On Ayurveda
Ayurveda is a nourishing and rejuvenating system of health, explains Caroline Sylger Jones

An Indian holistic system of health dating back over 5000 years, Ayurveda is Sanskrit for the knowledge (veda) of life (ayur), and the system is traditionally seen in India as a divine gift from Lord Brahma, the Hindu creator God, which has been developed by sages and holy men over the centuries.

In contrast to the western system of medicine, which is geared to treating an already-diseased body or mind, ayurveda seeks to help the individual strengthen and control both mind and body in order to prolong life and prevent illness. In today’s world, it’s a brilliant sister to western medicine, and as well as detoxing the body and mind and relieving stress, has been used to treat ME, high blood pressure, allergies, asthma, rheumatism, back pain, skin diseases, migraines and insomnia and has been used as an effective follow up treatment to chemotherapy.

Ayurveda works by combining body treatments and detoxification therapies with a balanced diet, gentle exercise and meditation to promote wellbeing. The type of treatments and therapies we receive will be dictated by our individual constitution, which in ayurveda is defined by a balance of three bodily energies or ‘doshas’ in our systems – the ‘vata’ (loosely, air), ‘pitta’ (loosely, fire) and ‘kapha’ (loosely, earth).

Composed of the five elements earth, water, fire, air and ether (or space), these doshas govern our bodily processes – vatta controls circulation and the nervous system, for example, pitta controls the metabolism and digestion, while kapha takes care of bodily strength and energy.

When we feel out of kilter, our doshas are likely to be out of balance, which a course of ayurveda treatments will seek to remedy. If we’re uptight and prone to do too many things at once, it will calm us down and help us focus. If we’re sluggish and suffer from bad digestion, it will energise us and get our bowels moving again.

An experienced ayurveda doctor will diagnose your dosha type by taking your pulse, and observing such things as how quickly you speak and move, your build, the colour of your eyes and the quality of your skin. You’ll also be asked lots of questions about your preferences (do you prefer hot or cold climes? do you like mild or spicy food? do you prefer to be alone, or with people?). The more open and honest you are, the more accurate a judgement will be, though it’s uncanny how the best doctors will read you just right, whatever you tell them.

Any programme of ayurveda will include preparation treatments and elimination (or detox) therapies. The first are the ones which everybody likes and include soothing, synchronised oil applications and massages, and swedana (purifying steam and herbal baths). Elimination therapies involve ingesting or retaining herbal medicines, medicated oils and ghee (or clarified butter), inhalations, bastis (or oil enemas), therapeutic vomiting and blood-letting – squeamish people will be pleased to know that the latter is usually deemed too gruesome for the Western palate.

Preparation treatments often include the sleep-inducing shirodhara, when a wonderful continuous stream of warm oil is poured across your forehead for about 25 minutes; choornaswedana, where hot herbal or lemon poultices are massaged all over you to induce sweating, and the supremely nourishing four-handed massage, abhyanga. Pizzichilli is often the ‘marmite’ of ayurveda, the treatment people either love or hate, where gallons of cleansing sesame oil are poured continuously over your body, and massaged in by two therapists as the oil increases in heat. You’ll slip about like a sardine in a tin, but this decadent treatment is very effective – look at the oil afterwards, and you’ll be shocked at just how dirty you were. If you’re a smoker, the oil is likely to be black.

These treatments and therapies are designed to work in combination with a balanced diet, gentle exercise and meditation, which is why any spa hotel or retreat venue that offers only ayurvedic massages is offering only a part of what ayurveda is all about. You really need time for ayurveda treatments to have any real effect – whilst a one-off session of shirodhara will ease you into sleep, and an abhyanga massage is sure to ease knotted muscles and a pent-up nervous system, a proper course of ayurveda needs at least two weeks to be effective and offer any real lasting benefit – preferably more, for rest between treatments is vital. Most people who undertake a course of ayurveda have a ‘panchakarma’ – literally translated as five therapies, the term also refers to a general ayurveda detox.

Stay at an ayurveda retreat

There are some wonderful ayurveda retreats around the world, most dedicated offering programmes dedicated to helping you with a specific goal such as de-stressing or weight loss. All offer panchakarma, the ayurveda detox. Read our reviews of ayurveda retreats around the world.