ayurvedic medicine, massage

Massage is one of several treatments in ayurvedic medicine. (Photo: Poznyakov/Shutterstock)

Ayurvedic medicine was born in India 5,000 years ago and is considered to be the world's oldest healthcare system. Named for the Sanskrit word ayurveda, meaning the "science of life," the holistic practice is based on creating harmony between body, mind and spirit and maintaining that balance to prevent illness, treat conditions and contribute to overall good health.

“Ayurvedic medicine looks at you as a whole person. As a practitioner I talk to patients about sleeping, energy, bathroom habits, health, emotional well-being and how it’s all connected to the physical,” says Jessica Blanchard, an ayurvedic practitioner in New Orleans.

Most people see an ayurvedic practitioner when they want help with a specific illness or condition, though a small percentage of people seek general wellness. “You might see patients with a variety of illnesses and conditions such as migraines, hormone imbalance, digestion, allergies and many others,” says Blanchard.

Treatment can include dietary changes or the addition of yoga practice, different postures and breathing exercises, aromatherapy or massage. In the United States, ayurvedic medicine typically focuses on diet, herbs, oils and massage, and takes sleep and stress patterns into consideration.

The ayurvedic lifestyle is early-to-rise and early-to-bed — a pattern in harmony with nature's rhythms. It advocates setting aside quiet time in the morning for meditation, yoga or massage. A vegetarian type diet with an emphasis on healthful grains and fruits and vegetables is recommended.

The guiding principles

Ayurvedic practice teaches that that each person is a blend of three doshas, or guiding principles, within the body. The principles are vata, pitta and kapha, though usually one or two are prominent. Disease is attributed to an imbalance or an ungrounding in the doshas. 

“Essentially we look at everyone as three body types,” says Anisha Durve, an ayurvedic practitioner at the University Hospital’s Integrative Medicine department in Cleveland, Ohio.

Here’s a breakdown of the types:

Vata is the air/wind body type. These people are high-energy, creative, dynamic, flexible, and tend to be dry, cool, light and airy. A vata type may be thin, with cold hands and feet, and dry skin. If imbalanced, vata types manifest anxiety, nervousness, insecurity, insomnia, constipation, arthritis, restlessness and lack of focus. They may be sensitive to sleep issues and digestion problems.

Pitta is the fire/sun body type. These people have strong digestion, sharp intellect, make good debaters, and do well with intellectual pursuits. They are described as hot, fiery, sharp and vibrant. Those who are mostly pitta will be more likely to have medium builds, oily skin and good appetites. When imbalanced, pitta types can erupt in anger, impatience, jealousy and competiveness. Pitta people are prone to inflammatory diseases ranging from heartburn to rashes.

Kapha is the water/earth body type. These folks are stable, grounded, loving, compassionate individuals with a cheerful outlook, good stamina and endurance, and a strong immune system. They’re considered serene and grounded. Predominant kaphas may be overweight, slow, calm and deliberate. When imbalanced, kapha types suffer congestion, swelling and diseases like diabetes, depression, weight gain and lack of motivation. Exercise, dance and travel are helpful.

Determining your dosha

Practitioners also take the pulse to determine which body type you are. There are a lot of qualities to consider about the pulse — its weakness or strength, its location and other factors.

“If you know which body type you are, you can be more proactive about your health and diet, lifestyle and exercise choices and prevention,” says Durve. For instance, if you have a specific condition like migraines, a vatta type would need grounding herbs while a pitta type would need cooling herbs and cooling dietary suggestions to offset the heat building up in the body, explains Durve. Each type requires different treatment.

Adopting an ayurvedic lifestyle is an excellent way to get more balance in your life. For more information on ayurveda or to locate a practitioner near you, see the National Ayurvedic Medical Association website.

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