New Internationalist

‘Complete knowledge for long life’ – Ayurveda leads the way

I’m at AyurVAID, an ayurvedic hospital in Bangalore, sorting out a slipped disc and assorted unsavoury problems. Having been exposed only to allopathy (conventional medicine) my entire life, it’s a whole other world.

Ayurveda is an ancient Indian system of healthcare that is more than 6,000 years old. The word ayurveda means ‘the complete knowledge for long life’. These folk definitely know what they’re doing, and so they should: they were doing surgery in India in the mid-second millennium BC, when most other people were running around in skins.

Sardar Patel Medical College mural

Mural of ayurvedic tradition at Sardar Patel Medical College in India. Photo by colros under a CC Licence 

When I entered the hospital, the first difference was that the doctor spent an hour and a half listening to me. He actually kept probing to find out every little detail about what was wrong with me. As opposed to the gynaecologist whom I had visited earlier – a lovely woman, but one who had to deal with a hundred patients and couldn’t spend more than five minutes with each.  

Ayurveda teaches that three elements (called doshas) determine your health. Vata, pitta and kapha are the energies that make things happen in the body. Ultimately, health and wellbeing  boil down to the harmonious actions of these three doshas.  

Having lived with well-loved, brilliant allopathic doctors for 20-odd years, I’ve had ample time to compare the two systems. They are so totally different. With my exposure to ayurveda, it’s difficult to think of allopathy as a ‘health’-care system. It’s more a disease management system. Even when we talk of preventive healthcare, which was the sole focus of our ‘health’ work in the early years, it was still about preventing disease and avoidable, unnecessary deaths. Important and, in those days, imperative considering the alarmingly high rate of infant and maternal mortality among the adivasis we worked with. In Ayurveda, the focus is more on promoting health and wellness.

Ayurveda has four components to wellbeing. Vihara (lifestyle) Aahara (food), Oushadha (medicine) and Kriya (treatment). Lifestyle and food are the key. Sadly, the global dominance of allopathy and its runaway economic success (nine of the top 50 billionaires in India are from the pharmaceutical industry!) are tempting ayurveda practitioners to mimic Western allopathic systems. The danger is that the focus can shift to medicine and treatment rather than lifestyle and food. Jumping on the economic bandwagon, Kerala has thrown up an incredible number of spa-like ‘ayurveda’ centres – where Indian and foreign tourists looking for quick-fix solutions and pampering check themselves in for a massage – kriya without the attendant aahara, vihara and oushadha.   

But true practitioners concentrate on bringing back the balance between the three doshas. I’m told that in my case the vata has to be controlled and brought in sync with the other two elements. Warm, medicated herbal oil is dribbled all over me for an hour. It feels heavenly. On the first day of treatment I stop most of my diabetic medicines. Yet my sugar levels drop, as does my blood pressure. It feels like magic.

Five years ago when I first did this treatment, all my friends remarked that I hadn’t looked so well in years – for a decade at least. Now, Dr Namboodiri gently points out that while I had taken the kriya and the medicines during the previous treatment in order to bring back the balance (and the feeling of incredible wellbeing) I subsequently had done nothing to alter my food intake or lifestyle to maintain it. I had to admit he was spot on.

What’s really inspiring about this system is that it teaches you about wellbeing and good health.   The problem is we need to radically change our lifestyles to incorporate it into our communities. And there’s the rub.

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