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Beyond the Mainstream

Vital Life Force Is Basis of Ayurveda

November 06, 2000|Barrie R. Cassileth | Barrie Cassileth is chief of integrative medicine at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York

Ayurveda stems from two Sanskrit words meaning "to know the truth" or "knowledge of life." An ancient practice of health care dating back at least 3,000 years, Ayurvedic medicine was brought to India along with religious concepts, teachings, prayers, hymns and manuscripts by hordes of invading Aryans from the north.

Although it remains popular today in the United States and other parts of the world, its value as a viable overall health system is questionable. Except for meditation and some herbal remedies, most aspects of Ayurveda contradict concepts of modern science-based medicine, as might be expected from an ideology developed millenniums ago. Similar in many ways to traditional Chinese medicine, which it influenced, Ayurveda is based on the concept of an internal "vital force," or energy, that sustains all life. It details a close relationship between humans and the universe, holding that cosmic energy is manifest in all living and nonliving things. Such relationships and "life forces" have never been substantiated by modern science-based medicine.

Followers of Ayurveda seem to enjoy engaging in a therapeutic system that was vibrant thousands of years ago. Meditation, a cornerstone of all of the earliest medical systems, can in fact induce relaxation and reduce anxiety and stress. Regardless of whether they subscribe to Ayurvedic ideas, many people include meditation in their routine efforts to maintain good health.

True Ayurvedic practitioners, called "vaidyas," base their practice not on objective knowledge, but rather on wisdom received through a cosmic consciousness evolving from meditation and religious introspection. Clearly, cosmic wisdom will not cure cancer or any other disease.

The vaidya classifies his patients as predominantly one of three basic metabolic body types, or "doshas." Each dosha is believed located within specified body organs, and each has its own relationship to the cosmos, the four seasons and the five environmental elements. The elements are identified as ether, air, fire, water and earth. Ether is believed to relate to hearing and open spaces within the mind; air to touch; fire to sight; water to taste; and earth to smell.

Many characteristics are associated with each type, including internal organ locations and metabolic factors such as high cholesterol, ulcers, hemorrhoids, constipation and anxiety. Physiologic activities such as breathing, digestion, blood circulation and metabolism also are matched to each body type. In this intricate and detailed system, illness is viewed as organ system disorder: the absence of physical, emotional and spiritual harmony; an imbalance of the individual's major and minor dosha types.

Three primary activities are employed to diagnose illness. First, a detailed history is taken of the patient's entire life, and a lengthy pulse diagnosis focuses on heart rate, patterns and strength. Feeling various parts of the body and listening to the lungs follow. A detailed inspection of tongue, nails, lips and the body's nine "doors"--eyes, ears, nostrils, mouth, genitalia and anus along with their secretions--concludes the diagnostic routine.

Once a diagnosis is established, patients may be given special diets relating to their specific body types, and told to alter sleeping, walking, eating and sexual habits. Bloodletting, bowel evacuation and induced vomiting also may be required.

Some diseases are thought to come from demons or astrological influences. Other therapeutic approaches, therefore, include incantations, use of amulets, the creation of spells and invoking mantras to restore good health. Meditation and herbal remedies remain integral parts of today's Ayurvedic therapies and may represent that system's only valid medical benefit.

As does yoga, a related life discipline, meditation has positive health benefits. This is consistent with the Ayurvedic emphasis on self-care and personal responsibility for one's own health and well-being.

Ayurvedic medicine should not be confused with Maharishi Ayur-Veda, available in the United States as a trademarked line of alternative health products and services marketed by the founder of transcendental meditation, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, sometimes called "the Hindu Swami."

Deepak Chopra, the popular physician, author and promoter of Ayurveda, says that cures for physical disorders will be found in nature's intelligence, where Ayurvedic herbs, minerals and metals "think" the way humans do. Further, Chopra asserts that "for every thought there is a corresponding molecule. If you have happy thoughts, then you have happy molecules." In addition to Chopra's work, many other resources promote Ayurvedic concepts, including scores of Web sites, lectures, clinics, an Ayurvedic Institute in New Mexico, audio programs and numerous books by proponents and practitioners.

There is little science-based evidence in support of Ayurveda's basic tenets, and--as I've noted--few of its medical beliefs are sustained by scientific fact. Practitioners' claims that it cures major diseases are not backed by solid evidence. If you are diagnosed with a serious illness, it is wise to consult a physician who practices science-based medicine, which has the advantage of hundreds of years of study and research.

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Barrie Cassileth is chief of integrative medicine at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York and the author of "The Alternative Medicine Handbook" (Norton, 1998). Her column appears the first Monday of each month.

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