Ayurveda – An Introduction to the Ancient Healing Practice of India

Ayurvedic medicine is the deeply profound and complex healing practice of India. The very name means no less than “Life Knowledge” in Sanskrit and as the name implies, it is much more than just a healing system. This ancient practice examines the entire human—looking at personality, body type and energetics to recommend everything from diet to exercise. The treatments likewise are extensive, including everything from massage, oilations (oil therapy) and a staggering number of herbs. Diving into Ayurvedic medicine in like diving into a vast web of sacred human knowledge.

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Ayurveda is a healing system that seems to be older than time. In fact, Hindu mythology says that Brahma, the creator of the entire universe, gave Ayurveda to the people. We know that the first written record that mentions Ayurveda is between 3000 years and 5000 years old and evolved from a deep understanding of creation.

The Vedas were written by the rishis, or great sages of ancient India who came to understand creation through deep meditation and other spiritual practices. Because the rishis saw that the path to liberation was impeded for many people because of poor health, they sought to reveal the deepest truths of human physiology and health. They became physicians, in addition to being great scholars and deeply spiritual. They observed the fundamentals of life, organized them into an elaborate system, and compiled India’s philosophical and spiritual texts, called the Vedas.

Originally written in Sanskrit, Ayurveda travelled far and wide, having a profound influence on the medical systems of all surrounding cultures. For instance, it was translated into Chinese by 400 AD and had a great impact on Traditional Chinese Medicine. Likewise, Thai medicine is largely based on Ayurvedic wisdoms, as are many of the practices used by the Balinese. Even today in the west, as the herbal and alternative health movement grows, more and more people are turning to Ayurvedic wisdom in order to better understand human energetics, human bodies and the way we are influenced (for good and bad) by various elements in the universe.

The extent of Ayurvedic influence really can’t be overstated. But how does it work? To understand that, you’ll need to understand the basic principles of Ayurveda.

Basic Principles

In Ayurveda, both the universe and the human—since we reflect the universe—is made up of 5 elements: Space (also known as ether), Air, Water, Fire and Earth. If any of these elements becomes out of balance—either through lack or excess—sickness arises. There are three Doshas which describe various combinations of the elements within the body.

Vata is space and air dominant and governs movement. It is the force that directs nerve impulses, circulation, respiration, elimination and the diaphragm which must contract for breathing.

Pitta is fire and water dominant and is responsible for processes of transformation, such as metabolism which transforms food into usable nutrients that our bodies can assimilate.

Kapha is water and earth dominant and governs growth, structure and protection (such as the mucosal lining of the stomach, which protects the tissues).

Every person is made up of some combination of these three doshas. The exact ratio will vary for every person, and understanding your specific combination will help you understand how to live with optimal health. An understanding of the principles will also shed light on the best treatment for a specific disease, or imbalance.

Doshas also reveal some degree of body type, personality traits and preferences. For instance, Vata is dry, cold, light, mobile, clear, rough and subtle. They tend to have more nervous personalities, with long, lean frames and can be clairvoyant. Pitta is slightly oily, hot, intense, light, fluid and free flowing. They tend to be quick to anger, with a fiery disposition and a muscle, compact body. Kapha is oily, cold, heavy, stable, viscid, smooth and soft. They tend to have warm hearts and a steady mind with heavier bodies and glowing skin.

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Application and Treatments

Ayurvedic treatments are wonderful, complex and vast. They include massage and many uses of oil. Some oil practices include oiling of the nose, oil pulling (the act of swishing oil in the mouth for 20 minutes), bastis (or oil enemas) and shirodhara (the practice of dripping oil slowly onto the third eye). The specific oil and treatment to be used will depend on your specific constitution, as mentioned above—including everything from soaps, to conditioners, to toothpastes.

If you visit an Ayurvedic practitioner, you will be given suggestions for a diet that suits your constitution and will be optimal for your specific digestion. For instance, while Vata people need more warming oils, fats and rich grounding stews to offset their dry, cold nature, Kapha people do well with a less oily diet, drier foods (like potatoes and dried fruit) and lots of fresh vegetables—to offset their naturally heavy and oily constitution.

If a total reset is needed, you may want to do a complete Ayurvedic cleanse called Panchakarma, to eliminate toxins and reset your balance. It includes many of the practices mentioned above in addition to a specific diet (probably with lots of ghee included!). The diet is followed for a set period of time and is meant to restore body, spirit and soul.

And of course, herbs are a huge part of Ayurveda. If you go to an Ayurvedic practitioner they will prescribe an herbal formula meant to align your body into true health. Even if you don’t go to a practitioner, there are many, many beautiful teas blends you will want to sample. Even the common chai is said to have originated as a warming Ayurvedic health tea.

Give It a Try!

Ayurveda is all natural and totally safe to use. It focuses on treating the whole person, instead of just the symptom. Thus, the goal is find the root of a problem and heal from the base. Ayurvedic remedies can be used in conjunction with western medicine and the practices are wonderful for everyday upkeep.

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