What is it?
The Indian belief system that’s gaining popularity in the West. The best known form of traditional Indian medicine is Ayurveda (from ayus, meaning ‘life’ and veda, meaning ‘knowledge’).
Ayurvedic medicine is said to have originated from the ancient Hindu sacred texts the Vedas, but these actually contain few medical references. Modern scholars believe it evolved, gradually absorbing influences from Buddhism and other traditions along the way.
The basis of Ayurveda is contained in two great medical compendiums written by Charaka and Sushruta more than 2,000 years ago. These texts cover a vast array of topics including pathology, diagnosis, treatment, surgery, lifestyle advice and philosophy. Legend has it that Charaka’s compendium contains teachings passed down from the Hindu god Indra. Copies of these texts, written in Sanskrit on palm leaves, survive today and form the basis of Ayurvedic training.
Other notable Indian medical traditions include the Unani tibb tradition of Islam and the siddha tradition of the Tamils.
Concepts of the body
The body is seen as a microcosmic universe in which the five great primordial elements (panchamahabhutas) – ether (akasha), air (vayu), fire (agni), water (jala) and earth (prithvi) – combine to form three humours (doshas), known as wind (vata), choler (pitta) and phlegm (kapha).
Each dosha has its own qualities and functions in relation to the body. The balance between these doshas determines individual constitution (prakriti) and predisposition to disease. Constitution is also affected by the strength of a person’s ‘digestive fire’ (agni) and bowel function (kostha).
Seven tissues (dhatus) and their waste products (malas) make up the physical body and a network of channels circulate fluids and essences around the body. Three interdependent universal constituents, the three gunas – purity (sattva), activity (rajas) and solidity (tamas) – also influence health and determine mental qualities.
Disease occurs if lifestyle, mental or external factors cause an imbalance in one or more of these components.
Typically, an eight-fold examination (astavidha pariksha) is used to determine the balance of the three doshas. This involves examination of pulse (nadi), tongue (jihva), voice (sabda), skin (sparsa), vision (drka), general appearance (akrti), urine (mutra) and stools (mala).
The pulse is taken on the radial artery and overall pulse quality is noted. A vata pulse is fast and slippery, a pitta pulse is jumpy and a kapha pulse is slow and steady. In tongue diagnosis the general appearance, colour and coating of the tongue is noted. Vata tongues are dry, rough and cracked; pitta tongues are red with oily, yellow coating; and kapha tongues are swollen and moist with greasy, white coating.
Similar signs of dosha imbalance are looked for in the other types of examination and combined with information about the person’s constitution, age, body type and so on to determine the best treatment. Astrological charts may be used to determine the role of karma or spirits.
Treatment aims to restore the balance of the doshas. Herbal medicines are combined with massage and manipulation, dietary and lifestyle advice and yoga exercises. There are also five panchakarma purification techniques used for cleansing and detoxifying the body.
What’s it good for?
Ayurveda is growing rapidly in popularity in the West, but most Ayurvedic research has been carried out in India. Studies have shown it to be effective for many disorders including digestive, skin and gynaecological problems. Panchakarma techniques are said to be particularly effective for nasal congestion, sluggish digestion and stress.
Finding a practitioner
There is no single organisation covering Ayurvedic practitioners in the UK or any regulation of Ayurvedic herbal remedies. Some herbal constituents can cause liver or kidney problems, so careful supervision by a reputable practitioner is necessary.
This article was last medically reviewed by Dr Stephen Hopwood in April 2009.
First published in October 2002.