December 17, 2005
Q: What is Ayurvedic Medicine? - Layperson
A: Ayurveda is a wholistic system of medicine from India that uses a constitutional model. Its aim is to provide guidance regarding food and lifestyle so that healthy people can stay healthy and folks with health challenges can improve their health.
There are several aspects to Ayurveda that are quite unique:
OriginAyurveda is an intricate system of healing that originated in India thousands of years ago. We can find historical evidence of Ayurveda in the ancient books of wisdom known as the Vedas. In the Rig Veda, over 60 preparatison were mentioned that could be used to assist an individual in overcoming various ailments. The Rig Veda was written over 6,000 years ago, but really Ayurveda has been around even longer than that. What we see is that A yurveda is more than just a medical system. It is a Science of Life. We are all part and parcel of nature. Just as the animals and plants live in harmony with nature and utilize the Laws of Nature to create health and balance within their beings, we, too, adhere to these very same principles. Therefore, it is fair to say that Ayurveda is a system that helps maintain health in a person by using the inherent principles of nature to bring the individual back i nto equilibrium with their true self. In essence Ayurveda has been in existence since the beginning of time because we have always been governed by nature's laws.
MeaningAyurveda is made up of two Sanskrit words: Ayu which means life and Veda which means the knowledge of. To know about life is Ayurveda. However, to fully comprehend the vast s cope of Ayurveda let us first define "Ayu" or life. According to the ancient Ayurvedic scholar Charaka, "ayu" is comprised of four essential parts. The combination of mind, body, senses and the soul.
Mind, Body, and SencesWe tend to identify most with our physical bodies; yet, in actuality, there is more to us then what meets the eye. We can see that underlying our physical structure is the mind, which not only controls our thought processes but helps assist us in carrying out day-to-day activities such as respiration, circulation, digestion and elimination. The mind and the body work in conjunction with one another to regulate our physiology. In order for the mind to act appropriately to assist the physical body, we must use our senses as information gatherers. We can think of the mind as a computer and the senses as the data which gets entered into the computer. Smell and taste are two important senses th at aid in the digestive process. When the mind registers that a particular food is entering the gastrointestinal tract, it directs the body to act accordingly by releasing various digestive enzymes. However, if we overindulge the taste buds with too much of a certain taste, such as sweet, we may find that the ability of the mind to perceive the sweet taste is impaired; and thereby the body becomes challenged in its ability to process sweet foods. Maintaining the clarity of our senses is an essential part in allowing the mind and body to integrate their functions and help in keeping us healthy and happy individuals.
SOULAyurveda also sees that before we exist in physical form with the help of the mind and senses that we exist in a more subtle form known as the soul. The ancient seers of India believed tha t we were comprised of a certain energetic essence that precluded the inhabitance of our physical entity. In fact, they hypothesized that we may indeed occupy many physical bodies throughout the course of time but that our underlying self or soul remains unchanged. What we see to help illustrate this concept is what transpires at the time of death. When the individual nears the time to leave the physical body, many of his/her desires will cease to be present. As the soul no longer identifies with the bod y, the desire to eat food or indulge in a particular activity that used to be a great source of satisfaction for that person drops by the wayside. In fact, many individuals have been documented to experience the sensation of being "out of their bodies."
These are just a few examples of how we are made up of these four components that we call life.
PrinciplesNow that we have a better understanding of what comprises life, let's look at some of the principles of Ayurveda and how they might affect us.
In Ayurveda we view a person as a unique individual made up of five primary elements. The elements are ether (space), air, fire, water, and earth. Just as in nature, we too have these five elements in us. When any of these elements are present in the environment, they will in turn have an influence on us. The foods we eat and the weather are just two examples of the presence of these elements. While we are a composite of these five primar y elements, certain elements are seen to have an ability to combine to create various physiological functions. Ether and air combine to form what is known in Ayurveda as the Vata dosha. Vata governs the principle of movement and therefore can be seen as the force which directs nerve impulses, circulation, respiration, and elimination. Fire and water are the elements that combine to form the Pitta dosha. The Pitta dosha is the process of transf ormation or metabolism. The transformation of foods into nutrients that our bodies can assimilate is an example of a pitta function. Pitta is also responsible for metabolism in the organ and tissue systems as well as cellular metabolism. Finally, it is pr edominantly the water and earth elements which combine to form the Kapha dosha. Kapha is what is responsible for growth, adding structure unit by unit. Another function of the Kapha dosha is to offer protection. Cerebral-sp inal fluid protects the brain and spinal column and is a type of Kapha found in the body. Also, the mucousal lining of the stomach is another example of the Kapha dosha protecting the tissues. We are all made up of unique proportions of Vata, Pitta and Ka pha. These ratios of the doshas vary in each individual; and because of this, Ayurveda sees each person as a special mixture that accounts for our diversity.
Ayurveda gives us a model to look at each individual as a unique makeup of the three doshas and to thereby design treatment protocols that specifically address a persons health challenges. When any of the doshas ( Vata, Pitta or Kapha ) become accumulated, Ayurveda will suggest specific lifestyle and nutritional guidelines to assist the individual in reducing the dosha that has become excessive. We may also suggest certain herbal supplemen ts to hasten the healing process. If toxins in the body are abundant, then a cleansing process known as Pancha Karma is recommended to eliminate these unwanted toxins.
Brhat Trayi (The greater triad)
The Charaka and Sushruta Samhitas are compendiums of two traditions rather than texts authored by single authors. A third tradition is that of the Kashyapas. Some plant remedies of ayurveda are also mentioned in the earlier Vedic literature 2nd millennium BC. Both the Sushruta and Charaka Samhitas are the product of several editorial hands, having been revised and supplemented over a period of several hundred years.
The scholar Vagbhata, who lived in Sind at the beginning of the 7th century AD, produced a grand synthesis of earlier ayurvedic materials in a verse work called Ashtanga Hridayam. Another work associated with the same author, the Asthanga Samgraha, contains much the same material in a more diffuse form, written in a mixture of prose and verse. The relationship between these two works, and a third intermediate compilation, is still a topic of active research. The works of Charaka, Sushruta, and Vagbhata are considered canonical and reverentially called the Vriddha Trayi, "the triad of ancients"; or Brhat Trayi, "the greater triad." In the early eighth century, Madhav wrote his Nidana, a work on etiology, which soon assumed a position of authority. In the 79 chapters of this book, he lists diseases along with their causes, symptoms, and complications.
Basic concepts and methodology
Traditonal Ayurveda speaks of eight branches: kayachikitsa (internal medicine), shalyachikitsa (surgery including anatomy), shalakyachikitsa (eye, ear, nose, and throat diseases), kaumarabhritya (pediatrics), bhutavidya (psychiatry, or demonology), and agada tantra (toxicology), rasayana (science of rejuvenation), and vajikarana (the science of fertility).
Apart from learning these, the student of Ayurveda was expected to know ten arts that were indispensable in the preparation and application of his medicines: distillation, operative skills, cooking, horticulture, metallurgy, sugar manufacture, pharmacy, analysis and separation of minerals, compounding of metals, and preparation of alkalis. The teaching of various subjects was done during the instruction of relevant clinical subjects. For example, teaching of anatomy was a part of the teaching of surgery, embryology was a part of training in pediatrics and obstetrics, and the knowledge of physiology and pathology was interwoven in the teaching of all the clinical disciplines.
The vast majority of Ayurvedic therapies are herbal compounds. Some alchemical preparations start to enter the ayurvedic pharmacopieia towards the end of the 1st millennium AD in works such as those of Ugraditya (8th century AD)and Sarngadhara (14th century AD). It also provides therapies for the treatment of various vegetable and animal toxins like scorpion, spider and snake venom. It has a whole science of toxicology called agada-tantra as one of the eight branches of traditional Ayurveda.
The Ayurvedic idea is that the organism adapts to the environment and its food, climate etc. This principle of adaptation is called satyma. Through introducing small amounts of a food or medicine, the organism can adapt to it and learn to resist it.
It could be said that the simple essence of ayurveda is knowledge and awareness of the qualities of nature – called gurvadi gunah. By understanding the qualities inherent in the environment, in foodstuffs, in activities, etc., one gains an appreciation of their effects on the individual constitution through the principle of similarities; i.e., that similarities cause increase while dissimilarities cause decrease. Thus hot qualities in the environment or diet will increase hot qualities in the body.
The gurvadi gunah are listed in Vagbhata's Ashtanga Hrdayam as:
Since everything in the material world possesses combinations of the 20 qualities, ayurveda postulates that every material process or object can either harm or heal a person by influencing that person's unique original constitution (called prakrti). An ayurvedic practitioner will assess the qualities of a disorder, the patient's unique prakrti, and his/her influencing factors to arrive at a treatment plan. The treatment plan will consist of using herbs, therapies, diet, etc., with opposite qualities so as to assist the patient in re-establishing their prakrti.
The Five Elements
According to the ancient Sankhya theory of cosmology, on which ayurveda is based, the five elements – panchamahabhuta – combine in different proportions to form the material world. Each element possesses different amounts of the above-mentioned gunas; thus each element has its unique qualitative nature. The elements are:
Some authorities state that the early European concept of five elements evolved as a result of contact with ayurveda.
The 3 main doshas (medical humours) are Vata (resembles the classical element air), Pitta (fire), and Kapha (water).
All bodily processes are believed to be governed by a balance of the 3 doshas. Whichever dosha appears to dominate a person's behavior and physique is called his constitution type. Each constitution type has particular strengths and susceptibilities.
Those who are classified as Vata tend to have lighter frames, and are either short or tall and thin. Their skin tends to be dry and cold with dark, thin hair. They have dark brown or grey eyes. Movements and speech is quick and sleep is light, interrupted, and fitful. Mentally, they are restless and have lots of ideas. They are creative and imaginative, but are fearful, anxious, and insecure.
Vata doshas' corresponding colors are warm and gentle, such as yellow, ochre, or brown. Amethyst is the stone associated with Vata.
Pitta types are generally average physically. They tend to have fine, soft, red or fair hair (though Pittas have been known to have dark hair.) Eyes tend to be blue, grey, or hazel. Their moods change slowly and they are busy people, usually achieving much in their lives. They are more intellectual and speech is clear, sharp, and precise. They are fiery, angry and judgemental.
The Pitta doshas' corresponding color are cool, calming colors such as blue, green, or purple. Their stone is moonstone.
Kaphas' body types are sturdier and thicker than the other body types. Hair is thick and lustrous and eyes are blue or brown. They have the best strength and endurance and have a slow, steady pace. Mentally they are calm, steady, and stable. They can be greedy and possessive but are caring and not easily irritated.
Kapha governs bright, vibrant colors such as red, pink, and orange. Their corresponding stone is Lapis.
At the closing of the initiation, the guru gave a solemn address to the students where the guru directed the students to a life of chastity, honesty, and vegetarianism. The student was to strive with all his being for the health of the sick. He was not to betray patients for his own advantage. He was to dress modestly and avoid strong drink. He was to be collected and self-controlled, measured in speech at all times. He was to constantly improve his knowledge and technical skill. In the home of the patient he was to be courteous and modest, directing all attention to the patient's welfare. He was not to divulge any knowledge about the patient and his family. If the patient was incurable, he was to keep this to himself if it was likely to harm the patient or others.
The normal length of the student's training appears to have been seven years. Before graduation, the student was to pass a test. But the physician was to continue to learn through texts, direct observation (pratyaksha), and through inference (anumana). In addition, the vaidyas attended meetings where knowledge was exchanged. The doctors were also enjoined to gain knowledge of unusual remedies from hillsmen, herdsmen, and forest-dwellers.
In 2001, archaeologists studying the remains of two men from Mehrgarh, Pakistan, discovered that the people of Indus Valley Civilization, even from the early Harappan periods (circa 3300 BC), had knowledge of medicine and even dentistry. The physical anthropologist that carried out the examinations made the discovery when he was cleaning the teeth of one of the men.
Ayurvedic physicians were traditionally supported by their patients and the communities they worked in, with a minority gaining royal patronage. Under the centralised governments systems established by the Mughals and subsequent British rule in India, many Ayurvedic physicians were paid small stipends by the state. But when the British government in India began to establish hospitals and organised state-wide healthcare institutions, leading eventually to the Indian Medical Service, Ayurveda was not included. In the early 20th century, Ayurvedic physicians began to organise into professional associations and to promote the case for national recognition and funding. This began to become a reality after Indian independence in 1947.Today, Kerala is the state in India which promotes research and practices ayurveda the most. There are many famous Ayurvedic centers ( Vaidya shala) all over Kerala.
Today, Ayurveda is gaining lots of interest in the Western countries. Ayurvedic treatments in the West are primarily massage, and dietary and herbal advice, due to the strong regulations surrounding medical practice in Europe and America. Patients are classified by body types, or prakriti, which are determined by proportions of the three doshas. Illness and disease are considered to be a matter of imbalance in the doshas. Treatment is aimed at restoring harmony or balance to the mind-body system.
In India, Ayurveda is gaining a lot of prominence as an alternative to western medicine. However, the traditional methods of teaching ayurveda - such as undergoing a rigourous study of sanskrit - are being discarded and only diseases and cures are being taught in most Ayurvedic colleges across India. For the next generation of Ayurvedic doctors, this reduces the basic understanding of Ayurveda as a comprehensive system. Also, not being able to comprehend the original Vriddha Trayi in Sanskrit may lead to different interpretations of the ancient texts and possibly to deviations from traditional Ayurveda.
Concerning ayurvedic massage: There is not a single treaty on clinical ayurvedic massage in the whole ayurvedic literature. However, ayurvedic massage courses and diplomas are given in western countries. In the Indian government ayurvedic universities there are degrees or diplomas and there are well recognised qualifications such as Bachelor of Ayurvedic Medicine and Surgery and registers such as British Register of Complementary Practitioners.
ConclusionThis understanding that we are all unique individuals enables Ayurveda to address not only specific health concerns but also offers explanation as to why one person responds differently th an another. We hope that you will continue to explore Ayurveda to enhance your health and to gain further insights into this miracle we call life.
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DISCLAIMER: The information in this column, is NOT intended to diagnose and/or treat any health related issues and is provided solely for informational purposes only. Consult the appropriate healthcare professional before making any changes to your healthcare regime. Even what may seem like simple changes in the diet for example, can interact with, and alter, the efficiency of medications and/or the body's response to the medications. Many herbs and supplements exert powerful medicinal effects. Neither the author, nor the website designers, assume any responsibility for the reader's use or misuse of this information.