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Road testing Ayurvedic medicine

India's ancient 'science of life' demands persistence as well as faith

Ayurveda shifts the emphasis away from diseased-based treatments like surgery and drugs by prescribing exercise and massage. (Photo by Four Seasons)

Ayurvedic medicine, one of a handful of ancient medical systems that are still practiced today, serves as the first line of defense against illness for more than 1 billion people on the Indian subcontinent. But is it a "silver bullet" that could relieve the rapidly rising cost of caring for the world's aging population?

Western medical experts say "no," arguing that Ayurveda's replacement of surgery and drugs with exercise, herbal remedies, massage and dietary advice can be ineffective or even dangerous.

I wanted to find out the truth for myself largely because I suffer from a nagging health problem that modern medicine has failed to solve: chronic sinusitis -- a buildup of mucus in the sinuses and an inability to breathe easily through the nose.

An obvious place to test Ayurvedic treatment -- the name is a Sanskrit compound meaning "science of life" -- would have been Ayurveda, in the southern Indian state of Kerala. The city is the birthplace of the system and home to Ayurvedic hospitals that treat medical tourists.

But after consulting people familiar with Ayurvedic regimes, I opted for a center in the Maldives where I could receive treatment while also splurging on a holiday at a Four Seasons resort hotel that bills itself as an "Ayurvedic retreat." There I met Sooraj Shankar, a graduate of Parassinikadavu Ayurveda Medical College, in Kerala. Shankar explained the core beliefs of Ayurveda, which is based on the five "elements" of the ancient world -- water, air, fire, earth and ether -- and how they combine in three different body types.

"Once I know your body type," Shankar said, "I can make recommendations on how to adjust your food, sleep and lifestyle -- the three pillars that need to be in balance for good health."

I did not tell Shankar about my sinus problem, and he did not ask. Instead, he placed three fingers on the radial artery of my right wrist, closed his eyes and entered a trance. When he emerged a minute later, he said my body type was "pitta," based on fire and water.

"You are waking up in the middle of the night very thirsty because there is too much heat inside you and not enough oxygen is being supplied to the brain," he said. Then came the week's first big surprise: "Because your face is lacking oxygen, you have big problems with your sinus."

I was impressed. "Now," he said, "I will tell you how to balance your body type by using breathing exercises and diet and a treatment for sinusitis called 'nasya.'"

Shankar explained how, in Ayurvedic belief, cool air is drawn in via the left nostril and heat through the right. In the Himalayas, breathing through the right nostril is said to be a common way to try to get warm in winter. To adjust my heat imbalance, he instructed me to cover my right nostril and inhale 100 times through the left every evening.

Diet lies at the core of Ayurveda's search for balance. With lots of red meat, dairy products and tropical fruits, mine had left my body imbalanced. Dairy foods such as milk, cheese and eggs are said to encourage mucus production.

Shankar steered me toward dairy products better suited to my body type, including organic milk and ghee, or clarified butter. He also suggested a reduction in red meat. Then he handed me a list of seemingly healthy foods that people with my body type should avoid, including garlic, green grapes, lemons and pineapples.

I followed Shankar's diet and breathing exercises for a week. I also had daily 30-minute nasya massages in the hotel spa. By pressing on my sinus cavity to loosen the mucus, the masseuse provided instant relief. But the chakra blessing (based on another Indian thought system that divides the body into seven centers of power) had no notable effect.

My second big surprise, however, was that by the end of the week my sinuses were about 50% clearer, and I could breathe better. "I'm not saying Ayurveda is superior to modern medicine, only that it's proven to work," Shankar said, before warning that the improvement would be temporary unless I maintained my new regime.

Ayurveda passed my road test. But unlike Western medicine, where chemistry does the work, the solution demands an almost religious observance of breathing exercises, massage, diet and herbs. A few weeks after returning to my hectic life in Sydney, the effort became too demanding and I stopped. The improvement, as Shankar predicted, was lost. Perhaps Ayurveda is simply incompatible with Western lifestyles. At least, though, its lessons have stayed with me.

Ian Lloyd Neubauer is an Australia-based writer.


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