The True Essence of Ayurveda

Kripalu School of Ayurveda

As Dean of the Kripalu School of Ayurveda, I always get excited when I see a mainstream news source discussing Ayurveda. But reading NPR’s recent piece “In India, Ayurveda Is a Booming Business,” I felt less enthusiastic.

The piece first delves into the significance of cows in India and Hinduism, and, subsequently, the use of cow dung and urine in Ayurvedic treatments. I have been studying Ayurveda for more than a decade and have taken three trips to India, and in all this time I haven’t drunk any cow urine. There is information in the classical texts about animal urine as medicine, but that was 2,500 years ago. In the 21st century, it’s not at the top of the list of recommended Ayurvedic therapies in the United States, nor, in my experience, in India. Maybe drinking pee gets headlines, but it’s misleading click-bait, not to mention a reductionist view of Ayurveda—like equating Western medicine solely with taking penicillin. My concern is that those who read this article will shun Ayurveda as quackery.

Allow me to articulate what Ayurveda is at its heart.

Ayurveda is India’s traditional system of medicine, but it is no more “Hindu medicine” than Western medicine is, say, “Catholic medicine.” Yes, both Ayurveda and Hinduism draw from the ancient Vedic texts, as does yoga, but you do not have to be Hindu to benefit from Ayurveda—just as you can be from any faith and practice yoga. Ayurveda is a science, not a religion. In fact, it is the science of life: Ayu = life, veda = science. But what does that mean, exactly?

Science is an intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment. Ayurveda is the practice of developing a deep sense of awareness of who you are in relation to the world around you. Ayurveda offers a path of disease prevention for the healthy, and a path for intervention if disease is present. Here in the West, we promote Ayurveda as a lifestyle that includes choosing local, seasonal, organic foods for your unique set of biophysical needs; practicing stress-management techniques; cleansing the sense organs; and using a variety of herbal remedies.

Speaking of herbs, the NPR article mentions concern over the quantities of heavy metals, lead, and mercury found in some herbal Ayurvedic remedies. In 2008, the Journal of the American Medical Association published a study that found heavy metals in Ayurvedic herbal formulations from India. The truth is that heavy metals are present in most of our foods due to air pollution; even organic foods can’t be protected from the smoke plumes of factories. So, it is important to know your sources. I like Banyan Botanicals and Maharishi Ayurveda, both of which are certified USDA Organic, have high safety standards, and use sustainably sourced herbs.

The NPR article also questions the efficacy of Ayurvedic practices due to a lack of research. I understand that the gold standard double-blind study is king in the medical world, and I agree that more evidence-based research needs to be conducted. But here is the tricky thing: Ayurveda recognizes that each individual is unique. There is an intricate understanding that any symptoms presented have multiple root causes, so what works for one person may not work for everyone. It’s akin to the side effects of pharmaceuticals in that people can have different reactions to the same substances.

I get it—how can one journalist have the time to read more than 20 volumes of 2,500-year-old information when writing an article on Ayurveda? But drinking cow urine is low-hanging fruit. What I have witnessed in my 10-plus years of Ayurvedic study, teaching, and consulting is the transformational power of Ayurveda. When people reconnect to their circadian rhythms, eat whole foods, and move their bodies, they increase their vitality. Their mood improves, their digestive power increases, and they strengthen their relationship to self and others. Ayurveda changed my life, and I am a wiser, kinder, and more dynamic person because of it.  

Here are a few resources I recommend if you really want to dive into Ayurveda:

Kripalu articles and videos on Ayurveda

The Everyday Ayurveda Cookbook: A Seasonal Guide to Eating and Living Well, by Kate O’Donnell

The 3-Season Diet: Eat the Way Nature Intended, by John Douillard

Prakriti: Your Ayurvedic Constitution, by Robert E. Svoboda

Ayurveda: The Science of Self-Healing: A Practical Guide, by Vasant Lad

Learn more about Kripalu’s Ayurveda programs.

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Erin Casperson, Lead Kripalu Faculty and Director of the Kripalu School of Ayurveda, is passionate about sharing how the ancient practices of Ayurveda can be applied to modern-day living.

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