Summary: Additional FAQs on the Ayurvedic Healthcare System, further resources, lifestyle changes, self-medication, active ingredients
Q. Do you have to believe in Ayurveda for it to work?
A. Ayurveda is no more a belief system than is yoga. Both originate from the same ancient Vedic tradition and they can be considered sister subjects. We simply don’t have to believe in yoga in order to experience the benefits. These benefits can be experienced by anyone, in any culture, anywhere in the world. The same goes for Ayurveda.
Q. Can’t we just isolate the active ingredients present in Ayurveda herbal remedies and take a pill to cure disease?
A. This is not how Ayurveda works. Firstly, before recommending any herbal remedies an Ayurvedic Doctor needs to determine a person’s Prakriti (natural mind/body type) because a herb that would have a positive effect for a pure Vata type physiology could bring problems to a pure Kapha type. Furthermore, Ayurveda places emphasis on which part of the plant is used, when it is harvested and how it is prepared or combined with other herbs. Simply extracting the active ingredient is a very western approach – Ayurveda is much more holistic. In addition, depending on the diagnosis, certain detoxification procedures (e.g. Panchakarma) might need to be followed to rid the system of Ama (toxins) before any herbal remedies start to become effective.
At its most fundamental level Ayurveda operates on the same field of ‘intelligence and order’ that underpins our bodily structures and functions. As cells are renewed as part of their natural replacement process in our body, it ensures only health-supporting changes.
Q. Am I going to have to change my lifestyle in order to stay healthy with Ayurveda?
A. Quite possibly. It depends, of course, on how closely our current lifestyle parallels the recommendations from Ayurveda.
However, small changes to our routine, eating and sleeping habits can make a big difference to how we feel. ‘Investing’ in a small change can often bring big rewards. For example, simply not having ice cold or carbonated drinks with a meal can greatly improve our digestion (cold drinks put out the digestive fire or ‘Agni’ which is needed to fully digest food without creating toxic by-products).
We shouldn’t be obsessed with Ayurveda either. It is here to help us lead happy and healthy lives. It is not here to stop us having fun – quite the contrary. Ayurveda brings joy and health and a feeling of being truly alive (full of prana).
If we know the rules of Ayurveda we can choose occasionally to ignore them. But if we ignore them persistently we need to reflect and ask ourselves if our ingrained habits are really bringing us long term health and happiness.
Q. Can I self-medicate with Ayurvedic herbs?
A. Possibly, but self-medication for a specific health problem misses the whole point of Ayurveda. Ayurveda is not just about fixing one problem or curing one disease, although many Ayurvedic ‘product oriented’ commercial websites might imply otherwise! Get it right and all potential health problems are fixed simultaneously with an Ayurvedic approach! Getting it right may involve following appropriate detoxification procedures, re-balancing of the doshas, and then maintaining the new found balance by following dietary, lifestyle and seasonal advice. This involves a lot of personal commitment to change and self-improvement.
The idea of an ‘off the shelf’ Ayurvedic remedy is a very western way of trying to find a ‘magic bullet’ to cure a specific disease – without identifying the underlying cause of the original imbalance. If we choose ‘off the shelf’ remedies we are merely substituting a botanical solution for a pharmacologically based one. However, whatever treatment route we choose, it is always essential to first get a diagnosis from a Western medical perspective.
Q. What resources would you recommend for people wishing to further explore Ayurveda?
A. This is a matter of personal opinion, but I have found that books generally present knowledge in a more structured and coherent way than websites. This is particularly important for people new to the subject.
The three books that I recommend were all first published in the 1980’s – but their wisdom is timeless and applies just as much today.
‘Perfect Health – The Complete Mind Body Guide’ by Deepak Chopra MD. ISBN-10: 0553813676. This is a brilliant introduction to Ayurveda with lots of practical advice combined with its underlying theory. It is a key book (an updated version is now in print) making Ayurveda easily accessible to a western audience. Anyone wanting to explore Ayurveda in more detail should read it.
‘Ayurveda – The Science of Self-Healing’, by Dr. Vasant Lad, ISBN-10: 0914955004. This is a good introduction into the principles and practices of Ayurveda. It gives a broad, but highly readable overview of the subject – ideal for beginners.
‘The Yoga of Herbs: An Ayurvedic Guide to Herbal Medicine’ by David Frawley, ISBN-10: 9780941524247. This is really a reference book on the Ayurvedic properties of herbs. It contains immense knowledge and wisdom that is almost impossible to find elsewhere. It covers the healing and balancing properties of a wide range of herbs – both commonly available ones and the specialist Indian and Chinese herbs too.
Q. Do Ayurvedic herbs have side effects?
A. In Ayurveda herbs can be used to both detoxify and then rebalance our system. However, one herb that pacifies an out of balance vata dosha could tend to increase kapha dosha. One that decreases kapha might tend to increase pitta, or vata, or both, so we should be very aware of the precautions needed when taking a particular herb.
We could even say that food stuffs have ‘side effects’. Too great a consumption of dairy products may lead to an increase in mucus and phlegm (which is associated with kapha dosha). Too great a consumption of salads and raw vegetables increases vata.
Before taking any herb we should know our inherent nature (Prakriti), get a proper diagnosis of our current imbalance and receive ongoing care and monitoring from an Ayurvedic professional (e.g. BAMS Degree). We should also be fully aware of the prescribed herbs properties.
Q. Because Western Medicine, Ayurveda and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) are so radically different, surely they can’t all be right?
A. It helps if we view each of these systems as just a ‘model’ of how the human mind-body functions and interacts with its environment. In the above sense the term ‘model’ is the same as that used by physicists. Science acknowledges that although any one model doesn’t adequately describe everything we observe, it gives useful insights and answers to our problems. Science is always seeking to develop better models of reality. Ayurveda and TCM are not belief systems – they are just different models.
If we ask the same question of different models we get different answers according to their underlying concepts and paradigms. Some models are more useful for certain health situations than others. For example, Western medicine excels in emergencies, surgery and trauma relief, Ayurveda is excellent at prevention of disease. Treatments are also different in the different models. They are different in their methods, dramatically different in their costs, different in the commitment needed from patients and different in the length of time needed for effective care.
Each model is easily testable – we can see if its advice actually makes the patients better. Ayurveda and TCM have both withstood this long test of time. Ultimately, all the systems of medicine are here to help us lead healthy lives. Which one we choose to follow is up to us.
1. Article giving an Introduction to Ayurveda