(As originally posted as “Featured Today” highlight and in the “Popular Lately” section on Elephant Journal)
“Eat well and get plenty of exercise.”
We hear this blanket statement of ‘health’ all the time in the health and wellness world. Doctors prescribe it, the media promotes it, and so we practice it.
We work out and we feel better. We even come to crave the release of endorphins that accompanies our exercise routines. It makes us feel so good that the more we do of it, the better we will feel, right?
Having fallen (hard) for the endorphin release that comes with a great workout in the past, I can say from hard-earned experience that getting more exercise does not always equal gaining more health.
Exercise Should Not Exhaust Us
Growing up, I used to love attending dance classes and practicing the routines I learned. There was nothing quite like the high I felt after dancing; having had rather strict parents, it felt like this art form was one of the best ways I could imagine to experience freedom, and the uninhibited joy that seems to ride hand-in-hand with this freedom.
I remember how deflated I felt after my mother informed me I was not allowed to dance once I reached high school.
Without dance in my life, I resorted to running, rollerblading, and weight lifting to experience that ‘high’ feeling. When running around people became rather cumbersome due to the exponentially higher volume of other bodies and automobiles all around me, and the intermittent stop signs and traffic lights at every block in New York City (where I attended college), yoga became my chosen method of exercise.
The kind of yoga I practiced in NYC, however, moved at the same pace as the city…fast. And loud. When there wasn’t a variety of music, ranging from hard rock to pop to ragas (classical Indian music) and bhajans (Indian devotional songs), the teacher’s voice could always be heard.
And the common thread of all my exercise experiences was that I did all of them until I felt high, followed almost immediately by a feeling of extreme exhaustion.
At the time, I couldn’t see anything wrong with any of this. After all, exercise made me feel good, and the yoga I was learning in New York was helping me to understand my Indian culture, which until then had baffled me in myriad ways.
The Right Amount of Exercise
Only in learning Ayurveda, the science of life from ancient India (and the sister science of Yoga) have I come to appreciate the Sanskrit term maatra, which means “quantity.”
So much of balance is about finding that sacred quantity of which something can help versus harm us. Ayurveda teaches how exercise must be performed done in the proper amount for our own particular body type, any imbalances we may be experiencing, and the season we are presently in. When done by following these parameters, the ancient Ayurvedic text, Ashtanga Hrdaya Sutrasthana, teaches how exercise increases our ability to do hard work, promotes digestion, rids us of excess fat, and provides stability to the body.
And while it can be difficult for us to individually gauge how much is enough when it comes to exercise, the science of Ayurveda gives us specific guidance about how we can know when we have crossed the line. Signs of overexertion outlined in Ashtanga Hrdaya Sutrasthana include:
Dryness of the mouth
Breathing from your mouth
Perspiration on the nose, forehead, hands, and legs
I always crossed these thresholds previously in my exercise habits, and even thought that the hallmark of a good workout was swimming in sweat afterwards. And though I felt good afterwards, the exhaustion I was experiencing from my exercise began to build up into an overall weakening, rather than strengthening, of my body.
Ayurveda’s Explanation of Excess Exercise
In Ayurveda, we learn about three doshas, or bio-forces, in our bodies, which are comprised of the five great elements: ether, air, fire, water, and earth. The ether and air elements together form what is called as Vata dosha, and the fire and water elements together are known as Pitta dosha. Vata dosha governs movement, while Pitta dosha is responsible for transformation in the body.
Vata and Pitta doshas are responsible for a total of 120 different diseases in the body, which is why we work to keep them in a state of balance in Ayurveda. And too much exercise aggravates both Vata and Pitta doshas, inviting many potential health challenges down the road.
In addition to the ways too much exercise vitiates Vata dosha, the presence of a lot of sound, whether in the form of music, or even just the continual sound of the teacher’s voice, also causes Vata dosha to increase.
Silence is one of the best ways to balance Vata dosha, so the more we can invite silence into our exercise routines, the better off we will be. This means it’s time to say goodbye to our Walkman when we’re walking and drop more into the deeper recesses of our being whilst in motion.
A few more tips from Ayurveda to apply to your favorite fitness routines:
1. Do not exercise the day after you have stayed awake very late or all night.
Staying up late or all night greatly increases Vata and Pitta doshas, so we want to make sure to get adequate rest the day after an all-nighter to regain balance.
2. Never exercise while talking.
Save your inner Chatty Cathy for some other time. Embrace, instead, the healing power of silence.
3. Oil your body.
Abhyanga (Ayurvedic self-massage with oil) supports exercise. It can be done before or after exercise.
In following Ayurveda’s rules for exercise, I feel I am finally experiencing the full benefit of my efforts. Start following Ayurveda’s exercise recommendations, and you, too, can begin to become more fit from your fitness routines.
Learn more about Ayurveda in my book, The Ayurveda Way: 108 Practices from the World’s Oldest Healing System for Better Sleep, Less Stress, Optimal Digestion, and More.