Ayurveda is the traditional Hindu system of medicine based on the concept of balance in bodily systems and uses diet, herbal treatment and yogic breathing.
Practised in India for the past five thousand years, Ayurvedic medicine (meaning 'science of life') is a comprehensive system of medicine that combines natural therapies with a highly personalized approach to the treatment of disease. Ayurvedic medicine places equal emphasis on body, mind and spirit, and strives to restore the innate harmony of the individual.
Strictly speaking, Ayurvedic medicine is not a treatment; rather, it is an entire medical system whose goal is the prevention of disease through the proper balance of three 'irreducible principles' at work in the body. Derived from philosophical theories propounded in India over 2,000 years ago, the principles of Ayurvedic medicine have never been substantiated by contemporary medical science - and no medical conditions have been proven to respond to Ayurvedic treatments. Certain Ayurvedic exercises, such as meditation and gentle stretching exercises of yoga, afford relief from tension and stress. However, any impact these exercises have on chronic conditions such as high blood pressure appears to be momentary, and can't be considered a lasting remedy.
Procedure of Treatment
Ayurvedic medicine encompasses a wide range of treatments and lifestyle measures, including dietary recommendations, massage, medicinal herbs, and the meditation and breathing techniques of yoga. Some practitioners also recommend intestinal 'cleansing' through the use of laxatives or enemas. Depending on your specific ailments and conditions, you could be prescribed any or all of these various modes of therapy. Ayurvedic practitioners generally begin by taking a comprehensive personal and medical history to determine your physical and spiritual "type", and then prescribe the treat accordingly. Expect detailed questions about your emotional temperament, skin type, food preferences and other quirks. The practitioner is also likely to examine your tongue and spend a significant amount of time taking your pulse. (in the Ayurvedic view of medicine, the pulse is a critical diagnostic tool, revealing imbalances in the three basic principles at work in the body.) Much like traditional Oriental medicine, the Ayurvedic system aims not just to treat diseases but to maintain and balance the energy and health of both mind and body. It emphasizes avoidance of stress and a moderate, balanced lifestyle. The version of Ayurvedic medicine commercialized in the United States is a relatively recent 'reconstruction' of ancient Indian medical practices, refined and tailored to meet Western expectations and tastes. In India itself Western-style medicine is replacing many of the older practices. The frequency and duration of Ayurvedic treatments vary widely. Many aspects of Ayurvedic practice, such as dietary choices and yoga, can be self-administered on a regular basis or as needed. Typical measures may include massage with warm sesame oil; avoidance of certain types of foods (based on flavour, not nutritional content) and emphasis on others; breathing exercises, such as breathing alternatively through one nostril and then the other; and herbal saunas or enemas to 'detoxify' the body. A comprehensive programme of treatments, called panchakarma, aims at overall 'purification' and rejuvenation, and may be offered at some Ayurvedic clinics, centres or spas.
The complex Indian system of healing called Ayurveda (from the Sanskrit words for 'knowledge of life') has been around for millennia, but was first popularized in the United States by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, founder of the Transcendental Meditation Movement. Later, the physician-author Deepak Chopra, seized the baton, promoting the system in a string of books and lectures during the 1980s and 90s. According to Ayurveda, there are three doshas, or basic metabolic types: kapha, pitta and vata. Each dosha is rooted in specific organs of the body and associated with two of Ayurveda's elements (earth, water, fire, air and space or "ether"). Combinations of these doshas in various proportions are said to yield a total of ten body types which determine each individual's physical and emotional makeup. The Ayurvedic practitioner's job is to identify the individual's tridosha, a unique combination of the three doshas, and prescribe dietary patterns, exercises, lifestyle changes and therapies designed to bring the tridosha into balance.
People described as predominantly vata are thought to be thin, quick, and energetic; pitta types are considered competitive and hot-tempered; kapha types are regarded as calm and stolid.
Each type is considered prone to characteristic ailments (for example, pitta types are thought to be more vulnerable to ulcers, inflammation or rashes). Identification of one'stridosha determines an array of recommendations, ranging from dietary choices to the best types of exercise. Ayurvedic dietary advice is based on food's flavour rather than its nutritional content as defined by Western science. Increasing your intake of sweet, sour and salty foods, for instance, is said to balance vata.
Herbal prescriptions are drawn from a vast selection of traditional Indian remedies, most of them unfamiliar of Westerners. Even familiar herbs may be used for different purposes other than those documented by Western Medical research. Attempts to 'purify' the body through excretion are also stressed, including herbal enemas and steam treatments. (Induced vomiting, a purgative technique used in Indian Ayurvedic practice, has - not surprisingly - been avoided by American practitioners).
Who Should Avoid This Therapy?
Because none of the treatments endorsed by Ayurvedic medicine have been tested and found effective in regular clinical trials, Western physicians rarely recommend them for anyone. At best, Ayurvedic techniques are seen as means of attaining balance and harmony in your physical and emotional life - certainly not as a cure for a specific disease. In any event, it is wise to be especially wary of the purgative treatments sometimes recommended by Ayurvedic practitioners. Overuse of laxatives and enemas can lead to serious chemical imbalances within the body. Laxatives, in particular, should never be taken in the presence of abdominal pain, nausea, or vomiting without first consulting a regular doctor. Likewise, if you must follow dietary restrictions in order to manage a serious disorder such as diabetes or heart disease, it is advisable to consult a physician or registered dietician before adopting an Ayurvedic diet plan. Because Ayurvedic recommendations are based mainly on the flavour of food, they may be at odds with the body's requirements as understood by contemporary medicinal science.
Meditation and the gentle stretching and breathing exercises of yoga are unlikely to have any adverse effects on most individuals. Likewise, gentle massage with warm oil, another mainstay of Ayurveda, is generally harmless. Ayurvedic herbal medicines, however, are a different matter. There's little published information on them, and many herbs have potent - and not necessarily desirable-effects when overused. If you develop any unforeseen symptoms while taking an Ayurvedic remedy, regard them as a signal to check with a mainstream doctor or pharmacist.