Benjamin Franklin is quoted to have said “early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise.” Anyone over the age of 50 may have learned this in primary school and summarily dismissed the inherent wisdom. Perhaps Ben Franklin knew a little about the ancient system of Ayurveda when he so eloquently created this proverb.
Ayurveda is India’s 5,000 year-old “science of life” and is the companion or sister of yoga. Ayurveda is steadily growing in practice throughout the U.S. and moving toward a partnership with modern health care. Ayurveda can provide an expanded approach to health with its practices in self-care to support preventive health which puts the individual in the driver’s seat as their primary health care provider. Moving forward, Ayurveda has the potential to positively impact some of the misdirections and wayward costs inherent in our current health care system.
In the ancient Sanskrit language, “ayur” means life and “veda” means knowledge. Ayurveda as life knowledge is the study and practice of knowing the self in relationship with the greater cosmos. Put another way, it is a way of aligning ourselves with the natural rhythms of the universe, the energetics of food, breath and sound and seeking synchronization rather than opposition to the elements and cycles of life. As the Bible says, Ecclesiastes 3:1-11,”to everything there is a season.”
Ayurveda provides us with a comprehensive system that involves nutrition, the knowledge and uses of plants, physical activity, meditation, and synchronicity of daily, monthly and annual biological cycles to offer a framework for a multi-dimensional modality of preventive medicine. It provides a user friendly, inexpensive and non-pharmacological method of managing acute and chronic diseases and a complement to allopathic therapies. Ayurveda is on a trajectory to finding its way into the mainstream as a physicians, health providers and practitioners embrace its tenets and practices.
A significant portion of my early training in Integrative Yoga Therapy focused on Ayurveda and led me to become a practitioner. Every subsequent yoga teacher training has had a component that focused on varying aspects of Ayurveda. There is even a component of Ayurveda directly related to astrology! Just a short time ago, both Ayurveda and yoga were considered practices on the “fringe” of mainstream culture. However, the efficacy of these modalities for supporting health and wellness are quickly coming to the forefront.
This year, for the first time, I’ve received more bookings for workshops and presentations on the daily Ayurvedic self-care practices, or dinacharya, than requests to teach yoga classes. Ayurveda has its historical etymological roots is Sanskrit from which it derives its unique medical terminology. In the beginning learning these new linguistics can seem daunting, but once understood the information and practices are simple and the Sanskrit terminology is no more complicated than the Latin-based medical terminology of Western medicine. Just as there is the eight-limbed system of yoga commonly practiced in the U.S., Ayurveda, as a medical system, also has eight branches. They are:
- General medicine (Kāya-chikitsā) – cure of diseases affecting the body
- Pediatrics (Kaumāra-bhṛtya) – treatment of children
- Surgery (Śhalya-chikitsā) – removal of any substance which has entered the body, i.e., extraction of bullets, splinters, etc
- Ophthalmology/ENT) (Śālākya-tantra) – cure of diseases of the eye, ear, nose and throat
- Demonology/exorcism/psychiatry (Bhūta-vidyā) – treatment of mental disorders rooted in past experiences and trauma
- Toxicology (Agada-tantra) – doctrine of antidotes
- Elixirs (Rasayana-tantra) – doctrine of Rasayana or practices for lengthening lifespan
- Aphrodisiacs (Vājīkaraṇa tantra)
Some of these branches may seem antiquated, perhaps superstitious but keep in mind many of us are completely invested in a Western view of the world in which the field of “science” has replaced our connection to indigenous and spirit-based ways of understanding ourselves and the world around us.
My journey as an Ayurvedic practitioner began with looking into my own family. I was fortunate to have spent a good deal of my early childhood with a maternal grandmother who was born and raised in a small rural town in northern Alabama. She was very resourceful and skillful in many endeavors that support basic needs. She taught me not be wasteful and how to save and recycle. I learned to sew, quilt, cook, garden and make simple remedies to help cure common illnesses like colds, fevers and insect bites. Old clothes were cut into patches and sewn into beautiful quilts. No matter how small the plot of land, there was always a kitchen or backyard garden. Sweet potatoes and avocado seeds were rooted in jars and turned into beautiful leafy green houseplants. She made her own yogurt, baked bread and cakes from scratch. Nothing was wasted and our diet was more plant based than meat driven. I was given cod liver oil with an orange juice chaser on a regular basis. She soaked her feet in Epsom salts and made decoctions which she administered at the onset of cold or fever.
I am grateful for these early references and they are the foundation of my approach to Ayurveda. Many of us have indigenous and traditional healing practices that have stood the test of time and been passed down from previous generations. My exploration began by looking into my family’s history and the ways of my elders — what they ate and how they prepared it, the use of foods, herbs and spices for balancing and sustaining health, and their practices of spirit –prayer and meditation. Look into your family and see if you can uncover and bring to light the health practices of your ancestors into your modern-day life.