Introduction to Ayurveda

Summary: This article gives a brief overview of the ancient Vedic Healthcare System known as Ayurveda. Aimed at Westerners with little existing knowledge of the subject, it covers some key concepts such as mind-body types, diagnostic techniques, the emphasis Ayurvedas places on prevention and how we can best use it.

The aim of Ayurveda is to maintain perfect physical, mental and spiritual health.

Ayurveda is an holistic healthcare system. It operates on different principles and paradigms to other healthcare systems. Ayurveda does not just deal with the organs and matter from which the body is made. It also deals with the underlying field of energy and intelligence that pervades the body and, from the Vedic viewpoint, the whole universe.

Even an outline understanding of the principles of Ayurveda can help us maintain health and balance in our physiology through correct diet, appropriate exercise and daily and seasonal routines.

Ayurveda places great emphasis on the prevention of illness. It regards prevention as being much better than cure because prevention is both easier and cheaper.

Before recommending any dietary advice or routines, Ayurveda first categorises us into one of seven major mind-body constitutional types [1], therefore preventive advice and treatment is based on the individual. This is a unique strength of the Ayurvedic systemdifferent individuals will receive very different healthcare advice and even completely different treatments for the same set of ‘symptoms’.

It is possible to gain an approximate understanding of our own mind-body type from questionnaires concerning our physical and mental attributes; however a more reliable analysis can be performed by a trained Ayurvedic practioner.

In Ayurveda, disease is seen as an imbalance in one or more of the key elements in the body. This can be further complicated by the presence of toxins and imbalance in subtle energy channels and systems. Ayurvedic treatment usually involves first removing toxins from the system, followed by attempts to rebalance it and finally advice to maintain that balance.

Ayurveda offers an extremely cost effective diagnostic methodology which does not rely on invasive tests or high tech expensive equipment. Rather, the Ayurvedic Doctor follows an eight point (occasionally ten point) series of observations. Most remarkably for Westerners, one of these observations is the ‘pulse diagnostic process’ of ‘Nadi Pariksha’ (aka ‘Nadi Vigyan’) which seems almost miraculous. Not only can a skilled practitioner determine one’s natural dosha predominance, e.g. Vata-Pita, they can also determine the current state of dosha imbalance. Nadi Pariksha involves the practitioner feeling the pulse of the patient with three fingers – any imbalance result in subtle pattern differences which can then be detected. A fully enlightened Ayurvedic Specialists can also ‘read’ a patient’s complete medical history from this process!

Ayurveda is not herbal medicine, although herbs, minerals, etc. can be used as just one of a much wider range of rebalancing and detoxifying processes. In Ayurveda, food is also regarded as ‘medicine’.

Although some knowledge of Ayurveda is useful in understanding one’s own mind-body type, diagnosis of disease is a complex subject and best left to Ayurvedic practitioners. A suitably qualified practitioner would probably hold at least a degree in Ayurvedic Medicine (Bachelor of Ayurvedic Medicine – BAM, or equivalent), plus relevant experience.

If we have any illness, discomfort or disease it is worth first getting a diagnosis from a trained western physician. Armed with this information we can then make an informed decision about our choices of alternative treatments and the timescales involved.

Western medicine often offers ‘quick-fix’ solutions to symptoms via surgery, tablets, etc., whereas treatment from an Ayurvedic viewpoint often involves significant changes to diet, routine and lifestyle. Ayurveda can also take longer to achieve results – first to detoxify our system and then to re-balance our physiology. Many people who have had limited success with managing or curing long term chronic conditions via Western medicine, or who have experienced unwanted side effects from their treatment, are now exploring the health promoting possibilities offered by Ayurveda.

There is a major difference in how Ayurveda and Western medicine attribute different names to specific symptoms. From a Western medical diagnosis we may say we have ‘Asthma’; however traditional Ayurveda would not use the term ‘Asthma’ at all for this particular set of symptoms. This is because Ayurveda recognises the symptoms as being due to one of three possible underlying causes – by either a Pitta, or Vata or Kapha imbalance (with or without complications such as toxins etc.), so each different type requires different remedies to bring the system back into balance and restore equilibrium.

Ayurveda is ancient. It originates from the same vedic tradition as Yoga. Its origins lie in extreme antiquity – probably 5000 or more years ago. The knowledge was initially passed as an oral tradition from master to student, although it was first written down only a few thousand years ago. Ayurveda has been described as ‘the mother of all healing’. Ayurveda literally means ‘knowledge of life’. It is regarded as one of Yoga’s sister sciences. Ayurveda differs from western medicine in its origins. It was derived via a process called ‘vedic cognition’. It is not experimental or empirical, so it is not based on knowledge derived from dissection, anatomy and biochemistry. It is holistic in that it treats the person as a whole – not just as a collection of parts working in a complex machine.

Ayurveda also has two related vedic topics: the science of Vastu (Yogic Design) deals with promoting balance and life-supporting qualities in our homes (the vedic equivalent of Fegh-Shui); the subject of Jyotish (Yogic Astrology) deals with promoting balance between the planetary forces (which are indicators of our returning karmas) in our birthcharts.

Footnotes:

[1] The major constitutional types are made up from combinations of the three key Ayuvedic principles or doshas : Vata (V), Pitta (P) and Kapha (K). Vata is the principle of movement. Pitta is the principle of fire and metabolism. Kapha is the principle of solidity and structure. So everybody will fall into one of the following seven categories according to which principles are naturally predominant in the individual’s mind and body. In Ayurveda this inherent natural balance is called one’s ‘Prakriti’. If only a single dosha predominates the person will be described as having an inherent nature of either Pitta, Vata or Kapha: P, or V, or K. Often two doshas predominate giving rise to categories PV (or VP);  PK (or KP);  VK (or KV). Occasionally all three doshas are at the same level giving rise to the final category of VPK.


Additional Information

Frequently Asked Questions on Ayurveda FAQs 1, FAQs 2, FAQs 3