Ayurveda: Tailor-Made Health

India’s traditional healing system, in which each person’s unique makeup
provides the basis for well-being, is taking root in the US.

By Lisa James

June 2009

You’ve gone for the usual physical exam and blood tests, and have been told there’s nothing abnormal—what a relief. But you still don’t feel quite right. So you consult someone trained in Ayurveda, India’s traditional system of healing.

The practitioner carefully notes your physical attributes, such as the texture of your skin and hair, the shape of your chin and nose, the appearance of your eyes and teeth, and your overall size and weight. He or she then asks questions that you would expect—about your typical food preferences, waking/sleeping schedule, appetite level, digestive patterns and emotional state, for example—and several that you wouldn’t—whether your meals are rushed or relaxed, what you tend to dream about, whether you’re a spender or a saver, how you approach matters of spirit or connectedness. These answers help determine your fundamental constitution (prakruti) in terms of vata, pitta and kapha (abbreviated VPK), Ayurveda’s three basic body-mind-spirit types known as doshas. The practitioner then asks if any of these factors have changed recently, and in what way. This determines your vikruti, or current state.

In most people’s constitutions, one dosha predominates. For you it’s vata; your fundamental VPK ratio is V3P2K1. But your current state is V4P2K1—your vata is too high. To counteract this imbalance, the practitioner suggests that, in addition to keeping warm and avoiding drafts, you eat fewer salads and instead consume more vegetables cooked with moderate amounts of spices such as ginger and turmeric. The two of you discuss ways to calm your anxiety. You receive an herbal oil to rub into your dry skin (good for those achy joints, too) along with an herbal laxative for your chronic constipation. In two weeks you and the practitioner will go over your progress and look at other issues you may need to work on.

A Sanskrit word that translates as “science of life,” Ayurveda holds that “every individual is indivisible—undivided, total, complete, a unique expression of consciousness,” says Vasant Lad, MASc, executive director of The Ayurveda Institute (www.ayurveda.com) in Albuquerque, New Mexico. “The goal of Ayurveda is not just to take care of disease but to deal with every aspect of life.”

Constitutional Energy

Ayurveda views health and disease through the prism of energy, specifically the life force known as prana. “Western medicine sees the body basically in terms of chemistry,” says David Frawley (Pandit Vamadeva Shastri), founder of the American Institute of Vedic Studies
(www.vedanet.com) in Santa Fe, New Mexico and coauthor with Lad of The Yoga of Herbs (Lotus Press). “Our medicine is based on prana and consciousness instead of structure and chemistry, although structure and chemistry have their place.”

According to Ayurveda’s governing precepts, energy emerges from varying combinations of five elements—space, air, fire, water and earth. “The biological combination of space and air is vata; fire and water are pitta; water and earth form kapha,” Lad explains. “Vata is the principle of movement, pitta is the energy of transformation and kapha is the cementing, constructing material of the body.”

Ayurveda believes that every individual’s VPK balance is determined at conception. For example, “pitta from the father and vata from mother will create a pitta-vata child,” says Lad. “Even if the parents have three children, with this permutation of VPK factor each child will be a unique person.”
Each dosha is associated with a specific set of physical, mental and emotional traits. People in whom vata predominates tend to be thin and wiry with quick, restless minds. Pitta often produces a medium build and a metabolism that runs on the high side. Kapha people tend to have large, strong frames and calm, tolerant natures.

Staying Balanced

No one dosha mix is more problematic than another; well-being entails making the correct lifestyle choices for your particular VPK constitution. “Your goal in life is to learn how to play your cards right,” says Rob Talbert, CAS, founder of Jivaka Ayurveda in Laguna Beach, California
(www.jivaka.com). “You can get excess qualities. The idea of Ayurveda is to bring those excesses back to your true healthy, balanced self.” For example, pitta people tend to be mentally sharp, but are prone to burnout and becoming jealous and hot-tempered.

Ayurveda’s emphasis on individual constitution only works if someone takes personal responsibility for their own health. “Ayurveda teaches us that there are many things you can do for yourself, such as breathing correctly,” says Frawley. “For example, if someone who suffers from headaches learns to breathe better, maybe they won’t get headaches.” Maintaining a daily routine, such as establishing set times for getting up and going to bed, is important, as is adapting one’s diet and activities to the seasons. One way to prepare for seasonal changes is to undergo panchakarma, a purification therapy designed to rid the body of toxins.

Conforming one’s diet to one’s dosha is one of Ayurveda’s main tenets. Someone with a kapha nature, for instance, would do well to avoid greasy, fatty foods and include plenty of leafy greens in their diet, while a vata person would do better with sweet fruits.

Each dosha is prone to particular ailments when it goes out of kilter. According to Lad, individuals who are vata-dominant are subject to rheumatic and nerve conditions as well as constipation and anxiety. Pitta imbalance is associated with fever and inflammation along with such digestive disorders as peptic ulcers. People with kapha natures can fall prey to diabetes, obesity and pulmonary problems.

Ayurveda uses a sophisticated herbal system in which plants address dosha imbalances through their taste (sweet, sour, salty, bitter, pungent or astringent) and through energetic properties, such as heating and cooling. “One of the beauties of Ayurvedic herbology is that herbs do their work—they balance the dosha—and then leave the body, so there are not many side effects,” says Lad.

Ayurveda Today and Tomorrow

Like many other healing arts, Ayurveda is often used with standard medical practices. “I tell my clients that I view myself as complementary to Western medicine,” says Talbert, who doesn’t hesitate to send patients to a conventional practitioner if their symptoms are worrisome. “Western medicine is great at diagnostics, but they tend to come on heavy with their treatments,” he adds, explaining that in Ayurveda, “we look at what caused the person to get to the place where they are now. Any part of someone’s life is fair game for modification.”

Bonnie Stein, a graphic designer from Dana Point, California and one of Talbert’s clients, has been forced to make a number of life changes since being undergoing conventional therapy for colon cancer in the past year. Stein, 59, has used Ayurveda for three years; when asked the inevitable “but you got cancer” questions she says, “From my understanding the cancer had been there a good 10 years. So I think, ‘If I had hadn’t been practicing Ayurveda, where might I be?’”

To help rebuild her system, Stein’s now-meatless diet is heavy on cruciferous vegetables, such as broccoli, for their immune-boosting properties. She says that in addition to practicing meditation and yoga, she is now “focusing on the bliss in life—working in the garden and being in community.” As a result, “The last couple of weeks I had a huge boost of energy—I call it effervescence,” Stein says. “I believe it’s a sample of more to come as long as I stay on my path.”

Talbert, who has been certified as a clinical Ayurvedic specialist (CAS), calls Ayurveda “the new kid on the block” and not yet eligible for licensure in any of the states. However, he notes that the National Ayurvedic Medical Association (NAMA) has been holding national conferences for the past several years and has started a peer review process for practitioners. As he explains it, “Someone looked at my school’s curriculum and at my practice and said, ‘Yes, this guy knows what he’s talking about.’” Talbert believes that Ayurveda eventually will become a licensed practice, although that step will require the appropriate legislation to be passed in each state.

Wynn Werner agrees with Talbert. “I think you’re going to start seeing Ayurveda as a major player in complementary medicine,” says Werner, administrator of The Ayurvedic Institute and a founding member of NAMA. (To find a practitioner, visit NAMA’s website at www.ayurveda-nama.org.) He says that Ayurveda is following the arc of other types of nonconventional healthcare in the US, in which practitioners form associations, which then set requirements before licensure occurs. In addition, Werner says that some states have passed “health freedom” laws, which permit alternative practitioners to see clients as long as they abide by certain rules, such as not prescribing drugs or performing surgery. (“These are things I don’t want to do anyway,” says Talbert.)

Research is another area in which Ayurveda is just getting up to speed. The problem, says Werner, is that “double-blind, placebo-controlled protocols don’t work for Ayurveda as a whole-health system.” However, studies on Ayurvedic herbology have yielded positive results. For example, an analysis of published reports by a multi-institutional research team found that Indian herbs may prove useful in controlling cholesterol levels (Alternative Therapies 7-8/07).

Even as Ayurveda continues to gain traction as a profession in the US, adherents believe it has much to offer. “It’s taught me that life is a practice,” says Stein, “and to slow down and breathe.”

 

Herbs in the Ayurvedic Tradition

The following are only a few of the herbs used in Ayurveda. Often practitioners will recommend that herbs be taken as part of formulas prepared according to Ayurvedic medical principles. If you have a pre-existing condition—and especially if you are already taking prescribed medication—work with a qualified healthcare professional to create an herbal supplementation program that best meets your specific needs.

Name

Traditional Use Modern Research Notes

Andrographis
(A. paniculata)

Known as “King of Bitters,” it plays a prominent role in more than two dozen Ayurvedic formulas Fights a variety of microbes,
including viruses and bacteria;
has also shown anti-cancer
properties
Available in formulations with
olive leaf and rabinogalactans,
two other natural immunity
boosters

Ashwaganda
(Withania
somnifera)

Used as a rejuvenative herb, especially for weakness resulting from chronic disease, overwork or nervous exhaustion
Acts as an adaptogen, a
substance that helps the body
deal with stress; also acts as
an anti-inflammatory
Sanskrit name translates as
“horse smell,” referring to the
herb’s odor and strength

Boswellia
(various species)

Used in the treatment of many disorders, including heumatism and diseases of the skin and blood Contains inflammation-fighting
compounds; has helped ease
arthritis, Crohn’s disease and
other inflammatory disorders
in studies
Several species of boswellia are used as remedies; one of the most common is B. serrata

Cinnamon
(Cinnamomum verum, C. cassia)

Used as an expectorant in cases of cold or flu and as a gargle for sore throat; also used for digestive complaints May improve both insulin sensitivity and the body’s ability to use glucose, or blood sugar European demand during the Middle Ages helped spur expansion of the
intercontinental spice trade
Coleus
(C. forskohlii)
Used in ancient India to treat heart problems as well as
insomnia and spasms
Helps promote development of lean body mass and increase metabolic rate; may help lower blood pressure as well Other members of the coleus family are valued by gardeners for their colorful leaves
Fenugreek
(Trigonella
foenumgraeceum)
Used to build strength during
convalescence; helps ease
digestive complaints; paste
used externally for sores
Has shown an ability to lower
both glucose and cholesterol
levels; still widely used to spur
milk flow in nursing mothers
Contributes a subtle
bittersweet flavor note to curry powder
Ginger
(Zingiber officinale)
Long used to help relieve
nausea of all kinds; Ayurveda
considers it to be a “universal
medicine”
Traditional use as anti-nausea
agent supported by modern
studies; has also shown
anti-inflammatory effects
Pickled ginger is generally
served with sushi to cleanse
the palate between bites
Gymnema
(G. sylvestre)
Used to treat asthma, diabetes, eye disorders and inflammation
Contains substances that delay absorption of sugar within the
intestines, which helps lower
blood glucose levels
Known as “destroyer of sugar” because chewing its leaves suppresses the ability to taste sweetness
Turmeric
(Curcuma longa)
A main ingredient in curry powder; used in Ayurveda to strengthen digestion and purify the blood Contains curcumin, which fights inflammation; shows promise as a preventative agent for Alzheimer’s and several types of cancer Curcumin is available in
supplemental form

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