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Ayurveda is the oldest continuously practiced system of medicine in the world, with a history in India dating back over 4000 years.
Unlike most forms of traditional medicine, Ayurveda is a highly organized and sophisticated medical system that includes formal branches of practice otherwise only found in modern medicine, such as the practice of surgery. It is a little-known fact that when the British arrived in India in the 1700s, they were surprised to see Indian physicians performing techniques such as cataract surgery and rhinoplasty that were well beyond the British doctors’ abilities.
Ayurveda is different from modern medicine, however, in that it is predicated on an entirely different view of reality.
When you go see your regular doctor for a complaint, they rely on objective criteria to help figure out what’s going on with your health. Whether it’s standing on a scale, measuring blood pressure, or analyzing serum triglycerides, these procedures can ultimately be reduced to a series of numbers, which in turn can be measured against a statistical average of what is “normal.” Hence, if your results fit within this range, you are determined to be healthy; if not, then you must be diseased.
In contrast, Ayurveda is concerned with the subjective experience of disease, and for the most part, completely ignores abstract or numerical determinants of health.
In taking a patient’s case history, for example, there are no measurements to note. Traditional physicians in ancient India didn’t utilize scales, stethoscopes, sphygmomanometers and blood tests. Rather, Ayurveda is based on qualitative analysis, using subjective-feeling determinants to help understand the patient’s experience of disease and formulate a strategy to resolve it. Practically speaking, this difference in orientation between modern medicine and Ayurveda can yield some dramatic differences when it comes to the treatment of disease.
Several years ago, I had a peri-menopausal patient complaining of severe vaginal dryness. She was in a new relationship, and this issue was proving to be a big problem. Frustrated and depressed, she went to the doctor and tested low in estrogen. She was placed on hormone-replacement therapy (HRT), but several months later (during which time she experienced no benefits), the Women’s Health Initiative Study demonstrated a link between HRT and cancer. She hurriedly consulted with her doctor and decided to stop the HRT, and was prescribed supposedly “safer” estrogen suppositories instead.
By the time she came to see me three months later, it was clear that the suppositories weren’t of any benefit. After listening to her experience, I prescribed a diet rich in certain types of fatty foods, such as cultured ghee and meat soup, along with a few herbs like Shatavari and Peony root that are traditionally used to nourish the blood and counteract dryness. Along with this, I had her apply virgin coconut oil to her body on a daily basis and to her vulva twice daily, and I instructed her to use lots of coconut oil whenever she had sex.
When she came back two weeks later, she remarked just how different she felt, how much “juicier” everything was, and how it completely turned around her sex life.
I have used the same basic approach with many other peri-menopausal and sub-fertile women, all with a similar degree of success—each time avoiding the risk inherent in reducing the experience of disease to a series of numbers.
To fully comprehend the utility of Ayurveda, a person raised in the West must re-examine and confront the inherent biases of the Western mind, and its supposedly rational and objective orientation.
It may be said that science is devoid of metaphysics and philosophical statements on the nature of being, but in fact there is a powerful, metaphysical core to science that is all but hidden, continually skewing its perspective. This can be found in the Three Laws of Thought articulated by the Greek Philosopher Aristotle, which forms the basis of Western logic, and hence, the basis of scientific thought.
The first of Aristotle’s rules (the Law of Identity) states that “whatever is, is.” This means that when we name or identify something, it creates a conceptual distinction that allows it to become separate from the whole. While this is obviously useful, it is nonetheless predicated on an assumption of separateness, and we run into all kinds of trouble when we don’t account for this assumption.
This same thinking gave rise to the use of antibiotics in modern medicine, predicated on the early 20th century scientific belief that humans exist apart from bacteria. And now, even as the latest science continues to blur the line between bacteria and humans, showing how crucial physiological systems like digestive health and immune function are dependent upon them, our earlier failure to appreciate the interconnectedness of life has yielded the impending disaster of antibiotic resistance.
Separation, it would seem, is a kind of illusion. As it is said in the Upanishads:
ॐ पूर्णमदः पूर्णमिदं पूर्णात् पूर्णमुदच्यते
oṃ pūrṇamadaḥ pūrṇamidaṃ pūrṇāt pūrṇamudacyate
That is the whole. This too is the whole.
Taking the Whole from the Whole, the Whole itself remains.
Ayurveda does not argue with the utility of making distinctions, but these distinctions are always temporal, not absolute. In Buddhism, this is understood by the concept of pratitya samutpada, the law of dependent origination, in which no corporeal entity or phenomena maintains an independent origination.
We understand this in Ayurveda by respecting our inherent connectedness to the rhythms of the earth, sun, moon, tides and seasons, as well as the individual rhythm of our bodies. In Ayurveda, this is what is meant by dharma: the natural way of things. Hence our goal is to align ourselves with these natural rhythms, using our intelligence to anticipate, recognize and respond to patterns of change, artfully leveraging the power of nature to remove obstructions from our path.
Author: Todd Caldecott
Editors: Toby Israel; Sara Kärpänen