This story was originally titled "Healing with Ayurveda" in the November 2007 issue. Subscribe to Canadian Living today and never miss an issue!
I’m lying on my stomach on a massage table, my face cradled in a terry-cloth "doughnut" above a steaming bowl of stuff. I think I see chunks of orange and a shelled walnut floating in the brine down below. The fragrant steam wafting through the hole in the table’s face cradle is part of an ayurvedic massage offered at the Andrea Olivera Centre for Ayurveda in Toronto. As the steam massages my sinuses, I revel in the glorious sensation of hot oil being dribbled and swooshed in long, rhythmic strokes across my back.
If you’re looking for indulgent pampering, this is the way to go. And if you’re looking for relief from a health problem (I suffer headaches), this is also the place to be. No wonder ayurvedic medicine seems to be gaining in popularity across the country.
What is ayurveda?
Ayurveda (meaning "the science of life") is a holistic healing system that originated in India more than 5,000 years ago. It treats mind, body and spirit as one, and strives to balance the essential elements that exist in all of us to attain our natural state of pure health. It does this through a variety of cleansing and rejuvenating treatments and practices that can include diet, exercise, meditation and, yes, massage. Yoga is part of the ayurvedic tradition, too – when you perform some yoga positions, you’re engaging in a physical and spiritual exercise that is rooted in ayurvedic philosophy.
"Ayurveda is a whole system of living," says Olivera, an ayurveda spa specialist who created many of the beauty treatments for Aveda, a manufacturer of plant-based skin- and hair-care products. "Only when the entire person is considered – not just a specific complaint – can you expect to achieve optimum levels of health and well-being," she says.
Nitin Shah, an ayurvedic practitioner in Toronto, agrees. "The ayurvedic doctor is more like a teacher than a Western doctor," he says. "We teach people how to take responsibility for their own health and longevity by maintaining a healthy lifestyle. If there is no balance, there is no health."
But how to achieve that elusive balance?
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The first step is through knowledge. A typical ayurvedic consultation begins with a practitioner listening to your pulse and assessing your eyes, tongue and nails for evidence of imbalance. The practitioner also queries you extensively about your health and disease history, spiritual practices, temperament, energy level, diet, sleep habits, digestion and metabolism.
This information helps determine your basic constitution; in ayurvedic terms, it’s comprised of three basic doshas, or energies, which are the same ones that make up the entire universe: earth (called kapha, pronounced "kapa" or "kafa"), fire (pitta) and air (vata).
One or two of the three main energies tend to predominate in each of us, and this determines our predisposition and our strengths and weaknesses. Vatas, for example, are creative and quick to learn, but they’re also prone to anxiety, constipation and stroke. Kaphas are nurturing but must guard against their tendency toward obesity, lethargy and indulgence. Pittas are fiery, with hot tempers but warm hearts.
According to Ramesh Modi, president of the International Council of Ayurvedic Physicians Inc., who practises at the Ayurved and Acupuncture Centre in Toronto, I’m a vata. I am excitable – a fast talker with lots of mental energy. But this morning I’m more kapha than vata. There’s no sign of mental quickness as I lie inert over the steaming herbal cleanser; there’s only the slow, groggy numbness I associate with the morning. That’s because doshas fluctuate in what Olivera calls "the elemental dance."
Doshas exist outside of people, too, and these can also affect moods and behaviours. According to Shah, different times of day and seasons have their own doshas. Morning is kapha. You may find it difficult to get moving before 10 a.m., especially if you’re a slow-moving, kapha-controlled person to begin with. Many people, myself included, need a stimulating beverage to get going in the morning. Sunshiny, energizing pitta becomes stronger during the morning and is strongest at midday when the sun, too, is at its peak. That’s when you should do your most demanding work.
Sounds like common sense?
There’s a good reason. "It’s because ayurveda is Mother Nature’s wisdom," says Shah, and her advice is the key to boosting immunity and maintaining your health.
Page 2 of 4What happens when your inner dance starts to lose its natural beat?
Stress, overwork, poor dietary habits and lack of exercise may cause your delicate dosha balance to come undone. You may start to feel rundown, or get nervous and edgy. An excess of fiery pitta may cause a flare-up of rashes, fevers and heartburn.
Let’s say you’re having problems at work and your boss makes you increasingly angry. This stimulates your pitta beyond its normal balance. If you’re a pitta type, you’re especially prone to an overactive pitta and may break out in a rash, get headaches or hot flashes. Too much kapha, though, can cause lethargy, heaviness and bloating.
How to restore balance
To restore balance and promote healing, practitioners create a wellness plan. It may involve dietary changes as well as particular herbs or remedies matched to your essential nature and present condition. To reduce the severity of my headaches, Modi suggested I avoid cooling vata foods, such as dairy products, cucumbers and orange juice, and start my day with ginger tea. This is supposed to reduce the amount of "air" in my body and let my three doshas regain their normal balance.
Count on your treatment plan to make use of your five senses, the main channels for healing. You may be asked to listen to particular sounds, such as repetitive chanting. Music can refocus thoughts and feelings to either uplift or soothe. You may be told to view specific images; if you’re a vata, you may need the peace and calm that a beautiful image of a goddess can provide. I was told to try a few minutes of quiet daily meditation to quiet my mind and relieve my headaches.
Back in touch
The sense of touch is how many Westerners are introduced to ayurveda. "Because of our go-go society, vata, which is associated with achievement and activity, is usually the first to go out of whack," explains Olivera. The more we do, the more a vata is stimulated. Even kaphas can start to feel overwhelmed and rushed. Think of a city dweller, Blackberry in hand, finding it hard to concentrate and relax. To turn vata down, ayurvedic practitioners make use of the sense of touch. They know that a massage calms and soothes. Or, as Olivera puts it, "Massage – touch – is important for correcting excess vata."
Which is why I’m here, with my well-oiled head wrapped in a towel and nibbling a delicious tidbit designed to reduce my overactive vata. It’s only a start, but I can already feel my doshas starting to tap their toes for the next round of dancing.
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Curious, but don’t know where to begin?
You don’t need to go to a fancy spa or shell out a lot of money to experience ayurveda. Many ayurvedic prescriptions for common ailments are easy to try at home. The next time you’re feeling under the weather, brew up one of these traditional remedies.
• Mix 1/2 tsp (2 mL) each cinnamon, fennel seeds and ground ginger.
• Add a pinch of cloves.
• Steep in 1 cup (250 mL) of hot water for 10 minutes.
• Strain before drinking.
• Sprinkle pinch each salt and pepper on 1 oz (30 g) pomegranate seeds.
• Mix well and enjoy.
• Massage forehead, temples, neck and shoulder muscles with peppermint-scented oil.
How to find an ayurvedic doctor
Ayurvedic practitioners are not regulated by legislation in Canada. Nor are there any ayurvedic programs in North America.
Try to find a practitioner with a postgraduate degree in holistic and ayurvedic medicine from a university in India. Look for one with a bachelor of ayurvedic medicine and surgery or a doctor of ayurvedic medicine. Be wary if one offers quick fixes; ayurveda is more about preventing illness and maintaining health than about cures.
To find a practitioner in your area, contact:
The Ayurvedic Medical Association of Canada
102–1 Gloucester St.
Toronto M4Y 1L8
Phone: (416) 967-6891
Fax: (416) 922-2287
For more information, visit the International Council of Ayurvedic Physicians Inc.
But does it work?
Ayurveda is not an instant cure-all. You can’t take an herb prescribed by an ayurvedic doctor and expect perfect health tomorrow. Instead, ayurveda advocates a complete, healthy lifestyle that includes your diet, your type and level of exercise, and your spiritual practices. In this regard, ayurveda resembles the Chinese system of medicine, which also incorporates physical aspects (tai chi), diet (lots of ginger), acupuncture (touch) and spiritual habits to improve or maintain health.
Many of the tools used by ayurvedic specialists are also in accord with Western medical wisdom. Most doctors would agree with Ramesh Modi, who practises out of the Ayurved and Acupuncture Centre in Toronto. His advice is to watch what you eat, get exercise and engage in activities that decrease stress and promote a sense of well-being.
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