The word Ayurveda means the science of life, and is believed to be the oldest healing tradition in the world, passed down thru generations from its inception thousands of years ago until today (Jayasundar, 2010). In Sanskrit, the language used in Ayurveda, ayu means life, and veda means science or knowledge (Patwardhan, 2014). Ayurveda is a holistic methodology that seeks to understand all the circumstances affecting the individual to develop a treatment that will not just treat the disease, but also bring an overall state of balance (Jayasundar, 2010; Pizzorno & Murray, 2013). There are eight specialties or branches in Ayurveda:
- General Surgery (Shalya Tantra)
- Ophthalmology and Otorhinolaryngology (Shalkya)
- Medicine (Kaya Chikitsa)
- Psychiatry (Bhutvidya)
- Pediatrics, Obstetrics, Gynecology (Kumar-Bhritya)
- Toxicology and Jurisprudence (Agada Tantra)
- Geriatrics (Rasayana)
- Fertility and Sterility (Vajikaran)
Prakruti, or the body type, constitution, or nature of an individual is central to Ayurveda (Patwardhan, 2014). Ayurveda looks at the individual as a whole person, and tailors its diagnostic and treatment approach to the patient’s unique prakruti (Patwardhan, 2014). It considers the patient’s age, climate, lifestyle, location, mental condition, occupation, physical condition, and season, among others (Jayasundar, 2010). Ayurveda evaluates the interrelationship between the details of life and the larger scope of nature (Patwardhan, 2014). It incorporates five elements in nature or mahabhootas (air, earth, ether, fire, and water), three humors or doshas in the body (vata, pitta, and kapha), seven tissues or dhatus in each being, and three resulting excretions or malas (Patwardhan, 2014; Pizzorno & Murray, 2013).
The three doshas, or tridoshas, are dynamic principles central to diagnosing and treatment. Vata is movement and is represented in the air principle, pitta is transformation and is represented in the fire principle, and kapha is support and growth and is represented in the water principle (Jayasundar, 2010; Pizzorno & Murray, 2013). Each dosha represents different features, functions, and regions in the body. Vata is “dryness, lightness, weightlessness, coldness, roughness, minuteness, and movement; pitta refers to parameters like slight unctuousness, penetrating, heat producing, lightness, bad smell, causing movement and liquidity; [and] kapha indicates unctuousness, producing coldness, heavy, sluggish, smoothness, shining, firm/static” (Jayasundar, 2010, p. 910). The tridoshas are not hierarchical, and ideally exist in a balance in the body. When the three doshas are in balance, the body is in homeostasis. When the doshas are not in balance, disease occurs and treatment is focused on bringing balance.
Prakruti plays a role in treatment, which is tailored to the individual (Patwardhan, 2014). Prakruti involves identifying the person’s unique combination of doshas, and treatment is holistic, incorporating breathing exercises, detoxification techniques, diet, herbal remedies, lifestyle, massage therapy, medicinal treatments, meditation, mental activities, mineral remedies, physical activities, purification techniques, surgical techniques, and yoga (Gale, 2014; Jayasundar, 2010; Pizzorno & Murray, 2013). Treatments do not usually have side effects because they are judiciously selected. Ayurveda imparts healing responsibility on the patient by giving them control of implementing and maintaining changes to their activities, diet, and lifestyle (Jayasundar, 2010).
Ayurveda originated in the Indian subcontinent 3,000 to 5,000 years ago (Gale, 2014). The exact date is hard to identify, but scholars have traced Ayurvedic literature as far back as 6,000 B.C. (Pizzorno & Murray, 2013). Its origins were traced to the Vedas, which are “the oldest surviving written literature in the world” (Gale, 2014, p. 213). Vedas cover an array of subjects (Jayasundar, 2010). Some of the vedic books Ayurveda originates from are Charaka Samhita, Sushruta Samhita, Ashtanga Hridaya of Vagbhata, and Madhav Nidan, which collectively contain descriptions of over 700 herbs, over 6,000 formulations, and over 5,000 signs and symptoms (Patwardhan, 2014).
Ayurveda was originally created “as a system of living harmoniously and maintaining the body so that mental and spiritual awareness could be possible” (Gale, 2014, p. 213). Ayurveda was commonly used in India since before British colonial times, making the Indian subcontinent one of the most health literate in ancient times. Unfortunately, the British banned widespread practice of Ayurveda in the early 1800s, and almost swept it off the map. It regained popularity in India and around the world as people sought alternatives to allopathic medicine (Jayasundar, 2010).
Ayurveda is widely used in India, and in the early 2000s an estimated 80% of the Indian population used Ayurvedic treatments (Gale, 2014). It is practiced in Germany, Hungary, Italy, Switzerland, and the United States (US), among others (Patwardhan, 2014). In the US, Deepak Chopra and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi helped spread awareness and use of Ayurveda in the 1980s and 1990s (Gale, 2014). Ayurvedic medical centers can be found around the world. Also, Ayurvedic inspired treatments and services are offered in spas and healing and wellness centers.
Gale (2014). The Gale Encyclopedia of Alternative Medicine, (4th Ed). Farmington Hilla, MI: Gale Cengage Learning.
Jayasundar, R. (2010). Ayurveda: a distinctive approach to health and disease. Current Science, 98(7), 908-914.
Patwardhan, B. (2014). Bridging Ayurveda with evidence-based scientific approaches in medicine. The EPMA Journal 5(1), 19-25. doi:10.1186/1878-5085-5-19.
Pizzorno, J. E. & Murray, M. T. (2013). Textbook of Natural Medicine (4th ed.). St. Louis, MO: Churchill Livingstone.