Ayurveda is a Sanskrit word derived from two roots: ayur, which means life, and veda, which means knowledge. Knowledge arranged systematically with logic becomes science. Over time, Ayurveda became the science of life. It has its root in ancient vedic literature and encompasses our entire life – the body, mind and spirit. It is clearly unique in this day and age to find a system of medicine that is over 5000 years old and still today one of the largest on the planet. Ayurvedic medicine, although in its infancy here in America, has over 300,000 Indian doctors in the All Indian Ayurvedic Congress, making it the largest medical organization in the world. Ayurveda focuses on prevention of illness and the body’s natural power of cure.
Ayurveda recognizes that all life, whether it be human, plant or animal, must live in harmony with nature in order to survive. Like the owner’s manual of your car speaks of maintenance schedules for the long term health of your car, Ayurveda speaks of daily and seasonal routines that insure maximal health and longevity. For example, birds fly south in the winter as their survival depends on it. Leaves turn red and fall off trees in the Fall. It’s a law of nature. However, we tend to insulate ourselves from any participation in the huge changes that take place from one season to the next even though our survival depends on it. Just putting on or taking off a sweater or eating the same foods 365 days a year is not in keeping with the original human design. In Ayurvedic medicine, prevention starts with a lifestyle that is in harmony with the changing cycles of nature.
In Ayurvedic medicine prevention is dictated by the unique requirements of your body type. Because we are unique, what we eat, how we exercise, when we sleep and even where we prefer to live can all be understood according to one’s body type. There are three basic mind-body types that combine to make ten unique mind-body types. Vata types tend to be thin, hypermetabolic, and they think and move quickly. They typically have dry skin and cold hands and feet. They do not like cold weather because they already have many of these winter qualities inherent to their nature. Pitta types are competitive, hot and fiery with a medium frame. They prefer cool weather. Under some conditions they may get heartburn, skin rashes, inflammatory diseases or they just burn out. Kapha types are easy going and hypometabolic. They will hold on to more weight and water and tend to develop allergies and congestion. They can become lethargic, obese and even depressed under certain conditions.
Eat to live
We have made eating very complicated. There are more modern theories on eating than there are days in a month. While animals seem to balance their nutritional needs quite well without the knowledge of fats, proteins and carbohydrates, we incessantly count calories and measure grams of fat only to find out about the latest study which tells us the rules of eating have changed once again. In Ayurveda the rules remain constant. As the seasons change and different foods are harvested, we change the foods we eat.
In winter, for example, the squirrels eat nuts, a good source of protein and fat. This is a perfect food to help combat the cold dry weather in the winter months (Vata season). Grains which are harvested in the fall and cooked in the winter are also a perfect winter food. Cooked grains provide a warm heavy nutritional base that helps us adapt to the cold of winter. In spring, after eating all the heavy nuts and grains during the long sedentary winter, nature again provides the perfect food. Light leafy green veggies and berries are the first foods harvested in the spring (Kapha season) and are the natural antidote for the allergy season. As the days get warmer in July and August nature provides cooling fruits and vegetables to balance the heat of summer (Pitta season).
Ayurveda understands the cycles of nature and that these cycles will provide what we need. These cycles also provide a rhythm of life that is enjoyable. Unfortunately our society has demanded that we rush, push and shove our way through life in order to get ahead. The biggest social violations of natural law revolve around our meals. We frequently race through our meals or at times skip meals. Ayurveda recommends that the main meal should be at midday and this meal should be eaten slowly and calmly. Crashing through our day, racing through lunch and coming home to eat our biggest meal of the day at 7:00 PM when the digestion is the weakest could not be more against the powerful grain of mother nature. Living in harmony with nature’s cycles is what I would call “Lifestyle Therapy” because the health benefits of a proper lifestyle will help us heal what Ayurveda considers a major cause of disease, our improper lifestyle.
In Ayurveda, exercise is not only about losing weight, winning races and staying healthy. Exercise provides a kind of physical stress that can be used to teach us how to deal with all kinds of stress (mental, emotional and social) with an internal sense of composure. I have integrated a specific nasal breathing technique I call “Darth Vader Breathing” into exercise. Darth Vader breathing (Ujjayi Pranayama as it is called in Ayurveda) allows a deep sense of calm to co-exist with exercise, making it an enjoyable experience rather than a “workout.” Billie Jean King recently told me that she has not enjoyed exercise this much since she was a child. I have used this technique with world class athletes like Martina Navratilova, with elderly people who want safe and enjoyable exercise, and as a therapy for people who have difficulty handling stress. Simply breathing deeply through the nose while walking fast for twenty minutes can teach you to handle stressful situations. ( And here’s a tip: while walking fast, If you you have to breathe through your mouth, you are walking too fast.) With eighty percent of all disease related to stress, learning how to take an experience of calm into dynamic activity is an integral part of prevention and cure. The ability to know exactly how much exercise is good for you and how much is harmful becomes more automatic as you learn to listen to your body. Breathing Ayurvedically during exercise provides numerous health benefits including a natural experience of calm that can stay with you all day long.
In Ayurveda, the primary form of diagnosis is the reading of the pulse. The Ayurvedic practitioner can read your pulse and obtain valuable information about the workings of your body, mind and spirit. In addition, the purpose of pulse diagnosis is to identify and treat imbalances; and the treatment protocol is based on the body’s healing rather than mere symptom removal. In Ayurvedic medicine the removal of symptoms is viewed as a side benefit of a larger healing of the heart and mind.
In Ayurveda we believe that healing starts from within. The idea of giving an herb to sedate you for insomnia or a laxative to relieve constipation is contrary to the Ayurvedic philosophy. Basically, we believe that the body can heal itself. When this is not happening it is usually because the body does not recognize the problem as a problem. The cure then is in the enhancement of the body’s own internal awareness of itself. The most powerful form of Ayurvedic healing is a series of treatments called Panchakarma. These are extremely powerful healing therapies that were in ancient times reserved for the kings and queens. The treatments last about two and a half hours, seven days in a row, and often two therapists work on you simultaneously. Over thirty different treatments are employed to remove gross physiological stress and impurities that can inhibit healing and awareness. During this process the basal metabolic rate is dramatically slowed and awareness enhanced with techniques such as the “shiro dhara” where warm oil is poured over the forehead for 45 minutes. This treatment calms the mind and disarms the “fight or flight” nervous system response which holds stress and toxins captive in the tissues of the body. This treatment enhances a deeper level of self awareness. With this heightened state of awareness, Ayurveda says that, “there is nothing that the body can’t heal.”
For more information, read The Nature of Joy – an Interview with John Douillard,DC.
Dr. Douillard explains how living an Ayurvedic life of balance will help you stay calm, strong and heart-centered.