One of the ancient healing systems of India, Ayurveda combines diet, herbs, physical activity, and spiritual practice to preserve health and promote longevity. The practice of Ayurvedic medicine goes back at least 5,000 years. Today, this holistic system is becoming increasingly popular outside India among people attracted to its emphasis on balancing body, mind, and spirit for optimal health and well-being.
What is Ayurveda?
The word Ayurveda comes from the Sanskrit words ayur (meaning “life” or “longevity”) and veda (meaning “knowledge” or “wisdom”). The practice of Ayurveda is based upon several ancient works, including the Atharva Veda, the fourth in the series of Hindu books of knowledge called Vedas. Atharva Veda contains ancient wisdom about healing and sickness. Other major foundational works that have guided the practice of Ayurveda are Sushruta Samhita (with information on surgery, more than 700 medicinal plants, and more than 100 formulas from mineral and animal sources) and Charaka Samhita (which includes information on medicines, foods, and internal medicine, written in a poetic style to facilitate memorization). Modern Ayurvedic healers continue to follow the traditional philosophies and techniques of Charaka Samhita.
The “Science of Life”
Ayurveda, often called “the science of life,” treats the whole person — body, mind, and spirit — to ensure optimal health. It addresses all aspects of everyday life to achieve and maintain good health (swasthavritta) through daily and seasonal lifestyle regimens. These regimens, which incorporate diet, herbs, exercise, hygiene, and spiritual and mental health, are designed to balance vital forces to maintain physical well-being as well as a harmonious relationship between the body and the mind.
Ayurveda believes the body has a vital energy, called prana, which activates the body and mind. This is similar to the concept of qi in traditional Chinese medicine; other healing systems have related concepts of vital energy. Breath is the bodily manifestation of prana. Seven energy centers called chakras keep prana flowing smoothly through the body. According to Ayurveda, the human body and the whole universe are composed of five basic substances that occur in various combinations and proportions. These five great elements (panchamahabhutas) are space (akasha), air (vayu), fire (agni), water (jala), and earth (prithvi). The five elements symbolize the physical sub- stances that give the human body form. Each is associated with different physical properties, actions, and sensory functions.
One of the many important herbs in Ayurveda, gotu kola (Centella asiatica) is used to revitalize the nervous and immune systems. It is believed to improve memory and concentration and to promote longevity.
The Three Doshas
Ayurveda recognizes three primary life forces or energies, called doshas: vata, pitta, and kapha. Each dosha is composed of a combination of two of the five great elements. These constantly fluctuating energies are essential components of the body and are responsible for a person’s health. Each person displays a unique combination of doshas that determines their main physical strengths and weaknesses, personality, and intellectual function. One or two doshas tend to dominate for each individual; a person might be primarily vata, for example, or a combination of vata-pitta. This proportion of doshas determines a person’s basic nature from birth (called prakriti) and affects the way prana flows through the body. To achieve optimal health, a person must harmonize the doshas with his or her basic nature.
Ayurvedic practitioners believe that the levels of the doshas in individuals fluctuate daily according to numerous influences, including foods eaten, time of day, season, stress level, and emotions. Each dosha has a “seat” in the body that helps keep imbalances in check. Chronic imbalances in the doshas, however, disrupt the flow of prana and can result in disease. For optimal health, a person must take responsibility for managing imbalances and fluctuations by “pacifying” excesses in the doshas with foods, herbs, exercise, and various stress-reducing techniques.
THE THREE DOSHAS of AYURVEDA
According to Ayurveda, each person displays a unique combination of life energies, called doshas. To be healthy, a person must manage the daily fluctuation of his or her doshas by using the appropriate foods, herbs, and forms of exercise.
Body type: Thin build; narrow shoulders; may be very tall or short
Personality: Creative, enthusiastic, vivacious, imaginative, anxious; may make quick, nervous movements; tendency to waste
Basic body function: Movement
Season: Fall/early winter
Time of day: Dawn
Tastes/foods that aggravate: Pungent, bitter, astringent; raw foods
Tastes/foods that pacify: Sweet, sour, salty; moist, warming foods; cooked root vegetables
Body type: Well-proportioned, muscular; fair or ruddy coloring; average height
Personality: Sharp-witted, intense, driven, confident, quick to anger, impatient, ambitious; can be aggressive and competitive
Basic body function: Metabolism
Seat: Small intestine
Time of day: Midday
Tastes/foods that aggravate: Sour, salty, pungent; red meat
Tastes/foods that pacify: Sweet, astringent, bitter; cooling foods, such as salads; mushrooms, fish, chicken, and tofu
Body type: Thickset, strong; graceful, slow-moving; may be prone to weight gain
Personality: Stable, patient, tranquil, affectionate, complacent; can be possessive
Basic body function: Structure
Season: Middle of winter
Time of day: Evening
Tastes/foods that aggravate: Sweet, sour, salty; dairy products
Tastes/foods that pacify: Pungent, bitter, astringent; hot and spicy foods; leafy vegetables, legumes, apples, and pears
Diet, Herbs, and Lifestyle
Before prescribing treatment, the Ayurvedic practitioner determines a patient’s tridosha (doshic constitution) and diagnoses any imbalances. Diagnosis begins with a detailed history that takes into account lifestyle factors as well as physical symptoms. As in traditional Chinese medicine, the Ayurvedic practitioner examines the patient’s pulse and tongue, and also could look at the eyes, listen to the organs, and palpate the abdomen to pinpoint doshic imbalances.
The Ayurvedic practitioner then considers all physical and lifestyle factors to custom-design an individualized formula — called a rasayana — to balance the patient’s doshas for optimal health and well-being. The practitioner might instruct the patient to change various lifestyle practices — for example, how much sleep to get or how and when to eat. A practitioner also might recommend yoga, meditation, massage, or breathing exercises to help reduce the effects of stress and further pacify the doshas.
Herbal rasayanas incorporate herb, food, and mineral mixtures. As in TCM, Ayurveda uses herbs and foods according to what is known as a system of “energetics” — properties of foods and healing substances. This system takes into account flavor and energy (heating and cooling properties). Ayurveda classifies foods according to six primary tastes: sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, and astringent. Each of these tastes has specific effects on the doshas. Ayurvedic remedies can contain as many as 20 different herbs, foods, and minerals.
An Ayurvedic herbal preparation could be a fresh juice, crushed pulp or paste, decoction (made by boiling herbs in liquid), hot infusion (made by steeping herbs in hot liquid), or cold infusion (made by steeping herbs in cold liquid). People also take herbs in powders, milk decoctions, and medicated wines, jellies, jams, ghee (clarified butter), and confections. Medicated oils, usually made by heating herbs in sesame oil, are used in massage or as ointments, douches, or internal remedies.
Many Ayurvedic practitioners also advise patients to undergo purification practices such as panchakarma (five actions). This is a rigorous multistep detoxification process that aims to help your body eliminate impurities (ama) to further balance the doshas. It includes specialized treatments such as oil therapy, sweating, purging, enemas, bloodletting, and nasal drops.