Ayurveda is the best known and most widespread healing traditions of India, spanning about 5000 years of unbroken history, though it is by no means India's only traditional medicine. As a culturally diverse country with many different ethnic and tribal groups, India has a rich and varied history of medical practices.
Ayurveda is often described as a science of life rather than just a system of medicine. In fact, the very name means 'science of life', though science in this case does not refer to clinical investigation in the western sense of the word 'science', but to a divinely revealed philosophy which was conceived in a state of meditation. The story goes that a long time ago, when the wisest Brahmans came together to meditate on the subject of health, Ayurveda was revealed to them in its entirety, all at once. Thus, it is as much a philosophy as it is a 'science'. Its basic premise is that body, mind and spirit are an inseparable entity, which in turn is linked to everything else in the universe. Well-being is understood as being in equilibrium with inner and outer forces, which can be achieved by means of a balanced life-style. It central teaching is moderation in all things, whether physical, mental or spiritual. Imbalance in any sphere of life will eventually impact all aspects of a person's 'body-mind'. Thus a balanced diet is just as important as happy thoughts and emotions or a fulfilled sex life.
Yet, what exactly 'balanced' means can be completely different things for different types of people, depending on their temperament. Ayurveda, like Chinese medicine regards the universe as a dynamic interplay of elemental forces (fire, air, earth,water and ether) which fundamentally influence all aspects of the manifest universe.
The elements have little to do with their physical representations, rather it is the essence of fire, water, air, earth and ether that are implied. It is impossible to grasp these concepts scientifically, they must be intuited within their own system of reference and dense network of correspondences.
Each individual is regarded as part and parcel of this vibrant and dynamic network of energies - as are the healing substances used to balance the individual's 'vibration rate'. In the human being these elemental forces combine into three basic constitutional types (temperaments), which are referred to as doshas. All doshas are present in all individuals, but one or the other usually dominates, though sometimes people can have 'dual-doshic' constitutions and display characteristics of two doshas in more or less equal parts.
The three doshas are known as vata, pitta and kapha:
Vata is associated with the elements of air and ether. It symbolizes movement and changeability. Vata energy is cold and dry. An individual with an excess of vata energy may have a tendency towards nervousness and anxiety. They find it hard to sit still and are always on the move. Their minds are quick and active, but often information is quickly forgotten. Their skin or hair may be dry and brittle and they may suffer from cold hands and feet. Their body frame tends to be light and skinny.
Pitta is associated with the elements of fire and water. It symbolises heat and assimilation. It is associated with the metabolic processes and its hot nature requires plenty of food to fuel the metabolism. Because of this inner fire they often turn grey or lose their hair early. Pitta is also said to be oily, which may be reflected in greasy hair and skin. They often have strong body odours. Their memory and thinking processes tend to be sharp. They tend towards perfectionism and often criticise others or even themselves. They can be dominating and controlling.
Kapha is associated with the elements of water and earth. It symbolises structure and substance. Kapha is associated with the bones and connective tissues. Its quality is heavy and cool. Thus kapha types have a heavy body frame and a tendency towards putting on weight. They move and think slowly and can be lethargic. Their skin may feel cool and clammy. They frequently have a sweet tooth. They may be kind and compassionate, but they may be overly attached and become jealous.
Every individual is constantly subjected to outside influences that may alter their inherent doshic quality so that its expression turns negative. To maintain a state of well-being the doshas need to be balanced through herbs, nutrition and appropriate mental or physical exercises (e.g. meditation, yoga).
A large part of Ayurveda is thus concerned with nutritional healing. Foods are categorized into three basic types:
Which foods may be beneficial and which may be harmful is determined by assessing an individual's doshic constitution. Excessive vata energy is balanced by foods that are mostly cooked, oily, heavy and warm, particularly those that are sweet, sour and salty. Refined sugars and yeast should be avoided. Nor are vegetables of the cabbage and potato family recommended. Raw vegetables are ok, but should be marinated or served with salad dressing. Making proper time for meals (rather than quickly grabbing something on the go) and keeping to regular meal times is also important.
Excessive pitta energy is balanced by a predominantly vegetarian diet consisting of plenty of fruits, veggies and grains. Overly spicy or acidic foods should be avoided, as should excessive salt, oil or alcohol.
Excessive kapha energy can be balanced with plenty of light, fresh, raw vegetables and fruit. Sweets, creamy foods, nuts and heavy starchy foods should be avoided. Spicy foods are beneficial as they stimulate the metabolism, but sweet, sour and salty foods should be avoided, as should meat, dairy products and citrus fruits.
Obviously these are only the most rudimentary guidelines. Anybody who wants to try an ayurvedic dietary regime ought to consult an ayurvedic practitioner to get specific recommendations.
But Ayurveda is much more than nutritional healing. It recognizes that different causes of disease call for different sorts of treatment.
Five causes of ill-health are recognized and treated correspondingly:
Western medicine has long struggled to come to grips with the often confusing entanglement of correspondences and frequently dismissed the whole philosophy as mumbo jumbo, simply because it does not fit neatly into a western scientific model. Some modern Ayurvedic doctors have even tried to translate their system of reference into western concepts in order to gain more acceptance or to make it easier for western medicine to understand. But Ayurveda, continues to evade scientific investigation by the microscope method, though evidently it has been used for thousands of years with great success.
In recent years, particularly since a wave of fascination with eastern religions swept across western subcultures, Ayurveda has gained popularity in western societies. Ayurvedic nutritionalists, health spas and massageurs can now be found in San Franscisco, London or Paris - one no longer has to travel half way across the world to benefit from these ancient therapies. However, the question has been raised as to whether a 'culturally alien' medical philosophy can be effective, regardless of where and who it is applied to. This argument is certainly one that warrants a pause of consideration.
In some backwaters of India for example hygienic conditions are not always adequate to sanitarily administer e.g. injections and western style pills may be regarded with such magical awe that they are prescribed excessively and inappropriately, thus producing unwanted results. Western medicine, although it claims universal superiority over indigenous healing systems can easily fail in inadequate conditions. Likewise, Ayurvedic medicine in the hands of insufficiently trained practitioners, who in the western world may not have access to all the healing substances they would have at their disposal in India, may not bring quite the desired results if applied to westerners in the western world. Lifestyle, living conditions and spiritual outlook are also completely different in these two different cultures and trying to transpose one onto another is not necessarily practical, even if it is in vogue, which is not to say that it will never work.
Obviously, in India Ayurveda has been successfully practiced for thousands of years with very good results. But if we want to understand its essence we must aim to understand this philosophy within its cultural and religious context. To only apply the physical measures is to miss half of its wisdom.
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