Sunday, February 19, 2012

Experiences with Ayurveda

Ayurveda is the holistic medicine from India. I am by no means an expert on the subject, but I have used it with mixed results to address some of my health issues. It has been particularly helpful with aiding my problems with digestion (acidity, heart-burn, bloating, abdominal cramps) and has taught me a whole new way of looking at food. As a result, I decided to write a short article on this subject and provide references that I have found useful.

Introduction

The term Ayurveda is derived from the sanskrit words "Ayus" meaning life, and "veda" meaning knowledge. Thus, Ayurveda literally means "knowledge of life". It is supposedly thousands of years old and was communicated by Rishis who discovered it through meditation. The subject is very deep and I'm not going to attempt to delve into the details, but at a high level, it attempts to treat disease not just looking at physiology, but also at psychology and even spirituality. Diagnosis is typically done by reading the pulse, and by examination of some other body parts such as the tongue, eyes, nails, hair, and skin. There is strong emphasis on using food as medicine, but herbs are often used as well.

For a more detailed introduction to Ayurveda, there are several good books and resources, but to start with I would recommend the introductory articles by the Ayurvedic Institute in New Mexico.

How did I found out about Ayurveda?

Growing up in India, I was almost exclusively treated using allopathy, the modern western medicine. I was exposed to the existence of Ayurveda, but because treatment with Ayurveda takes a lot of patience as it is slow, I never actually used it.

Then, in 2003, as I was getting my wisdom teeth extracted, my dentist told me about Ayurveda and referred me to an Ayurvedic practitioner. This was mainly to try and address some of the issues I had been facing with digestion. One of the simple things suggested by the practitioner was to take a tablespoon of sesame oil each morning on an empty stomach. Something as simple as that helped my digestion a bit, but the effect was limited in the sense that it didn't seem to get rid of things like acidity and bloating which were still bothering me. I actually used that for several years, but don't need it anymore.

In 2006, as I started visiting the Yoga Farm, I learnt a lot more about Ayurveda. They conduct many courses during the year and so I got to hear about Ayurveda on my Saturday evening visits. I learned about how spices such as turmeric powder, cumin seeds, coriander seeds, mustard seeds, cardamom, etc. help with digestion and assimilation of food. I learned that looking at a conventional nutrition label is meaningless because if the body is not able to digest and absorb the nutrients, then the body isn't going to get the benefit of those nutrients. I learned that certain foods are better for certain body types; e.g. even though conventional wisdom talks about salads being "good for you", there are certain body types that are unable to effectively digest them because the digestive heat is not sufficient; undigested food actually creates toxins in the body and over the long term lead to disease.

Since that time, I have visited several Ayurvedic centers and spas for various treatments and have also consulted several practitioners. Because Ayurveda is not regulated in the US, it can be hard to find genuine practitioners.

Ayurveda in India vs Ayurveda in the US

Ayurveda is gaining in popularity in India, but it is practiced quite differently in India vs in the west. In India, Ayurveda is recognized by the government as a legitimate form of medicine and it is possible to obtain a degree in Ayurveda and to be called a "doctor". And it is possible to visit an Ayurvedic doctor to get treated for a specific physical symptom.

In the US however, Ayurveda is not recognized as a legitimate form of medicine and thus the emphasis is more on lifestyle and disease prevention. Also, many of the Ayurvedic herbs in India contain heavy metals, and as a result they are banned in the US. This is probably not a bad thing since, being an unregulated field, it would be hard to do any kind of quality enforcement, and many of the herbs that contain heavy metals must be prepared a certain way for them to be effective.

Ayurveda centers and spas

The following are some centers that offer Ayurvedic treatments. I have been to the ones marked with an asterisk. The others on the list are ones that I have either done some research on, or personally know people that have visited there.
I'll update this list as I find out about or visit any new places.