendency toward motion, rest and relaxation are a must for restoring vata’s balance.

Times of the Day, Seasons, and Exercise

Different times of the day have qualities that are similar to, and tend to heighten, each dosha.

  • Kapha times: 6 a.m. to 10 a.m. and 6 p.m. to 10 p.m.
  • Pitta times: 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. and 10 p.m. to 2 a.m.
  • Vata times: 2 a.m. to 6 a.m. and 2 p.m. to 6 p.m.

To create healing and transformation, we need to exercise at times that are not in the zone corresponding to our primary dosha—the zone most comfortable for us. The comfort zone is never the site where growth happens. This is why it is better for vatic people to exercise in pitta and kapha time zones. For pittas, it is better to exercise in vata and kapha time zones. But for those who are kaphic, due to their hesitancy to exercise at all, it is best to exercise any time they are inspired to move.

Different seasons of the year are also balancing or aggravating for different doshas. The cold, dry winds of the fall season are vata aggravating, so extra warmth, grounding, and a slower pace in exercising are needed for vata during this season. During the kapha-aggravating winter and wet spring months, vigorous activity is especially helpful in generating inner heat and energy for kapha. And in the hot summer months, pittic people need to be even more mindful about seeking coolness, moderation, and serenity.

Exercise Guidelines and Suggestions for All Doshas

Ayurvedic wisdom can help us find comfort and good health by guiding us simply to follow the rules of nature—our inner nature—in exercising. At its best, exercise should be invigorating and not depleting, with a balance of strength and flexibility. A focus on strengthening without stretching can lead to rigidity in both our body and our mind. A focus on flexibility without some attention to strength can lead to instability or laxity in body and mind. It’s important to know ourselves, to cultivate an awareness of the inner state of the body—a concept known as interoception.

Here are a few general suggestions for creating your own program of exercise:

  1. Maintain a regular practice of yoga postures and aerobic exercise to improve strength and stamina and encourage health and wellness. Remember that fatigue can be a sign of exercise deficiency. A daily yoga practice for even 10 minutes develops a habit. Yoga combines breathing, flexibility, balance, and strengthening. When paired with regular aerobic activity, it provides a comprehensive exercise program.
  2. Check in with your body frequently when exercising and, as the Yoga Sutra suggests, modify any yoga posture or other activity that does not feel steady and comfortable (sthira-sukham) or sweet (YS 2:46). Don’t overdo. Exercise is a long-term commitment, not a sprint.
  3. Do your best to exercise with awareness of the breath. This improves endurance and balances the autonomic nervous system, easing stress.
  4. Try self-massage to ease soreness from exercise. Consider using a foam roller or TheraCane.
Support your finest self.

No exercise is out of the question. Oddly, we are drawn to those activities, or to inactivity, that may actually aggravate our primary dosha. If you suspect this is the case, you may want to consider doing the opposite of your normal routine. Paying close attention to what is happening in your body and mind will help you learn to balance your constitution. Support your finest self and do not let yourself get out of balance. When your doshas are in balance, you can easily see the best in yourself.

Speaking of balance, in the next post in this series we will explore how adding balance training to your exercise routine can prevent injuries, improve posture and coordination, and keep you moving.

About the Author

Theresa Oswald, MD

Theresa Oswald, MD, the founder and president of Knowledge as Medicine (KnowledgeAsMedicine.com), is a holistic physician with 25 years of experience who specializes in an integrative approach to pain and rehabilitation. After receiving her medical degree from the Medical College of Wisconsin, she completed her residency training at The Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago at Northwestern University. She is board-certified in physical medicine and rehabilitation, as well as in integrative medicine. Her career as a physiatrist has been spent honing ways to optimize her patients’ functioning in all areas of health: body, mind, and spirit. Her experience includes the delivery of medicine in the most modern hospital settings as well as in the most simple, rural settings in developing countries.