Ayurveda is an alternative medicine deeply rooted in the Hindu religious tradition of northern India and established over 5000 years ago. According to the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, “Ayurdevic medicine continues to be practiced in India, where nearly 80 percent of the population uses it exclusively or combined with conventional (Western) medicine”
(Ayurvedic Medicine: An
While it is a tradition of medicine with
a long history, it is believed that much of Ayurveda’s practices were lost, at
least in the West, until the early 1980s when they were reborn through the work
of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi (Barrett). Ayurveda is a combination of two Sanskrit
words: ayur, meaning life, and veda, meaning knowledge; so Ayurveda is
the knowledge, or science, of life. The
Ayurveda is completely based on the Vedic literature and as such is very much
Much like Tantric Hinduism, Ayurveda is a practice centered on the male and the female deities, Shakti and Shiva, as creators and maintainers of the universe through sexual activity and terms
233). “Every human being is a creation of the
cosmos, the pure cosmic consciousness, as two energies: male energy, called Purusha and female energy, Prakruti” (Lad).
In Ayurveda ahamkara is the ego which is influenced by the three universal
qualities of satva, rajas, and tamas.
Satva is responsible for the
five basic senses common to Western medicine.
Rajas is responsible for the
motor functions. Tamas is responsible for the mind, including sleep and extra-bodily
The five elements, space/ether, air, fire, water, and earth, make up the structure of the body, however the function, or physiology, of the body is determined by three biological humors, doshas, which are each constructed of two elements: vata made up of ether and air, pitta made up of fire and water, and kapha made up of water and earth. These three humors exist in some mixture throughout the body and their balance must be maintained to remain in good health. “The doshas allegedly regulate mind-body harmony. Illness and disease are considered to be a matter of imbalance in the doshas”
According to the Maharishi Ayurveda Self-Care System on should attempt to balance vata when they are ‘changeable, indecisive, fast moving or anxious, and prone to insomnia, dry skin and constipation.’ In order to balance one’s vata ‘favor foods that are sweet, salty, and sour, establish a regular daily routine, go to bed early, and keep warm.’ Also, many herbal remedies are suggested to help achieve these goals and more easily alter one’s balance
(Maharishi Ayurveda Products).
Much like the Galenic humorism the solution for the imbalance of the doshas is a modification of dietary habits and the use of herbal remedies. However the influence of alchemical works on the medicine can have dangerous side effects; the use of minerals such as mercury and lead in remedies is sometimes well in excess of safe amounts. A 2004 study conducted on shops in Boston found that twenty percent of Ayurvedic herbal products contained potentially harmful levels of lead, mercury, and/or arsenic
(Saper, Kales and Paquin).
Along with herbalism, Ayurveda suggests therapies a form of massage. “There are places at which the life force is ‘knotted,’ causing constrictions. Blockages can occur particularly at the sensitive spots called marmans (junctions), which are distributed over the whole body. Yoga, Tantra, and Ayurveda generally recognize eighteen such spots…. [Treatments] involve guiding the life force through focused visualization to each marman and then retaining the breath, which activates them. Upon exhalation, the blocked energy is released. This is also an excellent way of aiding the healing process where disease is present”
There are also therapies of meditation (i.e. relax and eat light) much akin to Yoga practices. “Mudras are also prescribed for therapeutic purposes – one of the many areas to overlap between Tantra and Ayurveda. The prana-mudra (seal of life), for instance, is used to stop a heart attack or bring relief from one. It is performed by brining the thumbs in contact with the tips of the middle and ring fingers and by tucking the index fingers into the mounds of the thumbs”
The National Institute of Ayurvedic Medicine lists diet, Ayurvedic self massage, exercise, herbs, Yoga Asanas, mind-body techniques, body-season cycles, and purification and revitalization therapy as possible prescriptions for illness
(S. M. Gerson).
Ayurvedic practitioners in America are not considered medical doctors,
however a few states have approved for the education of Ayurveda in an
institutional setting. In India Ayurvedic
medicine is a standard form of medical practice and as such it is officially
sanctioned and overseen by the government.
There are over 150 undergraduate programs and 30 post-graduate programs
which can take more than five years in order to complete (Ayurvedic Medicine: An Introduction).
Some aspects of Ayurveda can be used to complement Western medical practices and some have even been adopted by modern physicians, however Ayurveda functions, and is intended, as a wholly self-sufficient medical system. It can be dangerous to combine some of the Ayurvedic therapies, especially the herbalistic ones, with Western medicines and drugs and most of the materials used in the herbals are classified as dietary supplements and as such have had little or no testing required by the FDA. Little research has been conducted on the effects of Ayurveda as a whole and on the dangers of the herbals themselves, even in India. What research has been done has been plagued with ‘issues that affected how meaningful the results were”
(Ayurvedic Medicine: An Introduction), though many
institutions, such as the Central Council for Research in Ayurveda and Siddha,
are attempting better clinical trials.
Since Ayurvedic medicine is primarily focused with dietary elements it is most effective with diet and gastro-intestine related diseases and illnesses. One of the most common scenarios for Ayurveda use in the West is in cases of diabetes mellitus. In an experiment between June 2000 and February 2003 pertaining to patients with non-insulin dependent diabetes by Dr. Scott Gerson, over eighty percent of the patients being treated via Ayurvedic methods were able to reduce their allopathic (Western) medicine use by more than half after only four months of treatment
(S. Gerson). Whether the results of this experiment held
up to the test of time afterwards is unknown and it is unlikely to be the case
that NIAM would say otherwise, for Dr. Gerson, the main representative of the
institute, stands to lose much of his clout in the CAM community and much money
should his results turn out to be either falsified or lacking in quality. What is needed is for additional research of
the sort to be conducted by outside sources, such as that being done by the
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine: they have nothing
to gain monetarily by the success of any one system, but only by the growth of
CAMs as a whole.
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"Ayurvedic Medicine: An Introduction." July 2009. National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine. 30 December 2009 <http://nccam.nih.gov/health/ayurveda/introduction.htm>.
Barrett, Stephen M.D. "A Few Thoughts on Ayurvedic Mumbo-Jumbo." 15 December 2004. Quackwatch. 30 December 2009 <http://www.quackwatch.com/04ConsumerEducation/chopra.html>.
Feuerstein, Georg. Tantra: The Path of Ecstasy. Boston: Shambhala, Distributed in the USA by Random House, 1998.
Gerson, Scott MD PhD. The National Institute of Ayurvedic Medicine. 2008. 30 December 2009 <http://niam.com/corp-web/index.htm>.
Gerson, Scott. "Treatment of Adult-Onset Non-Insulin Dependent Diabetes Mellitus with an Ayurvedic Protocol." 2003. National Institute of Ayurvedic Medicine. 30 December 2009 <http://niam.com/corp-web/Diabetes.pdf>.
Lad, Dr. Vasant. "Ayurvedic Medicine." 1996. healthy.net. 30 December 2009 <http://www.healthy.net/scr/article.aspx?Id=373>.
Maharishi Ayurveda Products. Maharishi Ayurveda Self-Care System. 2009. 30 December 2009 <http://www.mapi.com/ayurveda_health_care/self_care/index.html>.
Saper, Robert B, et al. "Heavy Metal Content of Ayurvedic Herbal Medicine Products." The Journal of the American Medical Association 292.23 (2004): 2868-2873.
This article originally written December 31, 2009 for OU HSCI 3423 - History of Medicine.