What is Ayurveda?

A Beginner’s Guide

Literally meaning “The Science of Life”, Ayurveda is one of the oldest and most intactly preserved systems of medicine in the World, that originated sometime around 5,000 to 3,000 years ago in India, as per various historians. It makes use of various treatment modalities like herbal / mineral medicinal preparations, therapeutic detox procedures (called Panchakarma), moxibustions, exercise, dietary and lifestyle modifications, amongst others to attain 2 types of broad objectives –

1. How to cure those who are ill, and

2. How to maintain those who are in good health.

Basic Concepts

1. The Three Doshas

Ayurvedic system of medicine implements a very abstract model of human physiology that sees the body as a network of tissues connected by interdependent functions, and classifies all our bodily functions into three broad categories, called the Doshas – namely Vaata, Pitta and Kapha. Every person has a unique relative dominance amongst the three Doshas over each other by birth, which gives rise to their unique Prakriti, or Constitution. So if you have strong dominance of Vaata and Pitta characteristics in your body by birth, you have a Vaata-Pitta type Prakriti, and so on. The particular characteristics of the 3 Doshas can make a separate technical article, but we’ll explain in brief here in terms of the physical manifestations they create.

Vaata –

Is associated with functions that cause dryness, atrophy, coldness, separation, dispersion and mobilisation of body tissue. Hence, the physical manifestation in Prakriti are –

Typically thin, talkative, active people with dry and wrinkled skin who tend to multitask too much and not concentrate on or remember a single thing for long periods in one go. They are creative, enthusiastic people, but gain and loose enthusiasm very quickly, often giving up on things mid-way at slightest incidence of obstacles/difficulties. They catch cold fast and so, love warm weather, food and clothes. Vaata people typically have dry, weak hair with often suffering from hair fall or split ends; and a hoarse/meek voice with fast speech. Their arm and legs joints are generally long, skinny, with clanky joints prone to various disorders in old age.

384px-Abraham_Lincoln_O-55,_1861-crop
Abraham Lincoln: Your typical Vaata body type.

Pitta –

Is associated with functions that cause humifaction, purgation, heat release, dystrophy, fluidity and secretions in body tissue. Hence, the physical manifestation in Prakriti are –

Typically medium-built, smart, rosy-cheeked fair people with a soft but firm voice, frequently having curly/blond/red hair, who are good debaters and probably short tempered. They have a very low tolerance for heat and sun, and sweat/redden profusely upon exposure, with even a bad body odour some times. Pitta people simply love anything that is chilled and sweet smelling / tasting. They are typically showmen who thrill people with their eloquence and wit, but will probably avoid any kind of hardships or labourous tasks unless obliged.

Tom_Cruise_avp_2014_4
Tom Cruise: Your typical Pitta physique guy

Kapha –

Is associated with functions that cause lubrication, coldness, anabolism, cohesion, adhesion, smoothening and fortification of body tissue. Hence, the physical manifestation in Prakriti are –

Typically heavily built, calm but strong people who have great stamina, endurance and memory, but don’t tend to use either unless obliged to, being chronic procrastinators. They have a characteristic deep and clear voice, glowy skin and smooth straight hair. They can withstand all kinds of weather well, but generally prefer warm surroundings. These people have a higher than usual love for food and sleep, and are slow but steady in all activities and reactions. They won’t make a friend/enemy quickly, but won’t forget either quickly too, once they make one.

425px-Vin_Diesel_by_Gage_Skidmore_2
Vin Diesel: Your typical Kapha guy (Image Attribution: Gage Skidmore)

2. Health and Illness as functions of Doshas

A person’s Prakriti is always a combination of all three Doshas in varying proportions. External factors like food, medicine, weather, trauma etc. and internal factors like age, state of hydration/wakefulness, exercise etc. affect the Dosha equilibrium in the body.

When all three Doshas exist in their normal proportions in a person’s body, he is said to be in good health. When one or more Doshas get disturbed from their normal state, the equilibrium gets disturbed leading to illness. The purpose of all Ayurvedic treatment is to bring the Doshas back to their natural state of equilibrium, so that good health is restored.

It follows naturally, that in order to repair or maintain yourselves to good health in the ever changing tides of time and life, one must first assess and know one’s natural unique Prakriti with its Dosha proportions. Although this should ideally be done by a qualified doctor, it can be done by taking any of the numerous Dosha quizzes and questionnaires available online nowadays, if you only want to use Ayurveda for preventive purposes and not serious medical treatment of illness. Once you know your Prakriti and dominant Doshas, you are all set to select and apply the dietary and lifestyle interventions required for your unique persona. We strongly recommend doing this beforehand in order to enjoy the Dr. Herbz blog to the fullest benefit. We will be adding our own Dosha quiz on this website soon, but till then readers can use any of the many ones available freely on the internet.

3. Types of Treatments in Ayurveda –

In Ayurveda, treaments are divided into 2 broad classes –

1) Shodhana –

Popularly known as ‘Detox’ in the West, these are therapeutic / para-surgical procedures aimed at physically expelling the products of excessive accumulated Doshas from the body’s systems in order to restore equilibrium. Five such major therapies (called ‘PanchKarma’, or ‘The Five Procedures’) are mainly performed in Ayurveda, alongwith a number of other ancillary or minor procedures (called ‘UpaKarma’ or ‘ Subordinate Procedures’).

The Panchkarma are –

1) Vamana – therapeutically induced controlled emesis.

2) Virechana – therapeutically induced controlled purgation.

3) BastiKarma – therapeutic enemae.

4) Nasya – Filling nasal cavity and sinuses with various liquid or powder medications.

5) Raktamokshana – Blood letting by various ways and means.

The Upakarmas include –

1) Ksharkarma – Painless cauterization of outgrowths using alkalis.

2) Agnikarma – Controlled cauterization of deformities with heated metal.

3) Lepana – various medicinal poultices and facials etc. for skin conditoins.

4) Kaval / Gandoosh – Medical oil pulling for oral and ENT conditions.

5) Karnapurana – filling the external ear with medicated liquids.

Etc.

More details about these therapies can be read on this page.

2) Shamana –

No, this has nothing to do with Shamanism to start with, and the same name is just a coincidence. In Ayurveda, ‘Shamana’ means “in-place alleviation of the aggrievated Dosha products” as opposed to forced expulsion as done in Shodhana. Most oral medicines, some special types of Nasya and Basti etc. fall in this category. So for example, in a severe cold, if you blow out all the accumulated mucus and phlegm along with an induced emesis, it is shodhana; but when you take herbs which dry away all the mucus secretions, it is shamana that you are doing.

Shamana medicines are again of two types –

1) Herbal (including mono- and polyherbal formulations) and

2) Mineral based or mineralo-herbal medicines.

Mostly only the first type (herbal medications) are used in practice today, as the second type is not approved anymore by regulators in a number of countries.

3. How Herbal medicines are made and used –

Each substance used as medicine or food is described phermacologically in Ayurveda in terms of the positive or negative effects it has on each Dosha. Substances are also described as per their specific pharmacological actions like ‘anti-inflammatory’, ‘anti-pyretic’, ‘carminative’, ‘digestive’ etc., or defined as ‘Yogavaahi’ or ‘Anupaana’, that is, bio-enhancers or carriers etc. Separate Ayurvedic dictionaries called ‘Nighantus’ contain descriptions of thousands of naturally occuring and synthetic substances / formulations in such terms, which are applied in a personalized manner by the trained doctors. In addition, there is a huge separate faculty of Ayurvedic pharmacy, in which thousands of polyherbal formulations are created having complex actions, using various methods and in various forms like syrups, decoctions, tintures, medicated oils, powders, pills, jellies, extracts, roasts etc. or combinations of multiple of these.

Introduction to some advanced concepts –

Think all this is too simple, and you’ve already gained a good grasp of it? Well this just the tip of the iceberg that is Ayurveda, the bare essentials you need to know in order to get started. Advanced concepts include –

  • Localized and structural sub-classification of Doshas, their natural and pathological interdependence and dynamics.
  • Srotas, or pathways through which metabolites, wastes and Doshas products circulate in the body; their anatomy, physiology and pathology.
  • Aetio-pathology of various diseases in terms of Dosha imbalances and their localization in specific organs or Srotases.
  • A distinct and specialized Tri-Dosha model for mental health and its treatment.
  • A universal model similar to the two Tri-Dosha models, consisting of five Mahabhootas or physical entities of Cohesion, Fluidity, Energy, Force and Space as the building blocks of the body and mind, represented as Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Ether respectively.
  • Medicines being classified further by their immediate/localised actions (Rasa), metabolic effect (Veerya), late-onset/systemic actions (Vipak), general characteristics (Gunas) and exceptional characteristics (Prabhaav).
  • Study of improperly evolved metabolites (Aama), their pathology and treatment.
  • Study of the natural periodic cycles of Dosha activity, and their relationship with external environmental factors like weather, time, social activity etc.
  • Dosha-based universal treatment guidelines using which even hitherto undescribed health conditions can be tackled.

 …and a lot more interesting nerd stuff.

Elaborating on these would require effort that is beyond the scope of this primer, but we will keep covering bits and bytes of such topics in our blog posts every now and then. So do subscribe and keep reading the Dr. Herbz blog if you would like to know more about Ayurveda and how to apply it beneficially to your daily life in health as well as illness.

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