Ayurveda is a medical system that aims to improve the health of its adherents. After thousands of years of development in India, Sri Lanka, and Nepal, the Western world is embracing alternative medicine, and ayurveda healing is becoming more widespread, along with yoga, massage, and other health-supporting activities.
The word “ayurveda”, roughly translated, means “knowledge of long life”. In this branch of alternative medicine, practitioners consider the physical body, the senses, the mind and the soul, seeking a holistic approach. Health comes from careful attention to harmony – mental, spiritual, physical, and even social.
Ayurvedic medicine was one of the few systems of traditional medicine to develop sophisticated surgical techniques, called “salya-chikitsa”. In reality, practitioners specialized in one of eight different branches of medicine: internal medicine (kayachikitsa); surgery (shalya tantra); ears, eyes, nose, and throat (shalakya tantra); pediatrics (kaumarabhtriya tantra); toxicology (agada tantra); purification of the sexual organs (bajikrana tantra); health and longevity (rasayana tantra); and spiritual healing and psychiatry (bhuta vidya). All these were used together to maintain good health and spiritual well-being.
Indian medical science goes back as far as 3000 BC. Ancient cities are testament to people’s concern with public hygiene and health care. The Vedas, composed between 1200-700 BC, contain references to diseases, along with herbs and herbal cures.
By the time of Buddha, ayurvedic medicine was flourishing. Careful studies led to the development of new medications that worked better, causing this time to be called the Golden Age of Ayurveda.
Emperor Ashoka (304-232 BC) fought and won the Kalinga War. Buddhist influences persuaded him to ban any bloodshed in his country. This caused the surgical practice of ayurveda to die out. Ayurvedic medicine adapted well to this loss, inventing new medicines and new innovations in other areas of medical care.Ayurveda continued to be part of Indian mainstream medicine until the British colonization two thousand years later.
Early medical techniques were passed orally from a Guru to his students. Students were required to follow a strict code of conduct. They were to avoid drugs and alcohol, and to dress modestly. Patients were to be treated with courtesy and respect, and patient confidentiality was respected.
Students trained for seven years, then were tested before they could graduate. The new physicians were expected to continue their training through observation and careful study of texts. Conferences were held so physicians could share knowledge. Practitioners actively sought new cures, taking clues from home remedies of hills tribes, forest dwellers, and others outside the mainstream hustle and bustle of contemporary urban society.
Ayurvedic medicine concentrates on finding a balance between the three bodily humours — Vata, which mobilizes the nervous system; Pitta, which uses bile to control digestion of food and its absorption into the venous system; and kapha, which relates to body fluids, carrying nutrients into arterial system. Illness arises from an imbalance of these three humors, known collectively as the Tridhatus.
Medicines to treat disorders are based on herbs and other plants, carefully prepared for maximum potency. However, animal and mineral substances can also be used for healing or to maintain good health. Practitioners rely on careful observation to record the effects, seeking always for better treatments.
Ayurvedic massage is used in conjunction with other specialties to ease pain, reduce stress, improve quality of sleep, and help emotional issues. Ayurvedic yoga seeks to improve flexibility, and its emotional and psychological benefits are well-documented.