Second world Ayurvedic congress has wrapped up on November 12th this year. Ayurveda brings to the west a newer and more holistic approach to health care. Where the conventional medicine has failed in treating chronic, stress induced illnesses, a 5000 year-old Indian medicine brings profound knowledge along with dramatic results. As soon as the patient is treated as a whole, not a sum of its parts, and made accountable for his/her overall well being, a true healing is under way. Continuing with the conventional methods, our western world knows only how to cure, but doesn’t know how to live a healthy life.I am exhilarated! The world’s second Ayurvedic Congress in Pune, India just finished on November 12th. Over 300,000 people from all over the world have attended. Over a quarter of a million people attended the previous congress in 2002. I have chills running down my spine at the very thought of it. Slowly but surely the world is moving to recognizing and accepting a true meaning of health.
Ayurveda is a 5000 year-old practice of ancient East Indian medicine. This amazing system includes more than 300,000 Indian doctors in the All Indian Ayurvedic Congress. It is the largest medical organizations in the world (Douillard, 2004), yet at the same time it’s not very well known in the west. Because of a lack of understanding, it’s also often frowned upon by some.
In India, Pune particularly, one can earn a Bachelor on Science in Ayurvedic medicine and surgery after in five and a half years of study. The degree allows you to further your knowledge, and is truly the gateway to learning rather than a completion of a process. It’s the most fascinating field of medical science today because it truly takes the entire being as a whole rather than as a sum of it parts.
In my opinion, it’s not favored in the west as it is a life-long practice and involves life-long learning. It is very much the opposite of a western “quick fix”. A western physician, upon his/her graduation, has completed her/his studies and may opt to continue on the educational path to deepen the learning. In contrast, Ayurveda mandates a life-long devotion and commitment to understanding every individual human condition fully and with great respect. The patient takes entire responsibility for his/her well-being.
As a licensed practical nurse with five years experience in western nursing, I have worked in a variety of settings from trauma, to cardiology, from neurology to medicine and gerontology. One very common thread weaves through all my years of western experience which I will refer to as s ‘labeling symptom’. Western diagnosis is very much symptom-based; a label. In a process of developing a nursing diagnosis, utilizing a nursing process, a condition is described as evidence based on a symptom or a sign. The treatment is then based directly on the symptom or group of symptoms. The western medical approach is very militant – “patient not well as evidenced by elevated temperature, lab results show patient was attacked by the virus”. (Myss, 1996) Conventional medicine considers the patient a powerless victim that has suffered a terrible attack on their body. “The tissues were contaminated by a substance resulting in malignancy”. (Myss, 1996, p. 48)
In essence conventional medicine is geared to cure as Ayurveda is meant to heal, and therefore become a life long learning process.
Caroline Myss PhD, in her book Anatomy of the Spirit (1996), makes a great comparison of healing rather than curing: “Healing and curing are not the same thing. A “cure” occurs when one has successfully controlled or abated the physical progression of an illness. Curing a physical illness, however, does not necessarily mean that the emotional and psychological stresses that were a part of the illness were also alleviated. In this case, it is highly possible, and often probable, that an illness will recur. The process of curing is passive; that is, the patient is inclined to give his or her authority over to the physician and prescribed treatment instead of actively challenging the illness and reclaiming health. Healing, on the other hand, is an active and internal process that includes investigating one’s attitudes, memories, and beliefs with the desire to release all negative patterns that prevent one’s full emotional and spiritual recovery”. (p. 47-48)
Conscious and willing participation of the patient is taken directly into account in Ayurvedic medicine. Godagama (2004) states the following
Although in western medical society a patient has an access to a mental health professional, these two disciplines work separate from each other and unless a patient is declared ill with a psychosomatic illness the physical is treated completely separate from the psychological. (p. 12)
Ayurveda is a Sanskrit word derived from the root words: ayus, meaning life, and veda, knowledge. Knowledge arranged systematically with logic becomes a science. Therefore Ayurveda, over the centuries has become the science of life. It encompasses the entirety of human existence: the body, mind and spirit. (Douillard, 2004).
Dr. Vasant Lad (2004) defines Ayurveda as a simple, practical science of life whose principles are universally applicable to each individual’s daily existence. Ayurveda speaks to every element and facet of human life, offering guidance that has been tested and refined over many centuries to all those who seek greater harmony and peace and longevity. (p. 13)
Ayurveda concerns itself with five basic principles of ether, air, water, fire and earth. These five elements are present in everyone. The study of Ayurveda is a balance of these five elements in three sub-systems called “doshas”. The doshas are as follows; Vata (ether and air quality), Pitta (fire and water quality), and Kapha (earth and water quality). These tridoshas are responsible for the constitution of each person: his/her preference in foods, sleep patterns, physical appearance and all natural urges.
In a balanced state, all three doshas function equally well so optimal health is maintained. When an Ayurvedic doctor makes a dosha diagnosis (e.g. I am a Kapha/Vata), he/she is referring to the group of principles that are the quickest to come out of balance. Unlike the western medical world, Ayurveda begins the diagnosis process by determining who the individual suffering the disease is. The emphasis is placed on the constitution (prakruti) of the person and his/her biographical history that led her/him to develop an illness.
“Constitution” simply refers to the nature of the being. One is born with a constitution that innately remains the same through out one’s life, however due to interactions with the external environment; our prakruti may come out of balance. It is that lack of balance that Ayurveda refers to as doshas. From that perspective, the approach is fundamentally rooted in treating the cause of the illness rather than the symptoms presented. As the cause is abstracted, the person regains a balance in the doshas and is able to completely function again.
In Ayurveda the concept of health is fundamental to the understanding of disease. “Dis” means “deprived of”, “ease” means “comfort”. Consequently, an illness of the body indicates the body is in a state of dis-ease; in other words, uncomfortable.
“A state of health exists when: the digestive fire (agni governs metabolism) is in balance, the bodily humors (Vata-Pitta-Kapha) are in equilibrium, the three waste (malas) products (urine, feces and sweat) are produced at a normal levels and are in balance, the senses are functioning normally, and the body, mind, and consciousness are harmoniously working as one. When the balance of any of these systems is disturbed, the disease process begins”. (Lad, 2004, p. 37)
Different dosha types are prone to different diseases. The manifestation of a disease can be physical, mental or it may affect the consciousness; it might also be any of the three combinations.
In the diagnosing process, there are a number of ways to arrive at a conclusion. The process of diagnosis itself usually takes over an hour and includes a through interview with the patient. There are varied methods to diagnose a patient and a vast number of different combinations may be used to arrive at a correct prakruti. Some of the methods include (but are not limited to) iridology (reading the iris), examination of the pulse, tongue diagnosis, facial diagnosis, lip diagnosis and nail diagnosis. Each one of these diagnostic methods is quite complex and detailed; nonetheless, they allow the practitioner a greater possibility of accuracy.
In conventional medicine, this is called a General Appearance Assessment; but is not taken seriously and isn’t considered important. Greater importance is placed on the lab results and these also may not be accurate.
Diversities in the diagnostic approach in contemporary and Ayurvedic medicine are quite notable. The biggest difference, however, is in the treatment of the patient. As mentioned earlier, Ayurveda is primarily concerned with who the person experiencing the illness or disease is. There may be two people with a prakruti of Kapha dosha but each one will be treated much differently. Treatment in Ayurvedic medicine is geared toward a life-changing process. The philosophy states that in order to achieve and maintain a balance, a certain discipline must be maintained by the patient. In this approach, Ayurveda places responsibility on the patient, a greater and more challenging discipline than taking a pharmaceutical pill daily for seven to 10 days as often occurs with a patient receiving care under the western medical system.
Because diet plays a pivotal role in treatment, one should become familiar with what foods are balancing or unbalancing to his/her dosha type. Taste plays a major role in the diet selection.
“Ayurvedic pharmacology is based upon the concepts or rasa, virya and vipak. These concepts have to do with the subtle phenomena relating to taste and to hot and cold effects of foods. Organic and inorganic substances create different tastes and temperature sensations when they pass through the mouth, stomach, small intestine and large intestine.” (Lad (2004), p. 88)
Because each individual body interprets these tastes in a different way; what may work for one person as a healing food might not necessarily work for another. Increased awareness and understanding of the body is coupled with treatment of the body in a loving, kind way.
Yoga is also a fundamental prescription in Ayurvedic medicine. As a matter of fact, there are some dosha types who should not be doing certain asanas (poses) at all. In yoga, the physical movement of the body through a three-dimensional space changes the energetic pathways in a person’s body, thus improving or hindering internal balance.
As a nurse seeing and working in the world of western medicine, I see the benefits and advantages of both these medical approaches. As Godagama (2004) noticed
people in the west have become increasingly disillusioned with conventional medicine. Western medicine may be unbeatable for dealing with acute problems, for putting people back together after an accident, and for surgical interventions, but it may perversely be a victim of its own success. (p.21)
Development of a multi-billion dollar pharmaceutical business is one of the keys to the propagation of conventional medicine. People are becoming more and more aware of the staggering side effects of medications and their long-term effects. (Godagama, p. 21)
Perhaps next time you have a headache you might want to consider what caused it emotionally, how your general body is doing physically, where your stress level is, and as a last alternative take a bite of ginger root rather than a Tylenol.
Godagama, S. (2004). The Handbook of Ayurveda. California: North Atlantic Books.
Lad, V. (2004). Ayurveda The Science of Self Healing. Wyoming: Lotus Press.
Myss, C. (1996). Anatomy Of The Spirit. New York: Three Rivers Press.
Hankey, A., Patwardhan, B. (2006). Second World Ayurveda Congress. Oxford University Press.
Meeting report. Retrieved November 14 from ecam.oxfordjournals.org
World Ayurveda Congress (2006). http://www.ayurworld.org/
Douillard, J. (2004). Ayurveda – For Optimal Health and Well-Being. APBN. 8(23) Retrived
from www.asiabiotech.com October 6, 2006