Understanding Ayurveda

Understanding Ayurveda

It was when Aveda, the trailblazer of holistic beauty products hit the UK in the mid 90s that I first became aware of Ayurveda. Aveda’s founder, Horst Rechelbacher had been to India in the 1960s and discovered yogic practices to heal himself of his rock and roll hairdressing days and these practices became part of his life. He ended up studying at an Ayurvedic hospital in Himalayas and fed this knowledge into his range of luxury naturals for hair and body, shortening the word to coin the now global brand name.

I remember being intrigued by the word Ayurveda. It comes from the ancient language of Sanskrit (a sort of Indian equivalent of Latin) and has two roots – ‘ayus’ which means daily living and ‘vid’ meaning knowledge. From this, Ayurveda translates as knowledge of daily living, although it’s often referred to as the science of life. Now wellness, green juices and all things yogic are uber fashionable, we’re surrounded by products which use herbs and methods from the Indian holistic medical system. Tulsi herbal tea; Gotu Kola supplements; hair conditioners with Neem Oil; Shirodhara hot oil massage, to name a few. Yet how many of us really understand its origins?

When we dip into ready made products or spa menus, it’s not well known that Ayurveda traces its roots back thousands of years. In the same way yoga can be linked to early Vedic texts (sacred writings), the Charaka Samhita is considered to be the oldest and most important text on Ayurveda, dating from around 200-400 BCE. Some scholars think it represents a school of thought, others say its the work of Charaka, who is often referred to as the father of Indian medicine. Either way, the text has been hugely influential in the development of Ayurveda and still today, students often learn the 8,400 verses written in poetic style off by heart.

The Charaka Samhita is mainly concerned with internal medicine, covering many cures and remedies. However, its overarching premise that everyone is a microcosm of the universe – that the body, as nature, is made up of the five physical elements (ether, air, water, fire, earth) plus the spiritual element of the soul – remains the basis of Ayurveda. As the system developed, the three oft quoted Doshas or ‘humours’; Vata, Pitta, Kapha were identified. Put very simply, it’s thought that when these Doshas are out of balance, disease or illness begins to develop, so the Ayurvedic approach is all about keeping harmony between the three.

Visiting an Ayurvedic Doctor is quite an experience to those of us who’re barely able to grab a 10 minute appointment with our GP. Your whole health history is raked through with a fine toothed comb, your pulse taken and after a detailed detective process, your dominant dosha is determined. This could be different from your natural constitution or Prakriti which you are born with. For example, many of us suffer an increase in Vata simply through fast paced, adrenaline fuelled modern life – travelling lots, missing meals, grabbing a coffee and sugary snacks to boost energy, never allowing ourselves to rest.

The prescription could encompass everything from herbal supplements, to warm oil massage, definitely dietary changes. In Ayurveda, food is seen as medicine and will change according to season and the balance between the Doshas – alongside good sleep, right exercise and meditation. It makes perfect sense, but may seem a little unscientific when we’re used to quick fixes and extreme diets. Yet modern studies point to the fact that longevity is determined 30% by genetics and 70% by lifestyle choices.

Over the years, I’ve adopted yogic and Ayurvedic principles into my lifestyle where possible, and have been amazed at the profound effect they’ve had not just on my health but my happiness and peace of mind. Of the times I’ve been lucky enough to be on intensive retreats, the changes have been dramatic. Yet they haven’t been spartan detoxes – far from it. Yes, there have been ‘exclusions’ of foods not suitable for my Dosha, but I’ve usually found myself eating more of the right things – delicious, locally sourced, organic produce, freshly cooked, three times a day which made me at least try to regulate my meals at home.

Alongside regular mealtimes, a strict schedule of deeply therapeutic massage treatments is set up. We may think of a rub down with oil as either being something functional after a sports injury, or a rare and luxurious indulgence. However, 2-3 hour long hot oil massages, often with two therapists form the foundation of daily treatment on an Ayurvedic retreat. In the right setting, it will begin with a Sanskrit chant, the heated oils hand made with locally grown medicinal herbs to soothe body and mind, followed by tension melting hot poultices and a steam bath. The idea is to ease out blockages, get the circulation going, lubricate joints and kick start the detoxification process via your skin. This, plus a routine of early to bed, early to rise, gentle yoga postures and meditation for 5-7 days never fails to leave me revitalised and energetic with glowing skin and clear, sparkling eyes. (I always imagine what 2 weeks or even a month of that could do if it ever had the time….).

Retreats aside, the great news is we can adopt easy DIY Ayurvedic techniques at home (see below), never forgetting that although they appear simple, there is deep heritage and knowledge behind them.

  • Massage yourself daily. In Ayurvedic terms, this is known as Abayangha. Do this before your bath or shower, and choose an oil that suits your mood/constitution. General rule of thumb is to use circular movements around the joints (eg shoulders, knees, hips, ankles) and up and down movements on the long bones of the legs and arms. Use the palms to massage the chest and abdomen in a clockwise direction, and spend a bit of time working the smaller joints of the hands and feet. Once you get into the habit of this, it needn’t take much time – even just 5 or 10 minutes before you hop into the bath or shower will make a difference to your skin and how you feel.
  • Rinse out your mouth each morning. Otherwise known as the now trendy practice of oil pulling. This involves taking a tablespoon of oil (preferably organic sesame, the un-toasted type), swooshing it around your mouth and holding it there for several minutes (at least 5) before spitting out. The thinking is it removes bacteria from the mouth, keeping gums healthy, it also moisturises the mouth and stimulates the digestion.
  • Meditate every day. Ignoring the spiritual side of ourselves will impact on our health and wellbeing eventually, although it may seem like we haven’t got a minute spare to sit in silence. Once it becomes regular practice though, we gain clarity of mind, we are able to focus more, becoming less stressed and able to cope more easily with inevitable ups and downs of life. Joining a local group may help you get started and give you the motivation to keep up. Renowned teacher, Sally Kempton’s book, Meditation for the Love of It is full of inspiration and practical exercises.