Ayurveda

The ancient system of Ayurveda, a philosophy of life in balance, involves oil treatments. A practitioner, single-named Kailas, demonstrates one called shirodhara. (Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)

If you're of a certain age in the U.S., Deepak Chopra may have been your introduction to Ayurvedic medicine. The author of "Perfect Health" and Ayurvedic practitioner to the stars was ubiquitous on talk shows and newsstands in the 1990s.

But the traditional Indian medicine has come a long way even since then. With federally funded research into the efficacy of traditional remedies, a growing number of Ayurvedic schools and spas, and stricter regulations for certification on the horizon, it may be time to consider what Ayurveda can do for your health.

(The fact that massage and yoga are among Ayurveda-approved treatment options probably doesn't hurt either.)

Intrigued? Here's a primer, based on educators, practitioners and followers of Ayurveda.

Where it all began

Ayurveda originated thousands of years ago in India. Texts describing it were written as appendices to the Vedas, the ancient Hindu scriptures. But that's more of a cultural connection than a dogmatic one. Religion doesn't play a key role in the practice of Ayurveda; the concept of balance or harmony is more important.

Good health is an indication that the body and environment are in harmony, while illness is a sign of imbalance, on a spiritual, mental or physical level.

Role of the doshas

Ayurvedic practitioners believe that each person is born with a unique mixture of the three doshas: Vata, Pitta and Kapha. Each dosha itself represents a different combination of the five elements: space, air, fire, water and earth.

Figuring out a person's ideal doshic balance is the first step in diagnosing and treating disease. Usually people have one or two predominant doshas. But if the principal dosha becomes too strong, or a weaker dosha flares up, this imbalance can cause illness.

Doshas and your health

The Vata dosha represents space and air. It is related to movement and change in the body, such as circulation and respiration. It results in lively, energetic natures, though too much Vata can mean anxiety, dryness or flightiness.

The Pitta dosha is associated with fire and water. This dosha controls digestion and the metabolism. Pitta characters are strong and intelligent, but they can also become hot tempered and suffer from ailments such as heartburn and ulcers.

Kapha represents earth and water. This dosha distributes fluids in the body and is responsible for the immune system. It represents stability, which can manifest as stubbornness if the doshas become imbalanced.

Scope of care

As a holistic care system, Ayurveda encompasses preventive and clinical medicine as well as lifestyle change.

According to Marc Halpern, founder of the California College of Ayurveda, the traditional Indian medicine can be used to treat the full spectrum of disease, from arthritis, asthma or sports injuries to conditions such as heart disease, multiple sclerosis and cancer.

"Ayurveda is unique because it is a system of medicine that address both the cause and effect," he said.

But medical institutions such as the American Cancer Society, which includes information about Ayurveda on its website, emphasize that Ayurveda is a complementary therapy, not a replacement for more conventional treatment.

Treatments