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Introduction to Ayurveda

Summary:  Brief overview of the ancient Vedic Healthcare System known as Ayurveda. Covering key concepts such as the emphasis Ayurveda places on prevention, mind-body types, disease and diagnostic techniques, and how we can best apply it.

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. However, Ayurvedic advice is essentially practical, giving many low cost, simple to follow, health promoting tips.

‘Ayurveda’ is made up of two words. ‘Ayur’ means life and health, ‘Veda’ means knowledge or ‘science’. So Ayurveda is the ‘Knowledge of Life’.

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

Maintaining Perfect Health Through Ayurveda

Ayurveda views ‘good health’ as far more than just the absence of disease. Those who apply the knowledge of Ayurveda report experiencing a much greater ‘feel good factor’, more enthusiasm for life and a deep, unshakeable sense of well-being. The experience of pure joy also grows in their awareness – wow!

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

Before recommending any health maintaining advice or treatment for disease, Ayurveda first categorises us into one of seven major mind-body constitutional types [1]. Therefore preventive advice and treatment is based on the individual’s mind-body type. 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 (called ‘doshas’ in Ayurveda) from questionnaires concerning our physical and mental attributes; however a more reliable analysis can be performed by a trained Ayurvedic practioner.

The great Ayurvedic sage Charaka said this about the doshas “Health results from the natural, balanced state of the doshas.  Therefore, the wise try to keep them in their balanced state.”

If we are unwell, or ‘out of balance’, Ayurveda identifies the root cause, then offers a range of strategies to restore balance and health.

Health Promoting Advice from Ayurveda

Ayurveda aims to maintain good health by giving individual advice, based on our mind-body type (doshas), on the following:

    • Daily routines for promoting health
    • Seasonal routines which take into consideration environmental factors
    • Dietary advice (which might also change with the seasons)
    • Advice on maintaining a good digestion
    • Tips for mealtimes and better sleep
    • Exercise recommendations
    • Ayurvedic Herbs to maintain balance and increase immunity
    • Meditation, yoga and breath-work (pranayama) to remove stress

Diagnosis and Disease in Ayurveda

In Ayurveda, disease is seen as an imbalance in one or more of the key ‘elements’ (doshas) in the body. This can be further complicated by the presence of toxins (called ‘Ama’) and imbalance in subtle energy channels and systems.

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!

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 physician trained in Western medicine. 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.

Treatment in Ayurveda

Ayurvedic treatment usually first involves removing toxins from the system, followed by strategies to rebalance it, and then advice to maintain that balance in the long term.

Ayurveda offers complete detoxification programmes called ‘Panchakarma’ (or the five cleansing actions). Although some of these procedures can be done at home, most are clinic based under the guidance of a trained Ayurvedic Physician. However, some Ayurvedic detox advice is relatively simple to follow at home as part of our daily routine.

Ayurveda is not just 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’, so getting the right diet and strenthening our digestion is important.

Origins of Ayurveda

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 on 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 originated 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’ – as done by Western medicine.

Ayurveda also has two related Vedic topics: Vastu (Vedic living and working spaces) deals with promoting balance and life-supporting qualities in our homes (the vedic equivalent of Feng shui); Jyotish (Vedic  predictive and preventive Astrology) deals with promoting balance between the planetary forces (which are indicators of our returning karmas) in our birth-charts. According to the Vedic tradition, both Vastu and Jyotish may also have some influence on our health and well-being.

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 on Ayurveda