Alternative Medicine Part 2: Ayurvedic Medicine

Alternative Medicine Part 2: Ayurvedic Medicine

Twenty — even 10 years ago, if a patient wanted to explore unconventional treatment options, they were on their own. Traditional health professionals generally didn’t encourage alternative medicine or treatments, discouraging departures from allopathic treatment models such as drugs and surgery. But as the efficacy of non-traditional treatment models, such as traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) mentioned here in part one, ayurvedic medicine, massage and chiropractic adjustment, naturopathy, diet and natural supplementation — even homeopathy and sound therapy, is being validated by research, new branches of medicine are emerging.

Integrative, Functional, Complementary, and Alternative Medicine

The “integrative” medical model developed during the early 1990s, but was formalized when the National Institute of Health (NIH) created the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH). This classification covered non-conventional treatment and research, and was the beginning of a slow recognition of alternative systems. Integrative models include consideration of a patient’s lifestyle, body, and mind, and how to promote well-being for the whole person rather than just diseases and their symptoms.

“Functional” medicine refers to holistic and alternative medical practices intended to  improve overall functions of the body’s systems, and explores individual biochemistry, genetics, and environment to determine underlying causes of disease.

According to the NIH, “complementary” medicine combines non-mainstream practices with conventional treatment in a coordinated way. This has  helped drive acceptance of alternative therapies such as TCM, diet, and nutraceuticals, or supplements.

Alternative medicine is any practice that falls outside conventional systems, and is not combined with traditional treatments. For example, if a patient chooses ayurvedic medicine, dietary changes, and supplementation to treat their cancer, and excludes conventional therapies, they have entered the realm of alternative medicine.

Exploring Alternative Medicine Models

In recent decades, relatively obscure healing modalities have emerged as treatment options. Some are ancient, such as TCM, Ayurveda, herbalism, and shamanic energy medicine. Others, such as osteopathy, homeopathy, naturopathy, and chiropractic, arrived in the 19th and 20th centuries. Most recently, biofeedback, structural integration, aromatherapy, energy medicine practices such as reiki and sound wave therapy, music therapies such as singing bowls, and mindfulness based stress reduction (MBSR) have found enthusiastic patient support.

Yoga and Ayurveda: Vital Essences

Ayurveda, or Vedic Medicine

In Sanskrit, “Ayurveda” translates to “life” (ayur) “science” (veda). According to the NCCIH, ayurveda, sometimes called “vedic” medicine, is one of the world’s oldest medical systems, originating on the Indian subcontinent over 3,000 years ago. While at present the NCCIH recognizes the Vedic system, Western clinical researchers have not effectively studied ayurveda practices and treatments to prove or disprove efficacy.

Vedic medicine’s core principles include the premise that food and lifestyle are the most important medicines, and that there is no routine, diet, or lifestyle that works for everyone — each individual is unique.

Elements and Doshas

Like the Chinese, the Vedics have an element-based system, but with important differences. Vedic elements are earth, water, fire, air, and space, or ether. As with all element-based systems, the Vedics believe everything in existence is comprised of these elements in infinite combinations. Humans are no exception — everyone has a distinct elemental makeup, but Ayurveda defines three broad categories, called doshas, for the purpose of treatment and diagnosis: Vata, Pitta, and Kapha. Vedic treatments are dedicated to achieving the perfect balance of the doshas. While there are classic dosha temperaments and constitutions, Ayurveda recognizes each individual is some combination of the three doshas.

Vata Dosha: Space and Air

In Sanskrit, “Vata” translates to “blow or move like the wind.” A combination of space and air, Vata rules movement in the mind and body, including movement within the body. Because all movement — physical, mental, and energetic — depends on the Vata principal, Vedics designate vata as the leading dosha. Vata also governs thinking, reasoning, and creativity as well as blood flow, heart rhythm, and sexual and elimination functions.

Ayurveda describes Vata qualities as; dry, cool, mobile, rough, and subtle. Indications of Vata imbalances are: dry, rough, or thin skin; worry and racing thoughts; fear or anxiety; restlessness and insomnia; constipation, joint pain, and fatigue. The Vata-dominated person learns easily and quickly, but may not retain information — easy come, easy go. In physical terms, the Vata type is tall, thin, and fast-moving — think Uma Thurman, Katherine Hepburn, and Gwyneth Paltrow. They have brief bursts of high energy, like gusts of wind. Balanced Vata manifests as creativity and vitality — Vata imbalances manifest as fear and anxiety.

Vedics believe Vata-dominant individuals will ideally avoid becoming too cold or chilled, and will consume ginger tea for warmth, wear grounding earth tones, minimize sweeteners, and avoid beans. Over-active Vata may be pacified with dairy products such as hot milk with added spices such as cardamom, cloves, cinnamon, or pepper.

circle of spices

Pitta Dosha: Fire and Water

General Pitta qualities are; hot, sharp and penetrating, light, liquid, and dynamic (moving). This dosha is responsible for metabolism, digestion, and energy production; all aspects of agni, or fire. While Vata rules motion and movement, pitta rules transformation — imagine wood transforming to ash when fire is applied. According to, “Those with a predominance of the pitta principle have a fiery nature that manifests in both body and mind.”

Vedics describes a Pitta-dominant person as being of medium size/weight. They have a cast-iron gut, can eat whatever they like, and have strong appetites for food, sex, and experience. They don’t like missing meals. Examples of classic Pitta types are Jennifer Lawrence, Madonna, and Lindsay Lohan.

A Pitta is generally focused with a sharp mind, is competitive, and wants to be in charge. Pitta unbalanced moves toward authoritarianism, pushiness, sarcasm, harsh speech, tantrums, and impatience, but their capacities for precision, order, and clarity make them good decision makers, persuasive orators, and strong leaders.

Imbalanced Pitta manifests as inflammation, fever, ulcers, rashes, heartburn, and indigestion. Ayurveda recommends strong Pitta types balance rest and activity and avoid skipping meals. Pitta should avoid overheating and too much direct sun, but spend time in nature when stressed — ideally, shaded, cool forests or under moonlight.

An ideal Pitta diet includes dairy in the form of milk, butter, and ghee to cool Pitta fire, but sour dairy, such as fermented yogurt and cheese, will aggravate Pitta. According to Vedic doctrine, Pitta benefits from sweetness in moderation, but should avoid molasses and honey.

Kapha: Water and Earth

While Vata is motion and Pitta is transformation, Kapha is protection, preservation, and stability. Kapha-dominant people are physically strong and are considered to have the most stable constitution of the three types. Vedics identify Kapha by their large, luminous eyes, soft skin, and abundant hair. The women tend toward curvy sensuality — think Elizabeth Taylor, Kate Winslet, or Christina Hendricks, who played the role of  the traffic-stopping Joan Holloway in Mad Men.

Kapha is most prone to weight gain — while they have, at their core, great strength and endurance, they generally have the slowest metabolism of all the types. Kapha often plays the role of “the rock” in interpersonal dynamics as they are patient and peace-loving. Kapha may be slightly slower in acquiring new learning, but once acquired, a Kapha will never forget. These people may be depression-prone, and can have a tendency for colds, congestion, sinus infections, allergies, and respiratory issues such as asthma.

Notably, Kapha is the one type with an absence of fire — so cultivating internal heat helps keep these people healthy. Spicy foods, exposure to warm sunlight, warming baths, and vigorous exercise all help warm up the Kapha and keep the metabolism humming.

The Vedics recommend Kapha avoid oily, heavy foods, and creamy sauces and dressings. Aside from honey or pure maple syrup, sweets are best avoided.

Ayurvedic Diagnosis and Treatment Methods

An Ayurvedic practitioner uses three diagnostic methods when evaluating a new patient; observation, touch, and questions. Observation includes noting details of body contours, skin, eyes, etc. Touch includes checking pulses, as in Chinese medicine, and palpitation. The practitioner will also ask extensive questions about health concerns, diet, lifestyle, stress, etc.

Treatment methods include herbs, but this is considered a very precise science that should only be used by qualified practitioners. Practitioners often prescribe a panchakarma, a detox boot-camp regimen designed to remove ama, or poisons. Steam treatments, massage, a dietary regimen, prescribed herbs, and possibly yoga are all part of the detox. Vedic practitioners are adamant the panchakarma be done only under the supervision of a specialist. Many opt for a panchakarma retreat.

Diet plays a large role in ayurvedic treatment — a practitioner identifies foods to be avoided, foods to emphasize, and an individualized dietary regimen to bring the body and mind into balance. Specialized massage is also prescribed, and Vedic massage therapists use specific oils prescribed by the practitioner.

Unique to Ayurveda is the practice of shirodhara — a technique of dripping medicated oil on the forehead, specifically in the third-eye area. The Vedics believe shirodhara has a calming effect on the nervous system. It is reported to be effective for treating insomnia, stress disorders, and hypertension, but is not suitable for pregnant women, those with recent neck injuries, or anyone diagnosed with a brain tumor.

The Ayurvedic M.D., Dr. Nita Desai

Seeking deep healing? The Ayurvedic Abhyanga is the self-massage for you

Seeking deep healing? The Ayurvedic Abhyanga is the self-massage for you

An “Abhyanga” is a massage using oil, according to the Ayurvedic tradition. Ayurveda, in case you’ve missed it, is a 5000 year old traditional Hindu healing system that takes into account the constitution, or “dosha” of each individual. It balances the body accordingly, using diet, herbal and mineral remedies, yoga and yogic breathing, massage and other detox rituals. Essentially, it’s one of the oldest, most respected holistic healing systems.

The Abhyanga practice is a special wellness ritual that you can do daily. According to the Chopra Center website, it’s extremely valuable to practice on yourself regularly, “When stimulated through therapeutic touch or massage, the skin releases a pharmacy of healing chemicals that have health-promoting effects on the physiology. In addition to feeling good, regular massage and loving touch detoxifies the body’s tissues, increases circulation, calms the mind, and enhances immune function.

“The body of one who uses oil massage regularly does not become affected much even if subjected to accidental injuries, or strenuous work. By using oil massage daily, a person is endowed with pleasant touch, trimmed body parts and becomes strong, charming and least affected by old age.”

Charaka Samhita Vol. 1, V: 88-89, “Giving yourself a daily self-abhy with aromatherapy massage oils is a deeply healing and deeply enjoyable ayurvedic practice that activates the body’s inner pharmacy and slows the aging process. Depending upon your unique mind-body type (dosha), your massage technique can be gentle or more vigorous.”

Abhyanga Benefits

So, what are the benefits, exactly? Doing an Abhyanga can:

  • Increase the softness and healthy glow of the skin
  • Flush toxins from the lymphatic system
  • Decreases Vata (autoimmune illnesses such as Rheumatoid Arthritis and Polymositis are considered Vata imbalances and self massage is extremely beneficial for calming symptoms)
  • Strengthens the Dhatus (the body’s tissues in accordance to the Ayurvedic texts) and helps tone muscles
  • Increases strength and stamina
  • Improves vision
  • Promotes healthy sleep
  • Reduces anxiety and depression
  • Promotes flexibility
  • Release healthy endorphins which, in turn, help balance hormones, an especially important practice for women

Best Dosha Practices

Before you go diving in, there is one essential key to examine first. You must know your dosha; as Ayurveda is a holistic, individual-based system, “one size fits all” is definitely not the practice. You can take a quick dosha quiz here, and then figure out the best Abhyanga practice based on your body type.


Vata types require a warming oil like sesame or almond. For your body type, it’s best to do an Abhyanga 2-3 times a week. Vata is a cold and dry Dosha, so warm oil is very nourishing in balancing your systems. It helps lubricate the dry skin and protect the joints as well. Mahanarayan oil and Dhanvantaram are two classical oils used in Ayurveda to help alleviate the inflammation and stiffness of joints. A light to medium pressure should be used.


A hotter Dosha than Vata, Pitta types need a cooling type oil in order to balance, so coconut and olive oils are an excellent choice. Medium pressure should be used when massaging. Many Pitta types have inflammatory skin issues. Ayurveda has some specific oils for use on specific ailments.


Kapha is another Dosha that requires a warming oil. Use mustard and sunflower; both are excellent choices. Sesame is also a very good choice, particularly if you live in a cooler climate. Medium to heavy pressure is recommended and best for Kapha types, which will let the oil deeply penetrate as it should.

Now you’re ready to go! Here are the steps you will need to take for your Abhyanga:

Abhyanga Steps

  1. Begin by running some hot water over the bottle to gently warm the oil; warm oil is best to work with on your body.
  2. You can use a loofah or body brush to dry brush the entire body.
  3. Pour a tablespoon of warm oil onto your scalp and vigorously work in the oil.
  4. Using your fingertips, vigorously massage your head and scalp with small circular strokes, as if you are shampooing.
  5. Move to your face and ears, massaging more gently.
  6. Using an open hand to create friction, massage both the front and back of the neck.
  7. Vigorously massage your arms, using a circular motion at the shoulders and elbows, and back-and-forth motions on the upper arms and forearms. Massage in the direction of the hair follicles, allowing the oil to cover the body evenly.
  8. When performing Abhyanga on the joints, use a circular motion.
  9. When massaging your chest and stomach, use a gentle circular motion and a straight up-and-down motion over the breastbone.
  10. After applying a bit of oil to both hands, gently reach around to the back and spine and massage them as well as you can without straining. Start at the base of the spine and work upwards in a long, continuous stroke. You can also have a partner help you with this part.
  11. Vigorously massage your legs as you did your arms, using circular motions at the ankles and knees, back-and-forth motions on the long parts.
  12. After massaging your legs, spend extra time on your feet. The feet contain many important Marmas (pressure points in accordance to the principles of Ayurveda). Using the open part of your hand, massage vigorously back and forth over the soles of the feet. When massaging the feet, be sure to apply the oil to the entire foot, taking care to get in between the toes.
  13. After the application of oil, sit quietly for 5-15 minutes to allow the oil to be properly absorbed by your skin. During this time you may choose to meditate, as it’s a good time set apart for relaxed spiritual practice. Keeping a thin, almost imperceptible film of oil on the body is considered very beneficial for toning the skin and warming the muscles throughout the day. Or, you can take a shower once the oils have absorbed.
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