By Andrea Paradis, integrative care educator
For thousands of years, ancient systems of healing have prevailed due to their holistic approach. Rather than just treating a disease or what is wrong, they treat the whole person.
The world’s oldest known system of medicine, Ayurveda, is a powerful therapeutic tool, helping overcome illness, relieve symptoms and improve overall wellness.
The word Ayurveda translates to the “science of life,” from the Indian words “ayur” meaning “life” and “veda” meaning “knowledge.” This ancient wisdom originated in India thousands of years ago and incorporates interconnectedness, the elements and life forces (dosha) to foster and encourage health and the prevention of illness.
Ayurveda treats disease according to the individual person’s needs as a whole: body, mind and spirit. A crucial part is achieving balance, and this can be done through many different practices including meditation, yoga and other integrative medicines.
Its sister science, yoga
Both yoga and Ayurveda are healing disciplines originating from the same Vedic ancestry. However, where Ayurveda is considered the science, yoga is the practice of the science.
When working with an Ayurveda practitioner, yoga and meditation are often incorporated, and the more a person incorporates yoga, the more the person learns about Ayurveda.
Ayurveda explains that everything and everyone in the universe are made up of the five elements earth, fire, air, water and ether. They represent states of mind and emotion as well as the density of all substances in the universe: solid, liquid, radiant, gas and ethereal. These five elements combine to create the three life forces within a person, called doshas.
Each person is made up of a unique combination of the three doshas, known as kapha, pitta and vata. Some of each dosha is within all of us; however, many people have one or two doshas dominating. Like a fingerprint, these are unique to the person, determining physical, emotional and mental characteristics. Additionally, each dosha has specific roles in the body, controlling the simplest to most complex cellular, physiological and psychological functions.
Throughout a lifetime, the doshas within a person ebb and flow based on environmental and lifestyle factors, such as diet, exercise, seasons, climate and age. An imbalance of the doshas can affect health, energy, mood and disease.
Disease and imbalance
Virender Sodhi, M.D., of the Ayurvedic and Naturopathic Medical Clinic in Washington State, explains, “According to Ayurveda, unbalanced doshas leads to faulty inherent intelligence leading to malfunctioning of genes and gene behavior leading to diseases like cancer.”
Imbalances of doshas in the body can create disease, and there are stages of how a disease would manifest. First, an accumulation of what is called ama, or toxins in the body, would begin. Some sources of imbalance:
- Weak digestion (agni)
- Excessive cold/raw foods
- Inadequate sleep
- Industrial pollutants
- Lack of exercise and mindful practice
- Sugary, processed and fried foods
- Tobacco and alcohol
These ama accumulate within the body, disrupting the body’s balance. This results in the body not functioning the way it is supposed to because the system is aggravated. The ama continues growing, overflowing, until it localizes and manifests as disease. The goal of Ayurveda is to clean out the ama as often as possible and attain balance.
A complement to treatment
Just as the elements and dosha determine the nature of each person, so to do they guide cancer treatment needs. Treatment with an Ayurveda practitioner would still recommend chemotherapy, radiation and all treatments to remove and kill cancer. However, an Ayurveda practitioner would also discuss lifestyle changes. Among them:
- Daily practices. There are many daily practices that can be incorporated to remove ama, help digestion and improve health. From tongue scraping to drinking hot lemon water to dry brushing, an Ayurveda practitioner partners with each person to determine the best options for that cancer type. For example, some people with cancer may have sores on the tongue, so tongue scraping may be limited; others may need to avoid lemon due to medication.
- Diet and digestion. Digestion is really important and can become a problem, especially for anyone with cancer. It gets thrown off by different medications and diet limitations. An Ayurveda practitioner can help develop a nutrition plan incorporates the person’s needs based on the dominating doshas and diagnosis.
- Physical activity. An Ayurveda practitioner finds options that work for the person’s mobility, diagnosis and limits. This can be as simple as a walk to developing an extremely active exercise regimen.
- Relaxation and meditation. Ayurveda incorporates lifestyle practices focused around medication and relaxation. This can include massage, yoga, breathing exercises and meditation. However, the options depend on the person’s needs and dominant doshas.
- Sleep. There’s something called the Ayurveda clock that says a person should go to sleep around 10 p.m. to ensure adequate sleep and keep in balance. An Ayurveda practitioner discusses sleep on an individual level and encourages the person to get sufficient sleep to overcome a diagnosis and prevent illness.
- Stress and mood. Lower stress helps the immune system function better, so it is able to accept treatment and fight the cancer. There are many daily practices a person can incorporate to decrease stress and improve mood.
- Responses tied to symptoms. Each person experiences different symptoms depending on the cancer. An Ayurveda practitioner addresses the specific symptom based on the diagnosis and the person’s dominating doshas. For example, someone experiencing fatigue could be recommended breathing exercises and gentle movements. This encourages the person to get out of bed and moving without getting overexerted.
Together with modern medicine, Ayurveda offers each person a unique approach to life, wellness and overcoming disease. Rather than a standard treatment, each patient receives an individualize experience looking at every aspect of who the person is.