The Wisdom of Ayurveda: Keeping a Cool Head Through Lockdown
by Shama Sara Palmer
A group of committed students and I have been loving a routine of daily morning and evening sessions together on Zoom during our lockdown. Maybe for you too, online classes or webinars during the last weeks have been a life-saver.
Being at home, we have been able to practice together and enjoy a regular daily yoga practice structured and scheduled with the teachings of Ayurveda in mind. Each one in our small group is feeling the benefits, so I wanted to share a little with you about how and why we are practicing in particular ways at particular times of day, and how we have been adapting the practices to the changing climate over these last weeks.
Ayurveda has for a long time taught that the best times of day to exercise are between 6–10am and 6–10pm. The rationale is this: Ayurveda recognises the cyclical nature of existence. This includes the cycles of the sun in our days, nights and seasons, the cycles of the moon and the phases of our own lives (birth, adolescence, maturity, old age, death). Each season, each part of the day and night and the various stages of our lives are all governed by the doshas (humours formed by a combination of two of the five elements) according to Ayurveda.
The cycles of the day look like this:
6–10am and 6–10pm
Vata reducing, Kapha peak, Pitta rising
10am–2pm and 10pm–2am
Kapha reducing, Pitta peak, Vata rising
2–6am and 2–6pm
Pitta reducing, Vata peak, Kapha rising
As you can see, Kapha dosha (which brings steadiness and stability, moves slowly and heavily, and governs structure) dominates the mornings and the evenings from 6–10am/pm. These are therefore considered times of day that are safest to exercise; exercising during these windows is a great way to reduce feelings of sluggishness that can accompany an excessive Kapha dosha. We can often feel this heaviness dominating our mornings, or even whole days. (Note that this can also be an indication of toxicity, or ama, in the mornings. The remedies would include the same early morning movement.)
Try an early morning daily yoga/exercise routine within this window and see how it works for you. For myself, it has been an amazing experience to start each lockdown day at 8am as a group. We have all been able to experience the very real fruits of a dedicated daily practice aligned with the teachings of Ayurveda, respecting the rhythms of the day and nature of the season. The results have been greater energy, positivity, calmness and focus. Regularity in our daily routine is one of the prescribed ways in Ayurveda to reduce excess Vata dosha and its accompanying restlessness, nervousness, worry and maybe sleeplessness. Such a morning practice is therefore doubly beneficial. We quicken the heavy Kapha dosha and pacify the restless Vata dosha, which can leave us in states of anxiety and worry.
If you have a busy schedule, even during lockdown, please know that the key is the time and regularity, not the duration of practice. Rather than getting up and squeezing in a one hour and half practice at 6am now and again, more beneficial would be a regular 15 minute practice that is easily integrated into your daily morning routine. Simply rising each morning, drinking a glass of warm-to-hot water first thing and practicing a few rounds of sun salutations, a little yogic breathing and relaxation or meditation goes a long way to increasing and balancing our energy.
As we feel the benefits of this Ayurveda-informed routine, perhaps one day our exercise and/or yoga at these times of day becomes as much a part of our daily life as cleaning our teeth. Then, as we pass through the weeks and months, we will also pass through changing seasons, the effects of which are said to be one of the causes of disease in Ayurveda.
Each season is governed by a particular dosha, and so brings with it more of the qualities of that dosha. The heat of summer will bring more heat to fiery Pitta, and the dry and cold of winter will bring more of these qualities to an already dry and cold Vata dosha within us. The doshas are unstable, and are likely to go into excess or become unstable within us according to the nature of our diet and lifestyle, the way we use our minds, and the nature of our environment and climate. To help keep the doshas stable, we can attune our yoga practice not only to the rhythms of the day, but also to the nature of each season.
During the glorious weather we have had lately in the UK, it has been humid and warm even as my group and I start our evening yoga practice. We have adapted our practice accordingly. Not only has it been gentler as an evening practice, the yoga practices selected have been intentionally more cooling and calming for body and mind. We have enjoyed a particular breathing practice during these warm, sticky evenings. I have described it below so you might try it out for yourself.
Sitkari (or, Hissing Breath)
The word sitkari denotes a hissing sound in the Sanskrit language, and that is the sound of the breath in this practice. Try this breathing practice whenever you feel the need to cool down a hot body or hot temperament.
Sit in a comfortable position with the hands in gyan mudra (forefingers and thumbs together), or palms down on the knees. The spine should be tall and the head and neck aligned over the hips.
Press the lower and upper teeth together, and part the lips.
Curl your tongue back so it rests against the palate. Alternatively, rest the tip of the tongue just above the back of the upper row of teeth.
Inhale through the gaps in the teeth to create a hissing sound and feel the air filling the belly, and then the chest.
Close the mouth and exhale through the nose.
This is one round of sitkari.
Beginners can start with a 1:1 ratio of breath, with the inhale and exhale of an equal and comfortable duration. 4-count breaths are usually manageable for most in the beginning, though 3-count breaths are also fine. More experienced practitioners can perform a 1:2 or 1:4 ratio of breath, with a longer exhalation, and can also add retentions of the breath.
Benefits of Sitkari include:
- Relaxation of the body
- Providing a cooling effect, which benefits the nervous and endocrine systems and releases pent-up mental and emotional stresses
- Reducing anxiety and hypertension
- Quietening the mind
- Easing hyperacidity in the gut
- Pacifying excess Pitta dosha (fire and inflammation in the body)
- If practiced regularly, reducing hunger and thirst
- Visual improvements: it is beneficial to complexion and is even said to be beneficial for the teeth
Precautions: It’s advisable not to practice this method when your environment is cold. Do not practice breathing techniques in any place where the air is polluted.
Contraindications of sitkari: Do not practice this method if you have a cold, cough, asthma, bronchitis, gastric problems or chronic constipation. Those with low blood pressure or hypertension should not practice sitkari with breath retentions.
There are so many wonderful things to learn about an Ayurvedic approach to yoga practice for health of body and mind, and I’d love to share more with you at a later date. For now, I hope these few tips can be of benefit to you.
About the author
Sara Palmer (Shama) is an ayurveda practitioner and registered senior yoga teacher and therapist. If you’d like to learn more about agni, ama, ojas, your constitutional type and self care in ayurveda, Shama is running Ayurveda Living courses online.