What is Ayurveda?

This is a traditional form of Indian medicine – one of the oldest forms of medicine in the world, in fact – which has been practised for centuries throughout India. Today in the UK, USA and Europe it is recognised as a complementary therapy and often used alongside conventional medicine.

It considers treatment in addition to prevention of disease and sees the body as an integrated whole rather than a particular area of disease. As such, Ayurveda can be  classed a holistic therapy.

The principles of Ayurveda are based on five basic elements – space, air, fire, water and earth. These are called Panchamahabhutas. Ayurveda focuses on three main elements – air (Vata), fire (Pitta) and water (Kapha). Every individual, according to Ayurveda, is a combination of all three elements and their healthcare should be dictated accordingly.

For instance Vata types are said to be underweight and prone to weak digestion and nerves, Pitta people have strong bone structure, are good at sports and prone to skin diseases. And finally Kapha types are, more often than not, overweight and creative with a tendency towards heart disease.

Essentially Ayurveda is about keeping the different types in balance in order to maintain wellness. To do this the science looks at diet, lifestyle and medication, taking the spirit and soul into consideration as well as the physical body.

Ayurveda also focuses on elimination of illness (rather than suppression), early intervention and avoidance. Rejuvenation therapy is also part of the process of improving immunity against disease.

The teaching of Ayurveda is highly disciplined with degree courses backing throughout both the east and west. Many courses break down Ayurvedical medical fields into eight particular subsections. These are – Internal Medicine (Kayachikitsa), General Surgery (Shalya Tantra), Otorhinolaryngology (Shalakya), Pediatrics and Obstetric/Gynecology (Kaumarabhrtya), Psychiatry (Bhutavidya), Toxicology (Agada Tantra), Nutrition, Detoxification and Rejuvenation (Rasayana Tantra) and Fertility and Virility (Vajikarana).


What to expect

An initial consultation with an Ayurvedic practitioner can last anything from one to two hours.

Expect to divulge intricate details of your medical history, ailments, your diet, exercise routines, sleeping habits and general lifestyle. Your therapist will also want to take a look at your tongue, hands, nails, nail and check for signs of vitality such as your pulse. You may also be asked about your toilet habits.

After an initial diagnosis your therapist will probably provide you with some exercises, nutrition advice, and perhaps digestive herbs to take. He or she will also give you advice on why your body is reacting in a certain way to cause you difficulty.

Exercises could involve breathing (Pranayama), Hatha Yoga (Asanas) or meditation.

Follow up consultations tend to be shorter in length and usually involve monitoring and adapting the initial treatment.

Depending on your particular complaint or ailment there are a number of specific Ayurvedic treatments available, from hot stone massage to detoxification programmes. Some of the physical – and not at all unpleasant! – treatments include:

  • Warmed Oil massage – a mainstay of Ayurveda which involves the slow dripping of oil onto the pineal gland in the forehead or onto the entire body. The ears too can be filled with warm oil to deal with ear ache or giddiness
  • Dry Lymphatic skin brushing – carried out with cotton gloves. Specific oil is later massaged into the skin for maximum benefit
  • Massaging the skin using medicated milk-porridge in a bundle. Most traditional Indian traditional Ayurvedic massage techniques are based on the Ayurvedic doshas and marmas (these are pressure points similar to those taught in reflexology). Can include a Synchronised Full Body Massage which is completed by two masseurs in simultaneous and coordinated movements.


Effects and benefits

Ayurveda makes many strong claims as to its effects and healing powers, one of which is to slow down the ageing process. Other claims are less sensationalist and include:

  • Very few, if any side-effects
  • A way of life rather than a one-off treatment
  • Reduces stress
  • Gives you insight to look after your own health ie advice on nutrition etc
  • Benefits tend to be mental and spiritual as well as just physical
  • Because they are based on plants, fruits and flowers all remedies used in Ayurvedic practice tend to be as natural as possible
  • Considers prevention very much a part of treatment
  • Medicines and treatments tend to be nurturing for the body and mind
  • Treatments don’t cost a lot compared to other forms of medicine
  • Most of the treatments used involve easily available over-the-counter remedies
  • Revitalises the body and aids both physical and mental fitness
  • Boosts circulation and helps eliminate toxins

Particular diseases and ailments Ayurveda is said to be adept at treating – or at least relieving – include asthma, high blood pressure, back pain, insomnia, fatigue, migraine, arthritis, skin problems, gastric complaints, facial palsies, sports injuries and even memory loss.


Fascinating facts about Ayurveda

  • In Sanskrit ?yus, means ‘longevity’  and veda is translated as ‘related to knowledge or science’ so the word Ayurveda is translated as ‘the complete knowledge for long life.’
  • In 1970 the Indian Medical Central Council Act was passed. This was intended to standardise Ayurveda accreditation, research and provision
  • Today more than 100 colleges in India offer degrees in traditional Ayurvedic medicine
  • Around 50 books on traditional Ayurvedic medicine are available online from the Indian government’s Traditional Knowledge Digital Library
  • The Bachelor of Ayurveda, Medicine and Surgery (BAMS) is a five and a half year degree course which includes 18 different subjects involving Ayurveda.
  • The Central Council of Indian Medicine (CCIM) has also established post-graduation diplomas in specific specialities of Ayurveda
  • According to World Health Organisation statistics Ayurveda’s popularity is such that traditional medicine is regarded as the main system of health care in both cities and villages in India
  • Famous names such as Maharishi Mahesh and Dr Deepak Chopra were amongst the first promoters of Ayurveda in America
  • Ayurvedic education was formalised in the USA in 1995 with the California College of Ayurveda
  • The United States of America National Center for Completementary and Alternative Medicine spent $1.2m on Ayruvedic research in 2009
  • Ayurveda came to the UK in the early 1980s.
  • Thames Valley University was the first to offer a degree in Ayurveda. In 2006 Middlesex University began offering a degree and masters in the subject
  • The earliest literature on Indian medical practice dates back to the Vedic period in India – the mid-second millennium BCE.
  • The Su?ruta Sa?hit? and the Caraka Sa?hit? are the earliest encyclopedias of Ayurvedic medicine and date back to the mid-first millennium 500 CE. These are the tombs on which Ayurveda is based. Over the centuries they were developed and added to considerably
  • In mythology Dhanvantari is a God who passed on the knowledge of Ayurveda to mortals
  • In Hindu scriptures an Ayurveda massage is compulsory for both a bride and groom prior to their wedding to ensure both are beautiful on their wedding day
  • India is the world’s largest, oldest, continuous civilization
  • Although comparatively poor today, India was the richest country on earth until the time of the British invasion in the early 17th Century. The explorer Christopher Columbus is believed to have been attracted to India because of its wealth.


Professional Organisations

British Association of Accredited Ayurvedic Practitioners (BAAAP)

The professional affiliate of the BAMC, this was formed in 1999 to promote Ayurveda in the west and its integration into western medicine throughout Europe. Aims to ensure the professional stature of the teaching and application of Ayurveda by accreditation and providing a register of competent practitioners. Represents members, encourages research and ensures availability of safe and quality Ayurvedic products for practitioners and patients alike. Sends out a regular newsletter to members to keep them updated on news and various advances in the field.


Ayurveda Practitioners Association (APA)

Provides a programme of continuous professional development for Ayurvedic practitioners. Creates a regulatory framework for the practice of the discipline and promotes its presence as an invaluable form of traditional medicine. It looks at the pharmacology of the medicine and petitions for the use of the non-herbal ingredients in preparations, reassessed banned herbs. Lobbies key decision-makers on the benefits of Ayurvedic medicine.


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