What is Ayurveda?
Ayurveda, or "the science of life" in Sanskrit, is an alternative health care system developed in India several thousand years ago. Based on the tenets of the Hindu religion, it is designed to prevent illness and promote wellness by balancing mind, body and spirit through massage, yoga, diet, herbs and metals that cleanse the body of impurities. While it focuses primarily on illness prevention, Ayurveda also includes treatments for specific ailments.
What is the history of Ayurveda?
Though passed down primarily through word of mouth for its early history, its practices and beliefs were recorded in two ancient books written in Sanskrit on palm leaves over 2,000 years ago. These books are called Caraka Samhita and Susruta Samhita, and they outlined topics such as lifestyle, philosophy, detection and treatment of disease, and medical ethics.
Ayurveda is still practiced primarily in the rural areas of India, Tibet, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh, but its popularity has grown in the western world over the last century, supported by popular figures such as the western-trained doctor Deepak Chopra.
How does it work?
An Ayurvedic practitioner works with each client to establish a balance between mind, body, and soul. Instead of examining specific symptoms or using specific cures, Ayurvedic medicine attempts to bring the client into harmony with their environment through the use of various techniques, thus restoring the body's natural ability to heal itself.
Depending on the client, a practitioner may suggest treatments such as fasting, enemas or special diets to cleanse the digestive tract and the respiratory system, exposure to the sun, yoga, meditation and exercise for symptom relief, or special herbs and foods for specific ailments. A practitioner may also massage certain "vital points" where energy is stored to improve health, lessen pain and stress and to improve circulation.
What are doshas?
Doshas are metabolic body types thought to be different combinations of the five elements of water, fire, earth, space and air. There are threedoshas, called vata, pitta and kapha. Most people are a mixture of doshas, and Ayurvedic practitioners work with each client's particular combination to determine the best treatment plan.
Each of the three doshas is associated with certain physical characteristics, personality traits and specific health problems. According to Ayurvedic medicine, these doshas dictate how a person looks and acts, what foods they should and shouldn't eat, and how they relate to their environment.
How do you determine your dosha?
The practitioner ascertains the client's dosha through questions regarding diet, lifestyle, health problems and behavior. They also observe the client's weight, skin type and physical characteristics and take each client's pulse to help determine the correct combination of treatments.
What is each dosha like?
The vata dosha is made up of space and air elements. A vata dosha is characterized by changeability, unpredictability and variability. Vatas tend to be slender, with cool, dry skin and have prominent features, joints and veins. They are enthusiastic, intuitive, moody, imaginative and active.Vatas are prone to erratic sleeping and eating patterns, anxiety, insomnia, skin diseases, constipation and cramps.
The pitta dosha is made up of fire and water elements. A pitta dosha is characterized by predictability, passion and efficiency. Pittas tend to be of a medium build, with fair hair, warm skin and a well-proportioned body. They are intelligent and articulate, intense and loving, they often have a short-temper, and tend to be perfectionists. Pittas are prone to ulcers, heartburn, hemorrhoids and acne.
The kapha dosha is made up of water and earth elements. A kapha dosha is characterized by relaxation and strength. Kaphas are often heavy-set, with thick, wavy hair and thick, oily skin. They are compassionate, affectionate, slow to anger, graceful, forgiving and tend to procrastinate.Kaphas are prone to obesity, high cholesterol, allergies and sinus problems, diabetes, and stomach ulcers.
What are chakras?
There are seven chakras, which line up along the vertical center of the body. According to yoga teachings, they ascend in order of spiritual refinement, from the base chakra, up to the crown chakra. Each chakra governs a certain quality and is connected to a specific organ or bodily function.
- The first chakra (base chakra) governs psychic potential and is thought to be connected to the adrenal glands.
- The second chakra governs sexual activity and is thought to be connected to the reproductive organs.
- The third chakra (power chakra) governs the flow of energy, or prana, and is thought to be connected to the solar plexus and to the pancreas.
- The fourth chakra (heart chakra) governs emotions and is thought to beconnected to the heart and immune system.
- The fifth chakra (throat chakra) governs communication and creativity and is thought to be connected to the thyroid gland and the body's metabolic rate.
- The sixth chakra (brow chakra) governs sight and is thought to be connected to the production of hormones.
- The seventh chakra (crown chakra) governs consciousness, self-awareness and thought and is thought to be connected to the pineal gland.
What are the benefits of Ayurvedic medicine?
Ayurvedic medicine is a holistic approach to health that focuses on illness prevention and lifestyle changes to bring balance to the body. It is useful relieving stress and pain, increasing energy and strength, and reducing symptoms of asthma, diabetes and heart ailments. Very few rigorous, controlled studies have been carried out on Ayurveda practices. In India, the government began research in 1969 and the work continues today.
Is Ayurveda safe?
According to the National Institute of Health, if used correctly, Ayurvedic practices are safe. However, there are some concerns regarding the use of some herbs and metals in certain treatments. When combined with other medications, such as antibiotics and other prescription drugs, some of these treatments can interfere, causing potentially harmful side effects. It is important to consult your medical provider before using Ayurvedic medicine, and to discuss your medical history with a properly trained and experienced Ayurveda practitioner.
How do I choose a practitioner?
While there are currently no national standards in the United States for licensing or certifying Ayurveda practitioners, many have a background in either allopathic or naturopathic medicine, and have studied Ayurveda in India, where there are over 180 college-level programs. Ask your medical provider to recommend a practitioner, or speak to someone who is knowledgeable about Ayurvedic medicine.
National Institute of Health, and Alternative Health: The Definitive Guide, by Burton Goldberg; Celestial Arts, 2002.