In the United States, Ayurveda is considered a type of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) and a whole medical system. Many therapies used in Ayurveda are also used on their own as CAM – for example, herbs, massage, and yoga. As with other such systems, it is based on theories of health and illness and on ways to prevent, manage, or treat health problems. Ayurveda aims to integrate and balance the body, mind, and spirit. This balance is believed to lead to contentment and health, and to help prevent illness. However, Ayurveda also proposes treatments for specific health problems, whether they are physical or mental. A chief aim of Ayurvedic practices is to cleanse the body of substances that can cause disease, and this is believed to help reestablish harmony and balance.
Ayurveda is based on ideas from Hinduism, one of the world’s oldest and largest religions. Some Ayurvedic ideas also evolved from ancient Persian thoughts about health and healing. Many Ayurvedic practices were handed down by word of mouth and were used before there were written records. Ancient books, written in Sanskrit on palm leaves are more than 2,000 years old and thought to be the first texts on Ayurveda–Caraka Samhita and Susruta Samhita.
Ayurveda has long been the main system of health care in India, especially in urban areas. About 70 percent of India’s population lives in rural areas; about two-thirds of rural people still use Ayurveda and medicinal plants to meet their primary health care needs. In addition, most major cities have an Ayurvedic college and hospital. Ayurveda and variations of it have also been practiced for centuries in Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Tibet. The professional practice of Ayurveda in the United States began to grow and became more visible in the late 20th century.
Ideas about the relationships among people, their health, and the universe form the basis for how Ayurvedic practitioners think about problems that affect health. Ayurveda holds that:
All things in the universe (both living and nonliving) are joined together.
Every human being contains elements that can be found in the universe.
All people are born in a state of balance within themselves and in relation to the universe. This state of balance is disrupted by the processes of life. Disruptions can be physical, emotional, spiritual, or a combination. Imbalances weaken the body and make the person susceptible to disease.
Health will be good if one’s interaction with the immediate environment is effective and wholesome.
Disease arises when a person is out of harmony with the universe.
Ayurveda also has some basic beliefs about the body’s constitution. “Constitution” refers to a person’s general health, how likely he is to become out of balance, and his ability to resist and recover from disease or other health problems. An overview of these beliefs follows.
The constitution is called the prakriti. The prakriti is thought to be a unique combination of physical and psychological characteristics and the way the body functions. It is influenced by such factors as digestion and how the body deals with waste products. The prakriti is believed to be unchanged over a person’s lifetime.
Three qualities called doshas form important characteristics of the constitution, and control the activities of the body. Practitioners of Ayurveda call the doshas by their original Sanskrit names: vata, pitta, and kapha. It is also believed that:
Each dosha is made up of one or two of the five basic elements: space, air, fire, water, and earth.
Each dosha has a particular relationship to body functions and can be upset for different reasons.
A person has her own balance of the three doshas, although one dosha usually is prominent. Doshas are constantly being formed and reformed by food, activity, and bodily processes.
Each dosha is associated with a certain body type, a certain personality type, and a greater chance of certain types of health problems.
An imbalance in a dosha will produce symptoms that are related to that dosha and are different from symptoms of an imbalance in another dosha. Imbalances may be caused by an unhealthy lifestyle or diet; too much or too little mental and physical exertion; or not being properly protected from the weather, chemicals, or germs.
In summary, it is believed that a person’s chances of developing certain types of diseases are related to the way doshas are balanced, the state of the physical body, and mental or lifestyle factors.
Practitioners seek to determine the primary dosha and the balance of doshas through questions that allow them to become very familiar with the patient. Not all questions have to do with particular symptoms. The practitioner will:
Ask about diet, behavior, lifestyle practices, and the reasons for the most recent illness and symptoms the patient had
Carefully observe such physical characteristics as teeth, skin, eyes, and weight
Take a person’s pulse, because each dosha is thought to make a particular kind of pulse
In addition to questioning, Ayurvedic practitioners use observation, touch, therapies, and advising.
The practitioner will develop a treatment plan and may work with people who know the patient well and can help. This helps the patient feel emotionally supported and comforted, which is considered important.
Practitioners expect patients to be active participants in their treatment, because many Ayurvedic treatments require changes in diet, lifestyle, and habits. In general, treatments use several approaches, often more than one at a time. The goals of treatment are to:
Eliminate impurities. A process called panchakarma is intended to be cleansing; it focuses on the digestive tract and the respiratory system
Reduce symptoms. The practitioner may suggest various options, including yoga exercises, stretching, breathing exercises, meditation, herbs and lying in the sun.
Reduce worry and increase harmony in the patient’s life. The patient may be advised to seek nurturing and peacefulness through yoga, meditation, exercise, or other techniques.
Help eliminate both physical and psychological problems. Vital points therapy and/or massage may be used to reduce pain, lessen fatigue, or improve circulation. Ayurveda proposes that there are 107 “vital points” in the body where life energy is stored, and that these points may be massaged to improve health.
In Ayurveda, the distinction between food and medicine is not as clear as in Western medicine. Food and diet are important components of Ayurvedic practice, and so there is a heavy reliance on treatments based on herbs and plants, oils (such as sesame oil), common spices (such as turmeric), and other naturally occurring substances. Currently, some 5,000 products are included in the “pharmacy” of Ayurvedic treatments.
If you are interested in Ayurveda you should be aware that not every practitioner offering services or treatments called “Ayurvedic” has been trained in an Ayurvedic medical school. It is important to ask about the practitioner’s training and experience. Tell your health care provider if you are considering or using Ayurveda or another CAM therapy. This is for your safety and a comprehensive treatment plan. It is important to make sure that any diagnosis of a disease or condition has been made by a provider who has substantial conventional medical training and experience with managing that disease or condition.
Tell your provider(s) about any dietary supplements or medications (prescription or over-the-counter) you are using or considering. Prescribed medicines may need to be adjusted if you are also using a CAM therapy.