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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  1. #1 Byresh 02 Sep 11

    The patient has really spoken her heart. Its nice to know that AyurVAID team at Domlur has been successful in not only treating the patient's ailment but also educate her about Ayurveda lifestyle (Ahara & Vihara) that goes a long for sustained well-being.

  2. #2 SRIMAN 02 Sep 11

    Excellent piece of work that you have done and keep inspiring and keep posting good things about Ayurveda and spread the awareness about Ayurveda.
    Wishing you good health .Be blessed


  3. #3 Roopa Devadasan 02 Sep 11

    It is so interesting that while the WHO definition of health clearly extends beyond the narrow biomedical model that most allopathic practitioners adopt, we still refer to Ayurveda as one of the ’alternative’ systems of medicine. This article clearly outlines the principles that most older people adopted because it was part of traditional cultural practice. Even today, grandparents advocate, seasonal fruits, avoidance of certain vegetables at particular times of the year, and have household remedies that work on a number of simple illnesses.
    But whose listening?

  4. #4 Shoba Ramachandran 02 Sep 11

    I am a great believer in Ayurveda and had gone through some fantastic treatment on a skin problem about 30 years back for more than a year. It proved miraculous. You bet - lifestyle is the key to well being - in whichever form. Must check this place out.

  5. #5 Dr. Prithvi Raval 03 Sep 11

    Great information ! Does not have all the unpleasant side effects of 'modern' medicines.

  6. #6 Anita Christy 03 Sep 11

    Very insightful Mari!!!! Wish I can treat myself to a week or two at AyurVAID.

  7. #7 Unnikrishnan 03 Sep 11

    Wonderful to see people speaking about Ayurveda & Healthcare ,and spreading the word. I truly believe in ayurveda science. AyurVAID Ayurveda is excellent in treating chronic conditions, Qulaity and many more. Good Health to all.

    Thank you Mari Marcel

  8. #8 nirupama 03 Sep 11

    I read it out to my bro and he is fascinated by your writing. He says the ayurvedic medication is holistic in its approach. There is no pain without inflammation and there is no disease without a block. He feels that since this forms the basis it is easy for the Doctor to explain and make you understand. Educative article. keep them coming.

  9. #9 Cynthia Stephen 03 Sep 11

    I do agree that our ancient systems of medicine are very good, but as mari says they are mostly commercialised. However, I want to comment on the visual that goes with the story, whoever put it there. It depicts men wearing the cross-thread which is a sign of a Brahmin. While ayurveda's texts are mostly found in Sanskrit, implying they codified them, I think the system originates among the indigenous population whose traditional healers are the ones who forage the hills for the herbs and other products. Their knowledge has stayed with the people but ayurveda is now being promoted parallel to allopathy with the AYUSH scheme of the CEntral government, apart from private sector institutions practicing them. Hope the traditional healing techniques of the Indian people can stay and flourish with them!

  10. #10 Jayanthi 04 Sep 11

    An eye opener. What we really miss out on, is access to genuine Ayurveda doctors because they seldom advertise !!

  11. #11 Narayanan Namboodiri 04 Sep 11

    I agree with nirupama's comment where she quoted her bro as saying no pain without inflamation and no disease without block.This is the basis of ayurveda too.This science is to stay here for the simple reasons that it is a complete scinece of long and healthy life and it has stood the worst tests of time.

  12. #12 Peter Berger 04 Sep 11

    Hi Mari,
    I enjoyed reading the article on Ayurvedic treatment, it's a pity thevwestern world choose to ignore these ancient and proven methods of tratment. In Australia they tend to pour cold water over any other treatment except allopathic, considering homeopathy to be a sort of quack treatment. While I admit that homeopathy depends a great deal on the physician treating you there is no doubt that a good homeopath can work wonders.
    How long did you have to stay at the centre before you felt capable of keeping all the aspects in balance.

  13. #13 PREM 04 Sep 11

    Hi Marie,
    I enjoyed reading your Blog! How true your observations. Hope perple who read this at least think about these true facts and do something about their bodies.
    Thanks again.
    PS That was a short and precise Blog. Enjoyed it.

  14. #14 lizzie 04 Sep 11

    Great piece Mari - my mum just qualified as a reflexologist which similarly seems to look towards wellbeing and good health rather than just disease management. I was a very willing guinea pig while she was training!

  15. #15 varsha 05 Sep 11

    really interesting. makes me want to read about it more.

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About the author

Mari Marcel Thekaekara a New Internationalist contributor

Mari is a writer based in Gudalur, in the Nilgiri hills of Tamil Nadu. She writes on human rights issues with a focus on dalits, adivasis, women, children, the environment, and poverty. Mari's book Endless Filth, published in 1999, on balmikis, is to be followed by a second book on campaigns within India to abolish manual scavenging work. She co-founded Accord in 1985 to work with Adivasi people. Mari has been a contributor to New Internationalist since 1991.

About the blog I travel around India a lot, covering dalit and adivasi issues. I often find myself really moved by stories that never make it to the mainstream media. My son Tarsh suggested I start blogging. And the New Internationalist collective are the nicest bunch of editors I’ve worked with. So here goes.

Read more by Mari Marcel Thekaekara

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