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Ayurveda: What is Ayurvedic Medicine?


How this ancient healing Indian medicine can work for you

By: Michelle Konstantinovsky


While yoga continues to steadily gain a global following, far fewer Westerners know about the practice's sister science, Ayurveda.

Taking its name from the Sanskrit words for "life" and "science," Ayurveda originated in India several thousand years ago. Though it is considered a form of complementary and alternative medicine in the United States, it is a traditional medical system in India, where there are over 150 institutions of learning on the subject.  

"Ayurveda is an all-emcompassing science which really addresses the human system as a whole," says Elizabeth Cunningham-Bossart, certified Ayurvedic Practitioner, who practices in both San Francisco and Berkeley, California.  

"Ayurveda compels one to become aware of [the] self in relation to one's environment, and to take responsibility," said Rajiv Vasudevan, CEO of AyurVAID hospitals, the largest chain of Ayurveda hospitals in India. This awareness is not just global, but individual as well.

"The Ayurveda doctor's role is to empower his or her patient with correct insight, leading to the individual taking responsibility for one's health at the physical, mental and spiritual level," he says. "Thus, rather than a system of medicine, Ayurveda is a way of life."  

Core to Ayurveda is the idea of balance. According to "Ayurveda: A Brief Introduction and Guide," by Vasant Lad, B.A.M.S., M.A.Sc., the practice seeks to maintain balance of body, mind and consciousness through "close attention to balance in one's life, right thinking, diet, lifestyle and the use of herbs."  

"Ayurveda is a profound and complex science," says Cunningham-Bossart. "By treating the person as a whole, we are able to support people's bodies into balance through dietary suggestions, lifestyle recommendations and herbal recommendations."  

"Ayurveda regards food as medicine," says San Francisco yoga teacher and Ayurvedic nutritionist Kate Lumseden. "In the same way that different medicines make you feel different ways, so does the food based on what you're trying to ‘treat.'"  

More than just a dietary guide, however, Ayurveda prescribes specific recommendations for each person's unique combination of physical, mental and emotional characteristics. According to the science, there are three basic types of energy that are formed from five elements: space, air, fire, water and earth. Vata is the energy of movement, composed of space and air, pitta is the energy of digestion and metabolism, composed of fire and water, and kapha is the energy that forms the body's structure, composed of earth and water.  

Determined at the time of conception, each individual's distinct pattern of energy, or constitution, remains consistent throughout his or her life. However, external and internal factors, such as diet, stress and relationships, can throw a person's constitution off balance.    

How to Stay Balanced

So what do these doshas mean for you? Through a series of questions, and the examination of tongue, eyes, pulse and physical form, an Ayurvedic practitioner can identify an individual's constitution, and assess any current imbalances.  

"Discover what doshas dominate your constitution by taking an online quiz or doing a bit of reading," says Lumsden. "Our constitutions govern our bodies and minds over this lifetime, so make sure you think about your natural tendencies over your life, not just the season, when answering questions."   Understanding each dosha's specific characteristics and how they manifest in one's individual constitution can indicate which diet and lifestyle choices strengthen the body, mind and consciousness. "My health challenges - mental and physical - have been manifestations of overly dominant pitta or vata in my person," says Lumsden. "I've experienced these in psoriasis, a mild rash that sparks when pitta is too strong, and anxiety that arises when I feel my vata carrying me away from a grounded space. Ayurveda has given me the tools to treat these ailments and a general lifestyle that hinders them from arising."  

Vasudevan says that he has seen Ayurveda help a long list of chronic diseases, including arthritis, psoriasis, acne, thyroid conditions, Alzheimer's, diabetes, asthma and more. But he also advocates it as a lifestyle to manage more common ailments. "Ayurveda is very effective in handling day-to-day medical conditions such as fever, cold, cough, et cetera," he said. "And, most uniquely, it helps to improve quality of sleep, digestion, excretion and pain management — truly toward restoration and sustainment of good health."    

What Is Vata?  

Prominent in the fall and at the change of seasons, vata is composed of air and space, and is all about motion. A person who is predominantly vata tends to be quick, active and creative. When unbalanced, however, vata types can become fearful, nervous and anxious. To keep their constitutions in balance, Ayurveda prescribes warm foods, and recommends keeping a regular routine to stay grounded.    

What Is Pitta?  

Pitta embodies many fiery elements, and pitta-dominant individuals are often warm-bodied with sharp intelligence. If out of balance, however, these people can be easily agitated and short-tempered. To maintain balance, pitta types should eat cooling, non-spicy foods, and avoid excessive heat.    

What Is Kapha?  

Being formed from earth and water elements makes kapha-dominant people sweet and strong and often very loving, stable and grounded. While they tend to be calm and forgiving, they can become envious and possessive when out of balance. Plenty of exercise and light, dry foods keep kapha in check, while daytime naps and heavy foods can throw it off balance.  

"[One] misconception people have is they think they fall into only one category," Cunningham-Bossart says. "We are all the doshas, a dynamic relationship of the five elements in our human system. [Also], many people in the West perceive Ayurveda as only the doshas. However, it is much more. Ayurveda is a science which looks at the entire human system including organs, tissues, digestive system, channels, immunity and more."    

Putting Ayurveda Into Practice  

"Start with what you know," Lumsden recommends. "Learn what you already do that's good for your doshas and make that a more regular part of your routine."  

One way to begin understanding the complexities of Ayurveda is to read one of the many books available on the ancient science.

"I've been learning about Ayurveda since 2003 when introduced to it by my yoga teacher at the time. She pointed me in the direction of a great book by Dr. Robert Svoboda."  

"Two of my favorite books to recommend are The Science of Self-Healing by Dr. Lad and Prakriti by Dr. Svoboda," Cunningham-Bossart says.  

For more on Ayurveda, visit The Ayurvedic Institute at  


Michelle is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.


Published: March 29, 2011


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