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As a non-Indian person who has done an ayurvedic doctors education I often get contacted about my experiences in India and what I have learned as an ayurvedic doctor. Most recently I got contacted by Aloña, from Spain, with many good questions. This time I however didn't reply to by e-mail as I usualy do but instead asked her to her questions into an interview and asked for her permission to then publish the answers and questions on the web.
The following is the result of that and even though it is not an exhaustive list of all possible questions I think it is a good start.
What inspired you to research and learn Ayurvedic Medicine?
I think I first heard about ayurveda back in the mid-late 90-ties when I read a book by Deepak Chopra. Still I did not learn much about it until I went to Rishikesh, India, in 2002 to study yoga. What inspired me the most was how Ayurveda enables one to take charge on ones own health and the depth and richness in it’s teachings.
When did you get into Ayurvedic medicine?
I started my Bachelor of Ayurvedic Medicine and Surgery (B.A.M.S.) studies in Jamnagar, India, in 2005 and it was not until then that I really got into what ayurveda teaches and have to offer.
How did you get in touch with an Ayurvedic Medical College in India to study deeply the Ayurvedic Science?
I did my research about ayurvedic colleges and universities on the Internet. At that time I found two universities which looked promising; Benares Hindu University (BHU) and Gujarat Ayurved University (GAU). I decided for GAU because it offered the B.A.M.S. in English medium and is the only university who focuses solely on ayurveda which seemed promising to me at the time.
How did you feel when you went from Europe to India in order to study Ayurvedic Science?
Exalted and very happy about my decision. Since I had already spent almost a year in India at two different occasions my culture shock was not too bad - however, what was new to me was to live as a part of Indian society rather than just like a tourist. The years have of course had their ups and downs, and many a times did I have to fight with the Indian bureaucracy.
Can you tell information about your work and your routine?
My work and routine in India and in Sweden are very different from each other. In India I worked as a doctor at a busy hospital (receiving a couple of hundred patients per day) and doing my part in the system. That routine is quite strict and very well defined.
My work and routine as a small (and new) business owner in Sweden is on the contrary nothing but well defined and most of the time I’m juggling three-four-five different projects at the same time. However I feel that the initial crazy time is cooling down a bit though and I have the last two months been able to focus a lot more on ayurveda as less time on managing the business.
Questions about ayurveda
Aloña asked me several questions about ayurveda like: “Can you explain a little more about "Doshas" and how they combine to make up the constitution of the individual? What are the benefits of ayurveda? How does ayurveda define wellness and health?”
Since each of these questions requires an extensive answer I will only include a more general one for now as well as refer you to the recommended starting books (below). I am however in the process of preparing course material which will answer all these questions (and more) which I will then post right here in this newsletter.
The following text is written by Linde Goebel and explains some important points, related to ayurveda’s way of understanding physiology and anatomy, in a concise way:
Ayurvedic Principles and the Refinement of Tissues
In Ayurvedic Medicine doshas are the principle life-forces acting in everyone's body. The whole world, including the doshas, are made up of the five elements, the panchamahabhuutas, and those are grouped together as three functional units in the body: vata, pitta and kapha dosha. Vata consists of wind/air and ether (vata and akasha), pitta of fire and water (agni and ap) and kapha of earth and water (prithvi and ap). The doshas sustain a body if they are in their individual state of equilibrium and their existence can be inferred from the body performing its various functions, such as movement, metabolism, sensory perceptions and mental activities. But when these doshas are out of balance, they disturb the body and create diseases.
The balance between hot and cold plays an important role in Ayurvedic medicine, because “generic concomitance is always the cause of the augmentation (…) whereas the variant factor of their diminution.” (Charaka Samhita, Sutrasthana 1:44). Thus for example a disease caused by the “heat-fraction” of pitta dosha will get worse by consuming heating food or exposing oneself excessively to sunlight.
Based on the elements constituting the doshas, Vagbhata, the author of one of the three Great Works of Ayurveda, narrates their respective qualities: “Vata is dry, light, cold, rough, minute and unsteady. Pitta is slightly unctuous, penetrating, hot, light, bad smelling, mobile and liquid. Kapha is unctuous, cold, heavy, slow, smooth, shining and firm.” (Ashtanga Samgraha, Sutrasthana 1:26-28).
Vata and kapha are therefore cold, while pitta is hot. This means, if a person eats cooling substances, vata and/or kapha are likely to increase and cause particular diseases, which then in turn are further worsening if the person does not revert to heating substances.
As opposed to the functional units of the doshas, the structural part of the body is made up of dhatus, the seven different tissues: Rasa (chyle or plasma), rakta (blood), mamsa (muscle-tissue), medas (fatty tissue), asthi (bone), majja (bone-marrow) and shukra (reproductive tissues of both male and female) (Ashtanga Samgraha, Sutrasthana 1:29).
The doshas reside in the dhatus and if the former get vitiated they their the ill-effects on the structural level in the dhatus. After food-intake one dhatu is formed after the other, in the order as mentioned above and a subsequent dhatu is more refined than its preceding one.
A disease affecting a subsequent dhatu is more severe and more difficult to cure, since it affects a more and more subtle and refined tissue of the body.
Shukra dhatu is the most refined and precious dhatu, it takes one month for a substance taken in until it is so refined that its essence reaches shukra. The modern interpretation of shukra is that it denotes sperm in males and ova in females, but in the Ayurvedic classic scriptures shukra, the reproductive fluid is said to be present all over the body and only in the moment of sexual excitement collects in the lower regions of the reproductive organs. It is thus a precious substance pervading the whole body and collected in one place and discharged only in moments of sexual activity.
The ultimate essence of all dhatus is ojas; it is produced from shukra and also circulates all over the body. It is responsible for the happiness, life-span and general strength of a person to withstand diseases, meaning immunity. If there is a loss of the absolutely vital part of eight drops of ojas (para ojas) it can never be regained and its deficiency will ultimately cause death. The causes for vitiation, obstruction and ultimately decrease of ojas are “physical or mental trauma, reduction of dhatus, anger, sorrow, worries in excess, physical or mental exhaustion and fasting” (Sushruta Samhita, Sutrasthana 15:22). The signs and symptoms of diminished ojas are according to Charaka fear, constant weakness, worry, pain in the sense-organs, loss of complexion, unhappiness, roughness and emaciation (Charaka Samhita, Sutrasthana 17:73).
In contemporary literature the depletion of ojas is often equaled with AIDS/HIV, where immunity is so badly compromised that life can be seriously endangered by simple infections (BABU, S.S. 2002 2005. The Principles and Practice of Kaya Chikitsa, Volume 1. Varanasi: Chaukhambha Orientalia, page 121).
What is the relationship between Yoga and Ayurvedic Medicine?
Yoga is a method for the yogi (practitioner of yoga) to fuse with God and reach a state called nirvana. Since this is a demanding and arduous task on the body as well as the mind, yoga has developed many techniques for strengthening the body and mind in order to pursue the goal of nirvana.
Ayurveda’s aim is to teach how to live a good, beneficial and long life and since many of the yoga techniques are beneficial for the body and mind they can, and have been, adopted into ayurvedic treatment as well as lifestyle regiments.
While to follow the guidelines laid down in Yoga would - if taken seriously - require a recluse, spiritual, and ascetic life, ayurveda is a more down to earth science meant for people in all walks and stages of life, eg. children, married couples, working people etc.
Ayurveda is a holistic science, how could you explain the holism of ayurveda?
Ayurveda takes the mind, body and spirit into consideration when diagnosing and treating as well as when giving advice about how to live a good, beneficial and long life. Ayurveda also teaches about philosophy, psychology, herbalism, pharmacology, toxicology etc. and in short tries to explain, use and ultimately treat everything related to life (=ayu). In this way ayurveda can be said to be holistic.
Ayurvedic doctors don't prescribe a medication only but a complex therapy. What does it consist of?
Ayurvedic doctors prescribe whatever they deem necessary for a successful treatment and the complexity will vary according to case. Some doctors prefer to prescribe only single herbs where as some doctors prefer formulas with a multitude of herbs included. What treatment should be prescribed in a given case is quite well documented in the classical texts but a general list of of topics to include in a treatment scheme are:
- dietary recommendations
- herbs and ayurvedic medicine
- lifestyle adjustments
- ayurvedic therapies such as massage, panchakarma, surgery etc
- yoga and other physical and mental exercises
Do you think ayurveda is adaptable to everywhere in the world?
I think the answer is yes. Ayurveda is a science of life and should be adaptable and applicable everywhere where life is. That being said ayurveda is and has always been changing with the time and to the conditions it has been practiced in. One example is the B.A.M.S. education itself in which ayurveda teaching moved into the university and away from the old local authority (guru-kula) system.
How do you evaluate the development of ayurveda in western countries?
I think it is pretty poor, especially when compared to how yoga and acupuncture has been adopted.
Yoga has had the advantage of filling a spiritual niche back in the 60ies and 70ies in the West and has carried on and transformed from there into a fitness and lifestyle - which I think few people in the west have managed to miss.
Acupuncture is also widely known and used all over the West. As opposed to ayurveda acupuncture had the support and was promoted by the Chinese government in an effort to “export” it which the Indian government has only comparatively recently started to pursue in a similar fashion.
For ayurveda to be more widely adopted in the West I think ayurveda either needs to define it’s niche and make it more obvious how it helps people, or have a big actor with an agenda (like the Indian government) pushing it forward more fervently.
How can people interested on this ancient knowledge get further information about it?
I would start with reading some good books and then try to find a Vaidya (ayurvedic doctor) near you, or go to India and visit some of the good ayurveda centers there.
What books do you recommend to get familiar with ayurvedic science?
I would suggest starting with two books and read them in parallel. One book is “Textbook of Ayurveda:Volume One:Fundamental Principles” by Vasant Lad (contemporary author) and the other is Ashtanga Hridayam by Vagbhatta (classical text).
I think it is good to read them parallelly since classic ayurvedic literature is rich but dense, and often times is difficult to understand without the guidance and commentary of an experienced vaidya. The book by Vasant Lad is basic but will give you a good idea about what to put emphasis on and how the different theories and practices are interconnected.
After you have finished these two books (or tomes :-) you will then have enough knowledge to know where to go from there yourself. However to then go on and read Charaka Samhita I think would be the most obvious choice.
Is it necessary to know the ancient "Sanskrit" language?
To practice ayurveda as a therapist or health consultant you will not need much Sanskrit. However if you don't want to rely on what other people tell you is right or wrong but want to answer the "why" questions yourself then I think it makes a lot of sense to know Sanskrit. The reason is because many of the books are written in different times by different people and to know what to emphasize on in any given context is very difficult without being able to read the source texts.
Still, if you want to go really deep you might not only require Sanskrit but also Hindi, to read commentaries on classical texts, and even other local languages from all over India to communicate with local practitioners and Vaidyas.
How can we bring a little piece of ayurveda into our hectic modern lives?
By a-little-piece at a time. You can for example make a schedule in which you pick out something you are interested in and want to try out in your life from some of the classical books. I suggest taking a practical approach since you then get first hand experience and can evaluate if it makes sense to you or not. Eventually you want to check with someone more experienced in ayurveda to confirm that you are on the right track, but for a start I think it is good.