Yes, it’s true, when I tell people that I am an Ayurvedic practitioner, the most common response is, “A what? What is that?” So I thought I’d tell you a little bit about one of the world’s oldest medical systems—Ayurveda.
The science of Ayurveda was born in India, a few millennia ago—long before modern medicine developed–and is informed by a robust reliance on observational science. It consists of a sophisticated and complete body of knowledge focused on eight clinical specialties: internal medicine (Kayachikitsa), surgery (Salya Tantra), diseases of eye, ear, nose, and throat (Salakya), pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology (Kaumarabhtrya), psychiatry (Bhutavidya), toxicology (Agada Tantra), nutrition, rejuvenation and geriatrics (Rasayana Tantra) and sexology (Vajikarana). This body of knowledge is largely contained in medical encyclopedias—the earliest existing text, written around 600 BCE, the Caraka Samhita, is said to be a revised edition of an encyclopedia compiled by Agnivesa, implying that at the time of its writing, the Caraka Samhita was based on an already fully developed medical system. This system was developed over the centuries using the principles of observational science: direct perception (Pratyaksa), logical inference (Anumana), testimony (Aptopadesa) and experimental evidence (Yukti).
The major difference between Ayurveda and modern medicine is that, in Ayurveda, people are viewed holistically—as a part of the larger universe and in constant relationship with it, rather than as the sum of their symptoms or lack thereof. Mind, body and spirit are viewed as interrelated parts of a continuous whole that includes the surrounding environment. Consequently, a large part of Ayurvedic medicine is focused on maintaining and, when necessary, restoring harmony between the totality of ourselves and the universe of which we are a part. When we fall out of harmony with our environment, or our own true nature for that matter, disease can occur because equilibrium, or homeostasis, is lost. The main principle of treatment, then, becomes to restore balance in our body, mind and spirit so that we can once again be in harmony with the larger universe.
Underlying this is a firm commitment to prevention—it is best to remain in balance and stay there! We can do this by honoring the unique combination of five elements–ether, air, fire, water and earth—that make up our body, mind and spirit. This is known as our constitution, or Prakriti, which was imprinted on each of us at the time of conception and which determines our physique, personality and psyche. Determining the characteristics of an individual’s Prakriti is of primary importance in Ayurvedic medicine so that proper diet and lifestyle can be determined, because foods and lifestyle practices exert differing effects on each of the elements. To maintain balance and harmony, we must eat and live in accordance with what is balancing to our Prakriti.
Combinations of the elements form everything in the universe, but in living creatures the elements associate with one another in three ensembles or Doshas: ether and air combine to form Vata Dosha, fire and water combine to form Pitta Dosha and water and earth combine to form Kapha Dosha. When in balance, the Doshas work in cooperation with one another to maintain our biological function with each Dosha governing a major area of biology. The Doshas dynamically interact with one another and with the environment—each has its natural rhythm of accumulation and subsidence. When this rhythm is disturbed by disharmony, particularly through improper diet and lifestyle, the Doshas within us become imbalanced and can lead to a state of disease if not attended to with balancing foods and practices.
Thus, at the first sign of imbalance, Ayurveda recommends remediary steps. It stresses early detection and timely therapeutic action to restore balance. This is accomplished by using the overarching principles of Samanya and Visesa—essentially: like increases like and opposites decrease or oppose one another.