Principles & Practices of Ayurveda
Ayurveda, which literally translated means "the science or knowledge of
life" is the traditional medical system of India. Its origin dates back
an estimated 5-10,000 years, and it is widely considered to be the
oldest form of health care in the world. It is understood by most
scholars that, as knowledge of
Ayurveda spread out from India, it
influenced the ancient Chinese system of medicine, Unani medicine, and
the humoral medicine practiced by Hippocrates in Greece. For this
reason, Ayurveda is often referred to as the "Mother of all healing."
The knowledge of Ayurveda has its written origins in the Vedas, the
sacred texts of India, believed to be the oldest writings in the world.
Written in Sanskrit, the Vedas cover a vast number of subjects from
grammar to health care. The Vedas were written approximately 2500BC or
earlier. Current knowledge about
Ayurveda is mostly drawn from
relatively later writings, primarily the Charaka Samhita (approximately
1500BC), the Ashtang Hrdyam (approximately 500 AD), and the Sushrut
Samhita (300 - 400AD). These three classics describe the basic
principles and theories from which Ayurveda has evolved. They also
contain vast clinical information on the management of a multitude of
diseases. Later writings and research expand on this early clinical
Ayurveda is based on the premise that disease is the natural end result
of living out of harmony with our environment. Natural is an important
word because Ayurveda understands that symptoms of disease are the
body's normal way of communicating disharmony. With this understanding
of disease, Ayurveda's approach to healing becomes obvious: to
reestablish harmony between self and environment. Once reestablished,
the need for the body to communicate disharmony diminishes, symptoms
dissipate, and healing is said to have occurred.
Ayurveda understands each person and the disease the person is
manifesting as a unique entity. It could be said that no two people are
alike, and no two diseases are alike. Therefore,
Ayurveda does not
approach the cure of a disease as much as it approaches the
cure of a
person. This approach vastly differs from allopathic medicine. Where
allopathic medicine looks for a drug that will
cure a statistically
significant number of people for a specific condition, such as
rheumatoid arthritis, Ayurvedic medicine looks for a treatment that will
cure an individual person of their unique presentation of the disease.
Since no disease affects two people in exactly the same way, no two
cures are exactly the same.
For the Ayurvedic practitioner, it is necessary to understand the nature
of the patient, the nature of the disease, and the nature of the remedy.
Only then will a physician be able to provide the greatest care. The
qualities of Nature are said to be either heavy or light, cold or hot,
stable or mobile, sharp or dull, moist or dry, subtle or gross, dense or
flowing, soft or hard, smooth or rough and cloudy or clear. A person, a
disease or a remedy is understood to have a unique combination of these
qualities. It is the goal of the Ayurvedic practitioner to understand as
many of the qualities as they can about their patient and their
A person may be heavy or light, move quickly or slowly, feel more warm
or cool, have a sharp or dull mind, have moist or dry skin. These are
examples of understanding the nature of a person. Similarly, a disease
like arthritis may be defined as producing sharp or dull pain, migrating
(mobile) or localized to one or more joints (stable), producing
vasodilatation around the joint (warm), or vascular constriction (cool).
By understanding the presentation of a disease through its qualities,
the uniqueness of a disease is understood.
Herbal remedies are also understood in terms of their qualities.
Substances that are nourishing are described as being heavy, such as
licorice. Substances that are depleting are light, such as red clover.
Some herbs create warmth in the body, such as ginger, and others cool
the body, such as goldenseal. The fundamental principle of treatment in
Ayurveda is to treat the disease with the qualities opposite to its
nature. Cold diseases are treated with warm remedies, heavy diseases are
treated with light remedies, and so on.
Ayurveda describes the human being as being composed of five elements,
three doshas (biological energies), seven dhatus (tissues), and numerous
srotas (channels). The five elements are ether, air, fire, water, and
earth. These five elements, which also make up all of Nature, are not
meant to be taken literally. They are ideas described as elements. They
are the ideas of space, motion, heat, flow, and solidity respectively.
They have the qualities as noted above. The three
doshas, the biological
forces that govern the functions of the body, are composed of these
Vata dosha is a biological force which governs all motion in the body.
Composed of ether and air, it is light, dry, mobile, and cool. People
with a predominance of this energy in their bodies tend to exhibit these
characteristics. They tend to be thin, have dry skin, feel
and move and speak quickly. They also tend to have a greater amount of
cold emotion, such as
anxiety and fear.
Vata dosha imbalance can affect
any system of the body and cause an increase in those qualities. For
instance, the respiratory system becomes dry as seen in dry
The digestive system becomes dry and constipated,
an abnormality of motion. Dryness may precipitate stone formation in the
kidneys or gall bladder, and an increase in the motile quality of
in the nervous system is understood to cause hyper-excitability. The
cold nature of
vata can become severely disturbed and cause
syndrome. Wasting conditions are viewed as an increase in the light
quality of vata. Therefore, anywhere in the body where there is an
increase in the qualities of vata, there will be physiological
Pitta dosha is a force which govern all digestion in the body. Composed
primarily of fire, it is hot, light, exhibits flow, and is sharp. It
contains a little water, and thus it is neither very moist or dry.
People with a predominance of pitta in their bodies exhibit these
qualities. They feel warm and are less affected by
cold weather. They
have a rosy complexion, are moderate and reasonably steady in their
weight, have a mesomorphic body build, and can have a sharp and intense
personality. This personality tends to be challenged by a greater amount
of heated emotion such as anger, resentment, and jealousy. As
governs digestion, the digestive system tends to be strong. There is
little trouble digesting food. Bowel movements occur frequently, 2-3X
per day. Pitta dosha imbalance can affect any system in the body but is
predisposed to affect systems that are said to contain a lot of fire.
When pitta affects a system, usually greater heat builds at that
location. The liver, small intestine, blood, skin, and eyes are systems
in which pitta exerts a great influence. Hepatitis, hyperacidity,
and conjunctivitis are examples of heated
pitta conditions in these
regions of the body. Pitta disturbance can affect any system. Infections
anywhere in the body producing heat and
fever are understood as
Kapha dosha is a biological force which governs growth in the body.
Composed of water and earth, it is heavy, moist, stable, soft, and dull.
People with a predominance of kapha in their bodies tend to carry more
weight, have thicker, denser bones and skin, and have a more traditional
endomorphic body build. They also tend to have moist supple skin and
full, thick hair. This person's personality tends toward being relaxed
and not easily disturbed. They talk and move slowly. They can be
challenged by heavy feelings, such as lethargy and rigidity. When
increases in the body, there is a greater production of mucous which,
like kapha, is heavy, thick, and moist. There may also be swelling and
weight gain. While kapha can affect any system of the body, the stomach
and lungs are the most susceptible. It is here that we see several
common signs of kapha disturbance--nausea, limited appetite and mucous
formation. Conditions such as obesity, some cancers, chronic
lung congestion, and fluid retention syndromes have a kapha disturbance
as a component of the pathophysiology.
While the doshas are seen as the causative agents of disease, dhatus, upadhatus, and srotas are understood to be the site of the disease.
Dhatus are tissues, upadhatus are additional tissues, and srotas are
channel systems. There are seven tissues; plasma, blood, muscle, fat,
bone, marrow, and reproductive tissue. Unlike Western medicine, which
understands each tissue to be separate, Ayurveda understands each to be
dependent upon the tissues preceding it for its nourishment and health.
Hence, a problem which develops in one tissue, if not corrected, will
eventually have systemic consequences. Pathology in
Ayurveda can be
partially understood in terms of what
dosha is affecting what dhatu.
When vata enters a dhatu, that dhatu becomes lighter, drier, and
hyper-mobile. When pitta enters, it becomes heated, and when
enters, it becomes heavier, moister, and more stable. In a muscle,
disturbance causes wasting and atrophy,
pitta disturbance causes
infection and inflammation, and kapha disturbance causes excessive
Srotas are channel systems similar to the organ systems of the human
body. The major srotas are somewhat equivalent to the respiratory
system, digestive system, reproductive system, cardiovascular system,
urinary system, and water
metabolism system. These are additional sites
of disease where doshas may become aggravated.
During the metabolic processes of the body,
Ayurveda recognizes that
metabolic waste is produced and must be properly eliminated to maintain
optimal health. Waste materials are called malas. Obstruction to their
removal is another causative factor in disease.
According to Ayurveda, each person has a
constitution that was
determined at conception. This constitution is the inherent balance of
these three doshas. The
constitution determines a person's basic body
type and personality. While other factors influence the formation of
both the body and personality, the
constitution provides the
predisposition in much the same way as a person's genetics. It is a
common misconception that Ayurveda groups people according to three
types. In actuality, there are infinite combinations and permutations of
these three basic energies in each person. Therefore, we see that each
person is understood to be unique. The Ayurvedic practitioner's first
objective is to understand the nature or
constitution of the patient.
This tells the practitioner who they are treating.
Next the practitioner attempts to understand the disease or the nature
of the imbalance. Ayurvedic pathology is understood according to the
doshic imbalance and the imbalance of qualities within the body. The
practitioner assesses the state of the
doshas, dhatus, upadhatus, srotas,
and malas of the body. The overall strength of the body is an important
factor in future treatment and is assessed as well. The term ojas is
applied to the strength of the body, although more accurately it is that
which gives the body the ability to endure stress.
While pathology is important to understanding the nature of the disease,
equally important is etiology. Etiology is understood according to how
the patient's lifestyle, habits, and environment caused the
become disturbed. A lifestyle which emphasizes a fast pace, changes of
job or relationship, travel, fast foods, and dry, light foods, such as a
vegetarian diet, is likely to cause an aggravation to
vata dosha. A
lifestyle which is intense, competitive, highly focused, and which
emphasizes spicy hot foods is likely to aggravate
aggravated by a sedentary lifestyle and a diet of heavy, moist foods,
such as milk, yogurt, and meat.
Forms Of Therapy
Understanding the nature of the person and the nature of the disease,
the practitioner can now design a treatment program to guide the patient
back into balance. This program utilizes what is commonly called five
sense therapies as its foundation, along with specialized treatments for
the mind and bodily purification and rejuvenation.
Using the sense of taste, the practitioner is able to prescribe a diet
consisting of the opposite qualities of the disease or imbalance. This
diet is very specific and describes the exact foods in each category a
patient may consume. This includes specific meats, dairy, nuts,
vegetables, etc. In addition, the practitioner recommends herbs that
work along similar principles. In addition to the effects that herbs
have on the energetics and qualities of the body, Ayurveda recognizes
that some herbs also possess the capability to have strong effects on
specific organs and symptoms. This fact is taken into consideration in
the design of the formulations.
Using the sense of vision, color therapies are utilized. Colors are
understood to possess the same qualities as all of Nature and, again,
colors are prescribed that have the opposite qualities of the disease.
Colors can have strong special effects on specific diseases, and this is
recognized and considered in designing a treatment.
The ears provide a vehicle for treatment using sound therapies.
has traditionally utilized sound energies called mantras for healing.
Different sounds affect the doshas in different ways. These sound
energies are understood to stimulate specific organs and endocrine
glands, possibly affecting hormonal production.
Aroma therapy provides treatment through the sense of smell. The
qualities of a smell have different effects upon the
example, sweet-smelling fragrances increase
kapha but bring balance to
Through the skin, the application of specific oils and massage are
utilized. Different strokes and pressures affect the
doshas in different
ways. The patient may be told to apply massage to him/her self or
massage may be applied by the practitioner.
For the treatment of the mind,
Ayurveda merges with its sister science
from India, yoga. By using yoga and meditation, the patient is
encouraged to adopt a lifestyle emphasizing peace of mind and connection
to God. The resultant stress reduction is an understood component of the
Ayurveda also emphases the importance of keeping the body clean and
pure. Toxins, both external and intrinsic to the body, interfere with
the flow of waste material out of the cells resulting in impaired
function. To remove these toxins,
Ayurveda employs a technique known as
Pancha Karma, meaning "the five actions." This is a program performed
for 7-28 days at a specialized center that utilizes a restricted diet,
massage therapies, additional medicated oil therapies, medicated steam
therapies, and elimination therapies such as enemas, purgation, and
nasal/sinus cleansing with special oils snorted into the nasal passages.
This last treatment is called nasya. Historically, and in some parts of
the world currently, two additional therapies are utilized. They are
therapeutic vomiting and blood letting with leeches. In addition to
these physical modalities, the patient retreats from the world and
enjoys time for meditation and reflection.
While each therapy is understood to be important,
lifestyle analysis and change as the most significant aspect of the
healing process. The practitioner helps a patient understand how
lifestyle has contributed to the origin of the present condition and
offers support as the patient attempts to create a new lifestyle in
greater harmony with their constitution.
After evaluating the patient, the Ayurvedic practitioner designs a
program utilizing the therapies noted above. These therapies may be
instituted over a period of time and are generally not prescribed all at
once, as they may prove to be overwhelming for a patient to implement
There are no formal studies on how many patients utilize Ayurvedic
medicine and principles in their lives. Since
Ayurveda is a relatively
new science in the West, the percentage is probably low. Worldwide, the
traditional medicine of Ayurveda is still used primarily by the poor in
India who are unable to afford Western medicine.
Indications and Reasons For Referral
Ayurveda is a complete medical science which should be considered
whenever allopathic medicine is unable to produce the desired results.
As Ayurveda includes protocols for the care of every system of the body,
it can play a role in the management of any case. It is being used most
effectively in the United States on patients with chronic and sub- acute
disease. It is not generally recommended for acute diseases. Ayurvedic
lifestyle therapies may also be utilized effectively to enhance wellness
and prevent disease.
Research in Ayurveda has centered around the pharmacological use of
Indian herbs. In the botanical and Ayurvedic medicine journals,
literature detailing herb constituents, actions, indications, and
contraindications is abundant. Successful treatment of a multitude of
diseases using herbs from India are well documented. Clinical evidence
suggests that there are few harmful side effects from Ayurvedic
treatment, and this is supported by 5000 years of anecdotal evidence.
Drug-like Information /Safety
The actions of most herbs and the cross-reactions of herbs and drugs
have not been studied in great detail. History suggests few harmful
interactions, and most herbs are safe in the hands of a qualified
practitioner. Practitioners are educated regarding which herbs and
procedures are to be avoided by pregnant and lactating woman. Botanical
research journals contain the latest information on the actions,
effects, and side effects of many herbs. The Indian Materia Medica by
Nadkarni, is the principle book summarizing research on herbs used in Ayurveda.
Visiting a Professional
A patient who visits an Ayurvedic practitioner should expect to receive
an evaluation consisting of a minimum of a history of the chief
complaint, past medical history, a review of systems, and a review of
any medications, herbs and vitamins the patient may be taking.
Observations are made of the shape of the face, size of the neck, size
and depth of the eyes, color, quantity and quality of hair, thickness of
the skin and width of the bones. Detailed examination procedures include
the pulse and the tongue. Examination of the abdomen and the taking of
vital signs completes the evaluation. After the examination, which
usually lasts about one hour or longer, the practitioner spends time
educating the patient about their findings. During this report of
findings, the practitioner educates the patient about
Ayurveda and their
imbalances. In Ayurveda it is said that it is more important what the
patient knows than what the doctor knows. A patient should leave with a
clear understanding of their path back to health. Follow-up visits are
scheduled to support patients as they make progress and confront
challenges. Follow-up visits include ongoing counseling and education.
Additional therapies are integrated into the program slowly, over time,
as the patient strives to create a lifestyle of harmony through the five
Currently, there are only a few places in the United States where
practitioners receive thorough training. Programs vary from one to two
years in duration and often include part-time classroom education and
independent study. In California graduates of the California College of
Ayurveda receive certification as a "Clinical Ayurvedic Specialist" and
use the initials C.A.S. This is the only institution in the United
States offering complete clinical training for the practitioner. Other
training programs vary in duration and focus. At most schools, the focus
is on the philosophical and fundamental principles of Ayurveda. There
are also home-study programs offered through the American Institute of
Vedic Studies and by specific teachers. These programs focus on the
philosophical and fundamental principles as well.
What to Look for in a Provider
When looking for a practitioner of
Ayurveda, evaluate the extent of
their education. Check to see if anyone or any organization has
certified their competency. If possible, research the organization that
certified them. Always try to meet with the practitioner and discuss the
cases they have managed and their results. Ask how they manage cases and
what criteria they use to assess progress. The California College of
Ayurveda maintains a list of graduate practitioners throughout the
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provided for general medical education purposes only and
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