Alternative Medicine Part 2: Ayurvedic Medicine

White flower with red rose petals in the bowl in SPA salon

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.

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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.

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 chopra.com, “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.

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The Ayurvedic M.D., Dr. Nita Desai



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An Ayurvedic Elixir for Total Rejuvenation

The Vedic sutras and ayurvedic texts, describe a sacred drink called soma rasa, said to beget eternal life. Soma rasa, also called amrita, is a Sanskrit word meaning “nectar of immortality.’’ Like the legendary “Fountain of Youth,” there are many speculations regarding the origin and location of soma rasa. The mythic stories of soma rasa describe its literal power in the human body. Soma is created internally within natural physiological processes, and harvested externally from plants and herbs. The correct utilization of soma rasa via meditation, diet, ritual, and yoga results in total rejuvenation of the human form.

The tantric systems in India, teach that soma rasa is made from moon’s waters. The moon is sometimes referred to as a cup the gods drink soma from to maintain their immortality. Every evening all the gods dip a finger into the moon-cup and drink the soma until the moon is empty.[i] Rituals described in the Vedic texts, still practiced in Tamil Nadu and Kerala, make soma from a plant harvested in the Himalayas. Some researchers theorize this is not the soma plant referred to in the Vedic texts, and believe soma is an unidentified, hallucinogenic plant, that grows in northern India and Nepal.[ii] The 9th Mandela in the Rg Veda, called the Soma Mandela, devotes 114 hymns to the purification of Soma, which is said to bring those who drink it to ecstasy. Other scholars hypothesize that soma is a bhasma, a type of ayurvedic medicine made according to rasashastra.[iii] Rasashastra is a type of alchemy medicine native to India, and involves the purification of metals and gems through a process of alternate heating, cooling, oxidizing and crushing, until a fine pure ash of consumable medicine is left, called a bhasma. Mercury, one of the primary metals used in rasashastra preparations, is thought to make the body perfect. Rasashastra is still practiced today, and takes years of specialized study under a master alchemist. Taking rasashastra preparations from untrained or unknown sources can be dangerous, and possibly life threatening.

The Hatha Yoga Pradipika teaches that meditation, specifically a practice called the kechari mudra, where a devotee inverts his tongue to touch the far recesses of his throat, and holds the posture for a period of time, will clear a membrane, and allow the secretion of soma to consistently drip from the sahasrara chakra.[iv] Meditation is taught to perfect the body so the practitioner can focus on gathering his internal winds, and bring the soma from the base of his spine up to the crown of his head, where the sahasrara chakra secretes soma rasa.[v] When soma rasa is secreted, the practitioner will experience bliss and immortality.

In the Sushruta Samhita, a classic Ayurvedic text, soma is described as having several plant origins, extracted in an elaborate ritual, that require building a house made of three chambers, where the center chamber is dedicated for the soma practice. The devotee begins with a series of specific mantras, pricking the bulb of the plant with a golden needle, and collecting its milky substance in a silver vessel, and drinks it. He then experiences soma’s effects over a period of four months, marked by distinct physical changes and practices, that include moving to different chambers for set days, applying and ingesting specific herbs, taking baths, and receiving specific massages. By the end of the fourth month, he is renewed physically, attains mastery over cosmological knowledge, never meets a failure in life, and is infused with divine spirit.[vi]

Soma has both, a metaphysical and physical means of transference. The substance of soma is pure love, and gives waves of bliss through our consciousness when it is ingested or produced. Exposure to the full moon, far away from city lights increases internal soma. It can also be cultivated in healthy lifestyle habits, extracted from plants, and produced in meditation. It requires a level of systemic function to be fully utilized, and therefore, cannot be accessed by sheer whim. Intentional support, facilitated by rejuvenation practices that restore digestive strength and detoxification, enable the extraction and proper assimilation of soma rasa.

Physically, soma is secreted by the glandular system. It is a finite manifestation of our immune system, and life force. The ancient Vedic texts indicate the place of soma secretion is the pineal gland, and some theorize that soma may actually be the powerful antioxidant called melatonin.[vii] As it is consumed, the body’s tissues become more elastic, and regain strength. The heart beats with a youthful vigor, and the mind sharpens. The shared teaching of the soma legend says, that immortality is not living forever, as we understand it, it is having enough physical strength and health, that the body is not an impediment to self-realization. The Vedic texts teach the desire to live forever is only worthy in order to completely actualize one’s full potential. The yogic and ayurvedic practices rejuvenate the body and restore vitality, so that we can ultimately transcend our physical body and reach enlightenment.

Moon’s Soma Drink

This is a drink that enhances soma production within the body and mind. It is best enjoyed after an evening meditation practice while basking under the light of the full moon.

Ingredients:

  • ½ C Macadamia Nuts
  • ½ C Brazil Nuts
  • 4 C Purified Water
  • 4 Thai Coconuts
  • 1 T Turmeric Powder
  • 1 tsp Pink Pepper
  • ½ tsp Himalayan Salt
  • 1 Vanilla Bean Pod
  • ½ T Shatavari Root Powder

Directions:

  1. Soak macadamia nuts and Brazil nuts in a bowl with 4 cups of purified water. Strain and discard water.

  2. Put nuts in a high speed blender with 4 more cups of purified water. Blend at a high speed. Strain through a nut milk bag and set aside.

  3. Crack open coconuts and pour coconut water into blender. Scrape out meat and add to blender. Blend at high speed until liquefied.

  4. Add macadamia and Brazil nut milk back into blender with coconut milk.

  5. Slice vanilla bean pod and scrape seeds into a small bowl. Blend into nut milk with the remaining ingredients. Pour into glasses and serve at room temperature.

References:

[i] Cashford, J. (2003). The Moon: myth and image. New York: Four Walls Eight Windows.

[ii] Jay, Mike. (1999). Blue Tide: The Search for Soma. New York: Autonomedia,

[iii] Mishra, L. C. (2004). Scientific basis for Ayurvedic therapies. Boca Raton: CRC Press.

[iv] Aiyangar, M. (1949). Haṭha-yoga-pradīpikā of Svātmārāma Svāmin ((3d ed.). Madras, India: Theosophical Pub. House.

[v] Fenner, Edward. 1(979). Rasyana Sidhhi: Medicine and Alchemy in the Buddhist Tantras. Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin.

[vi] Dash, S., Padhy., & Sachidananda. The soma drinker of ancient India: an ethnobotanical retrospection. Journal of Human Ecology, 19-26.

[vii] Bhatnagar, S. S., & Isaacs, D. (2009). Microchakras: innerTuning for psychological well-being. Rochester, Vt.: Inner Traditions.

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