Ayurveda is a Sanskrit term that translates to “Science (veda) of Life (ayur)”. It is an ancient medical practice, drawn from two thousand year old texts that in turn contain thousands of years’ worth of knowledge passed down through word of mouth.
As the term “science of life” implies, ayurvedic practices focus not only on treatment of the physical, but the spiritual as well. Its practitioners believe that all life forms share a connection with each other and the universe itself, and this connection is as fundamental to their health as their prakriti (constitution).
Ayurveda practices are designed to treat the body, mind and spirit, utilizing treatments such as herbal remedies, meditation and massage, many of which have proven health benefits.
The eight branches of ayurvedic medicine
Thousands of years before contemporary medicine, Ayurvedic texts had split the practice of medicine into specialized disciplines, each focused on a specific aspect of the body or mind.
According to Vaidyapriyanka.com, the 8 branches of Ayurvedic science are:
- Kaya-chikitsa (general medicine): Treatment of diseases that affect the body
- Kaumara–Bhrtya (paediatrics): Treatment of children
- Shalya–Chikitsa (surgery): Removal of substances that have entered the body
- Salakya–Tantra (ophthalmology): Treatment of the eyes and ears. One text from the first millennium A.D. even describes the removal of a cataract.
- Bhuta–Vidya (exorcism/psychiatry): Treatment of mental illness. Though ancient practitioners attributed these illnesses to demonic influence, modern practitioners view them as being the product of past experiences.
- Agada-Tantra(toxicology): Treatment of poison
- Rasayana-Tantra(elixirs): Focuses on preventing rather than curing illness, through emphasis on a healthy lifestyle and diet.
- Vrishya Chikitsa (aphrodisiacs): Treatments that, as the name suggests are designed to ensure virility and fertility.
The five elements
Ayurvedic practices are based on the belief that the human body is governed by interaction between three energy types, known as “Dosha” (life-force), and these energies are in turn governed by interaction between the five elements that form the foundation of life: Water, air, fire, earth and ether (the material of which the heavens, or upper regions of space, are composed).
The three doshas each contain two out of the five elements. They are constantly moving within the body, which is essential to healthy bodily functions. If there is too much or too little movement of a specific dosha, the physical and psychological processes governed by it will experience disruption, the severity of which will be determined by the level of imbalance.
Both physical and emotional factors can cause imbalance in the doshas, each of which is especially vulnerable to certain foods, negative emotions and unhealthy behaviors.
The three doshas are:
- Vata dosha, composed of ether and air
- Pitta dosha, composed of fire and water
- Kapha dosha, composed of water and earth
It’s believed that in each individual, one of the three doshas will be stronger than the other two, and this will play a role in shaping their personality and physical characteristics. The effects can be positive or negative, depending on whether or not the dosha is out of balance.
For example, people with vata dosha as their primary energy are blessed with increased enthusiasm and creativity, but if the dosha grows too strong, the energy turns against them, making them more vulnerable to conditions such as anxiety, insomnia and skin disease.
The dominant dosha of a patient is one of the primary factors that ayurvedic practitioners take into account when determining treatment programs.
Combining ancient wisdom with modern science
Ayurvedic medicine has its roots in Ancient India, and, according to Nccam.nih.gov, at least 80% of India’s population still practice it exclusively, or use its methods as a complement to western medicine.
In the United States it is classified as a complementary and alternative medicine (CAM). The 2007 National Health Interview Survey found that over 200,000 Americans had made use of Ayurvedic practices in the previous year.
Like Chinese medicine and homeopathy, Ayurvedic medicine is classified as a complete medical system with its own theories, philosophies and practices, many of which can be used alongside conventional medical practices without having to adopt the entire ayurvedic system.
In the end, the best approach is to find the right balance: The very idea that is fundamental to the practice of Ayurvedic medicine.
Matthew Flax writes about ayurvedic practices and the importance of maintaining balance between mind, body and spirit. Because, as Jedi Master Yoda told his young pupil Luke Skywalker: “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter”.