(This post is a rough transcript of Wisdom of the Body podcast episode 115.)
Today I’m going to discuss the most common questions that people ask about Ayurveda. I’m going to briefly address all of them. I hope you learn something, and if you do, please reach out and let me know!
1. What is Ayurveda?
Ayurveda is this beautiful ancient system of medicine that originated in India, and is practiced all over the world today in home practice, and in clinical practice. The Sanskrit word Ayurveda translates to 'the knowledge of life' and seeks to create balance and harmony within the body. It is based on the idea that health and wellness depend on a delicate balance between mind, body and spirit. Ayurveda teaches about harmony between inner and outer environments, as well as lifestyle practices to maintain physical, mental and spiritual health.
2. How does Ayurveda work?
Your body is always regenerating, and what you do today will impact the regeneration of tissues days and weeks from now. The future of your body is being designed right now with every choice you make. If you had a plant in your house that was experiencing signs of imbalance, like wilting or rot, then you would need to figure out why it’s happening. You would give it more or less sun or wind, more or less water, different soil, more or less nutrients. Well, you need to do the same thing for yourself. If your body is out of balance, it will affect your mind, and vice versa.
Ayurveda is a healing method in which you work on the body to affect the mind, healing both in the process and allowing your true spirit to shine through.
Ayurveda draws on herbal remedies, yoga, meditation and lifestyle changes - all things that people can do at home in their day-to-day life. At home, someone practicing Ayurvedic self-care may be drinking herbs, changing their diet, or oiling their body before taking a shower to promote calm and clarity. Ayurvedic practitioners do some unique body therapies involving the application of oils, powders, steam, and various other substances to the body. Ayurvedic treatments often involve massage and special diets tailored to the individual’s needs. In india, there are Ayurvedic hospitals and wellness centers where people go for on-site cleansing and rejuvenation that lasts for days to weeks, and some practitioners do this on-site in the US, or guide people on how to do cleanses at home. We’re really big into cleansing in Ayurveda. The Ayurvedic treatment of panchakarma is the most thorough system of cleansing in the world. It’s a big commitment to healing and it’s appropriate only for some people to do.
In general, Ayurvedic treatment aims to restore the balance between the body's three doshas (Vata, Pitta, Kapha), and to balance the agni of the body, or the metabolic fire of the body that helps digest and assimilate the food taken into the body.
The word dosha means that which can go out of balance. Our body has three types of doshas that shift and change according to the seasons, behaviors, emotions, food, life stage, and environmental factors. Vata dosha is the movement of air and the opening of spaces in the body. You might know it through gas, or fear, or joy, or anxiety. You can feel doshas. When vata is in balance, the right amount of energy and space exists in all channels of the body. When it’s too high, we might feel unsettled, ungrounded, erratic and physically, our body begins to experience disruption, leading to erosion and degeneration of tissues. When vata is too high, we must rein things in to ground, properly nourish, create stability, consistency and get more support.
Pitta dosha is the hot lava of the body, which transforms matter from one form into another. There are constant conversions and transformations taking place within you. When your pitta is in balance, your body processes are happening effectively. When pitta is too high, things can feel intense, and you may get inflammation, redness. Pitta means that which cooks, so it’s literally like your body is cooking itself because of all the extra pitta.
Kapha dosha is the water and earth of the body. Too much water dilutes. Too much earth makes things heavy and blocked. We want everything in balance!
3. What are the benefits of Ayurveda?
Ayurveda’s goal is to help you develop properly formed tissues, have balanced metabolic fire, and have a mind, spirit and senses that are in harmony so that you can rest in your truest essence, where flow, clarity and purpose prevail. Ayurveda will eliminate held energy or emotions, toxins, and poor digestion and hampered vitality so you can have a body and a mind that is pure and connected, resting in its own true nature.
Traditionally, in India, Ayurveda was used to treat the full scope of medical conditions that humans experienced at the time. Today, it is used to promote longevity, prevent disease, to rebalance issues that left unchecked will turn into disease, and it’s also used by many to treat conditions such as chronic fatigue, digestive issues, respiratory illnesses, skin conditions, fertility issues, memory and mood problems, and stress-related disorders. It’s also used to rejuvenate a woman in the postpartum period, and is used in a complementary manner to rejuvenate individuals going through intense medical treatments.
It works by helping to restore the body's natural balance. The benefits are felt in mind and body and in spirit.
4. Is Ayurveda safe?
This is a really good question because every tool can be used to help or to harm, so I would say that the different Ayurvedic treatments and therapies are safe when they are applied in the right circumstance. This is why it’s important to work with a skilled Ayurvedic practitioner. There are lots of things in Ayurvedic principles and practice that would generally be considered safe for most people, like living in line with the seasons and the circadian rhythms, or eating the right food for your mind-body type. However, not all Ayurvedic therapies are good for everyone. For example, we may recommend herbs for cleansing, for example, to someone who isn’t pregnant, but if someone who was pregnant were to take those same herbs, they might cause problems with the pregnancy. Perhaps they might not be safe for a pregnant woman to consume because they increase the downward movement in the body. In the same way that it makes no sense to give a cancer drug to a person who doesn’t have cancer, or a diabetes drug to a person who doesn’t have diabetes, you don’t give an Ayurvedic medicine or treatment to strengthen digestion to a person who already has strong digestion. Make sense?
Some of the Ayurvedic herbs that are imported from India, Sri Lanka and other countries have been found to contain high levels of heavy metals like lead, so that is disconcerting. Some companies do not have high standards for testing their products and different countries have different laws and regulations, so when you are importing from other countries, you should do everything you can to learn whether the product is safe to ingest.
There is also a class of Ayurvedic herbal preparation called rasashastra, in which it’s claimed that certain substances that are generally considered harmful for ingestion into the human body are prepared in an herbal formulation in a way that doesn’t make them harmful. However, I don’t know that the studies are really good enough on this, and as far as I’m aware of, in the scope of practice for an Ayurvedic Practitioner in the United States, we do not have any of these herbal formulations on the list of approved medicinal formulas.
But some herbs and formulations contain simply kitchen spices that you probably already have in your home. There is a very wide array of medicines that are delivered orally or topically and delivered in different sorts of carriers, like a tea, or a skin oil, or a scent that you breathe in.
I’ll be honest, I’m very cautious about the herbal formulas I use and I only order through certain companies that I trust because I know they are doing rigorous testing.
5. How do I learn more about Ayurveda?
Well, first, I hope you are learning a lot about Ayurveda from me today! There is so much information available about Ayurveda now compared to when I was studying it 10 years ago. There are lots of wellness influencers teaching about different Ayurvedic self-care practices now, though most of them have received minimal training. That’s probably the easiest way to learn more. But if you are serious about it, then I would read a book, like my book The Ayurvedic Guide to Fertility, or any of Vasant Lad’s books, or John Douillard’s books.
There are also many places to take a course in Ayurveda – from general self-care focus, all the way to becoming a clinical Ayurvedic practitioner. The most rigorous trainings are found in India, Nepal and Sri Lanka, where the medicine is practiced more widely.
And I think there is no better way to learn about Ayurveda than to do a consultation with an Ayurvedic Practitioner so that you can learn all about your unique mind-body type and how to treat your body seasonally, and establish cleansing and rejuvenation practices that are appropriate for your life stage. You can book a virtual consultation with me on my website at heathergrzych.com. And you may have someone practicing locally in your region if you want to see someone in person. If you’re located in the United States, check the National Ayurvedic Medical Assocation Professional Member Directory to see if there is a practitioner located near you.
6. What are the different types of Ayurvedic medicine?
Ayurveda uses food as medicine. It uses herbs as medicine. It uses lifestyle and behavioral changes as medicine. It uses body therapies, yoga, exercise, meditation and circadian and seasonal alignment as medicine. One of the therapies I enjoy using in my practice is fasting, or a lightening practice, referred to as langhana.
There are many different kinds of herbal medicines used in Ayurvedic medicine. Some herbs are for digestion. Others are to balance a dosha. Some are to increase blood flow to a certain area, to make you sweat more, or less. Some will help with memory, and others will help with respiratory issues, immune strength, fertility. There are so many. Some you might be familiar with already are:
Ashwagandha Amalaki Shankhapushpi Gokshura Brahmi Jatamansi Licorice Turmeric Shatavari Neem
There are six types of body therapies used in Ayurvedic practice:
Langhana - lightening
Brahmana - building
Snehana - oiling
Swedana - sweating
Rukshana - roughening
Stambhana - stopping
7. Are there any Ayurvedic treatments for specific diseases?
Yes, there are certain herbal medicines and also cleansing and rejuvenation procedures for specific disease-process states. However, Ayurveda is not a one-sized-fits-all approach. All treatments are highly personalized to the body constitutional type, the doshas imbalanced, the climate a person is in, the life stage, previous injuries or health conditions and strength of the person. A person who is experiencing weak digestion with a pitta imbalance would be treated differently than a person experiencing weak digestion with a vata imbalance. Different guidelines must be followed. Again, why working with a skilled Ayurvedic Practitioner is important.
8. Is there an Ayurvedic diet I should follow?
Yes, you should learn what your mind-body type is and then follow the appropriate diet for that. Specifically, you should learn what your prakruti and vikruti are. Prakruti is your nature – a comprehensive description of your body type, physiology, and psychological disposition when in balance, and vikruti is your current state of imbalance. Your vikruti is changing all the time in response to the seasons, your behaviors, things in your environment, emotional responses, relationships and your life stage. The expression of the doshas changes as your vikruti changes.
In addition, you want to learn what kind of agni, or digestive fire, you have. If you have weak agni, then eating something you think is healthy, like a whole-grain diet or a diet of salads will not work because it won’t digest completely. Then you will want to eat more cooked soups, stews and other cooked foods that will require less agni to break them down and promote stronger digestion and assimilation.
As you can see, there is no one Ayurvedic diet to follow. Ayurveda requires you to learn something about yourself rather than look for the magic pill. When you work with an Ayurvedic Practitioner to understand your unique body type, you can make personalized health choices that are in line with what you actually need.
9. Does Ayurveda have any side effects?
I’ve heard some people say that Ayurveda doesn’t have any side effects, and I would say that is true when it is applied correctly at the right time, with the right person, and with the right material. ANY medicine will have side effects if it’s used in the wrong circumstance. Herbal medicines are often less potent than synthesized medicines, and that’s one reason they are not regulated the same way as pharmaceuticals. Everyone has access to purchase herbal medicines to try them, and you can grow them at home – with some exceptions – so I would assume that the US Government generally thinks they are generally safe.
However, if you take too much garlic, you’ll get heartburn. If you take an herb that acts as a diuretic and makes to pee more, then you will excrete a lot of liquid from your body, and then you’ll need to hydrate – so if you don’t hydrate more, then you will get other side effects, but would they be the side effects of that herb, or not following proper procedure when taking that herb?
10. Does insurance cover Ayurvedic treatments and medicines?
I love this question because through the years, I have done a lot of work in the health insurance industry. That was actually my main field before I studied Ayurveda. I’m sorry to say that insurance doesn’t cover Ayurveda in the US. And that’s really sad because there is a great need for it in the healthcare system. We spend more money on healthcare in the US, but get worse results than other countries that spend what we spend. We’re also facing a physician shortage in the coming years. People will need more help in healthcare in the United States, and I’d love for Ayurveda to become more widely utilized, and if you do too, please reach out and let me know what you think we can do!
I hope you’ve enjoyed this run-down on the top ten questions about Ayurveda. Don’t forget to reach out if you have more questions about Ayurveda. Formerly something that was only available for royal families in India is now available for you. Ayurveda is so magical and I would love to help you feel your best, improve longevity, fertility and your entire being – in mind, body and spirit.
Ayurveda is good for you, and it’s good for the planet. I believe it’s the most sustainable form of medicine on the planet. It really is an incredible way to listen to the Wisdom of the Body again.