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  » Alternative Medicine  »  Ayurveda

What is Ayurveda?

Considered by many scholars to be the oldest healing science, Ayurveda is a holistic approach to health that is designed to help people live long, healthy, and well-balanced lives. Ayurveda, taken from the Sanskrit words ayus, meaning life or lifespan, and veda, meaning knowledge, originated in India about 5,000 years ago and is still being practiced around the world today. The basic principle of Ayurveda is to prevent illness by maintaining balance in the body, mind, and consciousness through proper drinking, diet, and lifestyle, as well as herbal remedies.

How does it work?

Just as everyone has a unique thumbprint, according to Ayurvedic thought, each person has a distinct pattern of energy—a specific combination of physical, mental, and emotional characteristics. It is also believed that there are three basic types of energy, or dosha, present in every person:

  • Vata—energy associated with movement. It controls functions like blood circulation, breathing, blinking, and the beating of the heart. When vata energy is balanced, there is creativity and flexibility. Out of balance, vata produces fear and anxiety.
  • Pitta—energy associated with the body's metabolic system. It governs digestion, absorption, nutrition, and body temperature. In balance, pitta promotes understanding and intelligence. Out of balance, pitta can cause ulcers and arouse anger.
  • Kapha—energy that forms the body's structure (the bones and muscles). It supplies water to all body parts, moisturizes the skin, and maintains the immune system. In balance, kapha is expressed as love and forgiveness. Out of balance, kapha leads to greed and envy.

All people have vata, pitta, and kapha, but usually one is dominant. This is due to the many factors that disturb the dosha balance—for example, stress, an unhealthy diet, the weather, and strained family relationships.

What should I expect from an Ayurvedic treatment?

Ayurvedic treatment focuses on rebalancing the doshas. On your first visit, the practitioner will take your pulse, observe your tongue, eyes, and physical form, and listen to the tone of your voice. He or she will also ask you questions about your general state of health. Based on this assessment, he or she will then make recommendations on how to restore your natural dosha balance. Practitioners draw from more than 20 types of treatment, but the most commonly prescribed include:

  • Pranayama—breathing exercises. Practicing pranayama generates feelings of calmness.
  • Abhyanga—the practice of rubbing the skin with oil (usually sesame oil) to increase blood circulation and draw toxins out of the body through the skin.
  • Rasayana—the use of mantras (repeated words or phrases) during meditation combined with specific herbs; often prescribed to rejuvenate a person.
  • Yoga—a combination of pranayama, movement, and meditation. Has been shown to improve circulation and digestion, and to reduce blood pressure, cholesterol levels, anxiety, and chronic pain.
  • Panchakarma—a cleansing therapy. Patients are urged to sweat, have bowel movements, and even vomit in an effort to cleanse the body of toxins. Has been shown to reduce cholesterol.
  • Herbal medicines—prescribed to restore dosha balance. For example, an active ingredient in Bishop's weed fruit (Ammi visnaga), called khellin, can be used to treat asthma.

What conditions respond well to Ayurveda?

The goal of Ayurvedic medicine is to prevent diseases before they occur; however, Ayurveda may be successful at treating some functional disorders, like irritable bowel syndrome and poor digestion. Ayurvedic exercises, like yoga and meditation, have been shown to relieve tension and stress.

Is there anything I should look out for?

Most Ayurvedic therapies, such as pranayama and rasayana, are unlikely to have adverse side effects. Yoga is a gentle therapy but you should avoid it if you've had a recent back injury; also check with your doctor first if you have high blood pressure, heart disease, or arthritis. You should consult a physician before trying Ayurvedic diets and herbs, especially if you follow dietary restrictions to manage a serious condition like diabetes or heart disease.

How can I find a qualified practitioner?

For a list of qualified practitioners of Ayurvedic medicine in your area, contact the National Institute of Ayurvedic Medicine (NIAM) by calling 914-278-8700, by emailing niam@niam.com, or by visiting their Web site at www.niam.com.

How much does a treatment cost?

Treatment costs will vary depending upon what treatments you need and what services you receive. However, an Ayurvedic specialist with a degree in medicine will likely charge between $200 and $300 for the first visit and $125 to $150 for follow-up visits.

Will my medical insurance cover Ayurvedic treatments?

Insurance providers will generally reimburse Ayurvedic treatment costs if a person receives care from an Ayurvedic specialist who is also a licensed medical practitioner.

Supporting Research

Halpern M. Ayurveda. In: Novey DW, ed. Clinician's Complete Reference to Complementary and Alternative Medicine. St. Louis, Mo: Mosby; 2000:246-257.

Lad V. Ayurveda: The Science of Self-Healing. Santa Fe, NM: Lotus Press; 1984:70-79, 101.

National Institute of Ayurvedic Medicine: Current Research. Accessed on June 30, 2000 at www.niam.com/corp-web/current.htm.

Pandit S, Biswas TK, Debnath PK, et al. Chemical and pharmacological evaluation of different ayurvedic preparations of iron. J Ethnopharmacol. 1999;65(2):149-156.

Sharma HM. Maharishi Ayurveda. In: Micozzi MS, ed. Fundamentals of Complementary a€d Alternative Medicine. New York, NY: Churchill Livingstone Inc.; 1996:243-257.

Zysk KG. Traditional Ayurveda. In: Micozzi MS, ed. Fundamentals of Complementary and Alternative Medicine. New York, NY: Churchill Livingstone Inc.; 1996:233-242.