Ayurveda Overview

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Ayurvedic medicine has been practiced for thousands of years.
iStockphoto­/Ina Peters

­The last time you got a cold, you probably didn't think of your phlegm as a divine force. Nor is it likely you've contemplated the spiritual significance of your bile. But in Ayurvedic medicine -- an ancient practice that originated in India 5,000 years ago -- having balance among these bodily fluids in your system is essential to good health.

Ayurveda, which means "science of life" in Sanskrit, is based on the premise that everything in the universe, including the human body, is comprised of five basic elements: earth, wind, fire, water and space [source: Ayurveda Institute]. Each


of these elements is present in our bodies in various proportions in what are called doshas. Keeping those doshas balanced through diet, exercise, herbs, massage and meditation is the basis of Ayurveda medicine [source: Chopra].

According to Ayurveda, each person is born with a unique composition of the three doshas -- vata, pitta and kapha -- that determine our physical and psychological makeup like whether we are fat or skinny, slow or quick moving, easy going or anxious. It also determines what type of diet, exercise and treatment we need to prevent illness.

Those who are predominantly vata tend to be thin, quick thinking and prone to constant change. When in balance, vatas are lively, creative people. But when they become unbalanced, they are prone to anxiety, insomnia and indigestion [source: Chopra].

People who are mostly pitta tend to be muscular, intense and ambitious. In balance, they are friendly, smart and strong leaders. Out of balance, they can be critical, irritable and aggressive [source: Chopra].

­Kaphas tend to have heavy frames and calm natures. In balance, they are sweet, loyal and the vision of serenity. But out of balance, they are prone to weight gain, congestion and resistance to change [source: Chopra].

In India, viewing the body through this energetic prism has been part of the culture for centuries, as well as in countries like Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and China. In the U.S., the rise of Ayurveda is a recent phenomenon, one of a growing list of New Age treatments like acupuncture, massage, yoga, chiropractic, meditation and herbal medicine gaining a foothold in mainstream medicine.

Read on to find out how practitioners learn this ancient healing practice. ­


Ayurveda Institutes


­More than 150 colleges in India teach Ayurveda, where students study ancient texts like the "Charaka Samhita" and "Susruta Samhita" during the five years it takes to get a bachelor's degree in Ayurvedic medicine. They can also continue their education to get a doctorate [source: NCCAM].


The prevalence of these programs is no surprise considering that 80 percent of the Indian population uses Ayurvedic remedies, either exclusively or in conjunction with Western treatments [source: NCCAM]. Although the practice of Ayurvedic medicine in India was largely suppressed during the centuries of British colonial rule, it made a comeback in the early 20th century after the country gained independence [source: Svoboda]. In 1970, the Indian parliament passed a law standardizing the requirements for accreditation. A year later, Ayurvedic medicine became an official part of the country's health care system, which had previously been based exclusively on Western medicine [source: Callender].

The first generation of Ayurvedic practitioners in America was trained in India. One of these pioneers was Scott Gerson, who founded the National Institute of Ayurvedic Medicine in 1982. Gerson, the only American to earn both a conventional medical degree and a doctorate in Ayurveda, founded the institute in Brewster, N.Y., 70 miles (112.5 km) north of Manhattan, where he practices and runs a three-year Ayurvedic training program [source: National Institute of Ayurvedic Medicine]. The institute, located on nearly 7 acres (2.83 hectares), serves as a detoxification retreat center as well as a research and educational facility. It has one of the largest collections of Ayurvedic literature and a garden in which it grows medicinal herbs used to treat patients.

In 1984, Vasant Lad, a former medical director and professor of Ayurvedic medicine in Pune, India, founded the Ayurvedic Institute in Albuquerque, N.M. The institute has a detoxification center and offers a two-year training program that replicates the curriculum at India's Ayurvedic colleges [source: Ayurvedic Institute].

Other training institutes in the United States include the American Institute for Vedic Studies, founded by David Frawley in 1988, and the Ayurveda Institute of America, which opened in 1999 [source: Callender].

But unlike in India, Ayurveda in the U.S. is not an officially recognized form of medicine and is not regulated by the government [source: NCCAM]. In 2000, the National Ayurvedic Medical Association was founded in Santa Cruz, Calif., to establish standards for the profession. But for now, Ayurvedic medicine remains an unlicensed profession with no national standard for training or certifying these practitioners, so take caution if you choose to be treated in this route.

Next up: what you can expect during an Ayurvedic treatment.


Ayurveda Treatment

­When you go to see an Ayurvedic practitioner, the first thing he or she will do is establish your dosha by asking you questions about your diet, habits and recent illnesses, and by checking your teeth, tongue, skin, eyes and body composition [source: Callender].The practitioner might also check your urine, stool, speech, voice and pulse.

Once the practitioner has established your dosha and reviewed your symptoms, he will tailor his recommendations for things like diet, exercise, meditation and stretching to your dosha.


According to the Ayurvedic tradition, certain foods promote inner harmony for certain doshas while others can create imbalance. Similarly, each dosha has its recommended exercise regimen. The lively vata, for example, will be advised to do calmer forms of exercise like walking or low-impact jogging whereas sluggish kaphas may be told to take up tennis or racquetball [source: Ayurveda for You]. Your practitioner may also prescribe one of the more than 600 herbal formulas used in Ayurvedic medicine.

­Besides recommending changes in your diet, lifestyle and habits, your practitioner may also recommend you undergo a five-part cleanse called a panchakarma to rid your body of toxins. To prepare the body, you'd get a daily oil massage called a snehan to move toxins toward the gastrointestinal tract followed by a svedana, or sweating, in a medicated steam room.

After three to seven days of that, you'd start the panchakama, which could include one or more of the following five procedures:

  • Vamana -- During this procedure, the patient drinks an herbal remedy to induce vomiting to eliminate mucus in the lungs that causes repeated bronchitis, couch, colds or asthma.
  • Virechana -- During this procedure, the patient takes a laxative to clean the liver and gall bladder of toxins to relieve irritable bowel syndrome, abdominal tumors and jaundice. The laxative is typically an herb like senna, prune, bran, flaxseed husk or dandelion root.
  • Basti -- During this procedure, the patient is given an herbal enema to clean out the lower intestines to alleviate constipation, kidney stones, backache and hyperactivity.
  • Nasya -- During this procedure, herbal oils are poured into the patient's nose to clean the nasal passage to treat migraines, sinusitis, facial paralysis and mental disorders.
  • Rakta Mokshana -- During this procedure, the patient undergoes bloodletting to remove toxins from the blood to prevent repeated attacks of eczema, acne, scabies, chronic itching and hives.

But before all this talk of enemas and bloodletting scares you off, read on about one treatment you're almost guaranteed to enjoy -- Ayurvedic massage.


Ayurveda Massage


­Oils? Dim lights? Soft music? Ahhhh ... now you're talking.


In Ayurvedic medicine, massage is a vital component to restoring energy balance in the body, a practice that can soften tissues, nourish the skin and stimulate the inner organs [source: Welch].

Like all treatments in this tradition, massage styles differ according to the dominant dosha in a person's constitution. For a vata, who is typically thin, has dry skin and tends to get cold easily, the practitioner would likely use a rich, warming oil like sesame oil and use soothing, gentle strokes.

For pitta, who typically have oily skin and warmer body temperatures, the practitioner would apply a lighter sunflower or coconut oil and use deeper, slower strokes. This would calm the pitta's tendency toward fiery emotions.

In Kaphas, who are heavier in build and generally calm, mustard or sesame oil can help stimulate their sluggish metabolism, along with vigorous strokes to jump start their circulation [source: Gougeon].

Other varieties of Ayurvedic massage include:

  • Abhyanga -- This full-body oil massage is supposed to stimulate the marmas. Often followed by a warm bath, it is said to nourish the internal organs and soothe the mind as well as tone the muscles.
  • Pizhichil -- Medicated oil is poured over the body during the course of a full-body massage.
  • Sirodhara -- Oil is poured on the forehead to treat depression and anxiety.
  • Nhavarakizhi -- Bundles of medicinal porridge are wrapped around the body to stimulate sweating [source: Ayurvedic Massage].

If you want to learn even more about Ayurveda, visit the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

  • Ayurveda for You, "Ayurvedic Treatment." (Accessed 03/03/09)http://ayurveda-foryou.com/treat/treat.html
  • Ayurveda Institute of America. "About Ayurveda-Origin and History of Ayurveda." (Accessed 03/03/09)http://www.ayurvedainstitute.com/history.htm
  • Ayurvedic Institute. "About the Ayurvedic Institute." (Accessed 03/03/09)http://www.ayurveda.com/
  • Ayurvedic Massage. "Ayurveda Today." (Accessed 03/03/09)http://ayurvedicmassage.org/ayurveda/today.html
  • Callender, Travis. "History of Ayurveda." Washington Ayurvedic Medical Association. (Accessed 03/03/09)http://www.ayurveda-wama.org/node/10
  • Chopra, Deepak. "Ayurveda -- The Science of Life." (Accessed 03/03/09)http://www.chopra.com/ayurveda
  • Gougeon, Natalie. "Cleansing Through Ayurvedic Massage." (Accessed 03/03/09)http://www.ayurvedicare.com/Massage.html
  • Lad, Vasant. "An Introduction to Panchakarma." Ayurveda Today, Summer 1994. (Accessed 03/03/09)http://www.ayurveda.com/panchakarma/pk_intro.pdf
  • Maharishi Ayurveda Products. "Trans-dermal Healing: M-SPA's Advanced Lipid Support." (Accessed 03/05/09)http://www.mapi.com/ayurveda_health_care/newsletters/lipid_support.html
  • National Ayurvedic Medical Association. "About NAMA" (Accessed 03/04/09)http://www.ayurveda-nama.org/about_nama.php
  • National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. "Ayurvedic Medicine: An Introduction." (Accessed 03/03/09)http://nccam.nih.gov/health/ayurveda/introduction.htm
  • National Institute of Ayurvedic Medicine. Home page. (Accessed 03/04/09)http://niam.com/corp-web/index.htm
  • Svoboda, Robert. Ayurveda: Life, Health, and Longevity (Albuquerque: The Ayurvedic Press, 2004). (Accessed 03/03/09)http://www.ayurveda.com/ayurvedic_pres/ayurveda_life_health_longevity_excerpt.pdf
  • Welch, Claudia. "Abhyanga: Ayurvedic Oil Massage." (Accessed 03/05/09)http://www.banyanbotanicals.com/ayurveda/abhyanga.html