Why are some people, who appear to lead very healthy lifestyles, just as susceptible to illness as those who live on a cocktail of junk food, stress and sedentary pursuits? Genetic inheritance may play a part but according to Ayurveda - an ancient Indian holistic system of medicine - ill health is rooted in a lack of self-knowledge which disrupts the flow of prana (energy, or life force). Ayurveda (Sanskrit for knowledge, or science, of life) not only helps us develop self-knowledge, but also offers a unique system of cleansing and regeneration to aid healing and maintain good health.
The Theory Behind Ayurveda
The original texts outlining Ayurvedic philosophy and practice were written 3,000 years ago by a group of Hindu holy men called Rishis. Ayurveda is based on the principle that the universe is made up of the five elements of ether, air, fire, water and earth. The elements are governed by three doshas (Sanskrit for force, or fault), called vata, pitta and kapha. The doshas are forces of energy which we are all born with and which influence the way we look and behave. Most of us are said to be a combination of two doshas - although some people are made up of all three - with one predominant. When the doshas become out of balance the flow of prana is disturbed and ill health can occur. The doshas roughly correspond to the Western concept of body types although they are also linked to behavioral characteristics, organs of the body and ailments:
endomorph/ kapha (stocky)
Body Type: Vata
Physical Characteristics: Lean, light build, very tall or very short, small blue eyes, dry skin, energetic
Treatment depends on the cause of dosha imbalance. Sometimes this is relatively straightforward, such as the wrong diet for your constitutional type or a stressful lifestyle. But sometimes the reasons are more profound, involving your attitude to life, spiritual awareness or karmic influence. Karma is said to be determined by previous lives: if you were a good person in a previous life, you are more likely to be blessed with a healthy and happy subsequent life; but if you were a bad person, or did not learn the lessons you needed to learn, you may experience ill health or unhappiness in the next life. It is said that bad karma can be compensated for through self-knowledge and willingness to change.
Understanding your dosha type is vital to self-knowledge, but so too are meditation, yoga and panchakarma (detoxification), through which you can develop physical, emotional and spiritual harmony.
Seeing An Ayurvedic Practitioner
Your first consultation will probably last 30 minutes to an hour. Your practitioner will observe the color and condition of your skin, complexion, hair, eyes, nails and tongue, and feel your pulse. Ayurveda practitioners recognize 104 different types of pulse, three on each wrist being of primary importance. You will be asked about your medical history, the health of your parents and grandparents, and your lifestyle. Questioning may be personal, inquiring about your bowel habits, for example, and possibly your sexual lifestyle - in Ayurveda, promiscuity, too much sexual activity and homosexuality are, controversially, considered harmful.
“We believe that sex is fundamentally for procreation and too much can deplete energy,” explains Dr Shantha Godagama, founding president of the Ayurvedic Medical Association in the UK. “If someone is promiscuous, we would try to help them find out what it is they are looking for.”
The information gathered during your first consultation will help your practitioner assess your dosha type and current state of health, and decide the most suitable combination of the following treatments.
As in traditional Chinese medicine, foods are accorded different energies and can be used to restore balance in the body. A suitable diet based on factors such as your dosha type and the season of the year will be devised. The time of day that you eat your main meal, the temperature of the food, and the environment in which you eat are also important. An Ayurvedic diet is usually vegetarian, although meat may be included to treat certain conditions, such as those that are vata-related. Fasting is sometimes recommended.
Foods To Avoid
Vata: nuts, dried fruits, salads, baked beans
Pitta: hot, spicy and cooked food, vinegar, acidic drinks
Kapha: dairy products, meat, sugar, salads, raw and dried food
Foods To Eat
Vata: dairy products in moderation, rice, bread, coked vegetables, fruits
Pitta: salad, non citrus fruits, vegetables, white rice
Kapha: hot, spicy and cooked food, citrus fruits, hot drinks
Exercise and Relaxation
Ayurveda practitioners believe that we all need different types and amounts of exercise. Yoga is popular as a means of keeping fit, increasing suppleness and posture, and balancing mind, body and spirit. Breathing exercises (pranayama) play a central part. You may also be taught how to meditate to aid relaxation, increase self-awareness and emotional control, improve memory and boost the immune system.
External Detoxification (Purvakarma)
Oil massage is a cleansing treatment similar to an aromatherapy massage, but using herbal preparations formulated thousands of years ago. The carrier oil is usually sesame. Like all massages, it aims to relax muscles and joints, improve circulation and speed up metabolism and evacuation of waste products.
Sweat therapy always follows an oil massage. Pastes made from herbs, rice, sand or salt and mixed with hot milk are applied to specific parts of the body, which is then wrapped in heated towels or bandages. You will be asked to lie, with your head protruding, in a sealed, herbal steam bath for 15 to 35 minutes.
“Rice is very cooling and is particularly good for skin conditions such as eczema,” Dr Godagama explains. “Sand is heating and improves the circulation, and salt has a dispersing effect and is often used to relieve fluid retention in joints and tissues.”
Internal Detoxification (Panchakarma)
Nasal oil inhalations containing herbs may be recommended to help detoxify and cleanse the lungs. Herbal oil enemas are used to treat conditions such as chronic constipation, colitis and gynecological problems. They are administered through the anus or the vagina. Herbal steam inhalations are useful for catarrh, migraine, eye complaints, problems with the nervous system such as stuttering, skin problems, depression, anxiety and mental problems.
Other Ayurvedic Treatments
Marma therapy aims to facilitate the flow of prana, which may have become blocked through physical or emotional trauma in the present or in a past life. Marma is also used to re-balance vata, pitta and kapha so as to promote and maintain good health. It is similar to acupressure but, whereas practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine recognize 360 energy points on the meridians, Ayurveda acknowledges only 107 of these.
Ayurveda practitioners also work with the seven chakras (energy centres recognized in yoga), while traditional Chinese medicine does not. Ayurvedic practitioners stimulate the points by massaging them (sometimes using herbal oils) or applying pressure with their fingertips. If the points are lacking in energy, they may be tender.
“Symptomatic pain relief, for something such as arthritis or migraine, can be immediate,” says Dr Godagama. “You will need ongoing treatment to relieve the condition, but may be shown points you can massage at home if the pain returns. I advise all my patients to have marma therapy to maintain general health and wellbeing.”
Oil therapy (shirodhara) involves lying down while a thin stream of warm, herbal oil flows from a pot suspended above your head onto a spot between your eyebrows. This is known as the third eye and is an important marma point. Your practitioner will stroke the oil through your hair, sometimes massaging it into the scalp, too. The therapy focuses on the mind and is said to be effective in treating insomnia, migraine, epilepsy and amnesia. “It also promotes instant relaxation, and a feeling of happiness and wellbeing,” says Dr Godagama. “It feels fantastic and is an experience that you will want to repeat again and again.”
Further to this, fortifying herbal remedies, made according to ancient formulations, may be given as a tea.
For sinus problems Boil 4 tbsp coriander seeds in water for 10 minutes. Cover your head and the container with a towel and inhale the steam for 5 minutes, 2 or 3 times a day.
For period pains Add 1 cup of curry leaves and 1 tbsp cumin seeds to 5 cups of water. Boil until reduced to 2 cupfuls. Drink one-third of the liquid 3 times a day until symptoms subside.
For diarrhea Mix together 1 tsp black pepper, 2 garlic cloves, 1 tbsp cumin seeds, 5 to 10 curry leaves and a pinch of salt, and cover with 4 cups of water. Boil until reduced to 2 cupfuls. Drink one-third of the liquid 3 times a day until symptoms subside.