Understanding the pitta personality can help us to better understand our clients and our students, but perhaps more importantly, it will shed light on ourselves as yoga teachers and practitioners. Pitta is the force of transformation. Pitta is the compelling drive that brings your students to you. It is also likely what brought you to become the teacher and practitioner you are today.
A pitta imbalanced personality is often plagued by self-critique and judgment. As my own practitioner recently pointed out, clients with high pitta are much more sensitive to doing the right thing than the other constitutions. This can manifest as obsession with self-improvement in the form of exercise programs, diets, psychological improvements (i.e. self-help programs) and spiritual techniques. On the flip side, a pitta personality is so concerned with doing the right thing perfectly, that they may give up entirely if they feel unequipped to accomplish the task with superstar ratings. If pitta students feel overwhelmed or incapable of completing the program, they may never show up to class again.
Since most of your students or clients are likely to have pitta predominant personalities, it’s a good idea to get familiar with how to best approach this personality type. Ayurveda teaches us to approach vata like a delicate flower, kapha like an enemy, and pitta like a sweet friend.
The other day, when approaching my husband about his coffee habit, I discovered the impact this approach can have. Since he struggles with maintaining stable energy levels, I said to him (in an unprecedented moment of gentleness): “Your body is your body and I am not here to tell you how to treat your body. Reducing your caffeine intake could help to stabilize and replenish your energy stores. I tell you this because I love you and care about what happens to you. But I respect whatever you decide and will not pressure you one way or another.” Since I usually come off a lot more naggy (I might have a teensy bit of pitta going on), my husband was taken aback by this gentle, loving approach. He said he could feel my sincerity and felt more compelled to take on this task than he usually would, simply because of my approach. This is what it means to treat pitta like a sweet friend.
Dr. Vasant Lad offers some additional insight into the pitta mind and the methods that best support it:“Pitta people like structured meditation methods. But then we must go beyond structure. I think pitta people should do unstructured meditation. I do not know of a technique that does not make the mind mechanical, and a mechanical mind is a narrow and limited mind. Whenever following a system or technique, don’t get stuck with it or dependent on it. Use it, play with it, and then move on” (Textbook of Ayurveda: Fundamental Principles). We can apply this same understanding to yoga practice and lifestyle changes. Move beyond structure and technique to avoid rigidity. Promote spontaneity, flow, and playfulness instead.
Since the pitta mind aims for perfection and struggles with failure, it’s important to emphasize minimal expectations. For example, I participated in Cate Stillman’s Yogidetox this spring. Right at the start she encouraged us to “aim for a B minus.” It took me a few weeks of clean eating before I truly grasped the genius of this approach. At first I dismissed it as advice for the other “weak people” (did I mentioned I might have a bit of pitta in my personality?). Before long, I realized I had maintained top notch eating habits for longer than maybe ever before. Why does this method work? Because it's okay if I mess up. It is OK if I indulge in something “off the list” (in fact, I didn’t even make a list!). I am still eating this way two months later. That is, I’m still aiming for a B minus, and I nail it every day.
Approach the pitta mind with playfulness, gentleness, and freedom. Avoid rigid programs and techniques (even though your clients or students may ask for them) because in the long run, these will burn out pitta and disrupt long-term success. Because the pitta personality loves a job to do, don’t be afraid to offer one or two really simple practices to work on, but remember to keep it loose, friendly, and fun. Most of all, remember to approach yourself this way as well.
Out beyond ideas of right-doing and wrong-doing there is a field. I’ll meet you there. ~Rumi
As I contemplate moving out into the world as a teacher and practitioner, I’ve noticed fear (sometimes paralyzing fear), doubt, and the feeling that I’m “not enough.” My knee-jerk response to these destabilizing feelings is to aim for perfection. If I go to all the schools, read all the books, and know all the answers, doubt and fear will have nothing on me, right? I envision that I will be so armored with knowledge that none of my vulnerability will show. I will be perfect. Because, as my mind often reminds me, you cannot help clients if you don’t know enough, and no one will trust you if they see how you struggle.
As I look around at my past teachers, colleagues, and well-known personalities across the span of social media, I notice that I may not be alone in this predicament. In fact, it seems to be a trend (or a pandemic). As my own teacher recently noted, yoga teachers in studios across America are projecting perfection from the mat. And who doesn’t hate a yoga teacher that seems invincibly perfect? It has the effect of eye-rolling annoyance or makes us feel terribly inadequate. Either way, it hinders the healing journey for both teacher and student. As Tara Brach writes “Rather than relaxing and enjoying who we are and what we’re doing, we are comparing ourselves with an ideal and trying to make up for the difference” (from Radical Acceptance: Embracing your life with the Heart of a Buddha).
Kyle Cease explains that our service to the world becomes sweeter when we release expectations and stop seeking approval: “Think of an apple tree. An apple tree is just here to make apples. Apple trees don’t care if we like their apples or not. They don’t care if we make apple juice, applesauce, or apple mayonnaise with their apples. Apple trees aren’t ever thinking, ‘How many apples will I sell?’ or ‘What will I get for these apples?’ If they did care, they’d be so caught up worrying about the endless number of things that could happen to their apples that it would stifle their ability to make them” (from I Hope I Screw this Up: How Falling in Love with Your Fears can Change the World).
I have come to be drawn to people (practitioners, teachers, friends) who let their faults hang out and who don’t claim to know much, if anything at all. I find the environment created by this level of honesty to be light, inspiring, supportive and stirring. When we are willing to meet each other eye-to-eye as we really are, something magical happens. Trust develops. Healing happens.
One of my mentors captures the truest essence of what it means to be a teacher and a practitioner: “When we are in integrity, we are authentically, wholly ourselves, without trying to please, hide, show off, fix, or manipulate a situation. We surrender to, and accept reality. This requires intention and practice, but the pay-off is worth it. This state of being is a refuge for authenticity. It gives our patients permission to accept reality too, and to situate in their own authenticity and wholeness, and meaning descends to bless us both” (Claudia Welch, The Four Qualities of Effective Physicians).
I could conclude now by saying that I’ve overcome my fears and doubts; that I now “see the light” and do not care what others think of me and my work. I could say that I no longer crave approval and that I am ready to be a carefree apple tree. I could say that I am ready to drop my armor at the door; that I know if I just “show up,” pay attention, and am authentically myself, that healing will happen. But if I say those things, I am not accepting my reality, nor am I a refuge for authenticity.
Learning that “I am enough” is going to take a lot more than reading a few books or echoing a few paragraphs of insight on my blog. As I conclude this post, I am thinking: Will they like it? Should I have said more? Did I write too much? Did I reveal too much? In fact, I’ve re-written this conclusion 6 times. This is the first time I’ve written it honestly. And this is the first time that I feel that nudge in my heart that says: Yes. This is it.
Will you meet me here, under this apple tree, where it’s okay to be vulnerable and afraid? Where it's OK to only know a little? Where imperfection is a mark of refuge and authenticity? Where we let the apples fall where they may?
Just a couple of weeks ago, I could barely hold a forearm plank while propped up on my knees. I collapsed, shaky, after about one and a half seconds. It was not a pretty sight. Forearm plank was the pose assigned to me as part of our “Least Favorite Pose” assignment with Jonathan FitzGordon in the current Yoga Teacher Training class. Jonathan aptly assigned me a pose that requires well-toned abdominal muscles, glutes, shoulder and back muscles, as well as arm and leg muscles. Basically, every major muscle group.
I have never been particularly strong, nor have I paid much attention to muscles in general. I guess I always assumed if I ate the right foods, walked plenty, and stayed relatively active, my body would do the rest of the work and the necessary muscles would develop. I did not take into consideration that poor alignment and lazy postures would incidentally create weakness in my body, and that my body would compensate in less than favorable ways.
After attempting forearm plank, I knew it would be months of strengthening work before I could properly hold the full pose. I got started right away, working on accessible poses and exercises that would strengthen and tone the most important muscle groups (I focused primarily on the shoulder & back muscles, especially the rhomboids, as well as the abdominal muscles, especially the transverse abs). I could only afford a few minutes each day for this project. I also spent some time studying the function of the muscles involved and trying to get a sense of their location in my body.
Less than a week later, for the heck of it, I tried forearm plank again. I was baffled when I successfully got into the pose and held it for several seconds (without my knees). How could I have accomplished this so quickly?
In a recent class, Jonathan showed us a diagnostic exercise for testing the strength and tone of the multifidus muscle. If you haven’t heard of this muscle, you’re not alone. It runs along the spine from the neck to the tailbone and helps to support and stabilize the spine. This simple exercise involves getting onto all fours and lifting one hand and the opposite knee off the floor a tad (no more than an inch). The first time I attempted this, I wobbled this way and that. I switched sides and shook and wobbled even more. I was surprised how difficult it was. Jonathan assured us when we tried it a second time, it would be significantly easier. Sure enough, when I repeated the test on the first side, my body stayed much more stable. Clearly, I had not already strengthened the multifidus muscle! So what changed?
A dear teacher of mine, Dr. Claudia Welch, has taught that “wherever your attention goes, prana follows; and wherever prana goes, your cells follow.” An example of this concept can be seen when “breathing” into various parts of the body that may be neglected and consequently may be tight, stiff, cold, painful, or may have no sensation at all. By using deep breathing and awareness, one can focus attention on any particular challenge spot and bring prana (life force) into that area. This is a profound practice for breaking up stagnation and increasing blood flow, reducing pain, and creating suppleness in the body (download Claudia’s audio guide for this healing practice). What exactly is the mechanism at work here?
I’ve learned from my recent experience with forearm plank and the multifidus test that we can “turn on” neglected muscles relatively easily. Slight movements, breath, and awareness can awaken the body’s intelligence. By activating a muscle, we’ve brought consciousness and awareness into the tissue and it quickly responds with increased function. That is why I could find my way into forearm plank so quickly – I only had to introduce myself to the muscles. This is also why the multifidus test gets easier on the second try.
We have beautiful bodies that function in brilliant and complex ways, giving us access to all kinds of amazing experiences. Why not take a little time to get to know each part, each organ, each muscle, each system?
As a mother and a wife, I’ve noticed that our household functions much more smoothly when I spend a little time offering mindful attention to each person every day. It doesn’t even take much effort or time. Just a smile, a hello, a hug, a silent moment of listening and seeing one another. My body is not unlike my family. It doesn’t take much time to give each part a little bit of breath, attention, prana, and awareness. Why not boost your own cellular intelligence with a little love and attention? You may be surprised by the changes that unfold. For example, I’m now able to hold forearm plank for 45 seconds; a feat I would have thought impossible just a couple weeks ago.
"Anti-gravitation is levitation and levitation is the function of mamsa dhatu [muscle tissue].”
Dr. Vasant Lad
We tend to have an “upside-down view of the body’s design,” says Jonathan FitzGordon in his recent post at Corewalking.com. We are prone to thinking of the body as building upwards from the feet, “but the body is really a series of hanging structures from the head down.” If we think of the body as a puppet suspended by strings, we get a better vision of the way the body is constructed. To improve our perspective and our alignment, we can imagine a puppeteer is lifting us up out of our body by strings, suggests FitzGordon.
Muscle tissue is called mamsa dhatu in Ayurveda. According to leading Ayurvedic teacher Dr. Vasant Lad, one of the primary functions of mamsa dhatu is levitation. He describes in his Textbook of Ayurveda that muscle tissue is the bodily tissue that “best resists gravity.” The other dhatus (i.e. bodily tissues), including plasma, blood, and fat, have a downward moving action; they flow downward with gravity. Muscle, on the other hand, which is composed of the elements earth and fire, uses mechanical energy to lift our body upwards. I have heard FitzGordon say that we should maintain a sense of lifting up at all times, being very light in our feet and body (think: string puppet). This is the action of levitation provided by well-toned muscles.
Levitation is not the only function of healthy muscles. In fact, Ayurveda describes the primary function of mamsa dhatu as “plastering” or “holding.” Plastering or “holding” is one way that the muscles offer protection and support to the bones and organs. The Sanskrit word for “holding” is dharana. Dharana is a familiar concept to those who’ve studied the eight limbs of yoga. In yogic practice, dharana means to hold one’s attention steady with awareness – this is a significant step on the path to attaining true meditation. So, while the muscles’ job in the body is to hold and support the bones to allow the body to rest easily in its natural state, the mind’s job in meditation is to hold one’s awareness steady so that the mind can rest easily in its natural state.
Dr. Lad makes an interesting connection between meditation and muscles. He explains that in order to have good meditation, we must have healthy muscle tissue: “In meditation we hold, we have a grip on, awareness. This is dharana, which also means holding. To have proper dharana, we need healthy mamsa dhatu. The quality of healthy mamsa dhatu is a meditative mind” (Lad, 130). This concept recalls FitzGordon’s recent blog title that “We should always think up physically, emotionally, and spiritually.” When we think “up” physically, our muscles express their anti-gravity function. When we think “up” emotionally and spiritually, our mind is levitated to a state of natural clarity and awareness.
An important aside: Because the muscles love to hold, they may harbor the remnants of stale emotions in the form of neurotransmitters. “When a muscle is rigid, the flow of awareness is blocked. Emotions such as fear, anxiety, grief, sadness, and anger, in the form of neurotransmitters, become stuck in that muscle and create a neuromuscular block” (Lad, 130). Similarly, with regards to meditation, it is the mind’s job to hold steady focus & awareness, but not to hold onto desires and expectations of a particular outcome. This concept is reminiscent of my post last week about wei wu wei, or “doing not-doing,” otherwise referred to as strategic non-action. The muscles, when properly toned and balanced, can remain in a state of action while also being in a state of relaxation, without any clenching or blockages. Similarly, in meditation the mind is ideally both alert and aware while completely relaxed, sans attachment and desire. That is the true embodiment of wei wu wei (read last week’s post for more on wei wu wei).
Thus, we can see how the muscles and the mind are connected: both have the function of levitation, to bring our attention upwards and keep us light; both also have the function of dharana, that is, to hold. The muscles and the mind both function optimally when they are well-toned and balanced so they can remain in a state of relaxation while also being active. Dr. Lad summarizes this concept beautifully: “The mind in meditation is a muscle in action with relaxation. If you walk two miles while looking at the beauty of the cloud and the mountain, and birds are singing, even in that action of walking there is relaxation and joy. So relaxation does not mean inaction. Action and inaction go together. And that is the highest spiritual function of mamsa dhatu” (Lad, 131).
I first learned about wei wu wei when googling some basic qigong exercises. I was looking for a gentle activity I could do in my bedroom after abdominal surgery last year. I was experiencing significant weakness and had read that qigong may facilitate healing with minimal effort on my part. That sounded pretty good to me. I came across the term wei wu wei while looking up various exercises and learned that, ironically, it means: “doing not-doing,” or “strategic non-action.” This concept is a stretch for the Western mind. Doing not-doing? How is that even possible?
I explored this practice in my personal life over the next several months. Mostly, I began noticing that I am seriously addicted to "doing." In fact, I’ll do most anything to avoid doing nothing. One of my teachers, Dr. Claudia Welch, has referred to this as “hidden camera syndrome.” She explains that many of us suffer from the habit of quickly picking up a magazine or leaping off the couch when someone arrives, in fear they might catch us doing nothing. The pressure and addiction to busyness in our daily lives can present itself as a constant “clenching” (mentally, emotionally, and physically). We are always gripping, perhaps for fear that we might lose control. In Dr. Claudia Welch’s book, Balance your Hormones, Balance your Life, she explains that “[...] from an Eastern perspective, stress seriously interferes with our qi, or life force. Qi works best when it is circulating smoothly. When we are stressed out, we tend to clench parts or all of our bodies, constricting the natural flow of qi until it stagnates, leading to tissue, organ, or system disorders." (26, Welch)
What does this have to do with standing? As I’ve come to realize, a lot. I am currently participating in Jonathan FitzGordon’s Yoga Teacher Training. Our entire first class was focused on “tadasana,” the seemingly simple yoga pose that looks a lot like standing, but in this case hopefully in proper alignment and with ease. I am reminded of the words from Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras, Sthira sukham asanam, which loosely translates to “the posture should be stable and easeful.” Sthira means “stable” or “steady.” In fact, the sthi in sthira is the same sthi that is found in the Sanksrit word asthi, which means “bone.” The function of bones in the body is to hold the body up, to keep us steady and stable. Sukha translates to ease, happy, or good. Su means “good” and kha means “space.” So literally, sukha means “good space.” Therefore, when in any particular posture, but perhaps most especially when standing, one should allow the bones to provide stability; if successful, one’s body will naturally fall into a “good space,” each part landing exactly where it belongs. This is the foundation for easeful standing.
I learned in our first class with Jonathan that I chronically clench my buttocks. I’m using my muscles to hold me up instead of my bones. And as a result, nothing is quite in the right place and my body is doing a lot more work than it needs to do. As Dr. Welch noted, this also happens to be blocking the flow of prana or qi, and is creating stagnation and pain as a result.
When I first started practicing wei wu wei (strategic non-action) last year, it felt like a lot of work. In fact, it still comes as a challenge many days. But over time, “doing not-doing” has gradually become more natural for me and has made a huge impact on my emotional, mental, and physical well-being. I can see that the same will be true of proper standing. Right now, as I push my butt out into “its own room” (as Jonathan likes to say), and push my thighs back so that my bones are bearing the weight of my body (instead of my muscles), I feel a bit like a stranger in my own body. I don’t have to clench everything to hold myself in space. New sensations are arising as I awaken parts of me that have been ignored. The art of doing nothing while standing is challenging at first, yes, but with daily practice, my body will be revitalized with prana or qi and my supple parts will become supple again. In the same way that wei wu wei has brought a sense of stability and ease into my daily life, so will standing in alignment bring stability and ease back into my body.
What does "doing not-doing" look like in my life?
Or, go to the source and pick up a copy of the Tao Te Ching.
What does proper standing look like?
Check out this article at CoreWalking to learn more about standing in alignment. Jonathan FitzGordon has tons of additional resources at www.corewalking.com.
Our friends at CoreWalking were kind enough to share this post on their blog. Check it out!
1. Welch, Claudia. Balance Your Hormones, Balance Your Life. Cambridge: Da Capo Press, 2011. Print.