What is Ayurveda?
The concepts of Ayurveda are more than just an alternative medicine; they are an Ancient Indian guiding wisdom, a uniquely holistic philosophy for wellbeing that dates back at least 5,000 years. Ayurveda is a Sanskrit term, literally meaning ‘knowledge of life,’ and is built on achieving a balance between mind, body and spirit in order to reach optimal health, happiness and fulfilment. As such, Ayurveda takes into account all aspects of our lifestyles, and takes a proactive approach towards avoiding illness; fresh food and herbs, regular exercise, care for the digestive system and regular cleansing, quality time spent with friends and family, and a close connection with nature.
Ayurveda is based on the understanding that we are all deeply unique, spiritual beings, with a strong reliance on nature for health, vitality and wellness. This reliance on nature forms the guiding principles of Ayurveda; as although each of our needs are specific to us as individuals, in order to heal and regain balance we must look to nature as our guide. Therefore, we should eat plenty of fresh, organic, unprocessed food that is rich in ‘Prana’ or ‘life force.’ As our planet changes with the seasons, our bodies do too; for example, we harvest root vegetables in Autumn to build strength for the winter, and fresh greens in the spring to help clean and detoxify our systems.
The Three Doshas
According to Ayurveda, we are each made up of the five elements – air, fire, water, earth and space. These basic elements combine into three doshas: vata, pitta and kapha, which manifest themselves in each of us in a unique way to shape our physical, mental, and spiritual characteristics. By determining which doshas are dominant within us, we can make empowered choices to protect and enhance our health and vitality. Our doshas help to determine the foods, herbs, and lifestyle choices that are right for us; and, conversely, which ones are not.
We are all composed of three doshas – vata, the wind dosha; pitta, the fire dosha, and kapha; the earth and water dosha. Vata is responsible for movement, or flow, in the body, controlling our circulation, breathing, and elimination of waste. Vata stimulates the mind, moves our muscles and joints, and regulates the immune system. Typically, a Vata dosha has a slender frame and struggles to put on weight; has tendencies towards dry skin and frizzy or brittle hair; and is dynamic and often creative in nature.
Pitta is the energetic force that drives transformation in the body. It is responsible for the function of our liver and the production of stomach acid and bile in digestion; it controls our hunger and thirst, our hormone levels, and regulates our body temperature. Those with a Pitta dosha are generally of an athletic build, with delicate skin that can become irritated or redden easily. Pittas are charming, charismatic, and excellent decision makers.
Kapha is the element that holds our body together, with a cohesive nature that supports our cells and helps to create new ones. It’s fluid properties lubricate our brain, joints, muscles and organs, and the balance that it brings allow Vata and Pitta to remain active. Those with dominant Kapha are generally of a more stocky build, with smooth skin and thick hair. They are generally slower creatures, needing lots of sleep, and are kind and gentle in nature.
Each dosha is present in all of us, but typically we each have a prevailing or dominant dosha that shapes us as physical and spiritual beings. It is possible to be a combination of two doshas, for example, vata-pitta or pitta-kapha, or, in rare circumstances, an equal balance of all three doshas: vata-pitta-kapha. Although the concept of the three doshas is something that is unique to Ayurveda, it is certainly not too far removed from the Western idea of three basic body types: Ectomorph (lean and delicate), Mesomorph (muscular and compact), and Endomorph (broad and stocky).
It is possible for each of us to enjoy a vibrant state of health and joyous state of mind by identifying our dosha and then choosing a lifestyle that supports and nurtures it. However, when our doshas become imbalanced (a state known as Vikriti), health problems begin to arise. Ayurveda aims to treat all health problems by bringing the doshas back into alignment, a state known as Prakriti. As a medicine, Ayurveda treats not the disease, not the symptom of the disease, but the person itself. By looking at illness from a human rather than a medical perspective, Ayurveda helps one restore balance to the whole body and return to optimum health.
Despite Ayurveda being such an ancient concept, it’s theory has stood the test of time and continues to be practiced to this day. Ayurveda remains the prevailing wisdom in much of the Indian subcontinent, with Ayurvedic hospitals and doctor’s offices being the norm; whilst in the West, it has developed the way many leading nutritionists, naturopaths, herbalists and complementary healthcare practitioners treat their patients.
Whilst Western culture continues to focus on treating disease, Ayurveda focuses on prevention.
- Studies indicate that Ayurveda may be effective at reducing the risk of heart disease, with one particular study showing how it reduced atherosclerosis (the thickening and build-up of plaque on the artery walls) in both healthy adults and those with existing heart problems.
- The ayurvedic herb, guggul, has been shown to inhibit production of cholesterol in the liver, helping to reduce cholesterol levels.
- Fenugreek seeds can lower triglycerides and LDL (‘bad’) cholesterol whilst raising HDL (‘good’) cholesterol, and have also been shown to be an effective way of stabilising blood sugar in diabetic patients. These effects may be related to the high fibre content of the seed, as when fenugreek is consumed it lowers the absorption of cholesterol in the intestine.
- Turmeric, another widely used herb in Ayurveda, has been shown to be beneficial for certain inflammatory conditions and arthritis – especially when used in combination with other Ayurvedic lifestyle practices, such as Yoga.
- A preliminary clinical trial in 2011 that was partly funded by the US national centre for complementary medicine, found that Ayurvedic treatments for rheumatoid arthiritis saw a similar success rate to conventional treatments. The study compared the effectiveness of the conventional drug methotrexate with an Ayurvedic treatment consisting of 40 herbal compounds.
- Another preliminary clinical trial in 2011 found that osteoarthiritis patients who took a compound derived from boswellia (also known as frankincense) had greater decreases in pain compared to pateints receiving a placebo. Boswellia produces a resin that is often used for it’s anti-inflammatory and immune boosting properties.
Other Ayurvedic herbs are being studied as treatments for cancer, dementia, Alzheirmer’s disease, high blood pressure, thyroid problems, Parkinson’s disease, irritable bowel syndrome and obesity, amongst many other problems. To this date, most clinical studies of Ayurvedic herbs have been small and therefore inconclusive; however, with larger studies on the horizon, the wider acceptance of Ayurveda looks set to grow even further.
Ayurveda is to be thankful for life and the wonder that it provides. It is to make wise choices for our health and for the health of others, to grow as spiritual beings and realise the potential within each of us. By following the teachings of Ayurveda, we grow continuously and evolve into the very best version of ourselves, becoming the master of our own destiny and the pioneer of our own health.
“The great thing about Ayurveda is that its treatments always yield side benefits, not side effects.” – Shubrha Krishan, Essential Ayurveda