It’s so easy to get caught up in Ayurveda as a set of hard and fast rules, looking at it as black and white with clear ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ actions.
Ayur means life, and veda means knowledge. Ayurveda, then, is the knowledge of life. It is described as a science, but equally as important, it is an art. It is based in universal, unchanging principles and still, there are shades of grey. We get the best results when we use our buddhi, or discerning intellect, to apply the wise, unchanging, natural principles to our individual and very unique lives.
I was asked a question about the effects of running on vata dosha, which set up a great opportunity to demonstrate using the buddhi, or discerning intellect, to sort through our choices from the foundation of Ayurveda principles in real daily life decisions. Before you read further, consider pausing and taking a few moments to invite yourself to utilize your buddhi to take in the information on a feeling level rather than a purely intellectual level. The more you can feel the principles and energy underlying this vast science and art, the more you will be able to apply the principles to many other situations in your life, which allows you to balance, heal, grow, and evolve.
So pause, and become aware of yourself in the space you are in. Notice the sounds you hear outside of the room. And then inside of the room. Maybe in your own body. Next, notice how your body feels. Where do you feel the weight of your body as you are sitting or standing? Are you carrying tension, or do you feel light and free? Notice your mind. Without judgement. Notice your breath. Relax your breath. Close your eyes and take three full, conscious breaths, letting your belly move as part of the breathing process, and then smile to yourself, open your eyes, and relax into reading the conversation that follows.
BACKGROUND INFORMATION ABOUT VATA DOSHA
Just like all of nature, we human beings are made up of the pancha mahabhutas, or five great elements of earth, water, fire, air and ethers. These five elements combine to form three doshas that each of us has in varying degrees. Identifying the original balance of our doshas at birth (our constitution) and the current imbalance provides a way to understand our tendencies as well as reverse symptoms and disease so that we can feel our best while living a vibrant life at our fullest potential.
One of the three doshas is vata. Vata is made up of the air and ethers elements and is responsible for movement in the body. It is what allows for everything in the body to function. It is especially important to keep this dosha balanced because when imbalanced, it leads to more diseases than the other doshas and can easily push the other doshas out of balance. Some examples of symptoms and diseases that are caused by excess vata include alzeimers, panic attacks, anxiety, tremors, heart palpitations, tinnitus, and a scattered, spacey, fearful mind.
True to the principle of like increases like and the opposite brings balance, the light, dry, airy, mobile nature of vata is increased by things of that same nature. For example, being exposed to wind, excessive movement like running, popcorn or bubbly drinks, and the drying nature of air conditioning or artificial heat. It is pacified, or calmed down, by things with opposite qualities of heavy, moist, grounding and static, for example oiling the body, fresh cooked food with moisture content in it, and moderate or slower paced activities. Keep this in mind as you read through the question and answer below.
THE QUESTION AND ANSWER
Question: I have been thinking about this vata business and I have some questions that I would like to clarify. Running is not good for vata, but there are so many people running as part of their daily exercise routine, people training to participate in marathons, and athletes that run. Do all of them really have high vata? If that is the case, they would have all kinds of vata issues, correct?
Response: Ayurveda encourages regular exercise as part of balanced living. That can look like walking, jogging, aerobics, swimming, etc. The best exercise for a person depends on their unique constitution and current state of balance. When exercising, Ayurveda recommends exercising to half capacity, meaning not pushing ourselves to exhaustion or fatigue. Or, to exercise until you start to sweat (if you don't sweat, consider scheduling a consultation as that is a sign of bigger imbalance.) As a science aimed to increase longevity up to the age of 100 - 120 years, it makes to not over exert the body.
Running, by nature of its movement, increases vata. It also creates wear on the body that other forms of exercise don't. When deciding if it is an activity you choose to do, questions to ask are:
What is the state of vata dosha? Are you experiencing any symptoms of high vata such as scattered, spacey, overactive, busy or fearful mind? Do you have trouble turning off the mind to fall asleep easily? Heart palpitations, gas, bloating? Are you subject to worry, anxiety, stress, poor memory, inability to finish things, fast talking, fast movements, sporadic pains in the body, etc?
Are you going to push your body to exhaustion, or depletion? Are the long term effects of that worth it to you?
Do you have pain in your joints? Can the condition of your joints handle the excess pressure that running puts on them?
If vata is not disturbed, you are clear about your limits, do not deplete yourself by overdoing it, and are free from joint pain, then you might do some light jogging and see how you feel. For example, see how it feels to go for half your capacity at a moderate pace once per week and pay attention to the results you get. Then make your future decisions from there. If you like to be active in nature, substitute some or all of your run-time with brisk walks or hikes. Many people are attracted to the challenge with the breath and focus that running can bring. In this case, practicing 108 sun salutations once a week can be a nice addition to their weekly routine. It takes about 40 - 45 minutes and is excellent for focusing the mind and challenging the body and breath without stressing the joints. Instructions can be provided for those interested in this practice.
If you ask them, the majority of people who run often and for long times have stiff bodies, pain in their joints, and or some level of anxiety, fear, or overactivity of the mind. The degree of how high vata is depends on the individual. If they naturally have a lot of kapha (the dosha made up primarily of the earth and water elements) in their natural constitution, the imbalancing effects of running may be less. People with a fair amount of vata in their constitution will have ‘louder’ effects come sooner.
HEALTHY CARE OF YOUR BODY
Running makes the tissues and muscles tense and when there is dryness in the tissues from excess vata dosha or dryness in the climate, they can tear easily. The Ayurvedic texts say to oil the body (abhyanga) before exercising to increase the suppleness of the body and reduce stress caused from dryness as well as to keep vata dosha grounded. This is especially important if they have a fair amount of vata in their constitution because the muscles will naturally be more dry and tense. The oil helps keep the muscles looser and lubricated so there is less likelihood of the strain that will cause a tear.
If it's not practical to oil up and then head out for your exercise, whatever type that might be, oiling directly after, or at least at some point in the day, will provide a counter balance to keep you healthier and on track increasing your longevity.