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Ayurvedic Foundations for Somatic Yoga Therapy

Ayurveda is a system for looking at the world, the Universe, and life whose cosmology stems from, yet differs from Samkhya. In its purview, Purusha, or simply ‘Self’, is your individual soul that stands outside of time. It is the unchanging, unwavering presence of inner joy. It is who you really are. It is through connecting with Purusha that we uncover well-being and restoration. This is the true source of happiness and both Ayurveda and Yoga provide a map for this discovery. Purusha’s counterpart is Prakriti. Prakriti is the material expression of our being and all of the material world. While Purusha is conscious awareness, Prakriti is unconscious. She is primal matter and encompasses everything that is and everything that could be perceived or experienced. Prakriti is the tool by which Purusha can be perceived as one cannot exist without the other. From Prakriti stems our mental constitution and our physical constitution. This is our nature in action, the aspect of ourselves that is seen, and the foundation of our embodiment.

The Guna

Prakriti expresses itself through three qualities which are sattva, rajas, and tamas, called the guna. When looking at our mental constitution, we exhibit sattva when we are content; rajas when we are agitated, stressed, anxious, or unable to settle the mind; and tamas when we feel mentally stuck or depressed. When looking at our physical constitution, we exhibit sattva when we feel comfortable in our skin; rajas when we cannot sit still, and tamas when we feel immobilized. This is where the concept of langhana and brahmana come in. In Ayurveda, langhana means to cool and brahmana means to heat. As we make lifestyle choices and choose asana and pranayama to balance ourselves, we use cooling practices to calm rajas for the purpose of moving ourselves to a sattvic state. We use heating practices to move out of tamas toward a rajasic state. The guna simply fluctuate. They simply are. Becoming sattvic is not the goal. We can become complacent in our practice with too much sattva. We then need rajas to move us further. We can become too rajasic and need tamas to settle us and so on.

As we explore the elements of Water and Fire, langhana and brahmana become important concepts. This is where we begin to build on the foundational movements learned in the Earth module and add refinements that tailor the practice to the physical constitution of the individual student. While both practices facilitate embodiment; the Water practice is cooling (langhana) and serves to move the student from agitation (rajas) to balance (sattva). The Fire practice is transformative as well, but by its nature, is heating (brahmana). The heat of the Fire practice facilitates a movement from tamas (feeling stuck) to rajas. As we explore Air and Ether, we continue to refine the practice with movement and pranayama (breathwork). The Air practice is more brahmana and continues to work on the physical body’s movement from tamas to rajas and with its emphasis on breath, it supports balance in the mental body as well; mainly facilitating a movement from tamasic (depressed) thinking. The Ether practice is more cooling (langhana) and its practices facilitate a movement from agitation and stress to peace (sattva).

Yoga practice is the cultivation of a relationship with yourself. This requires daily discovery of who you are right now, at this moment. Your practice is a response to those daily needs not a regimen with an agenda. You will have daily needs that need to be met as well as larger overarching needs that can span weeks or years. As you practice with a listening heart, you will find yourself addressing both. A rule of thumb is to look at your current mind state via the guna and respond by meeting yourself where you are at. You need to ask yourself two questions. How do I feel physically? How do I feel mentally or emotionally? If you have difficulty sitting still (physically rajasic), then you need to begin your practice with movement and heat (brahmana). Your intention and hope for yourself is to move toward a sattvic state of course, so as you begin to feel your physical needs shift during the course of your practice, you will want to gently move to more langhana (cooling) movements. If on the physical level, you are feeling stuck or immobilized then the opposite is true. You will want to meet yourself where you are and begin your practice with stillness and slow, gentle, cooling movements to help you ease into movement. As you feel sensations begin to shift, you will want to slowly ease yourself into more heating movements.

Understanding the meaning of Dosha

When we experience too much of any one element or elements over a given period of time, we begin to become unbalanced. As this imbalance increases, we can become aggravated. This imbalance is called DOSHA. The word dosha is Sanskrit for ‘fault’ or ‘disease’. When we refer to a person’s dosha, we are referring to what is or could become out of balance, not who they are. If you experience stress or change, it is the imbalance that you are most likely to experience. It should be noted, however, that given the right circumstances, we are all capable of experiencing any of the imbalances.

Kapha is the expression of Earth and Water together. An excess of Kapha can manifest in the form of depression, lethargy, or stuck emotions. In the physical body, an excess of Kapha can manifest in the form of excess mucus or bacterial imbalance.

Pitta is the expression of Water and Fire together. An excess of Pitta can manifest in the form of aggravation, irritation, frustration, or feelings of betrayal and disappointment. In the body, an excess of Pitta can manifest as inflammation of the organs, skin, or joints.

Vata is the expression of Air and Ether together. An excess of Vata can manifest in the form of worry, excess thought, overwhelm, and forgetful behavior. In the body, an excess of Vata can present as loose ligaments, gas in the joints (demonstrated by popping sound with movement), or gas in the digestive system.

Each dosha has a ‘seat’ in the body where it is primarily located. When a dosha starts to become imbalanced, this is usually where the imbalance will first manifest. The seat of Vata is the colon. The seat of Pitta is the small intestine and the seat of Kapha is the lungs or chest.

The Three Vital Essences

Where an increase in a dosha leads to imbalance or even disease, an increase in the vital essences leads to health. The vital essences are the positive and subtle counterparts of the dosha that manage the functioning of our minds. In their most simple terms, through cultivating the vital essences we increase vitality, endurance, and clarity.

Ojas is the essence of water and our primal vigor. Our main source of vitality, this is where we build our energy reserve in the form of digested food, digested impressions, and thoughts. We cultivate ojas by building our energy reserve in the form of taking in healthy impressions, healthy foods, and healthy thoughts. We cultivate ojas through asana practice, time spent in nourishing practices, and time outdoors. In particular, the Earth and Water practices are Ojas increasing. By increasing Ojas we develop psychological stability, endurance, and a calm mental state.

Tejas is the essence of Fire or inner radiance. This is where we digest the things that we take in, be they food, impressions, or thoughts. Tejas is stimulated in particular by visual impressions and it is Tejas that provides the energy for the functioning of perception and judgement. Cultivating Tejas is to increase our will and determination; even our spiritual aspirations. We increase Tejas primarily through the Fire asana practice.

Prana is the essence of Air that facilitates the breath, our senses, and our mind. Our primal life force, here we take in vital energy through the breath and through liquids. We absorb prana through our senses of hearing and touch and by increasing prana we develop our higher states of consciousness. Prana is increased through breathing practices (pranayama) and primarily through the Air asana practice. Prana moves in the liquids of the body, primarily blood, and plasma, and travels through the vayu through the meridians.

This is why we do not focus on our dosha as this could limit our exploration of yoga practice. To experience wholeness we need to explore all five of the elements and work through the challenges and opportunities that they offer us.

This article is an excerpt from Somatic Yoga Therapy by Stefani Wilton. Stefani is the director of Somatic Yoga Therapist Training at the Mandorla Yoga Institute in Calgary, AB, and is on faculty at the Institute of Integrative Somatic Therapy in Vancouver, BC.

[i] View the TED talk on body language -

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