For over 5000 years, the Indian subcontinent has cultivated a traditional form of medicine called Ayurveda which is now matching yoga as one of the country’s most famous contributions to health and fitness.
Ayurveda’s advocates claim it treats a range of conditions from sciatica to arthritis and irritable bowel syndrome. But Indian practitioners worry Ayurveda is being practised superficially overseas, catering to people seeking quick fixes.
Meaning ‘life science’ in Sanskrit, Ayurveda proposes every human consists of three forces or ‘doshas’: Pitta (fire and water), Kapha (water and earth) and Vata (space and air). When imbalanced, these doshas cause ill health.
To restore equilibrium, there are five means of cleansing the body (or ‘panchakarma’): induced vomiting and bowel motions, medicated enemas, blood-letting, and medication ingested nasally. Other treatments include oral medications made from herbs, minerals or metals, massages with medicated oils or powders, and liquids gently dripped on the forehead.
M. Narayanan Namboodri, an Ayurvedic physician in India, says patients must adopt long-term lifestyles changes and therapies suited to their individual needs. He recommends many patients stay in an Ayurveda clinic for at least a few weeks, where doctors can closely monitor their diets and daily routines to address the root causes of ill health.
Isaac Mathai, a homeopathic doctor who runs a luxury Ayurveda clinic in Bangalore, is concerned Australian clinics don’t admit inpatients.
“Emotional, psychological and spiritual cleansing, and rebalancing the mind-body-spirit is very important. That requires a healing sanctuary where you connect with nature, you have your prayers, you have your meditation. All this brings reflection on your own life and will help the healing process on a much deeper level.”
Namboodri fears Australians will believe Ayurveda simply involves taking pills or getting an occasional massage; misled by over-the-counter Ayurveda products and spas offering ‘Ayurvedic’ massages without an entire treatment regime.
Yet Rita Sagrani, founder of an Ayurveda clinic in Sydney’s eastern suburbs, says time-poor Australians can’t afford to leave behind their family and work responsibilities to stay at a clinic for days or weeks.
Her clients can complete detox treatments over three to seven days, spending only three to four hours in the clinic each day. With meals provided, she says patients are still able to relax and reap the full benefit of treatments while carrying on with their everyday lives.
“When we take on a client for detox… the first thing the doctor does is explain to them how the detox is deep: it’s physical, mental and emotional. So they need to organise their lives to have those days free when they go home as ‘me’ time.
“In India they may do one or two panchakarma treatments per day. We do four or five treatments a day because a lot of our clients are stressed and so we need to balance and rejuvenate their body whilst detoxing.”
Ayurvedic doctor Anisha Dinaz says she practises at her Sydney clinics the same way she did at an inpatient hospital in India. Although patients don’t get the “ambience” of staying at a resort, they can complete most cleansing treatments in the comfort of their homes at times that suit them.
Yet she cautions Australians to avoid buying over-the-counter Ayurveda medications without consulting a practitioner.
“Just because it’s herbal, doesn’t mean we can have it however we want. Without proper guidance from a doctor – even if it’s ginger, garlic, turmeric, things we use in the kitchen everyday – the dosage matters and certain people aren’t allowed [to have them]. And people with certain constitutions are not allowed to eat them after [taking] a certain dose [for medicinal purposes].”
She only uses herbal Ayurvedic products made in India – which she believes are the best quality – and avoids using mineral and metal-based products as it’s hard to ensure their purity.
However, Dr Ian Musgrave, a pharmacologist at the University of Adelaide, warns there’s “significant evidence” some Ayurvedic drugs cause serious side effects like heavy metal poisioning, liver damage and skin toxicity. As many herbal remedies haven’t undergone rigorous scientific testing, any side effects that aren’t immediately obvious – like cancer – may be unknown.
He says more research is needed to understand how Ayurvedic therapies work: “It’s entirely possible that many of these herbal remedies could have some utility. But there’s a whole lot that don’t.”
Dr Musgrave recommends purchasing medicines approved under the Australian Register of Therapeutic Goods rather than products from overseas or online, which may be contaminated with pharmaceuticals not listed on the label.
Despite fearing the forces of commercialisation will corrupt India’s ancient medicine, Namboordi is hopeful authentic Ayurveda will improve lives internationally.
“Ayurveda is India’s gift to the world, like yoga… I’m proud as an Indian that I have something great to offer the world.”
The views expressed and information contained in this article do not replace advice from your own health care professional who is best placed to advise on your own personal situation.
The author travelled to India as part of the University of Technology Sydney (UTS) The Foreign Correspondent Study Tour. The project is funded by the Australia-India Council of the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade.