Balance is a modern-day buzzword when it comes to health and well-being, but in India the concept goes back millennia. Physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual equilibrium are at the core of Ayurveda, a holistic medical system whose name translates as “the science of life.”
“Ayurveda is all about balance,” says Sivakumar Varma, an Ayurvedic practitioner at Vancouver’s Bodhi College. “With this model, health care is all about mind, body, and soul.”
According to Ayurvedic medicine—which is widely practised in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Pakistan—people are born with three doshas, which together make up their constitution or prakriti. Each dosha is made up of two of the five basic elements—ether, air, fire, water, and earth—and is associated with particular bodily functions.
Delving into doshas
Also called life forces or energies, doshas go by their Sanskrit names: vata, pitta, and kapha. Each person has varying degrees of each, but one dosha usually dominates. Everything from unhealthy diet and lifestyle choices to emotional and environmental factors can disrupt our doshas.
The vata dosha combines the elements air and ether, and controls the heart, mind, and basic processes such as breathing and cell division. People whose vata dominates tend to be prone to heart disease, skin conditions, anxiety, and insomnia. Fear is said to aggravate vata, as can eating dried fruit or staying up too late at night.
Pitta, which is made up of water and fire, regulates digestion and hormones. Those who have a dominant pitta are often susceptible to high blood pressure, infectious illnesses, and digestive conditions such as Crohn’s disease. Pitta can be upset by fatigue, too much time in the sun, or spicy food.
Kapha, meanwhile, represents earth and water, and is linked to the immune system. People with a predominant kapha dosha are more likely than others to have diabetes, obesity, and respiratory illnesses such as asthma. Greed can aggravate kapha, as can eating too many sweets or excess salt.
Treating the whole person
Ayurveda aims to eliminate symptoms, prevent disease, and maintain people’s natural state of balance. An Ayurvedic assessment is all-encompassing.
“We look at a person’s lifestyle,” says Varma, who grew up in Kerala, India, and whose parents are both Ayurvedic doctors. “Things like headache, obesity, or depression are just medical conditions. What in the lifestyle is causing those conditions?”
Varma takes into account a person’s medical history, diet, sleep patterns, and work habits. Practitioners also observe a patient’s pulse, tongue, skin, and eyes. But there’s more to Ayurvedic medicine than that.
“We ask people what their purpose is, about their life goal,” Varma explains. “If there’s no real purpose, people end up depressed or not satisfied.”
Treatment is multifaceted. An Ayurvedic practitioner might suggest physical activity, breathing exercises, stretching, meditation, and massage. Diet modifications and lifestyle changes are common, as are cleanses and purification programs. Herbs, vitamins, and minerals are also widely prescribed. People also learn about stress management and ways to deal with situations that cause anxiety or negativity.
One of the more popular Ayurvedic treatments in North America is Shirodhara, in which a steady stream of warm oil is poured over a person’s forehead to induce relaxation during a full-body massage. Another popular treatment is Swedana, a steam-room session in which sweating helps rid the body of toxins.
Opening the heart
Then there is the focus on spiritual and emotional well-being.
“We look at the physical health of [patients’] organs, but also if their heart is open or not,” Varma says. “You can have a physically fit person, but if their heart isn’t open, there will be problems … If the heart is open, the person has love, compassion, joy. If it’s closed, there is hatred and impatience. With opening, people move into kindness and generosity.”
Practitioners such as Varma expect patients to take an active role in their healing.
“We look at their doshas to determine if there are any imbalances, and in doing so, we help patients discover themselves,” Varma explains. “We provide guidance, but they are responsible for their own health.
“Health care,” Varma adds, “can be a rejuvenating process.”
- Women who are pregnant or nursing should consult a doctor before using Ayurvedic medicine.
- Some Ayurvedic herbs can react with pharmaceutical drugs or diminish their effectiveness.
Ask Ayurvedic practitioners about their training. (There are scores of Ayurvedic colleges in India, where nearly 80 percent of the population uses Ayurveda.)