Ayurveda, the healing system native to India, has been practiced for millennia. Along with yoga, it is based on the Vedas, Sanskrit texts that date as far back as 1,500 BCE. Often translated as “the science of life,” ayurveda centers around the importance of individual balance and the balance between the individual and the laws of nature.
Some historians say that Patanjali, who compiled and codified the Yoga Sutras in the centuries just before or just after the first millennium, also outlined the Charaka Samhita, one of the foundational texts of ayurveda. But yoga and ayurveda share even more than that. Underpinning both is the philosophy of Samkhya (also Sankhya), which gives us a map of the universe and an explanation for how cosmic consciousness manifested itself into form.
Samkhya is dualistic—that is, everything can be categorized as either purusha (pure consciousness) or prakriti (matter or form). All physical existence derives from prakriti, which has three qualities, known as gunas: sattva, tamas, or rajas. From these three qualities arise the five elements, as well as the senses, the sense organs, the motor organs, the mind—24 universal principles in all.
Ayurveda’s methods are based on these principles. When all are balanced, the individual is healthy. When something is out of order (disarranged or deranged), the disease process begins. Most yogis are familiar with ayurveda’s concept of the doshas, or individual constitutions: kapha (earth/water), pitta (water/fire), vata (air/space). And many of us have experienced ayurvedic treatments like shirodhara that have found their way into spas and studios. But as it was practiced historically, ayurveda encompasses a vast array of diagnostic techniques and remedies, including tongue analysis, cleanses, herbology, mantra, and even gem therapy. (The 2001 film Ayurveda: The Art of Being, is a beautiful introduction to some of the ayurvedic practices less familiar in the West.)
Balance, prevention, and self-care are key to ayurveda, and several simple practices especially beneficial for yogis can be added easily to a daily routine. One is abhyanga, daily massage with warm oil, which helps prepare the muscles and joints for asana. Simple cleanses include nasal irrigation with a neti pot, which aids in yogic breathing and meditation. Eating according to one’s dosha can improve digestion and increase energy. Dr. Vasant Lad, one of the first to introduce ayurveda to the West, has said, “Ayurveda can be practiced successfully by anyone for the achievement of good health and longevity.”
The ultimate goal of yoga is self-realization. Ayurveda helps us create a foundation for self-realization by giving us practical means for understanding how the universe works within us. These “sister sciences,” despite their great age, continue to be relevant in the modern world and across cultures, offering deep insights about inner human nature and our relationship to the natural world around us.
Ayurveda has eight ways to diagnose illness, called Nadi (pulse), Mootra (urine), Mala (stool), Jihva (tongue), Shabda (speech), Sparsha (touch), Druk (vision), and Aakruti (appearance). Ayurvedic practitioners approach diagnosis by using the five senses. For example, hearing is used to observe the condition of breathing and speech. The study of the lethal points or marman marma is of special importance.
Treatment and Prevention
Two of the eight branches of classical Ayurveda deal with surgery (Śalya-cikitsā and Śālākya-tantra), but contemporary Ayurveda tends to stress attaining vitality by building a healthy metabolic system and maintaining good digestion and excretion. Ayurveda also focuses on exercise, yoga, and meditation. One type of prescription is a Sattvic diet.
Ayurveda follows the concept of Dinacharya, which says that natural cycles (waking, sleeping, working, meditation etc.) are important for health. Hygiene, including regular bathing, cleaning of teeth, tongue scraping, skin care, and eye washing, is also a central practice.
According to some sources, up to 80 percent of people in India use some form of traditional medicine, a category which includes Ayurveda. In 1970, the Indian Medical Central Council Act which aimed to standardise qualifications for Ayurveda practitioners and provide accredited institutions for its study and research was passed by the Parliament of India. In 1971, the Central Council of Indian Medicine (CCIM) was established under the Department of Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha medicine and Homoeopathy (AYUSH), Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, to monitor higher education in Ayurveda in India. The Indian government supports research and teaching in Ayurveda through many channels at both the national and state levels, and helps institutionalise traditional medicine so that it can be studied in major towns and cities. The state-sponsored Central Council for Research in Ayurvedic Sciences (CCRAS) is designed to do research on Ayurveda. Many clinics in urban and rural areas are run by professionals who qualify from these institutes. As of 2013, India has over 180 training centers offer degrees in traditional Ayurvedic medicine.