Ayurvedic Medicine

Meaning "science of life" in Sanskrit, this 5,000-year-old healing system is right in sync with our growing awareness of the mind-body connection.

Ayurvedic Medicine
Pin it Tom Collicott

In 1987, Marc Halpern was finishing his degree in chiropractic medicine when he was crippled by a connective-tissue disorder that caused joint pain, weight loss, fatigue and fevers. "I was able to heal myself with alternative therapies, such as homeopathy and Chinese medicine, but not enough," he recalls. Then he discovered ayurvedic medicine, an ancient comprehensive lifestyle and dietary approach to healing from India. "Through ayurveda I rebuilt and restored my body. Today I'm entirely free of my original illness," says Halpern, who went on to found the California College of Ayurveda in Grass Valley.

Ayurvedic medicine first came to this country three decades ago in the work of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. In 1991, it entered mass consciousness through Deepak Chopra's Perfect Health. "In its broadest sense, ayurveda is the understanding that all your choices are metabolized into biology," says David Simon, M.D., medical director of the Chopra Center in San Diego, which he co-founded with the bestselling author. "What you hear, taste, smell, touch, how you think, your relationships--all of these influence your health."

Practitioners of ayurveda follow a balanced lifestyle that includes rising around dawn, practicing meditation and yoga, eating a diet tailored to their constitution, and enjoying input through all five senses.

Ayurveda teaches that each person is a blend of three doshas, or guiding principles within the body--vata, pitta and kapha--though usually one or two are prominent. Disease is thought to arise from an imbalance in one's doshas, explains Nancy Lonsdorf, M.D., ayurvedic practitioner and co-author of A Woman's Best Medicine: Health, Happiness, and Long Life Through Maharishi Ayur-Veda.

You can figure out if you have more prominent characteristics of one of the doshas, and then use techniques to find balance, says Lonsdorf.

Vata (air and ether) tends to be dry, cool, light, airy and creative. A predominantly vata type will likely be thin, with cold hands and feet, and dry skin. If imbalanced, vata can manifest as anxiety, insomnia, constipation, arthritis, restlessness and lack of focus. Compensate for bodily instability with regular rest and warmth. Warm water is balancing, as is a warm climate, a soft bed, warm-oil massages, warmhearted friends, and stability at home and work.

Pitta (fire and water) is described as hot, fiery, sharp and vibrant. Those who are mostly pitta will be more likely to have medium builds, oily skin, strong appetites and quick reactions. When imbalanced, pitta can erupt in anger, impatience and aggression; pitta types can suffer from inflammatory diseases ranging from heartburn to colitis to rashes. Offset the body's heat with cooling influences. Open windows, even in winter, are beneficial. Living in cooler climates, eating a cooling diet of sweet juicy fruits and watery vegetables, and taking time to relax all help balance pitta's innate sharpness and tendency to hotheadedness.

Kapha (water and earth) is considered serene and grounded. Those who are predominantly kapha may be overweight, slow, calm and deliberate, with strong bones and teeth. Too much kapha can lead to congestion, swelling and problems like diabetes, as well as resistance to change. To balance kapha's tendency toward lethargy or excess weight, participate in a regular exercise program, eat smaller quantities of food and look for opportunities to break out of a rut. Movement, dance and travel are beneficial.