The Nuts and Bolts of Pitta Pacifying Yoga
by Lauren Gernady, Āyurvedic Practitioner and a 500-hour Āyurvedic Yoga Teacher. Graduate of the Kripalu School of Āyurveda (KSA), former KSA intern and Academic Coordinator of KSA (2017-2022)
What is the afterglow you are seeking post yoga practice? Perhaps you hit a sweaty vinyāsa class with the intention to leave feeling motivated, uplifted, and ready to conquer the world. Exiting the studio detoxed, invigorated, like you sweated out the very last drop of mimosa from Sunday’s brunch with your pals. Maybe you opt for a restorative, yin, or a yoga nidra session to ground and soothe the nervous system after a stressful day, week, month, year...life. It’s fair to surmise that we are mostly intentional about the yoga classes we select when we peruse the offerings. Personally, if I am feeling depleted, it is unlikely I will go for the advanced class chock full of arm balances and chaturangas.
Being mindful of which class you select is one thing, but what if I told you that you could tailor your yoga so that it worked to balance the qualities that are inherent in the time of day, time of year, and even the season of your life? I know, it sounds like magic, but hear me out. Weaving in the principles of Āyurveda into your daily sadhana can transform your rote practice to a whole new level. Rather than churning out the same sequence day in and out, one can apply the theory of Āyurveda and balancing with opposites to create a series specific to the time of day, or year, to help balance out the physical, mental, and emotional body.
So, how do you approach your yoga so that it creates harmony from seasonal/temporal, or lifestyle imbalances? You may have heard of the three doshas, vāta, pitta, and kapha. Each dosha has certain qualities that are ascribed to them based on their elemental composition. It is thought that these vāta, pitta, or kapha qualities dominate specific times of the day and year. For those that are unfamiliar with the doshas I’ll give you a quick rundown.
Vāta is composed of the elements air and ether. The qualities of vāta are dry, light, cold, rough, subtle, and mobile. Air and ether are intangible so lack the heavier, grosser qualities of water and earth. It is the only dosha that has mobility due to the movement present in air (think a windy day). During the vāta times of day (2am-6am/2pm-6pm) these qualities run rampant. Vāta season is late fall and winter when the leaves begin to dry out, the air becomes crisp and clear, and the temperature drops leaving our skin feeling dry and rough.
Kapha is the amalgamation of the elements water and earth (think mud). Kapha is oily, cold, heavy, smooth, slow/dull, stable, slimy/cloud, and soft. Aren’t these all perfect descriptors for a mid-March day? Kapha season is spring when the earth is soft and damp, ladened with water, heavy clouds, and everything seems to be moving and unfurling slowly. The kapha times of day are 6am-10am and 6pm-10pm, again these are the times of day in which you may naturally feel a bit more grounded and stable, perhaps even groggy around 8pm.
The elements of fire and water merge to create pitta dosha. While it seems counterintuitive for fire and water to blend together, think of pitta as mostly fire with a few drops of water. Pitta is the only dosha with heat, its qualities are oily, hot, light, liquid, sharp, spreading, and fleshy smelling. As you’ve probably guessed, pitta reigns supreme during the dog days of summer. The pitta times of day are 10am-2pm (lunch time!) and 10pm-2am (liver/detox time). Seeing as how we are in the throes of pitta season it seems pertinent to learn how to quell the heat with pitta pacifying yoga.
But first, what does an excess of pitta look like in the physical, mental and emotional body? Regardless of AC and copious amounts of time spent in the neighborhood pool, no one is impervious to the qualities that prevail in pitta season as we are a microcosm of the macrocosm. I like to think of ourselves as a tiny snapshot of the universe. What is happening outside in the natural environment is echoed in our own mini universe. Meaning, that come August the sweltering days of summer have accumulated in our body and amassed as stored heat. This can show up as:
Hives, acne, rashes, irritated skin
Red, burning, irritated, bloodshot eyes
Heartburn, sour burps, indigestion
Loose stools, diarrhea
Flashes of heat
Waking up around midnight (pitta time of night) sweating
Fiery, violent dreams
Do any of these symptoms resonate? Maybe you recognize them in your loved ones, especially on those hot sticky days. Pitta pacifying yoga can tamp down and soften some of these fiery symptoms.
Pitta Pacifying Asana
To help balance pitta dosha during the pitta time of day or year, plan to sequence your class so that it is non-competitive, cooling, expansive, and nurturing. This includes postures that bring in more space and earth. Poses that allow for the limbs to be away from the body so that air can move freely around the torso. Examples include:
Prasarita Padottanasana (wide legged standing forward bend)
Parivrtta Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana (revolved hand to big toe pose)
Ardha Chandrasana (half moon)
If you opt for sun salutations, do them in a way that does not build too much heat. Rather than pumping the arms in chaturanga, favor lowering down knees - chin- chest. Postures that use the strength of the arms are quite heating and can be done in moderation, but are often better performed earlier in the day when it’s cooler, or during kapha season or imbalances. Moon salutations are your best bet for working with pitta dosha because they work the more lunar, yin, feminine, qualities. When working with two sided poses, experiment with starting with the left side rather than the right.
Pitta rules the mid-section of the body where all the hot organs of digestion reside. To squeeze and detox these organs, twists are highly recommended. Sprinkle in twists throughout the practice. This can be done supine, during warrior 1’s or to spice up your chair posture add in some flowing twists from side to side. Pitta governs the sides of the body, thus stretches that work the obliques, serratus muscles, intercostals, as well as the inner and outer thighs can be a boon to releasing heat.
Play with softening the gaze, or close the eyes entirely to help relax the mind. The eyes are a pitta organ and full of tejas (fire). Be sure to keep the drishti gently on the horizon, or the floor, to gather more of the earth element. By allowing the eyes to be soft or closed, sensory input is decreased (as is the impulse to compete and compare yourself to fellow classmates).
Dr. Claudia Welch is known to say that pittas have a body to move their head around. Pitta types have a tendency to live in their minds, this can show up as over analytical, calculating, cerebral. With this in mind, it can be beneficial to weave in elements of play and humor to bring levity to the practice. I will often remind students that we are adults pretending to be trees, perhaps that wobble and sway should be met with a smile rather than biting criticism.
Lastly, be sure to integrate poses that allow the head to bow to the heart. Surrender is the name of the game when working with pitta. Posture examples include:
Janushirasana (head to knee pose)
Uttanasana (standing forward bend)
Parsvottanasana (pyramid pose)
Pitta Pacifying Pranayama
To soothe pitta dosha with the breath, it is best to keep the pranayama cool, soft, and silky. Encourage an inaudible ujjayi pranayama rather than a roaring breath, as the friction of the Darth Vadar sound slowly builds heat. Chandra Bhedana, or the moon piercing breath, utilizes inhaling solely out of the left nostril and exhaling out the right. Similar to the moon salutation, this technique works with the lunar, cooling, yin, side of the body. It is also said to activate the Ida nadi, which is associated with introversion and feminine energy.
Shitali or sitkari are go-to breaths when the temperature starts to rise. Both shitali and sitkari help usher in coolness and will often chill the mind in the matter of minutes. Keep these breaths in your back pocket when frustration arises off the mat, say in bumper to bumper traffic.
Throughout the entire sadhana, focus on expelling the breath completely. The body naturally dumps heat and stress through exhalation, hence why we tend to sigh when we are frustrated. With attention on the breath, be mindful that the exhalation is longer than the inhalation.
Pitta Pacifying Meditation
Once again, bringing pitta out of the head and into the heart is the main objective. This can be done by inviting yourself, or your students, to dedicate the benefits of the practice to a loved one. Throughout the practice pause to remember the loved one and realign with the intention. Metta meditation is a favorite when working with imbalanced pitta. Metta allows space for generating love towards yourself, loved ones, and even an enemy. By melting any anger or animosity towards self, or others, the friction and heat will begin to dissipate from the mind, and in turn the body.
The end result of a pitta pacifying sadhana? One should leave the class feeling cooled, relaxed, grounded, and content. Potentially the inner critic has taken a backseat after some loving reflection and meditation. Ideally the compulsion for competition and irritation has been tamed by cultivating more expansiveness in the postures.
When the heat starts to get the best of you, know that the ancient wisdom of Āyurveda has got your back. Balance the fire with cooling postures, breath, meditations. Mitigate excess sharpness by softening the gaze and fully surrendering to the heart.
by Lauren Gernady
Lauren Gernady is an Āyurvedic Practitioner and a 500-hour Āyurvedic Yoga Teacher. Graduate of the Kripalu School of Āyurveda (KSA), former KSA intern and Academic Coordinator of KSA (2017-2022). With a deep commitment to the study of Vedic traditions, Lauren spreads her love of Āyurveda, Yoga, and Jyotish through writing, teaching, mentoring, and 1:1 consultations. It’s not uncommon to spot Lauren pouring over Āyurvedic cookbooks and ancient texts in the wee hours of the morning. Knowledge is her sadhana.
As the former cook and “kitchari queen” at the Āyurvedic Center of Vermont (ACV), Lauren weaves her passion for cooking into her Āyurvedic practice. Her clinical observations and bodywork at the ACV gave her firsthand experience of the transformational power of Āyurveda through diet, lifestyle interventions, and Pañcakarma (or purification therapy).
This past August Lauren is waved goodbye to the bucolic Berkshires and headed back north to the Green Mountain State. There she will be facilitating the launch of the Āyurvedic Center of Vermont’s 650-hour Āyurvedic Health Counselor program while overseeing the academic arm of the school. At the center you may find her cooking simple meals for the pañchakarma clients, teaching restorative yoga, tending the medicinal herb garden, performing a shirodhara, or reviewing student’s clinical case studies.
With an unwavering commitment to the “Science of Life”, Lauren is dedicated to disseminating this system of medicine to make Āyurveda accessible (and palatable) to all.