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The 3 Doshas: What They Are and How You Can Incorporate Them in Teaching Yoga

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The 3 Doshas: What They Are and How You Can Incorporate Them in Teaching Yoga

Our energy within us is everything. Our environments, through interpersonal experiences, have carefully nurtured features that we possess, such as temperament, preference for morning or evening, hygienic habits, and appetite. While we are born with energies already swirling inside of us through a multitude of channels, it is when we grow and learn that some come to the forefront more than others and we begin to craft who we are as unique human beings. What we can learn from the energies we possess can guide us through life lessons and experiences, and teach us what we need to know.

In ancient Ayurveda, the medicinal system deeply rooted in India’s extensive history, there are many different principles that surround the energies of the body. Ayurvedic fiercely believes in the idea that our bodies are able to heal from within, and that we already have each and every tool necessary to maintain healthy bodily systems. What Ayurveda then does, is teach us how to use these tools while combining them with natural remedies such as herbs, tonics, and elixirs grown from the earth. In order to heal ourselves, though, we need to first be aware of our personal energies, which ones are strongest and weakest, so that we can most efficiently regain health. In Ayruvedic principle, there is a concept called the doshas, which describe our energy systems and how to best nourish them. At birth, we already have all three doshas, yet typically one or two are stronger than the others. Once we have the knowledge of which dosha or doshas are most significant in our system, we can then understand our bodies fully and better apply the most effective healing mechanisms for our dosha.

The three doshas are kapha, pitta, and vata. Each dosha is then connected to two of the five worldly elements: air, earth, fire, water, and space. Kapha embodies the earth and water elements, pitta is fire and water, and vata is air and space. There are many online quizzes or sources in which you can test to see which dosha comes to the forefront for you personally, and they then describe specific characteristics of the doshas. Again, we all hold each of the doshas within us from the beginning of our time, but how we are nurtured throughout our lives affects these personalities. We adapt to new environments in different parts of the world, we experience unique things daily, and we come in contact with new human beings or animals. All of these interactions in various environments will indicate a reaction. How we react over time begins to set us in specific ways. For example, if we are met with stress, we are inclined to have a similar response to stressful events, such as anxiety, lack of motivation, or a sense of overwhelm. These behaviors are created, then solidified into our essential being, making us our unique self.

If you are strongly kapha (earth and water), you preserve a grounding sense for yourself and others (earth), yet are able to go with the flow as well (water). Kaphas tend to be a bit slower moving, read others well and exercise empathy, be fit and athletically built yet graceful, and take their time in making decisions that can affect their lives and others’. By holding the elements of earth and water, kaphas are commonly stable beings, and are often sought out by others for advice in unruly times of their lives. Because water and earth connect well together, it is rare for a kapha to be completely thrown and experience major stress. However, if a kapha feels off balance, spending time in nature reconnecting with the soil or swimming in the ocean is recommended to return to a stable baseline. Additionally, grounding foods such as fruits, vegetables and grains that have been grown from soil or trees are quite nourishing for kaphas at all times.

If pitta is your most significant dosha (fire and water), you lean towards often experiencing life as a rollercoaster. Because fire and water are two completely opposing entities, there is frequently a feeling of push-pull, up-down, and all around. It can be quite difficult for pittas to create calm and relaxation, as fire is strong and overpowering, yet if a pitta is largely in tune with the water portion of themselves, they may have the skills to extinguish their fiery tendencies. Pittas are very drawn to schedule and routine, possess a hot bodily temperature and prefer warm climates, take the center of attention or make decisions to control situations, and can be quite stocky and muscular. Because pittas are so off and on, their mechanisms for restoring balance are precisely what is needed to put out the overpowering element. If a pitta is feeling rage and anger, they are recommended to submerge in water, go for a swim, eat cooling foods (i.e. frozen fruit) and douse the fiery energy burning within them. If a pitta has dropped into sadness or depression and is rolling with their watery emotions, they must attend to an activity that requires strong exertion of energy, such as rock climbing, dancing, or running to bring their spirits back to a place of positivity.

For vatas (air and space), time is simply a continuum and rarely are they worried about how much time is going by. Air and space are extremely flighty, leaving vatas to be of similar behavior to these elements, often not holding onto a routine and thriving off change and unpredictability. To be settled and grounded makes vatas wild, as they much prefer spontaneity and the excitement of the unknown. Vatas bodily energy is always changing as well; their reactions or emotions to an event are robust, yet short lived and quickly moved on from. Vata habits are challenging to keep track of, and because they cannot sustain any sort of routine, they usually cannot sustain many healthy habits and constantly live based on how they feel in that exact moment. Because vatas can be difficult to pin down, upholding nourishing and balanced relationships can be a struggle. If a vata is seeking balance, one may need to travel and explore, go for a walk or run where they perform short, quick bursts of action, and eat light and airy foods such as steamed vegetables in order to bring them back to their central being.

The doshas are rather curious to inquire about, and they can give us quite the insight into our energies and how to best support them so that we can live our most fulfilling lives. In thinking about them though, how do they fit in with our yoga practice and the ancient teachings of yoga? Yoga is a practice where we are cracked open and are given the eye-opening opportunity to look directly into ourselves and discover who we are as people in the grander view of the world. Yoga tends to start for most as a physical practice, where beginners are looking for a way to gain flexibility, strength, or recover from injury. However, the more and more yoga is practiced and the deeper we dive into its teachings, we can see how much it has an effect on our personal lives, and we begin to take what we learn on the mat away from the studio and into the outside world. Yoga can be meditative and restorative, but it can also be fire building and strengthening. While yoga may aim to accomplish something different for everyone, we are all seeking to become better versions of ourselves. We need to be as such in order to contribute positively to society, the planet and our direct peers in the most natural and caring way possible.

When teaching yoga, it can be challenge to reach every single student in the studio. What you speak about, or what theme you try to envelop in your teachings that day may resonate with some, yet completely miss the mark for others. That is completely expected, as every human being is different with unique needs. However, the goal of a yoga teacher is to teach something, and whether a student understands the lesson straight away, or it doesn’t hit them until a few days, weeks or months later, we are always seeking to educate through breath and movement. When thinking of a theme for your class, consider teaching based on the doshas. Because we hold all doshas within us, these themed flows may ignite or calm an energy in each student they did not know needed attention.

For kaphas, you may create a flow that is grounding and uses movements that are slow and gentle, as if you are moving through water. A kapha class could begin with a grounding meditation. Allow the students to sit directly on their mat or on a block, encouraging them to feel their sit bones connected to the surface below them. Guide the students through a meditation that focuses on breathing and connecting to their breath. Begin using sama vritti (equal parts) pranayama. Breathe in for four seconds, hold for four, exhale for four, pause for four, and repeat for several rounds, eventually encouraging your students to take on the practice independently. Equal parts breath is extremely calming, peaceful, and allows the students to fully drop into the space. Quietly transition into some slower paced sun salutations, connecting feet and hands to the earth consistently. Flow through movements such as crescent lunge (anjaneyasana) and warrior two (virabhadrasana II), encouraging students to take their time and create a resistance to their movements, focusing on a strong core to carry them through. Tree pose (vrksasana) is also extraordinarily grounding, helping students to visualize their roots being fixed into the earth below them to create stability and balance. To finish the practice, a long savasana covered in blankets to keep warm would be quite comforting for kaphas.

A class geared towards benefitting pittas may begin with a strong, fiery flow to build inner agni (fire) right away. Building up a sweat in the beginning will fuel the pitta fire and allow them to exert any energy that needs releasing. Fast-paced sun salutations (surya namaskar), several chaturangas, and transitioning between postures at a quicker, more powerful pace will surely allow for this energy release. Because inner fire is centralized in the core, performing exercises to strengthen and target this area may be suitable as well. Boat pose (navasana) crunches ignite the core straight away, along with locust pose (salabasana) and transitioning from side-angle pose (utitta parsvokanasana) and exalted warrior (viparita virabhadrasana). In the second half of class, introduce a calming series of postures or stretches low to the ground that attracts the pitta water element. Perhaps including a visualization meditation where the students are instructed to envision themselves in or near water and concentrate on its movements could be lovely for pittas to experience.

For a vata dosha class, incorporating high to low movement, forward and backward, as well as twists would be beneficial in order to create as much change as possible throughout the flow. There should be minimal resting time throughout the class, aside from savasana or if students opt to take child’s pose if needed. In moving from high to low, you might instruct students to move from low lunge (anjaneyasana) to pyramid pose (parsvottanasana), adjusting the levels of the hips and eye gaze. Also, warrior two to triangle pose (trikonasana) or half moon (ardha chandrasana) as well as warrior one (virabhadrasana I) to standing splits (urdhva prasarita eka padasana) are examples of large movement transitions from high to low. Incorporating lots of twists into the practice, supine (laying down), sitting (ardha matsyendrasana), or standing encourage change and may be unexpected. Twists too, move the spine and body in ways that are altered from normal, daily movement. Using unique flows that stray from the traditional sequence will be invigorating for vatas, and they will likely remain focused, as they will be excited about the prospect of not knowing what will come next. Inversions, such as shoulder stand (salamba sarvangasana) and headstand (salamba sirsasana) would be beneficial for vatas to flip their perspective and allow them to be in a posture completely opposite to their standard view.

Creating themed classes can be an excellent way to focus one’s teaching. By having a central theme, the integrity of the class remains in tact, and it is noted as well thought out, effective, and balanced. Personally, when I take a class that is set on a particular theme, I find I am much more dedicated to my practice, my focus is deeper, and I am less distracted by others around me. Additionally, when I teach based on a theme, my teaching is concise, instructions are comprehensible, and the purpose of the practice is clearly intended. Teaching on a theme gives you the opportunity as the guide to pass philosophical knowledge onto your students, which leaves them with new information that they can work towards applying to their personal lives. Yoga is a practice of examining what is larger than us, and then digesting it in small pieces so that we can take its teachings and use them to our advantage. The doshas, as a large concept, can be explained at the beginning of a class to briefly teach the students the meaning behind these energies. Throughout the class, interject small aspects of the dosha theme so that students can begin to associate the teachings with specific movements on the mat, and then take these teachings beyond the classroom walls.

For most students, they likely will not have any knowledge of the doshas and which one is highlighted in their individual energy system. By setting the class based on one specific dosha, you may explain that the class will focus on movements to nourish our earth and water elements, our fire and water, or our air and space. We possess all five elements, and because they are more familiar terms, students may be able to more quickly grasp the intention of the class. Students then have the opportunity while practicing to focus on the intention, and connect their breath and movement to one or more elements. Students may even connect with an elemental side of themselves they did not know needed connecting, which could be seen as an immense lesson and open a whole new side of their being to explore. Yoga is such a beautiful space to hold ourselves in a high regard, and teach us new things about life and humanness that we may not otherwise see. By being a yoga teacher, you are a vessel of knowledge, a guide of growth, and a leader taking your students on a journey towards a more gratifying life. You may never know how you especially affected a student that day, but know that you are being listened to and trusted gratefully.

What you preach, you should also practice. In thinking of these teachings, it is important that you consider implementing them in your personal yoga practice to then carry into your life off the mat. Start by examining your own dosha levels, which elements you connect to most authentically, and begin to think about how you go about moving through your daily life. Do you tend to act fiery, strong and in charge? Are you sought out by peers to listen when they need you? Perhaps you have trouble sitting still and need consistent stimulation from new things? Whichever dosha may be strong for you, nothing is wrong, but rather it is special. Embodying certain characteristics are not failures, and we should never view being any of the elements as better or worse. The doshas are simply a new way of looking at our energies within, and what sort of energy we portray to the world around us. If we feel that there is space for improvement within our elemental energies, then we may choose to explore what needs addressing through our own yoga practice.

Once you have gained an idea of your dosha hierarchy, consider introducing dosha themes into your personal yoga and meditation practice. Even if you do have knowledge of your doshas, it may be complementary to practice sequences based on each element, thus determining which connects with you most intensely. In bonding with ourselves in this new manner, we are giving ourselves the free chance to go further into the exploration of our being, just as we encourage our students in yoga classes to do. The more we dive into our personal practice, the more accurately and genuinely we can teach students. Our goal as a guide is to lead by example; by truly taking the time to delve into these themes, we are becoming more powerful versions of ourselves, and more authentic teachers each day. Some days we may feel extreme fiery heat, other days we are secure and balanced, we could even be stressed and full of anxiety. Our practice may be strong and effortless one day, and another heavy and useless. It is the study of ourselves within the yoga practice that gives us the opportunity to view ourselves in a new and unbiased light. By taking a neutral stance against us as individuals, there leaves little to no room for extreme judgment or scrutiny, but simply appreciation. We can appreciate our characteristics that may not be our finest, but they still make us, us. We are not here on this earth to critique others and ourselves. We are all working towards living our best lives as the best versions of us we can be. We must always remember to be kind and respectful towards others, as we may have no knowledge of what is occurring in their personal lives. Anger or disrespect from another human may manifest due to an issue that they are struggling to work through. By addressing hate with love and kindness, we are directly aiming towards making the world a more tolerable, livable, and exciting place to be a part of.

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