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Too often we in the Western half of the world dismiss ideas and practices that we're unfamiliar with. That's a bit narrow-minded. Since the death process in every life form begins at the moment growth stops, we can identify at least this one facet of longevity and healthy upon which we can exert a distinct and even identifiable influence.
Ayurveda is a great example of how to use knowledge for our definite benefit.
Practiced in India for the past five thousand years, Ayurveda, or ayurvedic medicine (meaning "science of life"), is a comprehensive system of medicine combining natural therapies with a highly personalized approach to the treatment of disease. Ayurvedic medicine places equal emphasis on body, mind, and spirit, and strives to restore the innate harmony of the individual.
The first question an Ayurvedic physician asks is not 'What disease does my patient have?' but "Who is my patient?'" explains Deepak Chopra, M.D., a Western-trained endocrinologist who has introduced Ayurvedic medicine to the general reader through a number of popular books. "By 'who,'" adds Dr. Chopra, "the physician does not mean your name, but how you are constituted."
"Constitution" is the keystone of Ayurvedic medicine, and refers to the overall health profile of the individual, including strengths and susceptibilities. The subtle and often intricate identification of a person's constitution is the first critical step in the process. Once established, it becomes the foundation for all clinical decisions.
To determine an individual's constitution, Ayurvedic doctors first identify the patient's metabolic body type. A specific treatment plan is then designed to guide the individual back into harmony with his or her environment, which may include dietary changes, exercise, yoga, meditation, massage, herbal tonics, herbal sweat baths, medicated enemas, and medicated inhalations.
The Three Metabolic Body Types: Vata, Pitta, and Kapha
Ayurvedic medicine is founded on the concept of metabolic body types, or doshas. The three metabolic body types are known as vata, pitta, and kapha. They include distinctions or physique similar to the Western view of body types as then, muscular, and fat, but Ayurvedic medicine considers them to have far greater influence on a person's health and well-being than do physical attributes alone.
Dr. Chopra describes the Ayurvedic body type as a blueprint which outlines all of the innate tendencies built into a person's system. One's dosha and the characteristics which reveal it, clarify why one person, for example, will have no reaction to milk, chili, loud noise, or humidity, while another will be not able to tolerate them.
Most people are a mixture of dosha characteristics (such as vata-pitta), with one usually more predominant than another. Each of the body types flourishes under a specific diet, exercise plan, and lifestyle.
The Vata Body Type According to Dr. Chopra, the primary characteristic of the vata metabolic type is changeability. Unpredictability and variability - in size, shape, mood, and action - is the vata trademark. Vatas tend to be slender with prominent features, joints, and veins, with cool, dry skin. Moody, enthusiastic, imaginative, and impulsive, the vata type is quick to grasp ideas and is good at initiating things but poor at finishing them. Vatas eat and sleep erratically and are prone to anxiety, insomnia, premenstrual syndrome, and constipation. Vata energy fluctuates, with jagged peaks and valleys.
The Pitta Body TypeThe pitta metabolic body type is relatively predictable. The pitta person is of medium build, strength, and endurance. He or she is well-proportioned and easily maintains a stable weight. Often fair, the pitta type will frequently have red or blond hair, freckles, and a ruddy complexion. Pittas have a quick, articulate, biting intelligence, and can be critical or passionate with short, explosive tempers. Efficient and moderate in daily habits, the pitta type eats and sleeps regularly, eating three meals a day and sleeping eight hours at night. Pitta types tend to perspire heavily and are warm and often thirsty. They suffer from acne, ulcers, hemorrhoids, and stomach ailments.
The Kapha Body Type"The basic theme of the kapha metabolic type is relaxed," says Dr. Chopra. The kapha body type is solid, heavy, and strong. With a tendency to be overweight, kaphas have slow digestion and somewhat oily hair, and cool, damp, pale skin. Everything kapha is slow - kapha types are slow to anger, slow to eat, slow to act. They sleep long and heavily. Kaphas tend to procrastinate and be obstinate. A kapha body type will be prone to high cholesterol, obesity, allergies, and sinus problems.
The Three Doshas and Health
Although each person's metabolic type is determined by a predominant dosha, all three doshas are present in varying degrees in every cell, tissue, and organ of the body.
According to Vasant Lad, M.A.Sc., an Ayurvedic physician and Director of the Ayurvedic Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico, the doshas are located in specific areas of the body:
Vata is motion that activates the physical system and allows the body to breathe and circulate blood. The seats of the vata are the large intestine, pelvic cavity, bones, skin, ears, and thighs.
Pitta, the metabolism processes food, air, and water and is responsible for charging the hundreds of enzymatic activities throughout the body. The seats of pitta are the small intestine, stomach, sweat glands, blood, skin, and eyes.
Kapha, the structure of bones, muscle, and fat that holds the body together, offers nourishment and protection. For example, the chest, the lungs, and the spinal fluid surrounding the spinal cord are the seats of kapha in the body.
When the doshas are balanced in accordance with an individual's constitution, the result is vibrant health and energy. But when the delicate balance is disturbed, the body becomes susceptible to outside stressors, which may range from viruses and bacteria to poor nutrition and overwork. Imbalance in the doshas is the first sign that mind and body are not perfectly coordinated, notes Dr. Chopra. He points out that once people understand the characteristics and qualities ascribed to their body types, they can take appropriate measures, through changes in diet, lifestyle, and environment, to restore dosha balance, which will prevent disease and ensure continued good health.
The Disease Process According to Ayurvedic MedicineAyurvedic defines health as a soundness and balance between body, mind, and soul, and an equilibrium between the doshas. According to Ayurvedic medicine, there are seven major factors that can disrupt physiological harmony - genetic, congenital, internal, external trauma; seasonal, natural tendencies or habits; and magnetic and electrical influences. Virender Sodhi, M.D. (Ayurveda), N.D., Director of the American School of Ayurvedic Science in Bellevue, Washington, says that "disease is the result of a disruption of the spontaneous flow of nature's intelligence within our physiology. When we violate nature's law and cannot adequately rid ourselves of the results of this disruption, then we have disease."
There are pathologies recognized as being genetically based. For example, when placed in a particular environment, a predisposed individual may have a tendency to develop a health problem prompted by his or her surroundings. This genetic susceptibility can be triggered in the womb by the mother's lifestyle, diet, habits, activities, and emotions. Accordingly, individuals possess natural tendencies to adopt certain habits, such as overeating and smoking.
From birth, stressors - both inner and outer - challenge an individual's health. For example, hot, spicy food can induce an ulcer or damage the liver. Disease can also have an emotional cause, such as deep-seated, unresolved anger, fear, anxiety, grief, or sadness. External traumas and injuries can also play an influential role.
Ayurvedia also takes into account how the seasons and time of day influence health. Dietary and other therapeutic suggestions are often prescribed with this in mind. To say that summer is a pitta season means that pitta qualities are at their height during this time. Summer's bright light and heat can induce inflammatory conditions such as hives, rash, acne, biliary disorders, diarrhea, or conjunctivitis in pitta individuals. Vata's season is autumn, and because autumn reflects windy, dry, and cold qualities, vata people tend to develop neurological, muscular, and rheumatic problems such as constipation, sciatica, arthritis, and rheumatism. Winter's deep cold and biting wind brings out more kapha characteristics, and stresses the kapha respiratory system with colds, hay fever, cough, congestion, sneezing, and sinus disorders. Spring is both pitta and kapha; the coolness, budding leaves, and beautiful flowers of early spring enhance kapha's constitution; late spring promotes pitta.
The Art of Ayurvedic DiagnosisAyurvedic physicians have traditionally relied on the powers of observation rather than equipment and laboratory testing to diagnose disease. Diagnosis is based on physical observation, questioning the patient as to personal and family history, palpation (feeling the body), and listening to the heart, lungs, and intestines. This approach is changing, however, as physicians integrate Ayurvedic traditions with modern diagnostic methods.
The one dichotomy of the Way of Personal Mastery
Ayurvedic physicians pay special attention to the pulse, tongue, eyes, and nails. Whereas Western medical doctors use the pulse to determine heart rate, Ayurvedic doctors describe three distinct types of pulses: vata, pitta, and kapha. They can distinguish twelve different radial (or wrist) pulses: six on the right wrist (three superficial and three deep) and, similarly, six on the left wrist. By focusing on the relationship between the pulses and the internal organs, a skillful practitioner can feel the strength, vitality, and normal physiological tone of specific organs at each of the twelve sites.
The tongue is another diagnostic site. By observing the surface of the tongue and looking for discoloration and/or sensitivity of particular areas, an adept practitioner can gain insight into the functional status of internal organs. For example, a whitish tongue indicates a disruption of kapha and accumulation of mucus; and a black to brown discoloration indicates a vata disturbance. A dehydrated tongue is symptomatic of a decrease in the plasma, while a pale tongue indicates a decrease in red blood cells.
Ayurvedic physicians routinely perform urine examinations to help them diagnose doshic imbalance in a patient. An early morning midstream sample of urine is collected, and its color observed. Blackish-brown indicates a vata disorder; dark yellow, an imbalance with pitta. If the urine is cloudy, there is a kapha disorder. When a person is constipated or is not drinking adequate amounts of water, his or her urine will be dark yellow. Red urine indicates a blood disorder.
Normal urine has a typical uremic, or musty, smell. A foul odor, however, indicates toxins in the system. Acidic urine, which creates a burning sensation, indicates excel pitta. A sweet smell to the urine indicates a diabetic condition. An individual with this condition may experience goose bumps on the skin surface while passing urine. Gravel in the urine indicates stones in the urinary tract.
Disease Management in Ayurvedic Medicine
Ayurvedic medicine holds that in order to restore health one must first understand and correctly diagnose the disease or bodily imbalance. After diagnosis, there are four main methods by which an Ayurvedic physician manages disease: cleansing and detoxifying, palliation, rejuvenation, and mental hygiene.
Treatments in Ayurvedic Medicine