Spend some time at your neighborhood playground and you'll get a good idea of how children -- and the adults they become -- approach exercise. Some kids spin in circles until they collapse, others bet on who can sail the highest on the swing set, and one or two are content to simply sit in the sandbox and watch it all.
This may seem like child's play, but in Ayurveda, the holistic healing system that originated in India thousands of years ago, such tendencies help indicate your dosha, or mind/body type. The children spinning to exhaustion are vatas, the competitive kids are pittas, and the ones happily sifting sand are kaphas.
According to Ayurveda, each of us possesses all three doshas, but one of these traits is usually dominant, defining many aspects of your health, your shape, and your personality. Left unchecked, your dominant dosha can cause physical or emotional imbalance.
Someone with vata qualities, for instance, is energetic and talkative, but when that vata gets out of balance it can manifest as anxiety and insomnia. Being creatures of nature, everything -- from the food on our plates to the weather to the color of our walls -- affects our doshas' balance.
The Ayurvedic system uses the principles of nature to bring people back into equilibrium, maintaining well-being. And although diet tends to get most of the attention in Ayurveda, exercise choices are a critical and often overlooked cause of physical and emotional dosha imbalance. Balancing your exercise choices according to your dosha can make a big difference in your overall health and well-being.
Each dosha is naturally inclined toward certain activities, but these should be complemented by their energetic opposites to achieve balanced bodies and minds. For example, if you're a pitta, your passionate, aggressive nature may draw you to competitive, high-energy sports like tennis. But competition tends to aggravate, rather than balance out, pitta. You'll probably enjoy exercise more and reap more health benefits if you also pursue activities that cool your fire, like swimming or skiing.
To guide you to the right fitness choices, first identify your dosha by taking our quiz. Then study the dosha-specific fitness recommendations developed by Dr. Nancy Lonsdorf, medical director of the Raj Ayurvedic Health Spa in Vedic City, outside Fairfield, Iowa, and Hillary Garivaltis, D.Ay., director of the Ayurvedic program at the Kripalu Center in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.
Tips for modifying three activities that are suitable for all doshas -- walking, cycling, and yoga -- are included. Whether you bounce out of bed at dawn for morning aerobics or prefer an occasional afternoon stroll, you'll find options here that both balance your dosha and keep you engaged in your fitness routine.
If You're a Vata
You have low body weight, small muscles, and little strength and endurance. You move fast, are flexible, and like being active and doing new things -- but you also tend to work out until you're exhausted or you injure yourself.
Vatas are naturally drawn to fast-paced, intense activities like racquetball, aerobics, gymnastics, ballet, and jogging, but it's important to balance these with slower, gentler exercises. You need the least amount of daily exercise of all doshas: Aim for 20 to 30 minutes a day.
Best bets: Rollerblading, tai chi, strength training, bowling, golf, hiking, moderate-paced swimming
Walking: Gentle pace
Cycling: Touring (recreational biking)
Yoga: Mellow hatha or Kripalu yoga
Stick-with-it tip: Pace yourself to avoid the exhaustion that can aggravate your dosha.
If You're a Pitta
Your innate fire and passion make you very good at competitive sports but can also lead to dehydration and overheating.
Pittas tend to push themselves too hard and are drawn to individual activities where they're in the spotlight, like track-and-field sports or tennis. To balance this dosha, opt for cooling exercises that prevent heat exhaustion or team sports that help you share the limelight. You require a moderate amount of exercise -- about 30 to 45 minutes a day.
Best bets: Skiing, swimming, surfing, skating, hiking, karate, soccer, hockey, basketball
Walking: Moderate pace
Cycling: Mountain biking helps you focus on the process of cycling on rough terrain, not the goal of crossing a finish line.
Yoga: Moderate; avoid "hot" or power yoga
Stick-with-it tip: Try viewing exercise not only as a physical goal but also as a stress and tension release.
If You're a Kapha
You're strong and have the best endurance of all three doshas, but you need strenuous exercise to counteract your sedentary tendencies. Once you implement a regular and enjoyable routine to stay active, however, you'll stick with it.
Mellow activities such as walking and gentle yoga may appeal to kaphas, but to balance this dosha, you should try to include more stimulating activities. Get a minimum of 45 minutes to an hour a day.
Best bets: Aerobics, racquetball, running, rowing, swimming, lacrosse, volleyball, rock climbing
Walking: Brisk and often
Cycling: Road racing
Yoga: Power or Bikram yoga
Stick-with-it tip: Plan a regular fitness regimen and keep things interesting by choosing a mix of activities.
Tips for Every Dosha
When exercising, keep these Ayurvedic tips in mind to maximize your workouts, regardless of your dosha.
According to Ayurveda, quick, shallow breaths through the mouth stress the body. Instead, extend your endurance by taking deep abdominal breaths through your nose, which can help spread much-needed oxygen to your muscles and other tissues.
Do It Outdoors
Make it a goal to find time to exercise outside at least a few days each week, even during the winter months. Although any workout is better than none, outdoor activities are preferable to indoor exercise because they expose you to fresh air and sunshine, which is considered balancing.
Make It Kapha Time
According to Ayurveda, the body's biological clock is regulated by the doshas. Morning (sunrise to 10 a.m.) is generally considered the best time to exercise because it's governed by kapha, which is characterized by strength and stamina. Other prime fitness hours are sunset to 10 p.m., when kapha time recurs. Avoid exercising in the middle of the day, when your capacity for activity naturally declines (noontime workouts that cause you to skip lunch can also interfere with digestion, leading to imbalance).
Ayurveda's targeted, one-size-does-not-fit-all approach to fitness extends to the intensity of exercise. "Exercise should make you feel calm, balanced, and energetic," says Garivaltis. "If you feel exhausted after a workout, you're overdoing it."
In Ayurveda, that means exercising to only half of your total capacity, since feeling overtired, burned out, or even angry after a workout is believed to create imbalance. You'll know you've reached half of your physical limit when you need to breathe through your mouth, begin to sweat heavily, and start losing proper posture and form. "It's best to start slowly and build to a higher level of activity to avoid feeling fatigued," says Lonsdorf. "Stay in touch with how your body feels while exercising, and honor its needs."
Although many day spas now offer Ayurvedic beauty treatments and massages, a longer stay at one of the following Ayurvedic centers involves a thorough medical assessment, cleansing routines, meditation, and yoga and other fitness options.
Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, Stockbridge, Massachusetts; 888-738-1822; kripalu.org
Maharishi Vedic Health Center, Lancaster, Massachusetts; 877-890-8600; lancasterhealth.com
The Raj Ayurvedic Health Spa, Vedic City, Iowa; 800-248-9050; theraj.com