Ancient Guidelines for Exercise

By Bhaswati Bhattacharya

If able, the whole body should move in a coordinated way, actively using symmetry, balance, and coordination of the 4 limbs and trunk and spine. Activities such as walking, biking, hiking, swimming, running, and full-body sports are appropriate.


The ancient wisemen of Bharat had profound guidelines for helping the body stay strong. Though the guidelines have been handed down uninterrupted generation to generation for 10,000 years, the West has mysteriously dismissed this wisdom. Therefore, the guidelines are rarely adopted by modern sports coaches, gym workout trainers, aerobics instructors, bodybuilders, nor taught by academic experts in physical education, physiatry, or physiotherapy.


According to modern standards, there are three types of exercise: oxygen-burning aerobic exercises to burn fat, exercises to build resistance and thus increase muscle strength, and exercises for flexibility. In general, they work for people, but to varying degrees. But they fail a lot of people, as seen by injured athletes, fiascos at marathons, illnesses in former athletes, and distressing actions of elite Olympians. The non-athlete population does not thrive with exercise and draw people into such an activity that benefits each person when done correctly. Why is the majority of the population not thriving with regular exercise?


Without using the language of biochemistry, Ayurveda talked about vyaayama, which is often mistranslated as exercise; in Sanskrit, the term refers to appropriate movements that bring stability and strength to the physical body, and optimize and regulate the physiology. Vyaayama produces resistance to discomforts and stimulates good digestion.


Ayurvedic prescriptions on vyaayama  are found in the classic texts: Astanga-hrdayam Sutra-sthana 2.10-2.14, Charaka Samhita Sutra-sthana 7.31-7.38, Susruta Samhita Cikitsa-sthana 24.38-51. The prescriptions integrate wisdom about time of day and season, age, food, current physique, climate, usual diet, state of gut, cautions and contraindications, strength, and warn of complications from inappropriate or too much movement, such as vomiting, fever and unusual bleeding.


If able, the whole body should move in a coordinated way, actively using symmetry, balance, and coordination of the 4 limbs and trunk and spine. Activities such as walking, biking, hiking, swimming, running, and full-body sports are appropriate.


Seasons determine how much movement you should do, according to Ayurveda. The ancient wisemen advised that we should exercise only to half our capacity daily and slowly build up tolerance only when the days are shorter than the nights, ie September to March in the northern hemisphere, using the Equinox (equal night and day) in spring and autumn as guides. During these times, the sun is not depleting the body. Due to our light sensors, our bodies know when the days are getting longer. The cells anticipate these extra minutes of sun and alter the seasonal variations of proteins and enzymes for the extra minute of sunlight each successive day as the sun moves toward the summer solstice. The extra radiation in the environment from the sun depletes the body. This logic guided our ancient trainers to advise not going out in the midday sun, not exercising to capacity, and not eating heavy foods.  The entire compendium of rituals based on seasons is called ritucharya in Ayurveda.


In the summer, the heat of the environment creates open pores for exit of sweat. Ayurveda advises that one has not moved enough until sweat appears on the body and especially above the eyebrows. Pranayama movements integrate the mind’s focus with exercise, especially the heat-producing kapalabhati pranayama form (forehead=kapala, sweat=bhaati).


In the winter, when the cold environment creates contraction of the body’s muscles, Ayurveda advises us to massage a light coat of warm sesame or mustard oil into our limbs before movement chores, exercise, or sports to enhance mobility, flexibility and prevent injury. The oils open channels and pores for sweat, centralize the agni and help pull out toxins, returning the body to its light, energetic, revitalized and optimal state of being. These two oils also heat the body to ensure sweat is produced. After the workout, a bath is a must; else those metabolic residues contract again into the body in the cold weather and produce toxins and micro-crevices full of waste.


During the hot months, the natural heat in the environment creates sweat easily, so oiling the body before the workout is not as important. However, after the workout, a light massage with oil before the warm-down or walk home will seep oil inside the tissues, interstitium, and old, metabolite-laden body to pull out fat-soluble wastes lurking under the surface and in the deepest crevices naturally, and pull them out during the post-workout bath.  Oil melts toxins using a combination of elevated temperatures post-workout, and mechanical movement during light exercise.


While the act of massage helps oils penetrate into the skin and release some of the oil-soluble toxins lying dormant below, the best way to coax toxins out of the layers is to move the body. Exercise creates heat in the body, liquefying oily toxins and drawing them out. It also increases circulation, opening fine capillaries near the surface of the body which carry blood from deep locations up into the skin and out of the body. Exercise also opens the pores and channels through which skin-bound toxins can be released through sweat.


Of the three main wastes that the human produces, urine and feces take care of the blood and the gut primarily. Sweat is the third type of waste, and is commonly neglected by most people in the west who sometimes feel it is inconvenient and embarrassing.  For the muscles and fat, sweat is the primary way to get rid of wastes, using movement, heat, and tension to knead out the undigested or used products of metabolism and send them out of the body.


The importance of sweating is seen in slokas from 10,000 years ago, stating that sweat on the brow and on the back of the knees indicates that the body is hot enough to release the wastes.

The South Asia Times Columnist Dr. Bhaswati  Bhattacharya is a Fulbright Specialist 2018‐2023 in Public Health and Clinical Asst Professor of Medicine, Weill Cornell Medical College, New York. Her bestselling book Everyday Ayurveda is published by Penguin Random House.

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