Ayurveda or Ayurvedic medicine is an ancient, holistic system of medicine believed to have originated in India more than 3000 years ago. The term ‘Ayurveda’ is a Sanskrit word in which ‘Ayur’ stands for life or longevity and ‘Veda’ stands for science or knowledge. Ayurveda functions on the concept that balancing the life forces of the body, mind and spirit are integral to ensuring a healthy constitution.
This Vedic medicinal system is unique in its methodology of preventive and curative treatments that focus on supporting wellness and good health rather than on defeating diseases. However, Ayurveda is replete with treatments designed to cure or offer relief from numerous health issues. The preventive aspect takes into consideration the specific physical and mental constitution of the individual, living environment and climatic conditions before suggesting changes in personal hygiene and social interactions. The curative component consists of administering special diet, herbal preparations, natural medicines and physiotherapy.
Although the practice of this alternative medicine system is considered pseudoscientific, it is the preferred form of healthcare for a large portion of the population in India and Nepal. Almost 80 percent of Indians depend on Ayurvedic medicine system either exclusively or in combination with other branches of medicine to treat a range of health issues. In other parts of the world, Ayurveda is classified under alternative medicine.
The Indian Medical Council, established by the government of India in 1971, stipulates strict standards for education and practice of traditional Indian medicine including Ayurveda. It oversees graduate and postgraduate programmes of Ayurveda and regulates treatment by certified Ayurvedic doctors. This has resulted in various projects designed to integrate traditional branches of medicine into mainstream healthcare sector. The Indian Ministry of AYUSH (Ayurveda, Yoga, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy) now conducts extensive Ayurvedic research through numerous institutes located across the nation.
History of Ayurveda
Crucial Ayurvedic texts have been irrevocably lost over the course of many millennia. Three major texts on Ayurveda that have survived include Sushruta Samhita, Charaka Samhita and Bhela Samhita. These texts relate Ayurvedic knowledge as being passed on from the Gods to prominent sages and then handed down to physicians. The Sushruta Samhita features the story of Dhanvantari – the God of Ayurveda – who appeared on earth as the king of Varanasi and enlightened physicians with the knowledge of medicine.
Ancient Ayurvedic texts include references to various therapies such as customized diets, herbal oils, plant-based medicines, laxatives, detox methods, massage and rejuvenation procedures. Ayurvedic medicines are usually complex concoctions meticulously prepared by experts across hours or even days. These medicines consist of herbs, plant-extracts, minerals, milk, ghee, oils and trace amounts of metals. Ayurvedic texts also feature comprehensive descriptions about various surgical procedures such as extraction of kidney stones, cataract surgeries, rhinoplasty, surgical extraction of foreign objects from the body, sutures and even brain surgery.
The written texts date back to over 3000 years. However, historians believe Ayurveda existed in prehistoric times and began developing into a branch of medicine during the peak of the Indus Valley Civilization. Ayurveda flourished to epic proportions during the Vedic period. Later, the spread of religions such as Jainism and Buddhism popularized medical knowledge and treatments mentioned in Ayurvedic texts.
Over the years, Ayurvedic concepts and practices have undergone extensive evolution. In the 1970s and 1980s, personalities such as Baba Hari Dass and Maharishi Ayurveds played integral roles in popularizing Ayurvedic treatments in unique ways suitable for the Western world.
Science behind Ayurveda
According to Ayurvedic principles, every living being is inextricably connected to everything in the cosmos. Proponents of Ayurveda believe that the mind, body and spirit are three unique aspects that come together to form a whole being. Each of these aspects is believed to have an influence on the other two aspects. This is the fundamental principle of Ayurveda, based on which the diagnosis, treatment and diet is determined.
When there is a balance between the three aspects of mind, body and spirit and when the individual is harmoniously connected to the rest of the Universe, he/she will be blessed with good health. When the balance is disturbed, it manifests itself in the form of health issues. Factors that may cause imbalance include change in climate, stress, injuries, genetic defects, unhealthy diet an inactive lifestyle.
Contemporary practitioners of Ayurveda emphasize on sustaining a balanced metabolic system to achieve physical, mental and spiritual vitality. Maintaining a balanced diet, proper digestion and zero constipation is considered most integral. Modern practitioners also offer valuable advice on integrating yoga, exercise and meditation with Ayurvedic treatment for enhanced vigour and vitality.
Elements of Life and the Principles of Ayurveda
A fundamental principle in Ayurveda is the belief that every living being in the world has been created from five core elements – earth, fire, air, water and space. Various combinations of these core elements create life forces or life energies that are called doshas in Ayurveda. This constitution of life energy is believed to influence ones physical, mental and spiritual well-being. Ayurveda aims to attain a balance of these doshas for optimal health.
The three life forces or doshas created by different combinations of these five elements are called Vata, Pitta and Kapha. While space and air elements are prominent in Vata dosha, fire and water elements are dominant in Pitta dosha and water and earth are the foremost elements in Kapha dosha.
Although all three doshas are present in every individual, one is more prominent than the other two. The prominent dosha determines the unique body type, how well it functions and the illnesses it is vulnerable to develop as follows:
Vata dosha: This is considered to be the strongest of the three doshas considering the fact that it oversees the most vital functions in the human body including cell division, heart function, respiration, blood circulation, excretion and mental wellbeing. This dosha can be disrupted by irregular eating habits, inadequate sleep and emotions such as sorrow or fear. Individuals with dominant Vata dosha are considered to be more vulnerable to developing skin issues, asthma, rheumatoid arthritis, heart ailments and anxiety issues.
Pitta dosha: Since this life force plays a major role in controlling almost everything related to digestion, balancing this dosha is integral to ensuring healthy metabolism. Over exposure to the sun and consumption of extremely sour or spicy food are reasons that may trigger an imbalance of this dosha. People with prominent Pitta dosha are considered more likely to be afflicted by heart issues, fluctuating blood pressure levels and Crohn’s disease.
Kapha dosha: This life energy controls crucial physical aspects such as the immune system, growth of muscles, physical strength and weight. Consuming food with high salt or sugar content and sleeping during daytime are practices that can imbalance this dosha. People with this dosha as the prominent one are more likely to develop diabetes, breathing problems, obesity and cancer.
The balance between the three doshas determines the health status of a person at any given time. A healthy balance provides physical wellbeing while illnesses indicate an imbalance of doshas.
Benefits of Ayurveda
Ayurveda practitioners customize treatment plans for patients after a meticulous process of determining the physical makeup of the individual, the emotional status, dominant life force and how well the three life forces are balanced. Ayurvedic texts prescribe eight primary routes of diagnosis – appearance (aakruti), pulse (nadi), speech (shabd), sight (druk), touch (sparsh), taste (jihva), stool (mala) and urine (mootra).
The ultimate goal of all Ayurvedic treatments is to achieve a balance of the three doshas to trigger relief from illnesses. Most treatments begin with a detox process known as panchakarma designed to eliminate undigested food in the body and restore healthy metabolism. Once the body is free of toxins, the practitioners commence treatment that may consist of massage and unique use of oils, herbal medicines or enemas.
Another main branch of Ayurvedic treatment is massage. This treatment is performed on the basis of the concept that the channels within the human body that carry fluids throughout the body can be blocked due to various reasons, triggering ailments and poor health. Different forms of massage using medicinal oils or steaming, cloth-wrapped bundles of herbs are utilized depending on the particular ailment of the individual. The right massaging techniques performed by trained and experienced masseur/masseuse are believed to offer excellent results in unblocking channels and promoting health.
In addition to these treatments, Ayurveda stresses on the importance of maintaining an ideal routine that is in sync with the natural cycles of the body. This includes rising early, getting adequate sleep, meditating, eating in moderation, exercising daily and maintaining high standards of personal hygiene.
Ayurveda includes an array of specialized treatments to boost health, vitality, energy and beauty. These treatments are extremely popular among international tourists to India seeking an experience of holistic approach to good health. The oil massages in particular are much in demand due to its proven efficacy in easing stress and rejuvenating the body.
For people who have embraced Ayurveda as their preferred system of medicine, Ayurveda is more a way of life rather than simply a remedy or cure. By incorporating balanced diet, ideal lifestyle, herbal medicines, detox, massage, yoga and meditation into its realm, Ayurveda continues to be a perfect holistic system designed to ensure the overall harmony of a person’s body, mind and spirit.