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Launching our new series on complementary therapies, Rosalind Ryan takes a look at the ancient Indian art of ayurveda.

Wednesday 19th February

Not many of us would sign up for the traditional remedies of the Middle Ages – leeches, anyone? – but ayurveda, Asia’s age-old holistic healthcare system, remains just as popular as ever. “Ayurveda originated in south India over 5,000 years ago,” says Dr Prassana Kerur from Ayush Wellness Spa. “The World Health Organization considers it one of the oldest healing traditions known to mankind.”

Ayurveda is about more than just medicines. Dr Deepa Apté, founder of Ayurveda Pura explains: “Ayurveda is a complete way of life. ‘Ayur’ means life, and ‘veda’ means science – so ayurveda is about the science, or understanding, of life.” Deepa trained both as a doctor of medicine and thereafter ayurveda, while Prassana trained as a doctor of ayurvedic medicine.

The main focus of ayurveda is bringing mind and body back into balance, and maintaining that balance for good health. Following an ayurvedic way of life should lead to long-term mental, physical and emotional wellbeing, and practitioners believe that one of the best ways to restore the mind-body balance is to live according to one’s body type or “dosha”. “We are part of the universe, so we share elements with the universe,” says Prassana. “These are space, air, fire, water and earth, which combine in the body to create our doshas. You’re born with a predominance of one dosha, but it can be influenced by environment.”

The three doshas

Learning about the dosha can help individuals to eat, exercise and live in the right way. It is also thought to help explain the ailments people suffer from and find the best treatments to restore balance.

There are three doshas: vata, pitta and kapha. People might be a mixture of two or more doshas, but an imbalance can occur when one is more dominant than the others. Vata is a combination of air and space. People with a vata dosha may have trouble sleeping and have dry skin and hair. “This is a very active dosha,” says Deepa. “Their mind never stops thinking and they’re quite tall and thin.”

As for pitta, this literally means fire, says Prassana. “They can be very strong and determined, and quite perfectionist. Pitta doshas tend to suffer from inflammatory conditions such as allergies or arthritis.” 

And the third, kapha, is a combination of water and earth. “They can be quite slow but are more able to go with the flow. They’re also quite stable, but this means they have a tendency to gain weight or suffer from joint problems,” says Deepa.

The dosha can be rebalanced using the central tools of ayurveda: food, herbs, yoga, massage and lifestyle. “In order to take care of your body it’s important to nourish it, which means eating right for your body type,” says Prassana. You could be drawn to the very things that are bad for you. Kaphas often crave sugary foods and drinks that make them put on more weight. An ayurvedic practitioner can advise on diet.

The importance of exercise

Exercise is very important in ayurveda, particularly yoga. “Yoga and ayurveda are sister sciences,” says Deepa. “One is incomplete without the other.” Both share elements of healing, meditation and strengthening the mind-body connection.

However, just as our individual doshas need specific foods or treatments to bring them back into balance, the type of yoga we should practise will differ according to our dosha. “Pittas shouldn’t do Bikram yoga, as the heat can throw them out of balance and they can’t afford to burn out,” says Prassana. “But kapha, a cooler dosha, may benefit from something more hard-hitting.”

Ask your ayurvedic practitioner to recommend a yoga teacher who understands ayurvedic principles. Even if yoga isn’t your thing, exercise is still important. “Modern life is physically less active, and inactivity is a basic imbalance,” says Prassana. “The body is too quiet, while the mind is racing, so it’s important to keep active. This doesn’t just mean going to the gym but activities like walking or swimming, too.”

The role of herbs

Ayurvedic herbal remedies are used to treat illness, while massages might make use of herb-infused oils to deepen their effect on the dosha. One of the most well-known therapies is shirodhara, which involves pouring warm oil on to the forehead from a small pot. “You might also benefit from a massage with bolus – small cotton bags filled with herbs that are pressed over the body,” says Deepa. Again, a practitioner can suggest the best treatments to help rebalance one’s dosha. The final ayurvedic tool, lifestyle, consists of bringing all the others together to maintain good health in a well person and to restore good health in the sick.

While ayurveda therapy might sound like a relaxing spa treatment, it is used alongside conventional medicine in India. Prassana says, “You often find both in hospital, so the patient gets the best care with this integrated medicine.” There aren’t many existing studies into the effects of ayurveda, but Deepa says several are now being carried out. She says, “For years, it was just accepted that ayurveda worked, but soon we will have proof that ayurveda works in certain areas.”

What's the alternative?

Further information

If you are tempted to try ayurveda, you can find a local practitioner via the Ayurveda Practitioners Association. To contact the APA, send an email to info@apa.uk.com.

Source: This article first appeared in benhealth, issue 26 (spring 2014).

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