Ayurveda

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Ayurveda is the ancient Indian system of natural and holistic medicine. More than a mere system of treating illness, Ayurveda offers practical tools, insights, and information for living in balance and health without interference from illness.

This section provides an overview about Ayurveda, including its history and philosophy. It also contains information on what to expect at an Ayurvedic consultation, as well as an outline of common Ayurvedic practices and treatments. Finally, the Ayurveda: Frequently Asked Questions page provides further details about this ancient holistic system of medicine.

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Ayurveda is the ancient Indian system of natural and holistic medicine. When translated from Sanskrit, the term Ayurveda means “the science of life”. More than a mere system of treating illness, Ayurveda offers practical tools, insights, and information for living in balance and health without interference from illness.

As one of the oldest systems of medicine in the world, the knowledge of Ayurveda was passed orally through a lineage of sages in India until it was collated into text more than two thousand years ago. According to these texts, the universe is composed of five basic elements, namely: earth, water, air, fire and space. These elements are present in all things, including in our living bodies, and it is by keeping these elements balanced that we are able to have a healthy and happy life.

Just as everyone has a unique fingerprint, each person has a particular pattern of energy and will be influenced by certain elements more than others. This is because of their prakriti, or natural constitution. Ayurveda categorises the different constitutions into three different doshas:

  • Vata dosha, in which the air and space elements dominate
  • Pitta dosha, in which the fire element dominates
  • Kapha dosha, in which the earth and water elements dominate

The dosha affects not just the shape of one’s body but also bodily tendencies such as food preferences and digestion, and the temperament of one’s mind and emotions. If Vata is dominant in our system, we tend to be thin, light, enthusiastic, energetic, and changeable. If Pitta predominates in our nature, we tend to be intense, intelligent, and goal-oriented and we have a strong appetite for life. When Kapha prevails, we tend to be easy-going, methodical, and nurturing. Although each of us has all three forces, most people have one or two elements that predominate.

The European Ayurveda Association states that the underlying philosophy of Ayurveda is to treat each individual as a unique being, and to facilitate the return to a normal balance from an abnormal balance of health. By understanding the qualities of our natural constitution we are better able to do what is needed to keep ourselves in balance. Therefore, if we are experiencing disease, it means there is an imbalance in our doshas; and bringing our system back into balance is the key to the cure. Using these concepts, Ayurvedic physicians prescribe individualised treatments, including compounds of herbs, diet, exercise, and lifestyle recommendations.

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While western medicine currently tends to focus on symptomology and disease, Ayurveda places great emphasis on prevention of disease. It encourages the maintenance of health through close attention to balance in one’s life, right thinking, diet, lifestyle and the use of herbs. When there is minimal stress and the flow of energy within a person is balanced, the body’s natural defense systems will be strong and can more easily defend against disease.

Ayurveda encompasses various techniques for assessing health. An Ayurvedic practitioner arrives at diagnosis through direct questioning, observation and a physical exam. Basic techniques such as taking the pulse, observing the tongue, eyes and physical form, and listening to the tone of the voice are used during an assessment. The practitioner will also conduct an in-depth examination of diet and lifestyle habits, an analysis of mental and emotional states as well as a very detailed history taking. Therefore a typical first consultation usually takes one hour or longer, according to the Ayurvedic Practitioners Association .

The skill of an Ayurvedic practitioner lies in assessing a patient’s constitutional type, in diagnosing the root cause of imbalance that manifests as disease, and in selecting appropriate remedial interventions from a wide variety of options. Treatment is always tailor-made to the individual and can include simple diet and lifestyle advice, food supplements or medicines, physical treatments like full-body massage or local applications, psychological and emotional consulting, meditation, yoga or other forms of subtle therapies. Practitioners draw from more than 20 types of treatment, but the most commonly prescribed include:

  • Pranayama: Pranayama are breathing exercises, which when practiced regularly helps you feel calm.
  • Abhyanga: Abhyanga involves rubbing the skin with herbal oil to increase blood circulation and to draw toxins out of the body through the skin.
  • Rasayana: Rasayana requires the use of mantras (repeated words or phrases) during meditation, which when combined with certain herbs is thought to rejuvenate a person.
  • Yoga: Yoga combines pranayama, movement, and meditation. Yoga has been shown to improve circulation and digestion, and to reduce blood pressure, cholesterol levels, anxiety, and chronic pain.
  • Pancha karma: Pancha karma involves cleansing the body to purify it and reduce cholesterol. Practitioners use methods that cause sweat, bowel movements, and even vomit to cleanse the body of toxins.
  • Herbal medicines: Herbs are prescribed to restore dosha balance.
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What is Ayurveda?

Ayurveda is the ancient Indian system of natural and holistic medicine. When translated from Sanskrit, the term Ayurveda means “the science of life”. More than a mere system of treating illness, Ayurveda offers practical tools, insights, and information for living in balance and health, without interference from illness.

Is Ayurveda a form of holistic medicine?

Yes. Ayurveda is a system that treats the whole person and the integration of body, mind, and spirit, rather than simply treating individual symptoms. Ayurveda also views the individual as an inextricable part of the whole universe. According to the Chopra Center , illness is a disruption – a blockage in the flow of energy and information that creates a sense of separation or alienation from the field. Symptoms and sickness are the body’s signal that we need to restore balance, eliminate whatever is causing the blockages, and reestablish the healthy flow of energy and information.

What is the difference between Ayurveda and conventional western medicine?

Western medicine currently tends to focus on symptomology and disease, and primarily uses drugs and surgery to rid the body of pathogens or diseased tissue. Ayurveda, on the other hand, seeks to eliminate illness by understanding and treating the underlying cause and root imbalances contributing to the disease. An Ayurvedic doctor looks at the patient as a whole, taking into consideration his or her lifestyle, activities, diet, recent stressful events, beliefs, and mind-body constitution. He or she would then recommend a treatment plan taking all of these factors into account.

However, it must be emphasised that Ayurveda is not a substitute for western medicine, and there are many instances when health conditions and disease can be treated with drugs or surgery. Ayurveda can be used in conjunction with western medicine to make a person stronger and less likely to be afflicted with disease and/or to rebuild the body after being treated with drugs or surgery.

What are the doshas?

According to Ayurveda, there are five master elements that make up everything within our bodies and everything outside of our bodies: space, air, fire, water, and earth. These are present in all things, and in the living body they manifest as doshas. 

Is Ayurvedic medicine safe?

Ayurvedic medicine uses a variety of products and practices. Some of these products—which may contain herbs, minerals, or metals—may be harmful, particularly if used improperly or without the direction of a trained practitioner. Let all of your health care providers know about any complementary health approaches you use. This will help ensure coordinated and safe care.

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