Ayurveda is a holistic wellness philosophy that, by definition, seeks to restore every aspect of human health through time-tested natural methods. Ayurvedic healing typically includes prescriptions for dietary and lifestyle changes designed to compliment and restore one’s doshas, or life force energies. Commonly recommended lifestyle changes include eating a cleaner, healthier diet, practicing stress reduction, and, for most Americans, getting more exercise.
Exercise is integral to Ayurvedic healing. Working out increases the flow of bodily fluids like blood and lymph, permitting the excretion of toxic substances, or ama, that can create doshic imbalances and, by extension, a myriad of health complications. Performing certain types of exercises can also strengthen or pacify individual doshas, and is thus vital in attempting to realign off-kilter life force energies.
But, as with all things, too much of a good thing can quickly turn into a bad thing. Our diet obsessed, efficiency driven, stress and labor valorizing culture applauds those who exercise ad nauseam, training for marathons or powerlifting competitions while maintaining strict diets. Many people love the endorphin high they achieve after a hard workout, and even enjoy the sleepy, sore exhaustion that follows. But no amount of proper stress reduction will allow the body to recuperate from the abuse of excessive exercise.
Understanding the right way to exercise is crucial for those on a journey of Ayurvedic healing. This week we will identify how much exercise is beneficial, and how much is too much.
Exercise According to Ayurveda
Ancient Ayurvedic texts laud exercise as a critical component of Ayurvedic healing. Proper exercise enhances the digestive fire, promoting efficient digestion and assimilation. It also increases bodily capacity for load-bearing work, stabilizes the doshas, and reduces excess fat. Ancient Ayurvedic texts maintain that exercise is not only critical to Ayurvedic healing, but also to balance and health in all aspects of life, both physical and mental.
When exercise reaches excessive levels, it no longer possesses a balancing effect. In fact, it can actually cause doshic imbalance and result in poor digestion, exhaustion, irritability, slow metabolism, and weakness. For some, excessive exercise is so hormonally destructive that it can actually cause weight gain! The key to all things, in Ayurvedic healing, is balance. In all areas of our lives, we must concern ourselves with proper maatra, or quantity.
Your sweet-spot maatra of exercise will largely by contingent upon your doshic constitution, body type, age, and health. Pittas benefit from a combination of strength training, cardiovascular exercise, and stress-reduction. Vatas are easily excitable and thus benefit from grounding, stress-relieving practices like yoga or light walking. Kaphas are the hardiest dosha, and they thrive when performing intense cardiovascular exercise. Most doshas benefit from about an hour of exercise each day, though sensitive vatas may require less.
How Much Exercise is Too Much?
It can be difficult to ascertain whether you are doing too much exercise. Oftentimes we feel good when we begin an exercise routine. The flood of endorphins and the reward of quick results can drive the cycle of ever-increasing intensity and duration. If it feels good, it must be good for us too, right? And even if it doesn’t feel good, we have been told that exercise is good for us, so more must be better, right?
Not so fast. A rigorous, unhealthy exercise routine might feel good at first. However, after a period of weeks or months, you are likely to start experiencing serious side effects. Your endocrine health is likely to suffer, resulting in poor metabolism and an inability to lose weight. You might also start to feel “tired and wired” as the adrenals are forced to continually pump out the stress hormone cortisol. If you continue to push through the exhaustion instead of resting, your body will cease to respond to the constant influx of cortisol, leading to weight gain and exhaustion.
Excessive exercise also tends to excite both the pitta and vata doshas. When pitta is aggravated, you may experience hotness, irritability, skin irritation, sensitive digestion, and oily skin. Oftentimes the early symptoms of excessive exercise are the result of aggravated pitta. If you continue to deplete your body, you will aggravate your vata energy as well. Excessive vata can lead to coldness, slow digestion, dry skin, anxiety, and sadness.
There are a few telltale signs that indicate your exercise routine may be excessive. Dry mouth, breathing through the mouth, and sweating on the hands, legs, and nose can all indicate that your body is working too hard. Emotional disturbances or depleted energy after exercise also indicate that you may be working out too much.
Changing Your Exercise Routine
The first step towards optimizing your health through Ayurvedic healing is to schedule an appointment with an Ayurvedic Therapist. The therapist will evaluate your health and lifestyle to determine your doshic balance and make recommendations that will improve your physical and mental health. If you suspect that you may be over exercising, consider scheduling an appointment with us.
If your therapist suggests that you may be overdoing your gym sessions, don’t panic. You don’t have to completely abandon exercise. Try reducing the length or intensity of your typical exercise session. You can also swap out a few sweat sessions for a relaxing yoga or meditation class.
An Ayurvedic therapist can guide you toward the type and amount of exercise that you should be doing. But, ultimately, you are the expert on your own body, and you know your needs and limits. Most westerners have been inundated with diet culture from a young age. We therefore tend to suffer from poor body image and a sharp disconnect with our bodies, having lost the innate bodily intuition of our ancestors. Yoga can go a long way in restoring bodily awareness, intuition, and appreciation. If you are having trouble tuning in with your body and determining the right amount of exercise for you, yoga will serve you well.