Think you know nothing about Ayurveda? Think again. That hot water with lemon each morning? That’s Ayurveda. Started to see the rise in tongue scraping? The method first came into being over 5,000 years ago. Yoga, breathing exercises and morning meditations? Ayurveda, again.
Many ancient philosophies, medicines and ‘wellness’ techniques have gained popularity in recent years. The West has a long history of co-opting and monetising techniques, therapies and healing methods long used and known by indigenous cultures, ancient civilisations and religions. Yoga is now synonymous with Scandi-esque interiors, hot water with lemon every supermodel’s secret.
Are these therapies alternate? Or are we simply just beginning to come full circle on wellness? We don’t need new ways of caring for our minds and bodies, we just need to listen to what we’ve known all along.
We spoke with founder of Uma Oils, Shrankhla Holecek to understand just what Ayurveda is, how it’s approach to ‘wellness’ differs from Western medicine and how, for those just learning about the science, it can be incorporated into daily life.
How would you describe the Ayurvedic practise?
The beginnings of Ayurveda extend deep into ancient Indian history. The science of medicine, arguably the oldest in the world, was originally an oral tradition, passed from person to person, teacher to student, before it was ultimately recorded in Sanskrit more than 5000 years ago as part of the Vedas. The Vedas span a multitude of subjects and ideas about health and wellness. Including spirituality, environment, botany, behaviour, art, and astrology. The Vedas are rich bodies of literature and form the basis of the Ayurvedic belief that we are all interconnected and intrinsic parts of our environment.
Over time, Charaka and Sushruta, two of the most prominent contributors to Ayurveda, catalogued the learnings and teachings into written texts roughly 3000 years ago. And that is what forms the basis of the Ayurvedic practice as we know it today.
Simply put, Ayurveda is the science of life. Literally. That’s what the word means in Sanskrit. Ayurveda draws on a system of scientific and practical knowledge, which is rooted in the ancient belief systems about the constitution of the human body, and its close relationship with the environment it exists in. It encompasses not only science but also lifestyle and philosophy, whereby the whole of life’s journey is considered sacred.. so in many ways one could argue that it's the mother of all holistic healing and approaches!
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How does Ayurveda differ from western medicine?
I think the first difference most notice is the emphasis on treatment of "symptoms" as is often the case in western medicine, vs. the elimination of the root cause, as is the case with Ayurvedic medicine. Which is why Ayurveda really shines in the management of many chronic skin or wellness conditions - like eczema, chronic fatigue or Lyme disease - that traditional western medicine hasn't really provided relief in.
However, the thing to keep in mind is that when you're treating your body of root causes, that have likely developed from imbalances and poor habits over months or years. The Ayurvedic treatment takes some time to be fully effective. So the mentality of "instant gratification" - as in popping a Xanax to stop feeling your anxiety. Knowing that Xanax is merely 'masking' the anxiety instead of alleviating the reasons why your body starts to feel panic to begin with, doesn't work quite that way in Ayurveda.
You must be patient, and committed to resolving the imbalances causing your symptoms. While there certainly are many appropriate times and reasons to rely on traditional drugs to manage one's symptoms, it's also important to acknowledge that these symptoms are often your body or mind's signals that something is wrong. And holistically addressing them via a science like Ayurveda can really help your overall health and longevity.
Finally, it's important to note that Western medicine often relies on the rule of numbers to cure. In that what is common to a majority of people constitutes the norm, and hence has universal applicability. Ayurveda dictates that every human constitution has its own particular and spontaneous temperament and functioning. And hence must be evaluated individually. The key to understanding one’s own or another’s constitution is often acceptance, observation and experience.
What is the core principle of Ayurveda?
A core teaching in Ayurveda is to go beyond the division between subjectivity and objectivity. And to embrace practical experience, while getting connected deeper with our bodies and understanding our individual constitutions. Some questions, while inevitable, are not always answerable by anything but practical experience of relief. Ayurveda is truly a holistic science, in which the sum of its many elements comprises its truth. Early practitioners may sometimes need to briefly suspend disbelief and accept some departure from accepted norm (such as that of 'instant gratification'). While trusting the practical relief their bodies are experiencing, from the integration of this powerful, ancient form of natural healing into their regiment.
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What are the doshas? And why does understanding our own matter?
Within the practice of Ayurveda, all matter is believed to be made up of five elements: Prithvi (Earth), Agni (Fire), Jal (Water), Vayu (Air) and Aakash (Ether). They manifest in the human body as three basic principles: Vata (Ether and Air), Pitta (Fire and Water) and Kapha (Earth and Water). These three principles - vata-pitta-kapha – govern all the biological, psychological and physiopathological functions of body and mind. Disease and bodily discomfort is considered to be created from an imbalance in these principles.
Understanding one's dosha allows us, first and foremost, to fully appreciate our uniqueness, physically and emotionally. Unlike a fad food or fad diet that supposedly will have "great results" for "everyone", the idea of Ayurvedic doshas helps us understand how we should best honour and nurture our individual constitutions, and best care for them.
It provides guidelines of dosha-specific foods. For example, avocados can be great for 'vata' constitutions, but kaphas should only consume them in moderation. Lifestyle habits such as ideal times to turn in and wake. Types of meditation, and beyond. It's also an important way to start honouring your intuition in that your body knows best - and that the wisdom to heal yourself and thrive is within you.
Society at large is now more focused on a holistic approach to “wellness”. How does Ayurveda approach wellness?
In a way, Ayurveda guides that you cannot have anything without underlying wellness (which to me is somewhat synonymous with the idea of balance within the Ayurvedic paradigm). So it'd follow that wellness would be a necessary precursor to anything in life - enhanced careers, relationships, even beauty.
Another very rich concept from Ayurveda as it pertains to wellness, beauty and holistically taking care of yourself, is the idea of rituals. Ayurvedic rituals can help support that connectivity with what your body is telling you by adding experientiality and mindfulness to activities that you may be carrying out unthinkingly, and out of routine. Even things such as getting ready for your day or applying skincare or make-up. Those 2-5 minutes morning and night can be powerful moments of checking in with your body by getting drawn into the aromas and facial massages that underscore the power of touch. The Ayurvedic concept of daily Abhyanga, self massage, is another great example of holistic wellness because the practice is as good for your soul, your health, as it is for your skin.
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What are the most common ways someone would be incorporating Ayurvedic practises in their life without knowing it?
A lot of tenets of Ayurveda - such as Yoga and breathing meditation - are already quite mainstream and practiced widely, often without people realising that they’re in fact, very deeply Ayurvedic. I was recently watching an old episode of Curb your Enthusiasm where Larry David is telling his wife about how he got the habit of tongue scraping from his wife Cheryl. Guess where it started? Ayurveda - over 5000 years ago! Adaptogens such as Ashwagandha, or morning rituals such as hot water and lemon, that everyone in Hollywood from Gwenyth Paltrow to Jennifer Anitson swear by… that's Ayurveda!
Incorporation of Ayurvedic skincare and herbal remedies, from face oils to foods such as turmeric and ghee, have already become the natural next frontier in the exploration of a science that has a highly integrative/ holistic healing philosophy of mind-body balance. And that is deeply resonating with people. As the world gets smaller and information more readily available, people are starting to explore Ayurveda from a scientific lens and evaluating its merits. And discovering a body of practical solutions mired in centuries of experience and results. Which is helping this age-old science emerge from the shadows of skepticism into mainstream acceptance.
However, most importantly, I believe people are seeing results and starting to trust their minds and bodies for the results they’re seeing. Which interestingly, is also a core tenet of Ayurveda.