Practiced in India for the past five thousand years, Ayurvedic medicine (meaning "science of life") is a comprehensive system of medicine that combines natural therapies with a highly personalized approach to the treatment of disease. Ayurvedic medicine places equal emphasis on body, mind, and spirit, and strives to restore the innate harmony of the individual.
The first question an Ayurvedic physician asks is not 'What disease does my patient have?' but "Who is my patient?'" explains Deepak Chopra, M.D., a Western-trained endocrinologist who has introduced Ayurvedic medicine to the general reader through a number of popular books. "By 'who,'" adds Dr. Chopra, "the physician does not mean your name, but how you are constituted."
"Constitution" is the keystone of Ayurvedic medicine, and refers to the overall health profile of the individual, including strengths and susceptibilities. The subtle and often intricate identification of a person's constitution is the first critical step in the process. Once established, it becomes the foundation for all clinical decisions.
To determine an individual's constitution, Ayurvedic doctors first identify the patient's metabolic body type. A specific treatment plan is then designed to guide the individual back into harmony with his or her environment, which may include dietary changes, exercise, yoga, meditation, massage, herbal tonics, herbal sweat baths, medicated enemas, and medicated inhalations.
The Three Metabolic Body Types: Vata, Pitta, and Kapha
Ayurvedic medicine is founded on the concept of metabolic body types, or doshas. The three metabolic body types are known as vata, pitta, and kapha. They include distinctions or physique similar to the Western view of body types as then, muscular, and fat, but Ayurvedic medicine considers them to have far greater influence on a person's health and well-being than do physical attributes alone.
Dr. Chopra describes the Ayurvedic body type as a blueprint which outlines all of the innate tendencies built into a person's system. One's dosha and the characteristics which reveal it, clarify why one person, for example, will have no reaction to milk, chili, loud noise, or humidity, while another will be not able to tolerate them.
Most people are a mixture of dosha characteristics (such as vata-pitta), with one usually more predominant than another. Each of the body types flourishes under a specific diet, exercise plan, and lifestyle.
The Vata Body Type
According to Dr. Chopra, the primary characteristic of the vata metabolic type is changeability. Unpredictability and variability - in size, shape, mood, and action - is the vata trademark. Vatas tend to be slender with prominent features, joints, and veins, with cool, dry skin. Moody, enthusiastic, imaginative, and impulsive, the vata type is quick to grasp ideas and is good at initiating things but poor at finishing them. Vatas eat and sleep erratically and are prone to anxiety, insomnia, premenstrual syndrome, and constipation. Vata energy fluctuates, with jagged peaks and valleys.
The Pitta Body Type
The pitta metabolic body type is relatively predictable. The pitta person is of medium build, strength, and endurance. He or she is well-proportioned and easily maintains a stable weight. Often fair, the pitta type will frequently have red or blond hair, freckles, and a ruddy complexion. Pittas have a quick, articulate, biting intelligence, and can be critical or passionate with short, explosive tempers. Efficient and moderate in daily habits, the pitta type eats and sleeps regularly, eating three meals a day and sleeping eight hours at night. Pitta types tend to perspire heavily and are warm and often thirsty. They suffer from acne, ulcers, hemorrhoids, and stomach ailments.
The Kapha Body Type
"The basic theme of the kapha metabolic type is relaxed," says Dr. Chopra. The kapha body type is solid, heavy, and strong. With a tendency to be overweight, kaphas have slow digestion and somewhat oily hair, and cool, damp, pale skin. Everything kapha is slow - kapha types are slow to anger, slow to eat, slow to act. They sleep long and heavily. Kaphas tend to procrastinate and be obstinate. A kapha body type will be prone to high cholesterol, obesity, allergies, and sinus problems.
The Three Doshas and Health
Although each person's metabolic type is determined by a predominant dosha, all three doshas are present in varying degrees in every cell, tissue, and organ of the body.
According to Vasant Lad, M.A.Sc., an Ayurvedic physician and Director of the Ayurvedic Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the doshas are located in specific areas of the body:
Vata is motion that activates the physical system and allows the body to breathe and circulate blood. The seats of the vata are the large intestine, pelvic cavity, bones, skin, ears, and thighs.
Pitta, the metabolism processes food, air, and water and is responsible for charging the hundreds of enzymatic activities throughout the body. The seats of pitta are the small intestine, stomach, sweat glands, blood, skin, and eyes.
Kapha, the structure of bones, muscle, and fat that holds the body together, offers nourishment and protection. For example, the chest, the lungs, and the spinal fluid surrounding the spinal cord are the seats of kapha in the body.
When the doshas are balanced in accordance with an individual's constitution, the result is vibrant health and energy. But when the delicate balance is disturbed, the body becomes susceptible to outside stressors, which may range from viruses and bacteria to poor nutrition and overwork. Imbalance in the doshas is the first sign that mind and body are not perfectly coordinated, notes Dr. Chopra. He points out that once people understand the characteristics and qualities ascribed to their body types, they can take appropriate measures, through changes in diet, lifestyle, and environment, to restore dosha balance, which will prevent disease and ensure continued good health.
The Disease Process According to Ayurvedic Medicine
Ayurvedic defines health as a soundness and balance between body, mind, and soul, and an equilibrium between the doshas. According to Ayurvedic medicine, there are seven major factors that can disrupt physiological harmony - genetic, congenital, internal, external trauma; seasonal, natural tendencies or habits; and magnetic and electrical influences. Virender Sodhi, M.D. (Ayurveda), N.D., Director of the American School of Ayurvedic Science in Bellevue, Washington, says that "disease is the result of a disruption of the spontaneous flow of nature's intelligence within our physiology. When we violate nature's law and cannot adequately rid ourselves of the results of this disruption, then we have disease."
There are pathologies recognized as being genetically based. For example, when placed in a particular environment, a predisposed individual may have a tendency to develop a health problem prompted by his or her surroundings. This genetic susceptibility can be triggered in the womb by the mother's lifestyle, diet, habits, activities, and emotions. Accordingly, individuals possess natural tendencies to adopt certain habits, such as overeating and smoking.
From birth, stressors - both inner and outer - challenge an individual's health. For example, hot, spicy food can induce an ulcer or damage the liver. Disease can also have an emotional cause, such as deep-seated, unresolved anger, fear, anxiety, grief, or sadness. External traumas and injuries can also play an influential role.
Ayurvedia also takes into account how the seasons and time of day influence health. Dietary and other therapeutic suggestions are often prescribed with this in mind. To say that summer is a pitta season means that pitta qualities are at their height during this time. Summer's bright light and heat can induce inflammatory conditions such as hives, rash, acne, biliary disorders, diarrhea, or conjunctivitis in pitta individuals. Vata's season is autumn, and because autumn reflects windy, dry, and cold qualities, vata people tend to develop neurological, muscular, and rheumatic problems such as constipation, sciatica, arthritis, and rheumatism. Winter's deep cold and biting wind brings out more kapha characteristics, and stresses the kapha respiratory system with colds, hay fever, cough, congestion, sneezing, and sinus disorders. Spring is both pitta and kapha; the coolness, budding leaves, and beautiful flowers of early spring enhance kapha's constitution; late spring promotes pitta.
The Art of Ayurvedic Diagnosis
Ayurvedic physicians have traditionally relied on the powers of observation rather than equipment and laboratory testing to diagnose disease. Diagnosis is based on physical observation, questioning the patient as to personal and family history, palpation (feeling the body), and listening to the heart, lungs, and intestines. This approach is changing, however, as physicians integrate Ayurvedic traditions with modern diagnostic methods.
Ayurvedic physicians pay special attention to the pulse, tongue, eyes, and nails. Whereas Western medical doctors use the pulse to determine heart rate, Ayurvedic doctors describe three distinct types of pulses: vata, pitta, and kapha. They can distinguish twelve different radial (or wrist) pulses: six on the right wrist (three superficial and three deep) and, similarly, six on the left wrist. By focusing on the relationship between the pulses and the internal organs, a skillful practitioner can feel the strength, vitality, and normal physiological tone of specific organs at each of the twelve sites.
The tongue is another diagnostic site. By observing the surface of the tongue and looking for discoloration and/or sensitivity of particular areas, an adept practitioner can gain insight into the functional status of internal organs. For example, a whitish tongue indicates a disruption of kapha and accumulation of mucus; and a black to brown discoloration indicates a vata disturbance. A dehydrated tongue is symptomatic of a decrease in the plasma, while a pale tongue indicates a decrease in red blood cells.
Ayurvedic physicians routinely perform urine examinations to help them diagnose doshic imbalance in a patient. An early morning midstream sample of urine is collected, and its color observed. Blackish-brown indicates a vata disorder; dark yellow, an imbalance with pitta. If the urine is cloudy, there is a kapha disorder. When a person is constipated or is not drinking adequate amounts of water, his or her urine will be dark yellow. Red urine indicates a blood disorder.
Normal urine has a typical uremic, or musty, smell. A foul odor, however, indicates toxins in the system. Acidic urine, which creates a burning sensation, indicates excel pitta. A sweet smell to the urine indicates a diabetic condition. An individual with this condition may experience goose bumps on the skin surface while passing urine. Gravel in the urine indicates stones in the urinary tract.
Disease Management in Ayurvedic Medicine
Ayurvedic medicine holds that in order to restore health one must first understand and correctly diagnose the disease or bodily imbalance. After diagnosis, there are four main methods by which an Ayurvedic physician manages disease: cleansing and detoxifying, palliation, rejuvenation, and mental hygiene.
Cleansing and Detoxifying (Shodan)
Cleansing in Ayurvedic medicine takes on a far more encompassing role than in Western medicine, where a physician rarely has a patient release material from the stomach, nasal sinuses, or bowels. In contrast, the purifying techniques of vomiting, bowel purging, enemas, blood cleansing, and nasal douching, collectively called pancha karma, are commonly used by Ayurvedic physicians to remove toxins from different areas of the body. In Ayurvedic medicine, toxins are considered the root of disease, and are often the result of undigested, unabsorbed, and unassimilated food.
In preparation for cleansing, notes Dr. Sodhi, an herbal-oil massage may be performed. The oil is a liquid form of fat that is well absorbed through the skin. Once in the system, it can pick up various toxins such as pesticides, as well as viruses and bacteria. These toxins are eventually disposed of through normal channels of elimination. To further elimination, a herbal steam sauna often follows the massage treatment.
Once cleansing begins, purgative therapy eliminates vata, pitta, and kapha impurities from the body.
Blood cleansing is accomplished by removing blood or donating blood to the blook bank, and by using certain cleansing and blood thinning herbs. "It's a known scientific fact," says Dr. Sodhi, "that whenever you give blood the bone marrow gets stimulated. They have found that the blood volume is restored in thirty to forty-five minutes."
Ghee (clarified butter) and yogurt buttermilk are used to re-establish intestinal flora, especially if it has been washed away during the cleansing process.
Inserting herbs through various routes other than the mouth (such as the nose, anus, and skin), ensures that the medicinal qualities are not broken down by stomach enzymes. Certain herbal concoctions, medicated oils, and ghee are often administered into the nose to increase mental clarity.
The next step in Ayurvedic disease management is palliation. or shaman, used to balance and pacify the bodily doshas. Shaman focuses more on the spiritual dimension of healing, and uses a combination of herbs, fasting, chanting, yoga stretches, breathing exercises, meditation, and lying in the sun for a limited time. These techniques are useful for
people with dysfunctional immune systems, or for those who are too ill or emotionally weak to undergo the more strenuous forms of physical cleansing noted in pancha karma. Because of its curative and preventative aspects, shaman can also be utilized by the healthy person. Like all enlightened healing methods, Ayurvedic emphasizes prevention above curing disease.
One method of shaman, called "kindling the fire," is absolutely necessary in kapha and vata disorders with patients who have low gastric fire. The patient consumes honey with certain herbs like pippili (long pepper), ginger, cinnamon, and black pepper. (This should be done cautiously with pitta people, however.)
After the cleansing regimen, a program of tonification called rasayana (ra-sigh'-ana) begins. Tonification means enhancing the body's inherent ability to function, and rasayana is similar to a physiological
tune-up. It is used to restore virility and vitality to the reproductive systems, countering sterility and infertility, bringing forth healthier progeny and improving sexual performance. In addition, it is said that rasayana extends longevity by slowing down the biological clock and retarding the aging process.
Ayurvedic medicine uses three subcategories of rasayana treatments to rejuvenate and restore the body's tissues and organs: special herbs prepared as pills, powders, jellies, and tablets; mineral preparations specific to a person's condition and dosha; and exercises, specifically, yoga positions and breathing exercises.
Mental Hygiene and Spiritual Healing (Satvajaya)
Satvajaya (sat-va-j-eye'-a), is a method of improving the mind to reach a higher level of spiritual/mental functioning, and is accomplished through the release of psychological stress, emotional distress, and unconscious negative beliefs.
The categories of satvajaya include mantra or sound therapy to change the vibratory patterns of the mind; yantra, or concentrating on geometric figures to take the mind out of ordinary modes of thinking; trantra, to direct energies through the body; meditation, to alter states of consciousness; and gems, metals, and crystals for their subtle vibratory healing powers.
"Satvajaya can decondition the mind so we can see things fresh, like with the eyes of a child,: says David Frawley, O.M.D., Director of the American Institute of Vedic Studies in Santa Fe, New Mexico. "Satvajaya techniques rid us of negative emotions, thought patterns, and prejudices that may weigh us down like undigested food."
The Future of Ayurvedic Medicine
Although the advent of Western medical practices temporarily loosened the roots of Ayurvedic medicine in India, Ayurveda has since that time made a comeback in its country of origin and has spread around the world to Europe, Japan, and North and South America. There are 108 Ayurvedic colleges in India that grant degrees after a five-year program, and three hundred thousand Ayurvedic physicians are represented by the All India Ayur-Veda Congress. Ayurvedic conferences, sponsored by governments and/or medical associations, have taken place in Brazil, Poland, Czechoslovakia, and Hungary. In the Soviety Union, the Soviet Research Center for Preventive Medicine oversees the Institute of Maharishi Ayurveda. Furthermore, in the United States, the National Institutes of Health is researching Ayurveda and its integration with other healing practices, such as naturopathic,
chiropractic, and allopathic medicines.
Dr. Sodhi devotes much of his time to seeking out medical studies that support Ayurvedic treatments. He observes that
"considerable modern research has proven the efficacy of Ayurvedic herbal preparations, and research has now moved to elucidating their mechanisms and sites of action." In Dr. Sodhi's opinion, combining modern medical diagnostic procedures with traditional methods makes for more effective use of Ayurvedic treatments.
Groups outside of the Ayurvedic community have also taken steps to recognize this established healing tradition. The World Health Organization recognizes Ayurvedic medicine, and supports research and the integration of the Ayurvedic system of health care into modern medicine.
Treatments in Ayurvedic Medicine
Some of the primary Ayurvedic treatments
according to dosha and season. The taste of the food (sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter, or astringent), its hot- or cold- producing abilities, and whether the food is light or heavy, solid or liquid, or oily or dry are primary considerations. Certain foods should also not be eaten together.|
Exercise: Vigorous excercise and yoga stretching are encouraged in Ayurveda to kindle the internal fire, improve circulation, stimulate metabolism, and sharpen the mind. Exercises are prescribed according to an individual's constitution.
a form of mental cleansing, meditation enhances both self-awareness and awareness of one's environment, family, friends, and business.
Herbs: Ayurvedic physicians use an extensive number of herbs in treating
conditions. Depending on their innate qualities, herbs are used to rebuild and rejuvenate the body and its various systems.
Massage: Massage that uses herbal oils is an important part of Ayurvedic
treatment. Upon absorption through the skin, the medicated oils help to remove toxins from the system.
philosophy states that the sun is not only a source of heat and light, but also of higher consciousness. It improves circulation, aids absorption of Vitamin D, and strengthens the bones. Each of the three dosha constitutions benefit from different lengths of time spent in the sun, however, proper sun block and care is a must. Because of the risk of developing skin cancer, no one who has multiple moles should lie in the sun for extended periods of time.
Breathing: Breathing excersises, or pranayama can be learned from an experienced
teacher. Depending on the dosha type, pranayama can
bring a sense of tranquility and peace, and alleviate the
stress of a hectic day.
Characteristics and Tendencies of Ayurvedic Metabolic Body Types
- Prominent features, joints
- Cool, dry skin
- Eats and sleeps at all hours
- Nervous disorders
- Enthusiastic, infectious energy
- Medium build
- Fair, thin hair
- Warm, ruddy, perspiring skin
- Orderly, efficient
- Short temper
- Doesn't miss a meal
- Lives by the clock
- Ulcers, heartburn
- Warm, loving
- Thick, wavy hair
- Cool, thick, pale, oily skin
- Slow, graceful
- Slow to anger
- Eats slowly
- Sleeps long, heavily
- Allergies, sinus
- Forgiving and tolerant
- High cholesterol