Ayurveda is an ancient Indian medical practice that encompasses a range of treatments including medicinal herbs, changes in diet, meditation, massage, and yoga to maintain or restore health. The word Ayurveda is Sanskrit, meaning "science (or knowledge) of life." Perhaps the oldest continually practiced health-care system in the world (the tradition has been handed down from masters to pupils in India for more than 5,000 years), Ayurveda is rooted in the belief that health results from harmony between mind, body, and spirit. Ayurvedic practitioners in India receive state-recognized training on par with that of Western medical specialists.
Although the principles of Ayurvedic medicine have never been substantiated by contemporary medical science, and only a few rigorous studies can attest to its effect on specific diseases, certain Ayurvedic practices such as yoga are believed to increase strength and vitality. Moreover, Ayurvedic herbal preparations are currently being studied in many countries for their apparent therapeutic effects.
How Does Ayurveda Work?
According to Ayurveda, every person contains some of the universe's five basic elements: earth, air, fire, water, and ether (or space). The combination of these elements in each individual breaks down into three metabolic body types, or doshas. The doshas are known as vata, pitta, and kapha. Vata consists of ether and air, and is associated with lightness and movement. Pitta is made of fire and is associated with transformative metabolic processes–the digestion of food to produce energy, for example. Kapha consists of earth and water and is associated with structure and stability. Although each type of energy resides in every individual, one is usually dominant.
The theory behind Ayurveda is that sickness is caused by an imbalance in one or more of the doshas. There are many things that can affect this balance, from dietary choices to the change of seasons. Stress at work or in one's family can throw off the harmony of the doshas as well. The result is the accumulation of toxicity in the body and mind.
Once the causes of an illness are identified, measures can be taken by an individual, under the guidance of an Ayurvedic practitioner, to restore balance and to remove toxicity. Proponents say that when energy is balanced, the body's natural defenses strengthen, making it easier to prevent or recover from illness.
Health Benefits of Ayurveda?
Research has shown that individuals who practice Ayurvedic methods such as yoga are at decreased risk for high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and stress, all factors for heart disease. Studies have also shown yoga to be particularly helpful for musculoskeletal ailments such as carpal tunnel syndrome and osteoarthritis.
Ayurvedic herbal remedies are being investigated for a number of ailments including allergies, arthritis, chronic fatigue syndrome, menstrual cramps, Parkinson's disease, and digestive disorders, including constipation and irritable bowel syndrome.
How To Choose a Practitioner
There is no licensing for Ayurvedic practitioners in the United States. However, Ayurveda centers in the U.S. do offer training programs that are about a year long (in India, Ayurvedic practitioners train for five and a half years or more). Some medical doctors, chiropractors, or nutritionists may include Ayurvedic methods in their treatments. As you would with any doctor, check into your practitioner's training and experience.
What Can I Expect From Ayurveda?
A first visit to an Ayurvedic practitioner may last 45 to 90 minutes. The practitioner will ask a series of questions to determine your doshic (or constitutional) profile. You will be questioned about your physical traits, emotional temperament, food preferences, and mental attributes. You will also be asked about your personal and family history.
The practitioner will listen to your heart and lungs and pay special attention to your pulses and tongue. According to Ayurveda, each person has three superficial and three deep pulses on each wrist, which correspond to various internal organs; by reading the pulses, the practitioner can reveal imbalances. The pulses also convey information about the three doshas. The color and sensitivity of parts of your tongue, as well as your general physical appearance, provide more clues about your health. In addition, you may be asked to provide a urine sample for analysis.
After identifying your constitutional type and any imbalances, the physician may prescribe a combination of Ayurvedic treatments, including herbal remedies, lifestyle and dietary modifications (vegetarianism is not required), meditation and yoga postures, breathing exercises, and cleansing measures such as nasal douching or enemas.
If you are found to be suffering from excess kapha, for example, you may have a slow metabolism and perhaps be overweight. The practitioner might suggest that you start an exercise routine and choose light foods over heavy foods to improve your diet.
Vata types, on the other hand, are usually quite thin and tend to be prone to nervous disorders such as anxiety and insomnia. If you are suffering from excess vata, an Ayurvedic practitioner might recommend that you keep a regular routine by eating at set intervals and going to sleep and waking up at the same time each day.
If you are a pitta type, you are probably in good shape but may be subject to moodiness, heartburn, and hemorrhoids. If you suffer from excess pitta, you may be advised to give up alcohol and fried foods and to avoid stressful situations.
The frequency and duration of Ayurvedic visits varies widely, depending on your condition and the practioners's prescription. Once you have received your treatment advice, you may be able to pursue it on your own or your practitioner may want to see you regularly to monitor your treatment. Of course, you may want to revisit the practitioner if the treatments or herbal remedies don't seem to be working.
Cautions about Ayurveda
- If you have a serious medical condition, such as heart disease or diabetes, don't rely on Ayurveda alone. Seek the help a doctor who can provide conventional treatments for your illness.
- Cleansing procedures such as enemas or overuse of laxatives can lead to chemical imbalances in the body. Use them only with great caution.
- If you follow a special diet for diabetes or heart disease, consult your doctor before you adopt an Ayurvedic diet plan, because the diets may be at odds with one another.