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What Is Ayurveda?

What is Ayurveda?

“Ayurveda is all about finding things we can do, eat, say and think that will optimize our Prana, and integrating those things into our life.” —Dr. Robert Svoboda (“Prana” refers to energy, life or breath; it is the life-giving force, or universal energy)

Most people in the spa industry have heard of Ayurveda, though they aren’t really sure what the word means. Derived from the Sanskrit language, it is made up of two words: “Ayu = life” and “Veda = wisdom,” or “the wisdom of life.” Originating more than 5,000 years ago, it is the oldest known holistic medicine and bears its roots in the Indian subcontinent, where it is still popular. Many modern spas have adopted some Ayurvedic therapies, but as a health science, it offers much more than oil massage techniques.

Ayurvedic medicine is different from modern medicine because it believes in finding and eliminating the root cause of disorders and focuses on using food as the first medicine to heal your body, by personalizing your diet lifestyle according to your needs and how your individual body works. Ayurveda focuses not just on physical health, but strives to inject harmony in all aspects of life whether physical, psychological, emotional, spiritual or social.  

A foundation of Ayurveda is the concept of five basic elements in nature – ether, air, fire, water and earth – which make everything in the universe. In the human body, these combine to form certain bio-energies known as the “doshas.” The word dosha literally means “the one that maligns,” and thus doshas are tendencies in the body that serve as the seeds of diseases if not balanced. 

The “Tridosha Theory” in Ayurveda defines three bio-energies, or doshas: Vata, Pitta and Kapha, each of which signifies the energy of the wind, sun and moon, respectively. Vata is dry, cold and constantly moving, and leads to wandering tendencies of the body as well as of the mind; Pitta is hot and sharp, which leads to fieriness of the body and mind; whereas Kapha is calm, cold and heavy, which can lead to sluggishness of the body and mind if left unchecked. Each person has all three doshas in their body constitution and has a dominance of either one or two, or a balance of all three doshas. This is known as Prakriti, which also translates as “innate nature,” and is popularly known as a “dosha type” or body constitution. Your body constitution determines the diet and lifestyle you should be following to stay in balance. In today’s world of ever-changing diets and food trends, one must know their dosha type to avoid falling prey to dietary fads that can sometimes create more harm than good. For example, a person with a Vata-dominant body type should refrain from fasting unless it is done under supervision. Similarly, cayenne pepper in the Master Cleanse can create issues like hyperacidity, gastritis or ulcers in a Pitta-dominant individual. The Tridosha model of Ayurveda can be used to develop a greater understanding of what foods support your physical as well as mental/emotional needs.

When it comes to mental characteristics, people are categorized into three types: Sattvic, those who have profound clarity of thought and actions and a good degree of self-knowledge; Rajasic, those whose minds are restless and constantly wandering, which can often lead to excess passion, anger, etc; and Tamasic, those whose minds are sluggish and dull, leading to false perceptions and depression. 

Ayurveda celebrates the importance of food by placing it as the first of the three pillars of health. To maintain health, all meals should contain six different tastes: sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent. Foods can impact each of the individual doshas depending on the similar or opposite qualities; for example, breakfast cereals are dry, rough grains which would aggravate Vata if eaten often, but the same grains cooked in water will prevent Vata aggravation. Following an Ayurvedic diet and lifestyle can prevent food allergies, improve your digestion to eliminate food sensitivities, increase energy, regulate sleep, balance your hormones and support overall health.

The changes in seasons can also lead to natural fluctuations of doshas in your body. Spring allergies, which create symptoms like phlegm and sneezing, are a result of excess Kapha in the body; likewise, symptoms of arthritis-like joint pain in the fall season can be attributed to excess Vata in the environment, which leads to Vata aggravation in the body. 

Ayurveda also provides various body therapies that can help maintain your health by preventing dosha aggravation and supporting healing. Due to their gentle, relaxing effects, these therapies are also popular as Ayurvedic spa therapies:

Abhyanga: Ayurvedic oil massage is prescribed as a part of the daily routine, prior to bathing. Abhyanga provides a multitude of benefits by its dosha-pacifying action such as building strength, increasing circulation, improving stamina and promoting a calm and restful sleep. It also improves the lustre of skin and enhances complexion. Regular abhyanga promotes longevity by nourishing the entire body. During abhyanga, various medicinal oils that have been cooked with herbs are selected depending on the constitution type, the type of ailment or the desired action. The most basic oil used is warm sesame oil, which is Vata-balancing in action as well as strengthening as it penetrates deep into the body tissues. For Pitta, various oils containing sandalwood are used, whereas for Kapha oils, containing camphor can be used to aid circulation and warm the body.

“Shiroabhyanga” is abhyanga done to the head region, with cooling herbs to aid sleep and make hair grow thick and luxurious. Regular application of shiroabhyanga can alleviate headache, prevent greying and help sharpen the senses.

“Padabhyanga” is a popular Ayurvedic foot massage with medicated oils to relieve roughness, stiffness, dryness, fatigue and numbness of feet. This is also seen to support vision in addition to restful sleep. 

Udhvartana: This type of massage uses powdered herbs, clay, salt, sugar or herbal paste applied to the body. This aims at detoxifying, exfoliating as well as stimulating the body. Udhvartana is mainly used to balance Kapha dosha and can help strengthen as well as tone the body and prevent body odour. Udhvartana also helps the body to lose fat as well as cellulite by increasing the blood circulation, and it improves the glow of the skin.

Katibasti:This is a popular treatment for conditions like lower back pain, sciatica and other disc-related conditions. For this procedure, a wall is created with the help of black gram flour around the lower back and filled with medicated Ayurvedic oils. This helps reduce pain and inflammation and helps rejuvenate the discs.

Pinda Sweda: This unique Ayurvedic therapy involves the use of “rice puddings” or medicinal rice cooked with herbs and bundled into soft cotton to create warm boluses that are then used for massaging the body. This involves both massage as well as fomentation and is recommended for muscle stiffness, muscle weakness and achy joints. It helps promote the elimination of toxins while enhancing circulation and blood flow to the musculature and joints, so it is used to treat arthritis, spondylitis, muscular pains, back pains as well as sports injuries.

Shirodhara: “Shiro” means head and “dhara” means pouring. This is a relaxing, gentle procedure where warm liquid like medicated oils, milk, buttermilk or even water is poured on the forehead in a constant gentle stream over the region of the third eye. This therapy has a profoundly calming effect on the brain while stimulating the nervous system to invigorate both the mind and body. One of the most popular treatments in Ayurveda today, shirodhara serves as a great stress management therapy that can be used to combat insomnia, anxiety, as well as stress-related physical issues like high blood pressure and psoriasis. Shirodhara promotes mental clarity, enhances memory and increases spiritual awareness, in addition to promoting youthfulness by reducing worry lines. 

Nasya: In Ayurveda the nostrils are considered as the doors to your brain, so this is a popular therapy employed to support and strengthen everything above your clavicles. Both a healing and cleansing procedure, nasya employs a massage to the forehead with fomentation, followed by application of herbal oil drops in the nasal passages. This therapy enhances mental clarity and memory, strengthens nasal passages, sharpens all senses and combats insomnia as well as migraines. Due to its benefits it is included in the five main detox procedures known as Panchakarma.

Ayurveda can help you gain an in-depth insight into your body and mind by revealing your unique blueprint, and by providing a holistic plan to maintain balance and health. While many spas may only offer one or two of these treatments, there is much more to explore for those who are curious.  

Manjiri Nadkarni

Manjiri Nadkarni is an Ayurveda MD (trained in India), Registered Holistic Nutritionist and President of the Ayurveda Association of Canada, which she co-founded in 2017.

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