From Here to Serenity
When pathology does arise, Ayurveda considers it an expression of a person's genetic predisposition, environment, habits, and understanding. Explains Dr. Marc Halpern, director of the California College of Ayurveda, disease starts in the physical body when undigested food and experience create ama, a toxic substance that accumulates in the body. Disease then develops through six distinct stages, of which only the last two are recognizable by scientific, evidence-based medicine. Because Ayurveda can identify disease patterns before there is clinical pathology, the approach allows a level of prevention unimaginable to conventional medicine. From an Ayurvedic perspective, even when physical damage is irreversible, it is still possible to minimize discomfort and arrest further deterioration.
This is where panchakarma comes in. The series of treatments helps the body release toxins and rebalances the doshas. Says Bri Maya Tiwari, Vedic monk, teacher, and author of Ayurveda, Secrets of Healing (Lotus Press, 1995), "These are not invasive therapies, but are meant to go deep within to nourish the body and cajole it into releasing its waste, its toxicity. The tissue should not feel a longing for something given up. It should not be traumatic, like candy ripped from child."
Because Ayurvedic physicians view each individual as unique, the customizing of treatment to the patient is central. Therefore, asking physicians trained in Indian Ayurvedic schools questions about disease can be frustrating. These vaidyas, as they're called in India, don't treat diseases, they treat people. Invariably the response begins, "It all depends on the individual." This is no New Age nod to holism, but rather the very foundation of this approach. (And it's not a lack of sophistication regarding disease, either. Ayurveda recognizes not two, but 20 types of diabetes, for example.)
Indeed, panchakarma—and the broader tradition of Ayurveda—are most sophisticated systems. Dr. Vasant Lad, founder of the Ayurvedic Institute, convinced me and an audience of American cardiologists of this several years ago, when I first met him at his presentation to the Department of Cardiology at New York City's Columbia Presbyterian Medical Center. He introduced passages from the Charak Samhita, a 5,000-year-old medical text, that outlined symptoms and complications of cardiac disease only recently discovered by Western medicine. Thousands of years before modern science, it seems, Ayurveda had gathered this knowledge, without microscope or stethoscope. The result is a deep wealth of understanding that informs the cleansing procedures used in panchakarma to this day.
One of the first things I discover after signing up for treatment is the emphasis placed on home preparation. I'm told that taking certain steps before the panchakarma treatments maximizes effectiveness, prevents complications, and prepares the body for the profound inner release the sessions will invariably bring. Ayurveda likens the body to a branch that, when dry, will snap under the stress of the various therapies. If the wood has been properly oiled first, however, it will bend beautifully.
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