Ayurveda - the basics

Ayurveda can complement other approaches to health and wellness. By Karen Thursby

Ayurveda, Doshas, Vata, Pitta, Kapha may all be terms you have heard in a yoga environment and wondered what it is all about. Here is an overview from a newbie’s point of view. It is widely accepted that prevention is better than cure and this is where one of the main strengths of an Ayurvedic approach to wellbeing, physical and mental good health, lie. The approach is tailored, recognising the unique make up of each individual.

Brief history
From the Sanskrit (Ayur, meaning ‘life’ and veda, meaning ‘knowledge/science’) it is often translated as ‘The Knowledge of Life’ or ‘The Science of Life’. Developed an estimated three to five thousand years ago on the Indian subcontinent (although it is likely that similar systems were in practice all over the world in response to the need for good health), Ayurvedic medicine is now one of the most well-known and best documented currently practiced approaches to wellbeing.

What is Ayurveda?
Ayurveda is a holistic approach that views the body and mind as a whole with an emphasis on the prevention and treatment of illness - perhaps better described in this context as ‘dis-ease’ - through lifestyle practices, particularly dietary, but also massage, meditation, and yoga.

The concept of dis-ease incorporating that stage where traditional ‘Western’ medicine would not pick up a fully developed and recognisable illness. You will probably have had times when things are just not right but can’t pin it down: things just feel out of balance.

Basic principles of Ayurveda
With its roots in the ancient Vedic texts, Ayurveda is based on the five basic elements recognised at the time as Space, Air, Fire, Water and Earth, manifesting in the body as the ‘Doshas’. The Sanskrit dosa distilled down means ‘fault’ so here it is used to indicate those things that are capable of causing disease and, again, Sanskrit terms are used for the Doshas because they encompass far more than a simple direct translation can convey.

The Doshas represent three basic types of energy present in everybody and each person has an optimal balance where it is likely one is more dominant than the others and one may be the least prominent.

Ayurveda works to address stimuli that affects and takes these energies out of balance, creating dis-ease, and can also use the energies to enable the removal of toxins that also create illness.

Vata is the energy of movement, representing the elements Space and Air. This leads all the other Doshas, even when it is not the primary ‘energy’ for that individual, so it is essential for good health to keep this in balance.

Routine is key when addressing lifestyle considerations to help stabilise, effectively grounding, too much movement of this energy.

Pitta is the energy of digestion or metabolism, representing Fire and Water. When this energy is dominant the person can benefit from changes to diet and lifestyle that are cooling.

Kapha is the energy of lubrication and structure, representing Earth and Water. Those people who have this energy as dominant benefit from keeping active and are advised to keep the mind stimulated too.

How Ayurveda seeks to find balance
Diet, exercise, meditation, yoga and other lifestyle choices, along with herbal preparations and other beneficial ayurvedic treatments/cleansing actions are the main methods used to seek balance. The aim is to reduce stresses on all the bodies systems, not just the physiological, so that its natural defences can work at their optimal levels. Depending on your needs at any particular time Ayurvedic advice might be to look for cooling or heating activities and foods or more advice on how a particular routine and activities will support you with your specific individual needs.

For the cynics
Some try to dismiss the whole Ayurveda approach because of the use of arsenic and other pathogens. The criticisms are aimed to appeal to be dramatic and illicit emotional responses of shock and horror. Strange when it is common practice for people with as little as a two-hour training course (if that) to inject Botox (a known poison) into perfectly healthy (or not) people so that they feel better about how they look. Botox is also used in regular Western medicine as treatments for particular conditions. Perhaps it is less well known that substances such as arsenic trioxide are used in cancer treatments, speeding up the death of leukaemic cells.

The use of Ayurvedic herbal remedies incorporates well-established methods that in knowledgeable hands can be very effective. The current movement towards ‘social prescribing’ recognises the value of an Ayurvedic approach so that it is not just the physical symptoms being addressed, providing a complementary system to work both preventatively and over the long-term.

Ayurveda is basically a different theoretical perspective on how to approach and manage wellbeing. A framework is not necessarily (and often isn’t) a literal explanation of a situation but a method of understanding and addressing issues. Ayurveda offers a framework that encompasses the whole person, recognising the power and strength of the mind in wellbeing as well as prioritising the need for help to be tailored more closely to the individual and working for long-term good health. It could be what you’re looking for.

Karen Thursby is BWY Treasurer (bwy.org.uk)

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