Ayurveda: What it Is and Isn’t

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Ayurveda is Medicine not Alternative Medicine. It reflects the source from which all healing practices have emerged as a spontaneous expression of Natural Law—a gift of the Creator.

Ayurveda is the original owner’s manual for the human body. It offers a framework for understanding our individual differences and how to harmonize with them to maintain balance in an ever-changing world in order to protect health, increase vitality and maximize longevity. In short, Ayurveda encourages us to enjoy bliss and avoid suffering.

Ayurveda is commonly associated with India. This is largely an historical accident. Ayurveda transcends that country and culture. It originally manifested as an oral tradition during the Vedic Age, millennia before the classic Ayurvedic texts were compiled. It thereby took on the character of that time and place. On the great strength of that tradition, Ayurvedic practice has best been sustained there. Even so, much of Indian cuisine does not conform to Ayurvedic ideals.

Ayurveda was likely the dominant source for ancient medical practice in China, Greece (Hippocrates) and the Middle East (ibn Sina aka Avicenna). Its influence was still visible in western medicine and surgery even at the time I trained.

Ayurveda is not a cure-all. In the face of serious, life-threatening conditions, modern medicine is superior. But in the post-acute phase, Ayurveda still has much to offer to help mitigate side effects, restore a semblance of balance, and to the extent possible, correct the underlying imbalances that gave rise to the crisis.

For all these reasons, Ayurveda has become the guiding light by which I understand, interpret and evaluate practices of other healing traditions including “modern” medicine and the fads that sweep popular culture.

Here are some uniquely-Ayurvedic ideas:

  • Our bodies are machines for transforming food into Consciousness
  • Ayurveda is for immortality
  • The one-word definition of health (Swastha) means established in the Self— the source of Life and of the body’s inner self-repair intelligence

The primary cause of disease is the mistake of thinking that there is nothing more to the universe than what we can perceive with our five senses and scientific instruments. When we are disconnected from the source of Life, even conscientious self-care cannot fully protect against violating the myriad laws of nature. Ignorance of the law is a problem since all actions (karma) have their natural consequences for better or worse. From our experience, we know that some return quickly and others after some time. Still other consequences return in ways we cannot fully fathom.

Thus, even for those following a spiritual path to reconnect with the source of Life, there is still a need for practical guidance. Ayurveda fills this need better than any other system I’ve encountered. Ayurveda is descriptive, not prescriptive. It applies a deep understanding of the Laws of Nature to make predictions, which we can either embrace with potential benefit or ignore at our own peril. For example, here are some basic Ayurvedic recommendations to preserve health:

  • Awaken by 6 AM without an alarm
  • Exercise outdoors daily, preferably in the early morning
  • Don’t resist natural physiological urges such as to yawn, cry sneeze, pass gas or eliminate urine or stool
  • Take your main meal at mid-day—don’t skip lunch
  • Favor a lacto-vegetarian diet
  • Eat with your attention on your food
  • Avoid taking cheese or yogurt in the evening
  • Go to bed before 10 PM

The rationale for these simple, specific recommendations can be understood from first principles of Ayurveda which we’ll be exploring together. You’ll also learn the likely effects of choosing otherwise. If your current life-style doesn’t match this formula, don’t fret. Above all, don’t write off Ayurveda as unworkable. Wait until you have gained a fuller understanding. Then, thoughtfully consider what, if anything, you might want to do differently to achieve those benefits you might find yourself desiring.

Personal Change

In case I successfully inspire you to entertain some life changes, I want to throw out a note of caution: don’t allow the process of change to create undue stress for yourself or your loved-ones. Whether or not your current habits of diet and daily routine are optimal for health, your physiology has adapted to them. Sudden changes send a shock to the system that can create discomfort and collateral damage. If instead you undertake changes in a gradual way, you’ll be more comfortable and more likely to succeed in establishing new habits. The general recommendation is to go no more than ¼ of the total “distance” at a time. For example, if you were a smoker accustomed to 20 cigarettes a day and wanted to quit, you could reasonably set out to decrease that quantity by 4 or 5 at intervals of a week.

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Author: Marc Edwards

Marc is a Family Physician who has studied, practiced, lived and taught Ayurveda since 1984

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