Ayurveda is a 5,000-year-old system of mind-body medicine from India that includes elements of herbal medicine, nutrition, meditation, stress reduction, yoga, and massage therapy.

What Is Ayurveda?

Ayurveda is much more than a system of healing - it's an integral part of a larger spiritual system that evolved from the teachings of sages (rishis) in the Himalayas - but many practitioners, especially outside of India, skip the religious stuff. Like many ancient systems of healing, Ayurveda regards disease as an imbalance and offers ways to restore and preserve physical, emotional, and spiritual health by re-establishing the body's natural balance.

Two main schools of Ayurveda are practiced outside of India. One, Maharishi Ayur-Veda, was started by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (of transcendental meditation fame) and emphasizes meditation as the key to healing. This for-profit (and highly profitable) group runs its own training programs worldwide and sells an exclusive line of products.

The other branch of Ayurveda -- popularized by Deepak Chopra, M.D. - also advocates meditation but not as the most important means to health. It's basically a loosely associated group of healers and health care advocates, many of them trained in India and now based at various alternative medical schools or mind-body centers.

Chinese medicine and Ayurveda share a lot of underlying philosophy:
  • Macrocosm/microcosm. The idea of a living, breathing, thinking universe is central to Ayurveda. But it's not as revolutionary as some Ayurvedic healers would have you believe. The idea that the universe is one big organism, analogous to all the lowly organisms here on earth, pervades many ancient philosophies and healing systems.
  • Vital energy. Ayurvedic medicine holds that all life is based on an underlying energy or vital force called prana - basically similar to the qi ("chee") of Chinese medicine. Ayurvedic healers say that this prana is centered in various energy centers called chakras that work together to keep the prana flowing through the body - considered essential to the health of body, mind, and spirit. Various massage, breathing, and yoga techniques (with names such as chakral pranic healing, chakra balancing, and chakra yoga) aim to help out the chakras.
  • The unity of body, mind and spirit. Most Westerners naturally separate thoughts and feelings from what happens to their bodies, but both Ayurveda and Chinese systems of healing assume that they are inextricably linked. That idea means that you won't heal your nausea or pain until you get your mind and spirit in order as well. This way of thinking may take a little getting used to, because most modern Western thought compartmentalizes body and mind, and often doesn't know what to do with spirit at all.
  • Body, mind and spiritual awareness. In Ayurveda, these three factors are the holy trinity -- and you can't be free from disease unless all three are working right. In other words, your food, friends, family, environment, exercise regimen, sleep, play, and work habits -- everything! -- affect your health.
  • Balance. If you want to get -- and stay -- healthy, the key is rebalancing your whole system, not attacking a specific symptom.
  • Personal responsibility. As Dr. Deepak Chopra puts it in his book, Perfect Health: The Complete Mind/Body Guide (Harmony Books, 1991), "The first secret you should know about perfect health is that you have to choose it. You can be as healthy as you think it is possible to be. Perfect health... involves a total shift in perspective which makes disease and infirm old age impossible."

How Ayurveda Works?

Ayurveda holds that there are five elements in nature and in the body: ether, air, fire, water, and earth. These elements are the foundation for all nature - including human beings. And every part of the human body is the manifestation of one or more of these elements. For example, air is manifested in the beating of the heart and the expansion and contraction of the lungs, and fire is manifested in the digestive tract, body temperature, and metabolism. The five elements also govern the five senses - that is, the ability to perceive and interact with the rest of nature. That's good, because in Ayurveda staying in harmony with nature is essential for optimum health.

The five elements combine to form three basic forces, known as doshas, which exist in everything in the universe. Ether and air combine to form vata, fire and water combine to form pitta, and earth and water combine to form kapha.

These three doshas -- vata, pitta, and kapha -- can be found in every person, too, in various combinations. Your particular combination is called your tridosha (this term is easy to remember if you recall that -tri- means "three" and that there are three doshas to combine). Everybody is said to have all three doshas in every cell, but your particular tridosha is determined by which one (or combination) dominates.

Often only one of the three doshas dominates, creating one of three basic mind-body (or constitutional) types (Which sound a lot like the ectomorphs, mesomorphs, and endomorphs that conventional docs used to talk about).
  • Vata Types are enthusiastic, vivacious, imaginative, anxious, quick to learn, and quick to forget. They tire and chill easily, sleep poorly, and tend to have digestive troubles, lower back pain, nervous system diseases, and arthritis. They're often thin, with narrow shoulders and hips.
  • Pitta types are intense, quick to anger, sharp-witted, enterprising, impatient, commanding, orderly, and critical. They tend to have medium and muscular builds, fair or reddish complexions, warm skin, and large appetites, and are prone to heartburn, gallbladder and liver disorders, skin problems, ulcers and hemorrhoids.
  • Kapha types are relaxed, graceful, slow-moving, tranquil, affectionate, complacent, indecisive, empathetic, and slow to learn but long to remember. They tend to be thickset and gain weight easily, need a lot of sleep and warmth, and are prone to sinus problems, colds, allergies, asthma, and painful joints.
Besides determining your mind-body type, the doshas are also "metabolic principles" that control basic bodily functions. Vata controls movement, pitta controls metabolism (the processing of food, air, and water), and kapha controls structure.

Many people are combinations of types (for example, vata-pitta type), with one type dominant. A few people have nearly equal aspects of all three doshas. Your particular combination gives you a unique prakriti -- or nature -- from birth.

No one dosha is healthier than another. But if you want to feet your best, you have to get your inborn doshas into the best balance possible. In other words, harmonizing your doshas with your inborn nature is the key to health. The job of the Ayurvedic practitioner is to identify both your prakriti and your tridosha and to prescribe treatments that will get them into harmony with each other and with nature as a whole.

When (And When Not) To Use Ayurveda

Not a lot of hard-core scientific evidence links specific techniques to specific cures, but there's a good chance that some Ayurvedic techniques can boost your energy levels, relax you, and just make you feel better in general. And chances are high that by trying these practices you'll lower your risk of serious illness.

Really, though, asking if you should use Ayurveda (or any larger "system" of medicine) is a lot like asking whether you should consider Judaism, Buddhism, or some other religion. Because we still have a lot more questions than answers about the ultimate superiority of one system over another (and there may never be any answers), you have to decide for yourself if this approach may be worth a try.

If it does sound appealing, just remember this: A lot of Ayurvedic practice may make you healthier in general and may be worth a try for chronic but minor ailments, especially in conjunction with other medical systems.

If you're expecting to avoid aging or dying, you'd better go elsewhere (whatever popular book titles may suggest). Ayurveda can't give you eternal vigor and life, nor can it cure cancer, diabetes, or heart disease.

Eventually, researchers may find that some Ayurvedic approaches -- such as the cleansing and fasting techniques -- may help in these (or other) areas. For now, though, Ayurveda basically remains a lifestyle that makes you feel better. Undernutrition (without malnutrition) promises to be the only scientifically validated way to prolong life in mammals (with no proof about human mammals), and even here the jury is still out. Even so, imposing any form of discipline on lifestyle and habits may make you feel better.

Like Chinese medicine, Ayurveda is generally not a recommended way to deal with an acute infection -- such as pneumonia -- or major injury. It can be used to supplement more conventional treatments for serious or advanced disease (including speeding surgical recovery or relieving side effects from cancer therapy), but only under the supervision of a qualified conventional physician.

If you're using herbs from other traditions, don't mix them with Ayurvedic herbs without consulting a practitioner who knows about all of them.

Benefits And Possible Harm Of Ayurveda

Ayurveda seems to be most useful in treating allergies, chronic fatigue, rashes, ulcers, indigestion, insomnia, anxiety, and depression. It may also help speed surgical recovery and supplement conventional treatment for serious illnesses such as cancer.

Ayurvedic medicines containing heavy metals such as lead or mercury may be poisonous (whatever anyone tells you about deactivation through heat processing). Avoid them.
Also be careful not to let the spiritual side of Ayurveda get you down. Much of Ayurveda is uplifting -- it's encouraging to hear that people can control their own destiny, for example. But the flip side of this message is that it's your own fault if you get sick -- obviously not a very helpful attitude.

Healing The Ayurvedic Way

Ayurvedic healing involves many different techniques. Among the most common are:
  • Sensory delights. Because everything you see, hear, smell, tests, and feel can also affect your health, many of the Ayurvedic healing techniques involve surrounding yourself with balms for the senses including soothing music, beautiful hues, invigorating aromas, and special massages (often with warm sesame oil).
  • Diet and dosha. Ayurveda divides foods into six basic tastes sweet, sour, salt, pungent, bitter, and astringent -- each of which has specific effects on the doshas. That's why Ayurvedic dietary therapy often involves eating specific foods to "pacify" a dosha that is out of balance. If you're a vata type, for example, you may be told to eat more butter and fat (to "pacify" your vata). If you're a kapha type, you may be told to avoid sweets and eat more pungent bitter, and astringent foods such as greens, spices, beans, and potatoes.
  • Marma therapy. In Ayurveda, internal prana masts the outside world at 107 junctions (marmas). By pressing on these points (which are a lot like acupuncture points), you stimulate the mind-body connection and help balance your doshas. You can get marma therapy at Ayurvedic clinics or learn to do it for yourself. Do you want a quick way to relieve worry and headaches? Try gently massaging the marma between your eyebrows with your eyes closed!
  • Yoga asanas. Various yoga exercises can be used to stretch and activate marma points. Yoga is a set of postures (asanas) aimed to integrate mind and body. Ayurvedic medicine usually uses hatha yoga, which stresses physical exercises.
  • Meditation. Meditating is basically a way of focusing on the silence and wisdom inside us by using special chanting or breathing exercises. Because Ayurveda holds that by discovering this inner place we will find the means to health, meditation is an important part of self-healing.
  • Breathing exercises. Breath is supposed to be the bodily expression of the vital energy (prana). Many Ayurvedic doctors recommend a soothing set of balanced breathing exercises (often performed before meditating) called pranayama. These exercises help you relax and get in sync with universal energies.
  • Detoxification. One important part of Ayurevedic healing is to rid the body of toxins that can mess up your dosha balance and predispose you to disease. A lot of effort is devoted to purging impurities (ama) via the three malas (sweat, urine and feces). In other words, expect talk of steam baths, enemas, laxatives, vomiting, and maybe even bloodletting. Impurities can also be mental, so you may have to purge negative thoughts and feelings, too.
Also expect talk of panchakarma. To get the ama out, you not only take and inhale medicated oils and undergo oil massages and herbalized sweat treatments, but you have to endure extended periods of fasting, diarrhea, mucuous discharge, induced vomiting and occasionally bloodletting as well. In his book, Perfect Health: The Complete Mind/Body Guide (Harmony Books, 1991), Dr. Deepak Chopra recommends that everyone over the age of 12 -- sick or well -- undergo a week of pancharkarma a minimum of once a year. This may not be the best idea for many people.

Finding An Ayurvedic Healer

You can live by Ayurvedic principles without consulting an expert healer. Many healers trained in other traditions (including M.D.s, naturopaths, and chiropractors) have picked up Ayurvedic techniques along the way and can practice them competently, too. But if you're going to use some of the specialized herbs or food supplements or want an authentic diagnosis of your prakriti, see a trained Ayurvedic doctor (and tell your regular M.D. as well).

Because the United States offers no licensing system for Ayurvedic practitioners, you have to rely on other credentials. An Ayurvedic specialist trained in India probably knows how to diagnose prakriti accurately. Whatever healers you use, always ask where they were trained, how long they've been in practice, and what experience they have treating people with conditions similar to yours.

Typical Visit To An Ayurvedic Doctor

On your first visit, an Ayurvedic physician will determine your prakriti or particular combination of doshas (your tridosha) by examining your pulse, tongue, nails, eyes, face, and posture -- as well as by listening closely to what you say about your eating, working, playing, sleeping, and other lifestyle habits -- and assessing the way your voice sounds when you say it. You may also be asked to fill out a written questionnaire.

The practitioner will then give you a customized health plan to help harmonize your doshas. This program involves a specific regimen of herbs, foods, massage, yoga postures (asanas), breathing exercises, and meditations. The idea is for you to learn to heal yourself -- you don't rely on the healer to do it for you. Your relationship with your healer is vital, but ultimately you're in charge (which is where you want to be).

You will probably be put on a regular regime called a rasayana. Herbal rasayanas are mixtures of herbs, fruits, and minerals in various forms to promote good health or treat specific diseases. Behavioral rasayanas are customized plans for you to change your lifestyle. Expect to make some basic changes in your patterns of eating, sleeping, working, and exercising.

The first session with the healer may last an hour or so. Weeks or months later the healer will probably want to monitor your progress by conducting much shorter follow-up exams.

For Ayurvedic practitioners and clinics, check these resources.

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