Commercialising Ayurveda: Packaging India’s Ancient Health

Ayurveda, a 5,000 year-old Indian health philosophy outlining how to be healthier, happier and more balanced through yoga, meditation, food and treatment, is in the midst of a renaissance. Spurred on by the recent boom in spa and holistic travel, its lotions, potions and concoctions can now be found almost anywhere, from the shelves of a local chemist to a city spa in Berlin. But offering only snippets from the life science, some ayurvedic practitioners believe that its authenticity is being compromised, and that practising it may do patients more harm than good.

Not just about a quick massage, ayurveda is a complex and convoluted health philosophy that provides a guide on how to live in accordance to nature and your own physical constitution, avoiding the pitfalls of disease and psychological torment. Its primary idea is that prevention is better than a cure; following a strict discipline that involves eating easily digested foods, practising yoga, staying stress free and undergoing annual detoxification programs – otherwise known as rejuvenation – ayurveda aims to promote longevity and the perfect balance between mind and body.

Although born in the Himalayas, it was in Kerala, India’s most southern state, that ayurveda developed, evolved and is still practised as a life form today. Utilising the regions abundant native flora, ayurveda stationed itself in sanatoriums lining the cool cardamom scented slopes of the Western Ghats and gently lapping shores of Kerala’s myriad waterways. The sanatoriums still exist, their rooms filled with literally millions of Indians who travel to Kerala each year seeking the source, but theses days ayurveda is more readily found, and associated with, tourist resorts. Driven by the world’s newly found interest in holistic travel, the last few years have witnessed an explosion of ayurvedic resorts and spa’s open their doors in not only Kerala, but around the globe. Every hotel or resort worth its oil now hosts an ayurvedic clinic or massages from the health science.

Lush, plush and catering especially for foreigners, spas and resorts offer a multitude of treatments, programmes and foods from the life science. But cutting corners to suit foreign palates and time frames, resorts are sending out alarm bells in ayurvedic purists, who feel that it is being compromised for the sake of a few dollars.

“Nowadays ayurveda is becoming commercialised,” says Dr Suresh from his stark white office in the government run Gaulliam Hospital, Fort Cochin, Kerala.

“The ayurvedic way is all about lifestyle, adhering to lifestyle rules – eating the right food, doing the right exercise, breathing, controlling stress and every year undergoing a three week detoxification course to keep the immune system in tip top shape, and prevent disease from setting in.”

“Foreigners come to India with real physical problems and want to ‘try’ ayurveda but they only have a few days,” says Dr Suresh. “Resorts give them a three day course, along with a diet unsuited to their body type, access to the bar and a deckchair by the pool and then call it ayurveda.”

“Good ayurvedic centres will treat according to the principals of ayurveda only: bad only intend to make money. If a patient comes in here and doesn’t want the treatment recommended then we can’t help them. These modern ayurvedic centres treat according to what the patient wants, not according to the principals of the medicine,” says one of the directors of the National Institute of Ayurveda. His name has been withheld because foreign aliens – and most especially journalists – are not permitted to visit the Institute unless they have prior permission from a bureaucrat in Delhi.

“The herbs we use are slow releasing. When undertaking an ayurvedic treatment, we first make the patients body soft, vulnerable, and easier to absorb the herbs. After that we start to heal the body. Even a general rejuvenation program requires at least three weeks to administer: one week to prepare the body, one week to flush the toxins and one week to build the body back up to a healthy functional state. Post treatment is a must.”

“But these new resorts don’t make time for post treatment. They cater only for what their guests want. It is not true ayurveda. And these practices can put the internal organs under so much stress that it can do more harm than good.”

Rumors of shifty practices abound, including ayurvedic spa’s using coconut oil instead of infused herbal oil, clinics using ayurveda as a front for massage parlours and treating patients while exposed to the sun – a cardinal sin according to traditionalists.

The question remains: What is true ayurveda? It’s a question now asked by not only practitioners of the ancient health science, but Kerala’s tourism board, who are concerned that ayurveda is in the midst of loosing its authenticity.

Primarily a philosophy of health, ayurveda maintains that man is made up of the five elements found in nature: fire, earth, ether, water and air. The system also posits that there are three bio-energies, known as doshas– vata, pitta and kapha. Vata is ether and air, pitta is fire and water and kapha is water and earth. Each of us contains all three doshas in varying degrees, which explains psychobiological differences. Disease sets in when dosha constitutions become unbalanced.

Countless factors can lead to an unbalanced dosha: unsuitable food, stress, muscle strain, pollution, too much exercise, too little exercise, climate, etc. Ayurveda aims to identify the factor that has caused the dosha to skew and then restore an equilibrium – preventing the onset of disease and promoting longevity.

Ayurveda has come a long way from its outpost with the monks on the Western Ghats, reinvented and repackaged to the shelves of the local chemist. Good or bad, the question remains: Will ayurveda loose its authenticity? Dr Suresh feels not. Clasping his hands behind his head and watching the overhead fan slowly stir up the air he laughs: “Ayurveda is more than 5,000 years old, it’s not going to vanish in a few years,” he hopes. “No matter how flashy their product, a shadow cannot replace the substance.”

Yoga Magazine


3 Responses to “Commercialising Ayurveda: Packaging India’s Ancient Health”

  1. 1 Rosemarie Sellers June 18, 2010 at 4:53 pm

    Ayurveda will not die out it will adjust according to the country it turns up in. In the West it is gaining its spiritual essence unfortunately India is capitalising on its commercial aspects.

    Ayurveda requires the client to think about change and this is a mental approach to this healing science which needs to be approached forst. if we look a the wonderful healing modalities put there like Reiki and Reflexology they only trat the symptom not root cause. there is a huge education necessary to teach people what Ayurveda is all about. On my travels in india and Sri lanka staying at Ayurvedic resorts it is not really helpful to western people to be taught cooking with the local foods that are just not available in some aprts of the west. Therefore the interest soon wanes once the client gets home. Ayurveda will adapt and grow as long as it is recognised that the food is not about Indian food but about the food that is grown in the environment that the client lives.

    Unfortunately as the author of the above article quite rightly says they have focussed on body consciousness and not the overall essence of what Ayurveda is about. However there are pockets of us out in the West that are keeping this alive as best as we are able

  2. 2 rick roux June 18, 2010 at 8:44 pm

    In most industries you will always find individuals who try to take advantage of an industry by utilizing it to fit their needs. Ayurveda is no exception. However, there are those who have been changed and transformed by Ayurveda and continue to do so in their lives. There are also those who run very proficient centers in India and elsewhere who strictly adhere to the principles of Ayurveda. I feel that the vast majority of people that come to Ayurveda with an open heart remain that way in all of their actions. It is always the negative that people like to talk about when in reality the vast majority of people practicing Ayurveda and living an Ayurvedic lifestyle do not practice it to exploit the Science.

    Om Shanti,

    Rick Roux
    Kerala Ayurveda Academy

  3. 3 Anna Green August 14, 2010 at 12:16 pm

    Nice article! Reflexology is a way of promoting health by applying systematic pressure to areas in the feet thought to correspond to different parts of the body. Detoxification, on the other hand, refers to the removal of harmful substances or toxins in the body through various means. A good article on this subject is Reflexology and Detoxification for Health.

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