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Alternative Treatments: What Is Ayurveda? Health Tips

What is Ayurveda?

The word Ayurveda is derived from 'ayu' meaning life and 'veda' meaning knowledge. Ayurveda (or Ayurvedic medicine) itself is a traditional Hindu system of medicine based on the idea of 'balance within the body'. Ayurvedic treatments are holistic and are applied to mind, body and spirit. They utilise the bodily systems and incorporate diet, herbal treatment, exercise, cleansing and yogic breathing. Ayurveda originated in India over 5,000 years ago.

Ayurveda medicine is unique because any recommendations that are made will be different for each person and because Ayurveda is validated by knowledge derived from the ancient texts. Ayurveda acknowledges that energetic forces (known as Tridoshas) influence nature and human beings.

In the West, Ayurveda is considered a form of alternative medicine like traditional Chinese medicine or reflexology but it is growing in popularity thanks to celebrity practitioners such as Deepak Chopra, M.D., a physician who combines western medicine with Ayurveda.

What is an Ayurvedic Assessment?

An initial assessment with an Ayurvedic practitioner can last an hour or longer because the practitioner will ask lots of detailed questions about health, diet and lifestyle. The practitioner will access 12 different pulses on your body and examine your tongue. Even in the West we know that the tongue can offer clues to our general health. With Ayurveda the appearance of the skin, lips, nails, and eyes is also taken into consideration.

This detailed assessment serves to determine an individual's unique balance of doshas (metabolic types) and prakuti (your essential nature). One dosha is usually predominant and may be imbalanced, usually due to poor diet and unhealthy habits. From there, the practitioner creates an individualized treatment plan, incorporating diet, exercise, herbs, yoga, meditation, and massage in order to restore balance to one particular dosha.

Tell me More About the Doshas

In Ayurvedic medicine everything is composed of five elements: air, water, fire, earth, and space. These elements combine to form the three doshas: namely vata, kapha, and pitta. In Ayurveda, these doshas account for what makes us individuals.

The vata dosha combines space and air so it is in charge of the way we move, and our basic body processes such as breathing, cell division and circulation. Vata body areas include the large intestine, pelvis, bones, skin, ears, and thighs. People who have vata as their main dosha are believed to be thin and wiry, quick-thinking, supple and fast, but are susceptible to anxiety, dry skin, and constipation.

The kapha dosha represents water and earth. Kapha is responsible for strength, immunity, and growth and so is in charge of body areas such as the chest, lungs, and spinal fluid. People with kapha as their main dosha are said to be calm, have a solid body frame, but are susceptible to diabetes, obesity, sinus congestion, and gallbladder problems.

Finally the pitta dosha combines fire and water and therefore controls hormones and the digestive system. Pitta body areas are the small intestines, stomach, sweat glands, skin, blood, and eyes. People with pitta as their primary dosha are said to have a fiery personality, oily skin, and are susceptible to heart disease, stomach ulcers, inflammation, heartburn, and arthritis.

When a dosha is imbalanced the natural flow of prana, or vital energy is interrupted which can impair digestion and allow a build-up within the body of waste, or ama, which will impair energy and digestion.

What Would a Typical Ayurvedic Treatment Plan Involve?

Your Ayurvedic practitioner will prescribe a thorough treatment plan that will incorporate all of the following

  • Diet – with personalised recommendations to balance the dosha
  • Cleansing and detoxification – through a combination of fasting and diet treatments, perhaps enemas and massage.
  • Herbal medicine
  • Yoga
  • Meditation
  • Exercise – again with an individualized plan
  • Massage using medicated oils

Do Ayurvedic Practitioners Have Any Training?

In India, there are many undergraduate and postgraduate colleges for Ayurveda and the training can take up to five years. However outside of India, training can be a little hit and miss. Many practitioners have trained in other health areas. Increasingly Ayurvedic treatments are being offered in spas and salons but many of the beauticians will not have received any formal training in Ayurveda.

Is Ayurveda Safe?

Certain elements of Ayurveda are safe such as massage and cleansing. There have been some concerns about the herbal remedies used. A 2004 study for example, discovered that 14 out of 70 Ayurvedic herbal remedies tested were found to contain lead, mercury, and/or arsenic at potentially harmful levels and in that year, the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention in the USA received 12 reports of lead poisoning linked to the use of Ayurvedic herbal products. Generally there is a lack of up to date research into the effectiveness and safety of Ayurvedic medicine and how it interacts with Western drugs.

If you are interested in consulting an Ayurvedic practitioner ensure you seek out one who is qualified. Bear in mind that Ayurveda should complement, not replace, conventional care. Ensure that your Ayurvedic practitioner knows your full health history and is aware of all medications you are taking. If you have any doubts, consult your doctor in the first instance.

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