In the West, there seems to be confusion about defining Ayurveda. The feeling one gets from social media, the mouthpiece of the public, is that Ayurveda is for an exclusive group of individuals who understand Hinduism, do Yoga, and eat organic Hass avocados for breakfast.
There seems to be an assumption that only those living in a transcendent state of Yogic mysticism, are best suited to get the true meaning of Ayurveda. These enlightened individuals perhaps huddle in sweat lodges murmuring in their guttural California drawl the many benefits of oiling the perineal region, popping Shatavari to instill the ability to mate with a hundred men, Ashwagandha tea for equestrian virility.
There are those who indeed fit this description, there are some who wear spirituality as a badge of distinction, however for the vast majority of good old hardworking humans, a fundamental understanding of physics is all that is required to know what the meaning of Ayurveda is and how they can retool their self-care kits with Ayurveda.
If you had stayed off Ayurveda thinking it was for a Berkeley educated world-traveling hippie elite, I hope this blog helps you see that nothing could be farther from the truth.
What is Ayurveda?
Ayurveda can make profound shifts in your health. To understand the meaning of Ayurveda wellness let us first clarify this.
No spiritual inclination of any kind is required to know your dominant Ayurveda dosha, the bioenergies we are all born with, that may have a tendency to go off ever so often in your body, bringing a particular state of mind and a host of telltale signs in your body.
Identifying these signs and remedying them with easy diet and lifestyle will potentially save you thousands of dollars in healthcare, will empower you with the knowledge to trust your own instincts and will reduce pharmacy visits. Unshakeable well being will be yours for life, no matter what life throws at you.
Defining Ayurveda Rituals
Ayurveda rituals support and enhance our quest for disease free healthy body and minds.
Adopting rituals like Ayurveda Abhyanga oil massage, knowing what our Ayurveda body type is, won’t make us weird individuals who suffer through pain and disease refusing timely help from a general physician instead it will open us up for a balanced approach towards healing, a deeper understanding of disease and how and when to apply each so we live well into our 90s with our mind and teeth intact.
Many physicians in the West are now finding themselves looking for alternative therapies for their patients.
The reason why popular media portrays this exclusive image of Ayurveda is that Ayurveda came to the West through the Yogis who traveled to India, Nepal, and Sri Lanka.
Yogis are open to Eastern spiritual practices from having benefited from Yoga and were ready to try some of the strange rituals like scraping the tongue and swishing oil in the morning as oral hygiene practice. They performed some of this during their stay in Asia and were astounded to see the immediate benefits to their health.
Most of the rituals recommended by Ayurveda are easily found in any kitchen or grocery aisle, it seemed only natural to adopt these new ways.
Defining living Ayurveda as practiced in India
In South Asia, especially countries like Nepal, Sri Lanka and India varying degrees of Ayurveda is practiced by even those who have never heard the word “Ayurveda” or ever done a down dog yoga pose.
I did not know I was from lineage till a few years ago when I was giving birth to my daughter and my mother explained the many rituals she was about to help me with. I did not have a name for what my grandparents did. I did not think that the family members were following “Ayurveda rituals”, it was a normal way of living, thinking, managing our diet, lifestyle, worship, and rite of passage.
I thought everybody else also followed these and at times I thought we were odd to be so particular. I only complained when I was restricted to the house for 90 days after childbirth, I appreciated the warm massages and was surprised at how quickly my health and appetite returned.
Each individual from South Asia practices what is passed down, some more than others, especially if they belonged to Vaidya lineages like mine where women played an important role in healing. These women cooked food as much as they prescribed medicines, giving them a unique window into understanding the healing power of diet.
Yogis and Gurus in ashrams practice Ayurveda as is passed down by their lineage holders to help the seeker stay focused on dharmic duties, samadhi meditation, and a peaceful state of mind. A totally different flavor of Ayurveda altogether, an Ayurveda that frowns upon the many community-building, pleasure-giving rituals.
Instead a restrictive Ayurveda is instructed to the inmates, I mean, residents of ashrams. We hear warnings like don’t drink tea, don’t drink coffee, don’t eat meat, don’t eat garlic.
Physicians practice Ayurveda in a prescriptive manner, quizzing to determine a patient’s Ayurveda body type, questions to clarify whether the patient is a Vata dosha dominant, Pitta dosha dominant, or Kapha dosha dominant, terms for bio energies that when in balance bring health and when disorderly, precede disease.
A physician checks and tests the patient during a consultation, prescribing medicines, restricting activities and certain foods, modifying lifestyle to manage the disease.
When physicians arrive in the West to connect with their fan base, they bring a reductive, cautionary flavor of Ayurveda.
Ayurveda defies narrow definitions as it is highly personalized, what works for one, may be toxic for another, so the physicians take a position of least harm. They underestimate the ability of their western fans to really grasp Ayurveda’s potential for unlimited choice. This leads to admonitions like don’t eat turmeric unless I tell you to, don’t drink a cup of tea in the morning, drink warm lemon water. Their patient is often the sickest, inflamed, and suffering from multiple chronic conditions.
Common folks practice expansive Ayurveda as suited for their age, their social status, their dharma, their profession, and the demands placed on them by their community as leaders, mothers, teachers, etc.
By now you have possibly started to realize why the definitions of Ayurveda are so easily misunderstood as dogmatic and full of do’s and don’ts.
All of the definitions of Ayurveda reflect the person who defines and his or her background, level of consciousness, knowledge of other regions and upbringing.
When healthy, normal everyday people hear these warnings, they get turned off by what appears to be a restrictive dogmatic Eastern wisdom practice that involves too much work.
My grandparents were not yogis, far from it, they were business people, merchants, and kshatriyas, men and women who trained in martial arts and conducted coir shipping at the Kochi seaport.
You don’t have to be spiritual to practice Ayurveda, you just have to be extremely practical, which all of us are.
Ayurveda is the science that was born out of a profound common sense, and it is available to all, homemakers, veterans, entrepreneurs, grandparents, and our household pets.
So, what does it mean to define Ayurveda?
Ayurveda is the science of longevity.
Ayurveda is the wisdom practice by which life can be lived to its fullest, pursuing desires for wealth, for family, community leadership and a righteous occupation which ultimately leads to enlightenment; dharma righteous duty, artha wealth also meaning, kama desires, moksha enlightenment.
Ayurveda is an all-encompassing how-to on managing the health of the body, the community, and relationship to the Divine through daily diet, rituals, lifestyle choices, and therapeutic interventions when needed.
Ayurveda originated from profound observations of how the body interacted with the environment and how equilibrium is the fundamental law that must be maintained for vitality, health, and longevity of all living beings and the planet.
Ayurveda provides a barometer for measuring health, assessing the degrees of loss of health, and ways to regain health based on the principles of homeostasis, samatva.
The balancing of the three fundamental biological forces: Vata, Pitta, and Kapha. These forces determine the quality of dryness, heat, and moisture in all the manifest universe, whether living or non-living. By studying the daily rituals and medicines, and how they aid in increasing or decreasing the quality of dryness, heat, and moisture the practitioner is able to allow the body to heal any ailment through careful calibration of the therapy.
Defining Ayurveda through the eyes of Yoga
Ayurveda and Yoga is woven into the fabric of an Indian person’s life, from her birth to death, her family, her community, the daily rituals of health and hygiene, the way she prepares and eats her food, her cosmetics, the festivals she celebrates, and the fasts she religiously follows.
An Indian woman’s outlook on life, the people she keeps company with, the reasons why she pursues the goals she pursues, all this and the very air she breathes is infused with the Vedic, Ayurvedic and Yogic principles.
Of all the limbs of Yoga, karma Yoga and Bhakthi Yoga are an integral part of community living.
Ayurveda rituals are still followed in rural areas of India, especially in Kerala, the south of India where these daily dinacharya are practiced a lot more than the rest of India. Most of the regions which were under direct British influence lost these valuables ways of living.
Some of the commonly followed rituals are Abhyangam oil massage and tongue scraping. Caring for new mother and baby is another important rite of passage still widely followed, which is guided by Ayurveda’s well-being rituals and diet.
Abhyangam or daily oil massage is a dinacharya, a daily ritual, practiced by the majority of the population in Southern India.
Tongue scraping is followed by almost all the people in India, this is an important hygiene measure and it’s considered gross to not scrape the tongue.
Dry brushing, though described as an Ayurveda ritual is not directly related to classic Ayurveda rituals. An approximation is perhaps practiced only in modern settings by followers and practitioners. The original ritual is Udhwartanam or Ubtan. It is a massaging of the body with dry powers made of sweet spices and mung pastes, mustard paste, etc to wash off the excess oils from Abhyangam massage, to soften and reduce cellulite, and to help strengthen the body. This classic treatment is still offered at traditional Ayurveda centers.
Modern Ayurveda Spas may offer dry brushing as a cheaper, less messy alternative Gharsana therapy, done with roughly woven gloves that gently exfoliate and .
Defining Ayurveda from India’s Cuisine Perspective
India’s cuisine is heavily influenced by Ayurveda’s ancient principles and all regions, communities, and homes where food is cooked as Grandma used to cook, one can be sure is tridoshic, meaning helps all irrespective of body type, universally nourishing, and is according to ayurvedic principles.
The food, spices, and seasoning vary from region to region depending on weather, seasons, and the occupation of the people.
These practices have evolved to accommodate the stresses of modern life, almost all of our important milestones are enriched by our Vedic rituals for self-care, connection, and worship that we follow them to the best to our ability and pass them to our children, knowing they will also be served and blessed.
Frequently asked Questions
What do you mean by Ayurveda?
Ayurveda is Sanskrit, an ancient language from the Indian region, for “the knowledge of longevity”. This knowledge was passed down from master physicians, Yogis and householders to their disciples and community members. Ayurveda is part of the Rig and Atharva Vedas, which are foundational to India’s spiritual culture and heritage.
What does Ayurveda literally mean?
Ayu means life and Veda means knowledge. Sanskrit has many synonyms for each of the words, Ayu and Veda. It could also mean wisdom for longevity, which is how I like to see it. It also means science for living well. It could also be interpreted as the science for a prosperous meaningful self-actualized life in the pursuits of our human desires for love, partnership, and community.
Why is Ayurveda popular?
Ayurveda has been effective in healing many stress and lifestyle caused diseases that modern medicine does not have an answer for. While modern medicine is excellent for infectious diseases and for life saving emergency treatments, our current challenges are caused by sitting for too long behind laptops, isolation and lack of supportive relationships.
Is Ayurveda really effective?
Ayurveda has been practiced by the South Asian region for hundreds, if not thousands, of generations, even before the dawn of civilization in the Indus River Valley. Ayurveda is evidence based medical science, its remedies tried and tested for millenia.
How old is Ayurveda?
Ayurveda is estimated to be at least 5000 years old, which usually means we do not know how far back the practices go. I am of the opinion that it was pre-agricultural. Humanity has practiced Ayurveda from the time we were nomads and forest dwellers.
Here is an ancient Golden Milk recipe to ease you into sleep.
Easy ZZZ Golden Milk Recipe
1 cup plant based or dairy Milk
1/2 cup water
a large pinch of nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon turmeric
1/2 teaspoon of your favorite sweet spices like cinnamon, cardamom, fennel, dry ginger, or a bay leaf
Mix all the ingredients and bring to a boil, simmer till the milk reduces back to a cup.
When warm sweeten with brown natural sugar if you are a Vata Body Type.
For Kapha body Types add a dash of honey or drink plain.
By now you have understood that defining Ayurveda is an impossible task, considering the antiquity and the spread of Indian culture.
If Ayurveda has endured in a region of a billion people, many of whom are at the forefront of the internet revolution, who live lives just as busy as yours and mine, perhaps we can also benefit from adopting a few simple Ayurveda rituals.
Regardless of how open you are to meditation or Yoga, Ayurveda offers practical advice on managing health and disease.
If you would like to begin, try tongue scraping with a copper tongue scraper and see if you notice improved oral health.
If you wish to advance further, add a self oil Abhyanga massage with warm food-grade Sesame oil once every week.
A cup of turmeric and nutmeg milk made with a pinch of turmeric and nutmeg cooked briefly in any milk will help ease you into sleep at night. Please see the recipe above.
What do you think you might try for starters? Let me know in the comments below.