Ayurveda, India’s traditional system of medicine, is one of the oldest medical systems in the world. The Sanskrit word Ayurveda means “the science of life” and comes from the words ayur (life) and veda (knowledge or science). Ayurvedic texts may have been written a few thousand years ago but as with other Indian traditions (such as yoga) the information was passed on orally long before it was written down.
Ayurveda in the US and in India
In the US Ayurvedic medicine is considered complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) and a whole medical system. In India Ayurvedic medicine is commonly offered in hospitals. You can find both Ayurvedic hospitals and Western hospitals in India, and sometimes the two systems are used together.
The Principles of Ayurvedic Medicine
Ayurveda is based on the idea that health results from balance and harmony in the mind, the spirit and the body. Disease comes from imbalance and from lack of harmony. Ayurveda aims to prevent illness with right choices in diet, exercise and general lifestyle. It also aims to cure illness by bringing the body, the mind and the spirit back to a state of balance.
Ayurveda incorporates the idea of five elements: earth, fire, water, earth and ether/space. These elements manifest in the body as the three doshas, or three life forces: vata, pitta and kapha. Each person contains a unique combination of the three, although one or two doshas usually dominate.
The Prakriti and the Vikruti
Everyone is born with a certain constitution, prakriti: a unique combination of vata, pitta and kapha. This basic constitution determines, for example, how we look, how we behave and what illnesses we are likely to get. Our environment, including where we live, what we eat and what we do, has an effect on us and creates our present condition: vikruti. Our vikruti changes depending on lifestyle, our age and even the seasons.
An Ayurvedic treatment is always individual. An Ayurvedic doctor will ask questions about your medical history, current conditions and lifestyle, observe your physical characteristics and take tests including stool or urine tests and your pulse. The treatment involves recommendations for a diet that balances the doshas, supplements or medicines made with herbs, spices or oils, vitamins and minerals, exercises such as yoga, massage (tailored to your constitution) and often also detoxification (panchakarma).
Ayurveda in Everyday Life
So how does an ancient Indian medical system help in modern Western life? Anjum’s Eat Right for Your Body Type: The Super-healthy Diet Inspired by Ayurveda is a good introduction to Ayurveda. This book contains easy recipes and tips for applying the principles of Ayurveda into your daily lifestyle in the West – without alienating all your family members! The recipes are based on Ayurveda but are easy to adapt to your own kitchen. The ingredients are simple enough: you can enjoy many of the recipes even if you do not live next door to a specialist Indian grocery store.
Additional Sources: The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine