What is Ayurveda?
Considered by many scholars to be the oldest healing science, Ayurveda is a
holistic approach to health that is designed to help people live long, healthy,
and well-balanced lives. The term Ayurveda is taken from the Sanskrit words
ayus, meaning life or lifespan, and veda, meaning knowledge. It
has been practiced in India for at least 5,000 years and has only recently
became popular in Western cultures. The "contemporary" form of Ayurvedic
medicine is mostly derived from several sacred Indian texts which were written
in Sanskrit between 1500 BC and 400 AD. The basic principle of Ayurveda is to
prevent illness by maintaining balance in the body, mind, and
consciousness through proper drinking, diet, and lifestyle, as well as herbal
There are two main types of Ayurveda: traditional and Maharishi. The latter
is a version of traditional Ayurveda based on translations from the classical
texts by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Both types of Ayurvedic practitioners prescribe
herbs, believe that disease results from an imbalance in the doshas (see below),
and use many of the same remedies for treating illness. Maharishi Ayurveda,
however, stresses the role of supreme consciousness in maintaining good health,
and promotes Transcendental Meditation (TM) as a method for experiencing the
pure consciousness of the universe. Maharishi Ayurveda also highlights the need
to express positive emotions and to attune your life to the natural rhythms of
How does it work?
Just as everyone has a unique thumbprint, according to Ayurvedic beliefs,
each person has a distinct pattern of energy -- a specific combination of
physical, mental, and emotional characteristics. It is also believed that there
are three basic energy types called doshas, present in every
- Vata -- energy that regulates bodily functions
associated with motion including blood circulation, breathing, blinking, and the
beating of the heart. When vata energy is balanced, there is creativity and
vitality. Out of balance, vata produces fear and anxiety.
- Pitta -- energy that governs the body's metabolic
systems including digestion, absorption, nutrition, and body temperature. In
balance, pitta promotes contentment and intelligence. Out of balance,
pitta can cause ulcers and arouse anger.
- Kapha -- energy that controls growth in the body. It supplies
water to all body parts, moisturizes the skin, and maintains the immune system.
In balance, kapha is expressed as love and forgiveness. Out of balance,
kapha leads to insecurity and envy.
All people have vata, pitta, and kapha, but usually one or two are
dominant in a given individual. Many factors can disturb the
dosha balance such as stress, an unhealthy diet, the weather, and
strained family relationships. Such disturbance is expressed in the body as
disease. Ayurvedic practitioners prescribe treatments designed to bring the
doshas back into balance.
From a Western medical perspective, relief of stress appears to be one of the
ways that Ayurveda works to help fight illness. For example, studies have found
that Transcendental Meditation, a component of Maharishi Ayurveda, reduces
anxiety. Other studies have found that Ayurveda lowers blood pressure and
cholesterol, slows the aging process, and speeds recovery from illness. The
herbs used in Ayurvedic medicine often have antioxidant effects, which means
that they may help protect against the damage from free radicals (by-products of
normal metabolism in the body) like long term illnesses such as heart disease
and arthritis. Many Ayurvedic practitioners also recommend a vegetarian diet,
which is believed to be better for your heart than diets containing red meat.
What should I expect from an Ayurvedic treatment?
Ayurvedic treatment focuses on rebalancing the doshas. On your first
visit, the practitioner will take a detailed medical history, check your pulse,
palpate your abdomen, examine your tongue, eyes, nails, and skin, and listen to
the tone of your voice. He or she will also ask you questions about your general
state of health with special focus on your lifestyle, diet, habits, and
environmental surroundings. Based on this assessment, he or she will then make
recommendations on how to restore your natural dosha balance, which
almost always includes changes in lifestyle, particular diet. Practitioners draw
from more than 20 types of treatment, but the most commonly prescribed
- Pranayama -- breathing exercises. Practicing pranayama
generates feelings of calmness.
- Abhyanga -- rubbing the skin with herbalized oil (usually
sesame oil is the base) to increase blood circulation and draw toxins out of the
body through the skin.
- Rasayana -- using mantras (repeated words or phrases) during
meditation combined with specific herbs to rejuvenate a person.
- Yoga -- combining pranayama, movement, and meditation. Has been
shown to improve circulation and digestion, and to reduce blood pressure,
cholesterol levels, anxiety, and chronic pain.
- Pancha karma -- cleansing the body of toxins to purify the body
and reduce cholesterol. Practitioners use methods to induce sweat, bowel
movements, and even vomit in an effort to cleanse the body of toxins.
- Herbal medicines -- prescribing herbs to restore dosha balance.
What is Ayurveda good for?
The goal of Ayurvedic medicine is to prevent diseases before they
occur. Studies have suggested that Ayurveda may be particularly effective at
reducing the risk of heart disease. For example, a recent study found that this
traditional Indian medicine helped reduce plaque and reverse the thickening of
artery walls known as atherosclerosis in both healthy adults as well as adults
at high risk for heart disease. (Atherosclerosis is a slow, complex disease in
which fatty substances, cholesterol, cellular waste products, calcium, and other
substances build up in the inner lining of an artery. This build-up, also known
as plaque, can lead to heart attack and stroke.)
Combining yoga with an Ayurvedic herbal remedy containing Winter cherry
(Withania somnifera), Boswellia (Boswellia serrata), and Turmeric
(Curcuma longa) can reduce pain and disability if you have arthritis.
A number of Ayurvedic herbal remedes have been evaluated for their beneficial
effects. For example, Guggulipid (Commiphora mukul), a traditional
Ayurvedic medication used to treat high cholesterol, is widely used in India. It
appears to effectively lower cholesterol by blocking the production of
cholesterol in the liver. Similarly, fenugreek (Trigonella foenum
graecum) seeds can decrease LDL cholesterol and triglycerides, and
increase HDL cholesterol levels. These effects seem to be due to reduced
intestinal absorption of cholesterol, and may be related to the high fiber
content of the seed. Fenugreek seeds may also help control your blood sugars if
you have diabetes, again because of the high fiber content.
Other Ayurvedic herbs are being studied as treatments for Alzheimer's
disease, anxiety, asthma, dementia, dysmenorrhea (painful menstruation), herpes,
high blood pressure, Parkinson's disease, perimenopausal problems, and
premenstrual syndrome, amongst many other conditions. Ayurvedic herbs combined
with conventional medications may also be helpful for acne, chronic
constipation, chronic fatigue syndrome, irritable bowel syndrome, obesity, and
Are there any risks?
Most Ayurvedic therapies, such as pranayama and rasayana, are
unlikely to have adverse side effects. Ayurvedic herbs, however, may interact
with medications. In addition, one review found that some Ayurvedic herbs
contain mercury that can produce skin lesions; mercury can also raise blood
pressure. Be sure to consult your doctor before trying Ayurveda, especially if
you take medicines or have certain dietary restrictions such as with diabetes.
How can I find a qualified practitioner?
For a list of qualified practitioners of Ayurvedic medicine in your area,
contact the National Institute of Ayurvedic Medicine (NIAM) by calling
914-278-8700, by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org, or by visiting their Web site at
www.niam.com. Although none of the 50 states offer a license to practice
Ayurveda, there are several institutions across the United States that offer
educational programs including The California College of Ayurveda, located in
Grass Valley, California. The school issues a certificate of Clinical Ayurvedic
Specialist. Finally, other sources of information include the California
Association of Ayurvedic Medicine, P.O. Box 2272, Loomis, CA 95650; and
theAyurvedic Institute, 11311 Menaul Blvd. NE, Albuquerque, NM 87112,
505-291-9698 or www.ayurveda.com.
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