Ayurveda is a unique holistic system of healing based on the interaction of body, mind and spirit. It is thought to be the oldest health care system in the world with its roots going back over 5000 years into the Vedic Age. It evolved on the far reaches of the Himalayas from the deep wisdom of spiritually enlightened prophets or Rishis. Their wisdom was transmitted orally from teacher to disciple and eventually set down in Sanskrit poetry known as the Vedas. These writings, dating approximately 1500 BC distilled the prevailing historical, religious, philosophical and medical knowledge and form the basis of Indian culture. The most important of these texts are the Rig Veda and the Atharva Veda.
Around 800 BC the first Ayurvedic medical school was founded by Punarvasu Atreya. He and his pupils recorded medical knowledge in treatises that would in turn influence Charaka, a scholar who lived and taught around 700 BC. His writings, the Charaka Samhita, describe 1500 plants, identifying 350 as valuable medicines. This major text is still considered the main authority of Ayurveda today and referred to constantly in both teaching and practice of Ayurveda today. The second major work was the Susruta Samhita, written a century later, which forms the basis of modern surgery and is still consulted today.
Ayurveda has had a strong influence on many systems of medicine from ancient Greek medicine in the West to traditional Chinese medicine in the East. The Chinese, Tibetan, and Islamic (Unani Tibb) systems of medicines are said to have their roots in Ayurveda. The Buddha who was born around 550 BC was a follower of Ayurveda and the spread of Buddhism into Tibet during the following centuries was accompanied by increased practice of Ayurveda. The ancient civilisations were linked to one another by trade routes, campaigns and wars. Arab traders spread knowledge of Indian plants in their Materia Medicas and this knowledge was passed on to the ancient Greeks and Romans whose practices were eventually to form the basis of European medicine.
The name Ayurveda derives from two Sanskrit words: ayur meaning life and veda meaning knowledge or science. Ayurveda is more than a system of medicine, it is a way of life encompassing science, religion and philosophy that enhances well being, increases longevity and ultimately enables self realisation. It aims to bring about a union of physical, emotional and spiritual health or swasthya which is a prerequisite for attaining moksha, spiritual bliss or liberation.
In Ayurveda the origin of all aspects of existence is pure intellect or consciousness, purusha. Energy and matter are one. Energy is manifested in five elements, ether, air, fire, water and earth, which together form the basis of all matter.
In the body ether is present in the cavities of the mouth, abdomen, digestive tract, thorax and lungs. Air is manifested in the movements of the muscles, pulsations of the heart, expansion and contraction of the lungs and the workings of the digestive tract and nervous systems. Fire is manifested in the digestion, metabolism, body temperature, vision and intelligence. Water is present in the digestive juices, salivary glands, mucous membranes, blood and cytoplasm. Earth exists in the structures of the body that hold it together and support it, bones, cartilage, muscles, tendons as well as nails, skin and hair.
The 5 elements manifest in the functioning of the 5 senses and these in turn enable us to perceive and interact with the environment in which we live. Ether, air, fire, water and earth correspond to hearing, touch, vision, taste and smell respectively.
The 5 elements combine to form 3 basic forces known as doshas which exist in everything in the universe and influence all mental and physical processes.
From ether and air the air principle vata is created.
Fire and water yield the fire principle pitta.
Earth and water produce the water principle kapha.
According to Ayurveda, we are all born with a particular balance of doshas and these proportions are largely determined by the balance of doshas in our parents at the time of our conception. Our body type, temperament, and susceptibility to illnesses are largely governed by the predominant dosha in our own individual constitution. In this way we inherit our basic constitution called prakruti, which remains unaltered throughout our lives.
The first requirement for health in Ayurveda is proper balance of the doshas. If the balance is disturbed by our diet, lifestyle or state of mind for example, illness (vyadhi), of one kind or another eventually results. The disruption may be felt in physical discomfort and pain, or in mental and emotional suffering such as fear and anxiety, anger or jealousy. Our current state of imbalance causing such symptoms to manifest is known as our vikruti.
An Ayurvedic practitioner carefully assesses prakruti and vikruti, that is your basic constitution and your current state of health. This involves taking a detailed case history and examining the body, paying attention to build, skin and hair type, temperature of the body, digestion and bowel function, all of which point to more profound aspects of the patient’s condition.
Pulse and tongue diagnosis exceptionally valuable tools for confirming analysis of health and constitution. In these respects Ayurveda has much in common with Chinese and Tibetan medicine in which these two indicators of the state of health are also of the greatest importance. A highly complex technique for taking the patient’s pulse has been developed by Ayurvedic practitioners which requires many years of practice to perfect.
Once the doshic balance has been diagnosed and the causes of imbalance have been established, treatment and lifestyle advice is given. The first step back to health is the elimination of toxins (ama) and enhancing digestion or raising digestive fire, Agni. There are residential centres dotted around in the UK where the very thorough cleansing and rejuvenation programme known as panchakarma is available. This includes the use of oil massage, sweating, therapeutic vomiting, purging, enemas, nasal administration of medicine, and purification of blood. There is however a more gentle form of Ayurvedic treatment known as shamana available, which involves milder cleansing methods using herbs and diet, followed by rasayana therapy which is the use of wonderful tonic herbs such as Ashwagandha (Withania somnifera) and Shatavari (Asparagus racemosus).
Generally treatments fall into 3 main categories, natural medicines, dietary regimes and lifestyle changes. These are all classified according to their effect on the 3 doshas.
To illustrate: a health problem associated with excess kapha could be characterised by catarrh, lethargy, overweight and fluid retention. A diet consisting of warm, dry, light food would be advised since kapha is cool and damp. Avoidance of foods with a cold, damp quality such as wheat and milk products and sugar which would serve to increase Kapha would also be recommended. Herbal remedies would include warming spices like ginger, cinnamon, cloves and pepper to raise digestive fire and cleanse toxins from the body. Bitters such as turmeric and aloe vera may also be prescribed. The specific choice of herbal remedy depends on its “quality” or “energy” which Ayurveda determines according to 20 attributes (vimshati guna) such as hot, cold, wet, dry, heavy or light. Ayurveda also classifies remedies according to six tastes, sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent. Sweet, sour and salty substances increase kapha and decrease Vata, pungent, bitter and astringent tastes decrease kapha and increase vata, while sweet, bitter and astringent taste decrease pitta and pungent, salty and sour increase pitta.
Herbal remedies are prepared in varying mediums or vehicles (anupanas) according to the predominant dosha being treated. Herbs to balance vata are often given in warm milk, those for reducing pitta in taken in ghee and those to reduce kapha are prepared in honey. Sometimes minute doses of minerals such as salt are also mixed with the herbs. Remedies take the form of pills, powders, decoctions and alcoholic preparations known as arishtas
The value of Ayurveda is proved partly by its timelessness, since it has existed as an unbroken tradition for thousands of years despite a number of setbacks. Following the rise of the Mogul Empire in the 16th century the dominance of Unani Tibb medicine led to the partial repression of Ayurveda in India. In the 19th century the British dismissed it as nothing more than native superstition and in 1833 they closed all Ayurvedic schools and banned the practice of Ayurveda. Great centres of Indian learning thus fell apart and Ayurvedic knowledge retreated into the villages and temples. At the turn of the century, however, some Indian physicians and enlightened Englishmen began to re-evaluate Ayurveda and by the time India had become independent in 1947 it had regained its reputation as a valid healing system.
Today Ayurveda flourishes along side Unani Tibb and Western allopathic medicine and is actively encouraged by the Indian government as inexpensive alternative to Western drugs. In recent years Ayurveda has attracted attention increasingly from medical scientists in Japan and the West and the World Health organisation has resolved to promote its practice in developing countries. Here in the West the popularity of Ayurveda is growing daily as more and more people recognise its immense value not only in the prevention and treatment of disease but with its comprehensive recipe for a better, healthier way of life that addresses all facets of our existence, mind, body and spirit.