Today, 80 percent of Americans do not exercise regularly, and ten million are exercising less today than just three years ago. (1) Yes, people are very busy these days, but I feel the real reason behind these statistics is that they do not enjoy it—people find time to do the things they enjoy.
It’s a workout, something you have to do, not something you look forward to. Making exercise fun again will not only keep us doing it, but will deliver numerous health benefits from exercise that are not available from our conventional approach.
For years, we have been encouraged by experts to exercise because of its pronounced health benefits. People who exercise regularly do have less chronic disease, but only recent studies have shown some not-so-good effects of exercise. Many reports have linked too much exercise with compromised immune systems. (2-5) The problem is that at the present time, experts don’t know how much exercise is good and how much more is harmful.
There can be no standard answer to this question that will apply to everyone.
Ayurveda tells us that we are all different and have individual requirements for exercise.
Understanding your dosha can help you determine how much exercise you need, as well as the type of activity that would be best suited for you.
Minding Your Body
In addition to knowing your mind-body type and its requirements, it is also important for your mind to know how to listen to your body. We have heard the phrase, “Listen to your body!” for years, only no one has ever told us how to do it. In the past, we have been taught to listen to our body by jogging at a pace that allows us to hold a conversation with our partner. To me, this technique sounds more like listening to someone else’s body rather than your own.
Inadvertently, many of us have been conditioned to distract our mind from our body during exercise. Oftentimes, exercise is found to be too boring unless we have a TV to watch, a book to read, or a magazine to flip through.
It seems we have resigned ourselves to the fact that exercise is mindless and boring, so we engage our minds in one activity while our bodies do another. High-tech distraction devices have emerged on the scene as virtual reality workout centers and TV-ridden cardio-theaters fill health clubs. People can now exercise beyond their tolerance without boredom and without feeling the pain. “No pain, no gain” has been replaced with, “If we distract you, you won’t feel it.”
Rather than distracting yourself during your workout, my recommendation is to focus on your breath. The premise with Ayurvedic fitness is that the body’s life force or prana must flow effortlessly into every cell of the body to achieve benefit. This is accomplished primarily via the breath. It is the proper use of the breath during exercise that will bring harmony between the mind and body, and create a measurable experience of calm and rejuvenation in each workout.
As it turns out, how you breathe determines how you respond to stress. Studies show that when we breathe through the nose, air is driven through the nasal turbinates deeply into the lower lobes of the lungs, where there is a predominance of parasympathetic (calming and repairing) nervous system receptors. Mouth breathing during exercise fills the upper chest and lungs, where there is a predominance of fight-or-flight stress receptors. (8)
Sport by Body Type
Vata types will typically excel in sports requiring quick, short bursts of speed and agility. These individuals are like high-strung thoroughbred racehorses – always on the go, very restless and even jumpy at times. They love fast, vigorous activity but can’t handle too much of it if they are going to stay in balance. If anything, vata types need to slow down and nature often forces them to, since their endurance is not great and they tire quite easily. Vata types are quick to get involved in fitness programs, but because of their constantly changing interests, they are also quick to give them up.
Vata-balancing sports or exercises require slow, calming activities that facilitate rejuvenation rather than exhaustion. Some examples:
- Aerobics (low-impact or dance)
- Bicycle touring
- Canoeing and easy rowing
- Doubles tennis
- Horseback riding
- Martial arts (non-violent Aikido and Tai Chi)
- Ping pong
- Stair-stepping (moderate)
- Weight training
Pitta types excel in individual competition requiring strength, speed, and stamina. They are fiery, both in personality and desire to win. They are highly motivated and driven and are often not satisfied unless they have won. They are natural leaders and are attracted to individual sports because of their strong ego and natural competence in most sports. Pitta types must be careful not to get overheated and must learn how to enjoy themselves regardless of the final score.
Work-outs for pitta types must balance the excessive heat and competitive spirit with sports that provide enjoyment, rather than a focus on competition and winning. Some examples:
- Basketball and other team sports
- Ice skating
- Martial arts
- Mountain biking
- Non-competitive racquet sports
- Skiing (downhill)
- Skiing (recreational cross-country)
- Touch football
- Water skiing
Kapha types excel in endurance and mind-body coordinated skills. They are great under pressure and are naturally calm, stable and easy-going. They are often late bloomers, both physically and mentally. They love the camaraderie of team sports, although these don’t usually give them the aerobic exercise that they need. Because of their hypometabolic nature, they will need more motivation when exercising. They love team sports, but must be sure to get plenty of stimulating and vigorous exercise as well.
These sports must be stimulating and vigorous to maintain balance in the slow-to-get-started kapha types. Some examples:
- Cross-country running
- Cross-country skiing
- In-line skating
- Martial arts
- Parcourse running
- Rock climbing
- Shot put
Ayurvedic Exercise to Reduce, Not Incur, Stress
Most of us do not realize that our body responds to exercise as an emergency. The fight-or-flight nervous system gets maxed out even during moderate exercise. This emergency response during each workout not only produces stress-fighting degenerative hormones but it is likely the key factor in America’s chronic aversion to exercise. (6)
Remember, if you saw a bear in the woods you would likely take a quick upper chest gasp through your mouth. This would trigger receptors for stress that predominate in the upper lobes of the lungs, and your body would know to produce the accurate hormonal response needed to get you to safety. (8)
Conversely, when we breathe through our noses, the incoming air is forced through the turbinates in the nose and are driven deeply into the lower lobes of the lungs, where the calming, repairing (parasympathetic, “rest and digest”) nerve receptors predominate. (8)
In other words, breathing through the nose during exercise is a tool that can alter the body’s perception of an activity it normally perceives as stressful, to one of calm and repair.