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Vyayama is the samskrit term which means physical exercise. All the classical treatises on Ayurveda have clearly mentioned about Vyayama and its health benefits. The two prime aims of Ayurveda are preservation of health of a healthy individual and management of disorders of a diseased person. Ayurveda has given great emphasis on preventive measures to remain healthy and to lead a disease free long life. Ayurveda scholars have advocated various preventive measures under the instructions of Dinacharya (daily routine), Rutucharya (seasonal regimen) Sadvritta (physical and mental code of conducts). Vyayama has been first described under the topic of Dinacharya or daily regime and considered as an integral part of one's routine daily activities. Also it is considered as the parameter for assessment of one's balam i.e. physical strength.
Ayurveda classics have defined the term vyayama on the basis of its health benefits or the desired outcomes. Although vyayama indicates physical exercise, not every type of exercise people routinely perform in today's time, is called as vyayama. The type of physical exercise which fulfills the criteria given below is only eligible to be called as vyayama and should be incorporated in daily routine. Acharya Charaka has defined vyayama as below,
शरीरचेष्टा या चेष्टा स्थैर्यार्था बलवर्धिनी| देहव्यायामसङ्ख्याता मात्रया तां समाचरेत्|| - (Char. Samh.7.31)
śarīraceṣṭā yā ceṣṭā sthairyārthā balavardhinī| dehavyāyāmasaṅkhyātā mātrayā tāṁ samācaret|| - (Char. Samh.7.31)
Meaning: That movement of limbs of body which is performed to gain strength and firmness is called as Vyayama and it should be done in optimum amount.
From the above definition of vyayama, it is clear that, the ultimate aim of doing vyayama should be to gain strength and endurance. If any physical activity performed in the name of vyayama is leading to weakness or fatigue and does not aid in gaining strength then it should not be considered as vyayama. The reason behind this clear distinction is, vyayama is recommended in daily regime of an individual which is supposed to enhance the energy levels of one's body and mind. But, if the physical exercise done in daily routine is on the contrary leading to fatigue, it will reduce one's capacity to efficiently perform other daily activities. Thus, only that type and amount of physical exercise which generates strength and endurance in body is known as Vyayama.
Acharya Vagbhata has also defined the term Vyayama in a different way. He says, the physical activity which requires efforts or generates strain on body is called as Vyayama.
शरीरायासजननं कर्म व्यायाम उच्यते| (Asht. Hrud 2.10)
śarīrāyāsajananaṁ karma vyāyāma ucyate| (Asht. Hrud 2.10)
Also, various dictionary meanings of the term Vyayama suggest that the activity which requires efforts and causes shrama (strain) on body is called as vyayama. Although vyayama requires efforts and generated strain on the body, it is transient and the ultimate result is increase in strength and firmness of body.
Difference between Vyayama and Asanas
Asanas are the most popular aspect of hatha yoga practiced today. According to yogashastra, asana practice is considered important since it helps to keep the physical body healthy. Although Asanas and vyayama both focus on the health of physical body they are different in many aspects from each other and thus are not replaceable. Asana is defined as 'the physical posture that generates stability with comfort' as per Patanjali yogasutras. (P.Y. Sutra 2.46).
स्थिरं सुखं आसनं (Patanjal Yogasutra 2.46)
sthiraṁ sukhaṁ āsanaṁ (Patanjal Yogasutra 2.46)
Asana is supposed to be a steady and comfortable posture and the movement of limbs is not expected once the posture is adopted. Thus, practice of asana produces mental equilibrium and prevents fickleness of mind. While vyayama performed with efforts involves movement of limbs, generates transient strain on body and develops physical strength.
Difference between exertion and exercise
Although vyayama involves movement of limbs not all the body movements can be called as vyayama. Acharya Sushruta has given an example of this while explaining what type of body movements can be termed as vyayama and how any random movement differs from vyayama. He says, a movement like lifting heavy weights of any kind in order to complete some household task can not be termed as vyayama. However walking can be a type of vyayama when done in moderate amount. Appropriate body movements identified as vyayama when doen in an amount which brings about lightness in the body are termed as vyayama. When one indulges in excessive physical activity or vyayama which generates fatigue and symptoms like giddiness, it is called as exertion and not vyayama or exercise.(Chakrapani - cha su 7/31)
An example of walking is given in this context. When walking will be called as vyayama and when not, can be understood by the after effects of it as described by Acharya Sushruta.
“यत्तु चङ्क्रमणं नातिदेहपीडाकरं भवेत्| तदायुर्बलमेधाग्निप्रदमिन्द्रियबोधनम्” | (सु.चि.अ.२४)
"yattu caṅkramaṇaṁ nātidehapīḍākaraṁ bhavet| tadāyurbalamedhāgnipradamindriyabodhanam" |
Benefits of vyayama
The health benefits of vyayama are described in depth in Ayurveda treatises. Although the definition of 'Vyayama', mentioned earlier speaks about gaining strength and firmness of body through vyayama, it is not the only benefit vyayama gives. Acharya Charaka has listed the health benefits of vyayama as below,
लाघवं कर्मसामर्थ्यं स्थैर्यं दुःखसहिष्णुता | दोषक्षयोऽग्निवृद्धिश्च व्यायामादुपजायते| (Char. Samh. Sutra 7/32)
lāghavaṁ karmasāmarthyaṁ sthairyaṁ duḥkhasahiṣṇutā | doṣakṣayo'gnivr̥ddhiśca vyāyāmādupajāyate| (Char. Samh. Sutra 7/32)
At another instance, while listing the best sources of gaining particular quality in body, Acharya Charaka has described Vyayama to be the best act which generates stability. This can also refer to the anti-ageing effects of vyayama.
व्यायामः स्थैर्यकराणां (C.su 25/40)
vyāyāmaḥ sthairyakarāṇāṁ (C.su 25/40)
Additionally, adorning desired shape to the body by toning the muscles and also reducing the meda (equivalent to fats or adipose tissue in body) are some other positive effects of vyayama listed by Acharya Sushruta.
लाघवं कर्मसामर्थ्यं दीप्तोऽग्निर्मेदसः क्षयः| विभक्तघनगात्रत्वं व्यायामादुपजायते||१०||
lāghavaṁ karmasāmarthyaṁ dīpto'gnirmedasaḥ kṣayaḥ| vibhaktaghanagātratvaṁ vyāyāmādupajāyate||10||
In Sushruta Samhita, Acharya Sushruta describes in detail the effects of vyayama on various health aspects of a human being. (Su chi 24/ 39-45) Those are as follows,
- शरीरोपचयः - Body building, growth, development
- कान्तिः - enhances complexion of skin
- गात्राणां सुविभक्तता - Body toning
- दीप्ताग्नित्वम - Improves appetite and digestion
- अनालस्यं - reduces lethargy
- स्थिरत्वं - Generates strength and firmness
- लाघवं - Reduces heaviness in body
- मृजा - Helps in cleansing ans detoxification of body
- श्रमक्लमपिपासोष्णशीतादीनां सहिष्णुता - Increases body's tolerance levels for arduous work, fatigue, thirst, heat and cold.
- आरोग्यं चापि परमं उपजायते - endowed with superior health
- न चास्ति सदृशं तेन किञ्चित् स्थौल्यापकर्षणम् - The best way to get rid of obeity
- न च व्यायामिनं मर्त्यमर्दयन्त्यरयो बलात् -
- न चैनं सहसाऽऽक्रम्य जरा समधिरोहति - prevents early ageing
- स्थिरीभवति मांसं च व्यायामाभिरतस्य च - muscular tissue, ligaments, tendons etc become strong and firm
- व्यायामस्विन्नगात्रस्य पद्भ्यामुद्वर्तितस्य च व्याधयो नोपसर्पन्ति सिंहं क्षुद्रमृगा इव - Works as immunity booster, prevents illness if also paired with massage therapy
- वयोरूपगुणैर्हीनमपि कुर्यात् सुदर्शनम् - enhances natural beauty (by improving various aspects of it like, muscle tone, firmness, complexion, weight loss etc)
- विरुद्धमपि भोजनम् विदग्धमविदग्धं वा निर्दोषं परिपच्यते - Becomes capable of digesting all types of foods may that be incompatible, heavy to digest,
- व्यायामो हि सदा पथ्यो बलिनां स्निग्धभोजिनाम् - Vyayama can be done always and anytime to achieve these health benefits provided the individual eats snigdha (unctous) food and is not frail or very weak already.
Adverse effects of excessive vyayama
Although the vyayama has been known to be beneficial in multiple ways for one's health and well-being, Acharyas have highlighted the importance of level or quantity of vyayama one should perform in order to get its desired effects. While describing the term vyayama and defining it, it is mentioned that it should be done in optimum amount. If excess vyayama is performed, it leads to following adverse effects,
- श्रमः - Fatigue
- क्लमः - Tiredness
- क्षय - Degeneration or emaciation
- तृष्णा - excess thirst (dehydration)
- रक्तपित्तं - Raktapitta, a disease characterized by oozing of blood through various external orifices or body
- प्रतामकः - Giddiness and fainting or blackouts
- कास - coughing
- ज्वरः - fever
- छर्दि - vomiting (Char. Samh. 7/33)
While explaining the effects of excess vyayama and other activities like excessive talking, walking, sexual activity etc, Acharya Charaka has given a simile to make the description more vivid. He says,
.......गजं सिंह इवाकर्षन् सहसा स विनश्यति|| (Char. Samh. 7/35)
.......gajaṁ siṁha ivākarṣan sahasā sa vinaśyati|| (Char. Samh. 7/35)
Meaning: one who indulges in such activities excessively suddenly perishes like a lion trying to drag an (huge) elephant.
Thus, excess vyayama is harmful and should be avoided.
How to know how much exercise should be done by an individual?
Vyayama should be done in optimum amount or in moderation to experience its beneficial health effects. The level or limit of vyayama varies from person to person and it can be decided by understanding few physical signs experienced while performing vyayama. The indirect assessment of bala (strength) of an individual can be done by assessing his capacity to do vyayama. IT is mentioned that the right amount of vyayama for that individual should be decided by analyzing various factors related to him like follows,
वयोबलशरीराणि देशकालाशनानि च | समीक्ष्य कुर्याद्व्यायाममन्यथा रोगमाप्नुयात् | (Sush. Samh. 24/48)
vayobalaśarīrāṇi deśakālāśanāni ca | samīkṣya kuryādvyāyāmamanyathā rogamāpnuyāt | (Sush. Samh. 24/48)
Signs of sufficient vyayama are also given. (Char. Samh 7)
- गात्राणा लाघवम्
Acharya Vagbhata recommends Ardhashakti (Ardha-half, Shakti-strength & stamina) vyayama as a part of daily regime. At the same time, he states the prerequisite for performing ardhashakti vyayama daily. He clearly mentions that vyayama in such capacity as a daily regime should be performed by one who regularly takes unctuous food (i.e. does not cut the fats completely in daily diet) and is not already weak. Others should consciously decide the amount of vyayama or seek Vaidyas advice regarding the same.
अर्धशक्त्या निषेव्यस्तु बलिभिः स्निग्धभोजिभिः| (A.H.S.2/11)
ardhaśaktyā niṣevyastu balibhiḥ snigdhabhojibhiḥ| (A.H.S.2/11)
Also, the level of vyayama one does should be adjusted as per the Rtu (season)
Rtu in which vyayama should be avoided
The amount of vyayama should be adjusted as per the ongoing Rtu (Season). Ayurveda believes that the strength of an individual varies as per the seasons and thus the level pf vyayama should also be altered as per the season in order to get maximum benefits and lower the possibility of adverse effects. Ayurveda acharyas have described Rutucharya i.e. the favourable code of conduct, diet and lifestyle for humans for all 6 Rutus.
Among 6 Rutus namely, Vasant, Grishma, Varsha, Sharad and Hemant, it is advised to avoid or skip vyayama in Grishma and Varsha Rutu. In all other seasons, vyayama can be performed daily but in moderation. In cold season (Shishir and Hemant Rutu) and Vasant Rutu; Vyayama can be performed in half the strength of individual i.e. in little extra amount. 
Need of fat intake in those who regularly exercise
Ayurveda acharyas have always mentioned the prerequisite of sufficient snigdha (Unctuous, contaning fats) bhojan (meals or food) i.e. good fat intake for doing vyayama as a part of daily activity. It is thus clear that cutting off fat intake and increasing vyayama is not recommended by Ayurveda.
Vyayama is believed to be one of the types of Langhana (fasting therapy) and also anagni swedana (type of fomentation that happens without use of fire). One should also refrain from doing vyayama after taking steam bath. Langhana and Swedana are both considered as types of Apatarpana (deprivation or de-nourishing) therapies. Thus single handed implementation of vyayama without balancing the nourishment of tissues in daily routine of a healthy individual may cause imbalances and lead to diseases. Thus sufficient good fat intake by those doing vyayama is recommended.
Role of Vyayama in obesity
Sthoulya is the samskrit term which used to describe obesity. While describing the principles of treatment of Sthoulya Acharya Charaka has clearly mentioned the role of Vyayama. He says, those who wish to get rid of the obesity should start practising vyayama and increase it gradually in a step wise manner to achieve the best effects.
प्रजागरं व्यवायं च व्यायामं चिन्तनानि च| स्थौल्यमिच्छन् परित्यक्तुं क्रमेणाभिप्रवर्धयेत्| (Char. Samh su 21.28)
Also, while describing the health effects of vyayama, Acharya Sushruta has stated that, this particular activity directly reduces the meda (body tissue equivalent to fats which is responsible for sthoulya or obesity). Thus, Vyayama plays significant role in the management of obesity.
- Charaka Samhita (Sutrasthanam Adhyayam 7 Sutram 31)
- Ashtanga Hrudayama (Sutrasthanam Adhyaya 2 Sutram 10)
- Ashtanga Hrudayam (Sutrasthanam Adhyaya 2 Sutra 11-12)
- Charaka Samhita (Sutrasthanam Adhyaya 6 Sutra 29, 35)
- Charaka Samhita (Sutrasthanam Adhyaya 14 Sutram 65-67)
- Charaka Samhita (Sutrasthanam Adhyaya 22 Sutra 18)