Ayurveda: Traditional Indian Wisdom for the Body

Ayurveda, the traditional medicine of India, is an ancient body of practices which is currently coming into vogue in the West, although it dates back to the Vedic period of Indian civilization, over 5,000 years ago. Ayurveda works on the principle of balance, and is a complex science of herbs, and the use of herbs to bring the body—considered to consist of five separate elements—back into harmony.

Like Western alchemy, Ayurveda sees the universe as essentially made up of earth, water, fire, air and space; in the human body, these principles are boiled down into three major elements or doshas—Vata (air and space), Pittha (fire) and Kappha (water and earth). These elements or qualities are found in each human to varying degree; they are affected by dietary intake, exercise and life experiences, and effect our temperament and output into the world. Through diet, herbs, exercise, meditation and yoga, these elements can be brought back into a working, harmonious relationship with each other.

To this end, the emphasis in Ayurveda is on balance and finding the middle path, similar to the religious advice of many Eastern customs. This advice runs directly through all of the tenets of Ayurveda, and particular importance is assigned to the balanced lifestyle (which also forms the basic requirement of yoga): eating right, sleeping the right amount, the right amount of sex, and proper medicine intake.

Ayurveda is said to have been brought to the human race by Dhanvantari, the physician-god, and is split into eight branches: internal medicine; pediatrics; surgery; eye/ear/nose/throat; psychiatry; toxicology; immunity/prevention; and aphrodisiacs.

Ayurvedic practitioners are now relatively easy to come by in the Western world, and can offer treatment for general quality of lifestyle in addition to regular Western medicine. Practitioners closely study the whole body, including the patient’s breathing and quality of speech, and also pay close attention to their pressure points. Ayurvedic medicine is in general much simpler and more natural than Western medicines: remedies include the use of herbs like turmeric, cardamom and cinnamon, as well as minerals like copper and sulfur. Massage and yoga are also used extensively.

Famous advocates of Ayurveda in the West include Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (founder of the Transcendental Meditation movement) and the widely published author Dr. Deepak Chopra; since 1996, with the state approval of the California College of Ayurveda, Ayurveda has begun to enjoy the beginnings of mainstream acceptance. Of course, the tradition has been accepted for thousands of years in India, but similarly, regulation and formalization began there in 1970, bringing Ayurveda into a new era of formalization, standardization and research. All the same, it is important to bear in mind that most Ayurveda products have not been rigorously tested or reviewed to the same standards that Western medicine has been—at least not yet.

Many in the yoga community turn to Ayurveda as a complementary medical practice to their physical and spiritual lifestyles, as another implement in their toolkit for assessing balance and maintaining a healthy, balanced outlook and life. What do you think—what does the fact that Ayurveda is catching on in the West mean?

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