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In the last half a century we humans have undergone a rapid change of lifestyles. We consume more processed foods, have sedentary occupations, rely increasingly on motorized transport, and overstimulate our senses with electronic and online entertainment. All these changes have taken us further and further away from a natural and healthier way of being, and have contributed to a higher incidence of lifestyle diseases. Meanwhile, an overemphasis on technological medical solutions has helped to prolong life spans but not necessarily improve quality of life. Consequently, the cost of healthcare is rising, and it is fast becoming unaffordable.
Clearly, we need a different approach.
Most health planners agree that more attention needs to be paid to preventive health. After all, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. But what is an effective program of preventive care? We can take a page from ayurveda, a system of healthcare that has been in continuous practice in India since the earliest of times.
Ayurveda places equal emphasis on prevention and cure. Charaka Samhita, one of its oldest texts, stresses that the objective of ayurveda is twofold: to maintain the health of the healthy, and to alleviate the disease of the diseased.
Ayu, or life, implies a union of body, mind, and spirit. Veda means knowledge. So the subject of ayurveda is the complete human being—body, mind, and spirit. This holistic approach provides insights for a healthy lifestyle that promotes our physical, mental, and spiritual wellbeing.
Daily and Seasonal Regimens
What is a healthy daily regimen? It begins at the crack of dawn with self-examination, personal hygiene, massage with oil, a shower, and exercise. During the day, how do we relate to others? Our personal conduct has bearing on our physical and mental health. At the end of the day, a bedtime routine prepares us for restful sleep.
Then there are seasonal regimens. How do the seasons affect us? What diet, lifestyle, and preventive therapies are suitable in each season? We are most susceptible to illness at the junction of two seasons. So how do we negotiate the change of seasons without falling sick?
Diet and Exercise
Food is essential for good health. When consumed properly, food is medicine. It nourishes the body, mind, and senses. On the other hand, if consumed improperly, food becomes the cause of disease. So what should we eat, and how much? What is a balanced diet? When should we eat? Ayurveda even provides guidelines on how we should eat.
Similarly, we know that regular exercise is good for us. Yet exercising too hard puts us at risk of injury, resulting in more harm than good. So what kind of exercise is best, and how much? When should we exercise? Who should not exercise? We can find answers to these questions in ayurveda.
Health is not simply an absence of disease. This is best illustrated by rasayana, a unique therapy of ayurveda. Rasayana is a rejuvenation program that imparts an extraordinary vitality to plasma, blood, and all bodily tissues. Thus rasayana enhances health and slows the ageing process.
Ayurveda takes a scientific approach based on cause and effect and verified by careful observation and inference. Take the effect of warm water. According to Vagbhata, who wrote the 5th century C.E. text Ashtanga Hridayam, warm water is appetizing, digestive, light, and heating. Further, he enumerates several benefits that you can discover for yourself.
Try it Yourself
Here’s a simple exercise with warm water. In the morning, after brushing your teeth, drink a glass of warm water. Then during the day keep a thermos or kettle of warm water handy, and keep hydrating yourself as needed. At first you may not like the taste, but this will change in a week or so.
With your meals take only small sips. Also, for about one hour before and after a meal avoid drinking or eating anything.
Observe any changes in your appetite, the time it takes to digest meals, body weight, and urination and bowel habits. If you had problems of constipation, flatulence, breathing difficulties, bodyache, stiffness, lethargy, cough, sore throat, or runny nose before, do you notice any changes?
Continue this experiment for two weeks. Gradually increase the morning drink from one glass to two glasses as long as you don’t feel you have to force it down. Some people may not be able to down warm water at all. For those with a pitta constitution, or if the weather is hot, warm water may not quench thirst, and may not be suitable. They should discontinue this exercise. Most others will develop a liking for warm water because it makes them feel better. They may make it a regular habit.
There are many simple remedies to improve our health. Through this column we will explore practical ways to tune in to ourselves and rediscover natural and commonsense ways to find a healthy balance within.
Ayurveda is the science of health that has been practiced in India since the earliest times. Its concepts were first recorded in the Vedas. Around 1,000 B.C.E. the earliest treatises were written in which ayurveda was documented as a complete system of healthcare with eight branches of specialty.
One of the central principles of ayurveda is the theory of the three doshas—vata, pitta, and kapha. Vata controls all movement and communication. Pitta includes all the agents of digestion and metabolism. Kapha provides structure, stability, and lubrication. Together, the three doshas maintain normal function of the body, but when their balance is disturbed they cause disease.
Ashok Jethanandani, B.A.M.S., and Silvia Müller, B.A.M.S., were classmates at the Gujarat Ayurved University, Jamnagar. The concepts presented here are based on the classical texts of ayurveda. Jethanandani practices ayurveda in San Jose. Illustrations are original works by Silvia Müller. www.classical-ayurveda.com.