Ayurveda is the traditional medicine of India, Tibet, Nepal and Sri Lanka. It is rooted in both Hinduism and Buddhism, in texts such as the Charaka Samhita and the Medicine Buddha tantra.
Ayurveda is a psycho-physical system which treats mental and bodily states as a whole. In this regard it is similar to other holistic systems such as traditional Chinese medicine (TCM). Ayurveda has much in common with TCM, but differs with regard to its founding cosmology: TCM is based on Taoist principles and uses its element structure (fire, earth, metal, water, wood). Ayurveda is based on Samkhya and Buddhist principles and uses a different element taxonomy (fire, earth, water, wind, ether). A useful book which explores these differences is ‘Tao and Dharma: Chinese Medicine and Ayurveda’ by Robert Svoboda and Arnie Lade.
Ayurveda treats people according to their elemental constitution. We are all composed of fire, water, earth, wind and ether, however there are three main categories of people according to their dominant elements: Pitha (fire), Vatha (air & ether) and Kapha (earth & water). See diagram below:
Pitha, Vatha and Kapha are known as the three doshas (humours). Ayurvedic treatment works by discovering the patient’s fundamental constitution (prakruti) and then diagnosing their disease state (vikruti), which is their divergence from their fundamental constitution. An Ayurvedic doctor or practitioner will use a range of techniques to discover and diagnosis, such as asking about family history, taking the pulses, and (in the case of Tibetan Ayurveda) urine analysis.
Once the diagnosis is complete, the doctor (vaidya) will prescribe treatments such as diet, exercises, herbs, massages, and meditations to bring the patient’s constitution back into harmony. The website Ayurveda.com offers resources to help people discover their own natural constitution, and provides basic dietary advice. It is run by Dr. Vasant Lad, whose Ayurvedic textbooks and manuals are some of the best available in the English language. An entertaining introduction to Ayurveda is provided by David Crow’s book ‘In Search of the Medicine Buddha’ which recounts his travels and studies with Ayurvedic practitioners in Nepal.