THE ANCIENT INDIAN health science of Ayurveda is fast becoming a highly respected alternative to western medicine and an integral part of holistic health treatments and contemporary lifestyles, counting pop icon Madonna and veteran supermodel Naomi Campbell among the many converts to its age-old wisdom. Ayurveda treatments embrace the gamut of stress and pain relief, relaxing the mind and body, enhancing blood circulation and digestion, detoxifying and even aiding slimming. However, the treatments do not offer a quick fix. Persistence and a calm mind are absolutely vital to its success. Ayurveda, which means 'the knowledge of life', dates back 5,000 years and has many parallels with traditional Chinese medicine, including the concept of life energies. While fire, earth, metal, water and wood are the five elements in Chinese medicine, in Ayurveda, the more spiritual Indian concerns of air and ether replace metal and wood. To put it simply, the practice is based on a diagnosis of your body's dosha, or humours - vata, pita and kapha, the three integrated parts (the tridosha) of cosmic consciousness. The dosha is the key to a person's constitution. Vata constitutes ether and air, pita fire and water, and kapha water and earth. If this sounds incredibly mystical, on a more practical level Ayurveda is about balancing one's diet, habits and lifestyle. Apart from the ability to cure ailments, preventative measures also figure greatly in Ayurveda. Treatments include oil massages, yoga, meditation and a special diet. Ayurveda originated in the scenic state of Kerala in southern India, and the place is now a fast-growing healing sanctuary for visitors from Europe, the United States and Japan. Among the luxury 'return to nature' retreats in Kerala is Kairali Ayurvedic Health Resort ( www.kairali.com ) in Palakkad, the world's first Ayurvedic health farm. The resort is spread across 20 hectares and has 30 well-appointed cottages built in Kerala's typical style of architecture and surrounded by trees selected according to astrological tenets. Ayurveda is practised there in its true traditional form by experienced practitioners. Another option for those who don't have time to travel so far is the more subdued Kairali Health Centre in New Delhi, which offers a full range of traditional treatments.