Eat, sleep and be merry
There's more to ayurveda than just hot oil. The strict daily routine its advocates adhere to is a lifestyle that brings multiple benefits, writes Suzanne Harrison
DHANANJAY KULKARNI has been practising the ayurveda lifestyle for about four years. He hasn't been to a doctor in that time. 'It's the school of life,' he says. 'It's how you align your body with nature.'
Ayurveda is nothing new. It's 5,000 years old and encompasses herbal medicine, sleep patterns, diet and yoga. It's gaining popularity as an alternative health choice in the west, particularly in the US.
In India - the home of ayurveda - it's considered a comprehensive health plan. The vedic principles were outlined originally via word of mouth and then written down in Sanskrit books called the Vedas.
Kulkarni, who teaches ayurveda in Hong Kong, says that, while growing up in India, he wasn't aware that what he ate and what medicine he was given was part of the vedic rituals. 'In Indian households, there are always ayurvedic remedies around,' he says. 'When I had a cold, they'd give me hot milk with turmeric as that dries up mucus.'
It was only after he became involved in yoga that Kulkarni realised he already had an understanding of it.
Since then, he's obtained a diploma in anatomy, physiology and body massage, and a certificate in ayurvedic massage. He now runs a yoga and ayurvedic practice called the Healing Ritual, with his wife Sravaniya Di Pecoraro.
The vedic lifestyle involves psychology and spirituality (meditation and mantras), as well as detoxification and rejuvenation therapies (oil being poured on the so-called third eye on the forehead, or pooled on the lower back or chest).
Vegetarianism is an important aspect, and sleeping and eating at certain times of the day is essential for those who want to reap the benefits.
For many in the modern world - and particularly a hectic city such as Hong Kong - keeping to such a routine can be challenging. But those who do say it's worth it.
'Ayurveda teaches that most disease is caused by living in a way that's out of alignment with nature and our individual constitutions,' Kulkarni says.
According to ayurveda, the human body has three doshas, or subdivisions that control various physiological activities.
'Vata, pitta and kapha and the functions they control become more enlivened at different times of the day,' Kulkarni says.
'For optimal health and healing, we need to adjust our behaviour with the natural, rhythmic swings of these three divisions. We can get the support of nature for our most important physiological activities by paying attention to the ayurvedic rhythms.'
Kapha is most active in the evenings from 6pm to 10pm, when the body typically becomes heavier and mental agility slows. A light meal or a walk is advised for this period. A heavy dinner, television or staring at a computer is to be avoided at this time.
Pitta is most active in the evenings from 10pm to 2am, when metabolic cleansing and rejuvenation is said to occur. This is when people should sleep and not snack.
'During the evening, digestion isn't strong,' Kulkarni says. 'For this reason, it's better to eat less heavy foods - not to mention a smaller quantity - at night.'
Ayurveda advocates not sleeping after 6am because this runs into kapha morning time (6am to 10am), and 'imbibes the body with the qualities of excess kapha - dullness, heaviness and lethargy'. The largest meal should be lunch at 12.30pm. The sun is strongest at this time and enlivens your pitta, which is responsible for digestion metabolism. You shouldn't skip meals, and daily meditation and yoga are advised at specific times.
For 26-year-old Helen Watson, the strain of working three jobs - as a waitress, massage therapist and teacher - became too much. She heard about ayurveda through yoga. 'It's a really good way to balance your life,' she says. 'Initially, it sounds full on, but actually it's what my body was telling me.
'I do try to stick to the sleep routine as I'm a morning person anyway. It's not so strident that you have to go to bed before 10pm every night. But generally, it's keeping things regular.'
Watson now works part-time and is studying the philosophy through a distance learning course from the US. 'In the past, I tended to be the sort of person who over committed and I felt really burnt out. But after I saw Dhana, I found ayurveda suited me because it's logical.'
Vinod Sharma, who runs AyurYoga International in Causeway Bay, has been an ayurvedic practitioner in Hong Kong for six years. A registered ayurvedic doctor, he's also a yoga instructor, homeopath and chakra healer.
Sharma says he sees about five clients a day and spends more than two hours with each of them initially. 'It's a whole assessment, because to get an accurate diagnosis, I have to know the person. We try to find the root cause of the problem.'
Sharma charges $1,250 for the first consultation. He says 70 per cent of his clients are Chinese, with 25 per cent expatriates and 5 per cent Indians. Some come from as far as Taiwan.
Most don't have any serious medical problems, but they're uncomfortable about their health, whether it's mental, physical or both. 'Medical doctors can't find anything wrong with them, and they come to see me,' Sharma says. 'They don't want to depend on health supplements or medicine.'
About six weeks ago, a woman who had unsuccessfully tried to conceive via IVF consulted him. Sharma felt that her solar plexus chakra was out of balance. He corrected it through energy healing, which involves massaging corresponding pressure points and the use of ayurvedic oils, as well as mantras chanted on the chakra. 'After that, she conceived naturally,' he says.
However, Di Pecoraro, who also teaches yoga, says not to expect miracles. The ayurvedic lifestyle requires staying power. 'People want the benefits without making an effort,' she says. 'They go to a spa to get the third eye treatment, but they should consciously change their lifestyle. People want to look spiritual without being spiritual.'
Di Pecoraro and Kulkarni say it can take up to a year to feel the full health benefits of the ayurveda practices. 'But it's long-lasting and it's free,' she says.
According to a Knight Ridder report earlier this year, membership of the National Ayurvedic Medical Association has risen to almost 400 today from 95 when it started in 2000. The US has more than 30 institutions teaching ayurvedic practices.
Sharma offers herbal medicine only if a healthy diet isn't helping. 'I give medicine only if it's really necessary,' he says.
As with most alternative treatments, you shouldn't forgo other options if you're unwell. 'It can be used in a complementary way with western medicine,' Sharma says.
For upcoming courses relating to ayurveda and yoga through Kulkarni and Di Pecoraro, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org
For information about Vinod Sharma, go to www.ayuryoga-intl.com