On a recent trip to India it quickly became apparent that many foreigners seek out all that is Ayurvedic.

When I wandered into the airport pharmacy at Mumbai to find tissues, the bored sales clerk perked up and said, “Ayurvedic massage oil?” He seemed both shocked and disgruntled that this was not my sought-after item. Elsewhere I encountered similar eagerness to steer me in the Ayurvedic direction: I began to read labels closely in an attempt to discern what was in these much-vaunted formulations. So much was labelled Ayurvedic that I began to wonder if the word was used the way the word “natural” is used on products in North America and Europe.

At any rate, when I ran out of shampoo, hair conditioner and sunscreen I opted for the Ayurvedic choices. Although the Shahnaz Husain products were pleasant to use and nicely fragrant, I’m not sure they did all they promised to do, but then what product does?

The current surge of interest in Ayurvedic products is not limited to India, although certainly as the source of Ayurvedic medicine, this is the place to go if you want to explore the tradition deeply. Alternative health practitioners around the world offer Ayurvedic treatment, and a range of Ayurveda-inspired products for both health and beauty may be found in many different places. In this column and the next we’ll take a look at what this tradition is all about.

Like Chinese medicine, Ayurveda is an ancient system of medicine. It dates to the beginnings of Indian civilization. Like Chinese medicine, Ayurveda encompasses an entire philosophical system of which medicine is a part; within this system the body, mind and spirit are thought of as intricately linked. Essential to Ayurveda is the concept of the three doshas (humours): vata (arising from air and space); pitta (arising from fire and an aspect of water); and kapha (arising from water and earth). When balanced, these elements are thought to sustain the health of the body, and to destroy health when imbalanced.

Individuals are designated as constitutional types using the same classifications alone or in combination, resulting in eight basic types. An important principle of the Ayurvedic system (again, reminiscent of the Chinese one) is the belief that substances taken into the body — food — can be nourishing, poisonous, or medicinal, depending on their effect on the doshas. The diet is seen as a primary force for health.

In diagnosis, the Ayurvedic physician examines eight diagnostic factors: feces, urine, tongue, sound, touch, sight, face and pulse. In treatment, Ayurveda may include any of the following: techniques of purification, surgery, drugs, diet, herbs, minerals, massage and other physical work, acupressure, yoga and other exercises, music, aromatherapy, cautery, meditation and homeopathy. There is in the Ayurvedic tradition a vast pharmacopeia of medicinal substances, and these are often administered in conjunction with a purification regime and detailed attention to diet.

The Ayurvedic system looks at all physical symptoms as part of a larger condition, in which the mental, emotional and spiritual states play integrated roles. This holistic perspective is harmonious with that sought by those who are dissatisfied with the more solely physical approach of much conventional Western medicine. Everything is seen as related. Knowing this, the reason why travelers to India might seek out Ayurvedic health and beauty products becomes more apparent. What these products offer is what cosmetics companies in the West are only beginning to scratch the surface of — the idea that a product can be therapeutic, individualized and functional on several different levels.

Buy an Ayurvedic turmeric face cream, and along with the usual moisturizer, you’re getting something that balances and calms your inflamed and irritated skin, something that supplies a fragrance that lifts your spirits, and a color that denotes happiness, all in a formulation hundreds of years old. Next column, how to make your own treatments using Ayurvedic principles.

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