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Ayurveda: An Overview

“Science is a light that illuminates. One’s own intellect is vision. One who applies both seldom errs.”

To understand this holistic therapy let’s answer a few questions.

Thus, Ayurveda is a science of life, touching every aspect of human health, for example, preventive, curative, social, spiritual.

Ayurveda originated from Lord Brahma, who revealed this knowledge in the form of the Brahma Samhita.
Since then its development can be classified into four phases:

  1. Vedic Period (4000 BCE to 1st Century CE)
    The knowledge revealed by Lord Brahma was compiled to form the Vedas – Rig Veda, Yajur Veda, Sam Veda and Atharva Veda. The Rig Veda is recognized to be over 6,000 years old and is the most ancient literature in the history of humankind. It contains a brief outline of Ayurveda. Description of supplements along with spiritual approach to healing is found in considerable amount in the Rig Veda. In the Atharva Veda, from which Ayurveda is believed to have evolved. Ayurveda is the Upveda of Atharva Veda.

  2. Samhita Period (1st to 6th Century CE)
    This period is described as the golden period of Ayurveda, since the two great medical treatises, Charak Samhita and Sushrut Samhita, were written.

  3. Samgraha Period (6th to 16th Century)
    This third phase was greatly influenced by a few other alternative therapies, especially Siddha (Indian Alchemy). This new revolutionary therapy introduced use of various metals and minerals in homogenous form to treat diseases which were difficult to cure in that period of time.

  4. Modern period (16th Century to Present)
    This fourth phase starts from the writing of the Bhavaprakash Samhita by Pandit Bhavprakash. In this era, many books providing details of various herbal and herbo-mineral formulations were produced.

    The last century, known as the ‘New Age Ayurveda’ period, has seen the use of modern science and technology to enhance Ayurvedic science for the benefit of mankind.

Aims of Ayurveda:

    There are two major aims of Ayurveda which are nowhere found in any other therapeutic systems.

    “Svasthasya svasthya rakshanam aaturasya vikar prashamanam cha I”

    • To maintain the normal health of healthy ones

    Ayurveda is a holistic system of human health which provides great scientific contributions as a medical science in the form of prevention and treatment of diseases. It teaches how to maintain healthy body throughout life.

    “Dhatusamya kriya cha ukta tantrasyasya prayojanam I”

    • To treat illness

    Ayurveda describes dhatus as the ultimate responsible factors for disease. So, the second object is to restore their balance by uprooting the root cause of disease rather than merely symptomatic treatment.

    Brief introduction of Doshas, Dhatus, Mala, Agni, Panch-mahabhuta:

    Three Doshas

    There are three doshas (humors): vata, pitta and kapha. In a balanced condition these three doshas maintain health, but when this equilibrium is disturbed, the normal functions of the body are hampered and this eventually manifests as disease. This imbalance may be in the form of a decrease or increase of one, two or all three doshas.

    Vata usually means air, wind or gas, but in the body, as a dosha, it is representative of the vayu (air) and akash (space) mahabhuts (basic elements). It is the principle kinetic energy responsible for all bodily movements and nervous system functions.

    The properties of vata are dryness, cold, lightness, mobility, roughness and penetrable to most minute space of the body.

    Pitta is composed of the basic elements tej (fire) and jal (water) and governs the enzymatic and hormonal activities of the body. It is responsible for digestion, pigmentation, body temperature, thirst, hunger, sight, courage and mental activities.

    The properties of pitta are hot, light, intense, fluid, putrid, pungent and acrid. It is able to digest and transform the substance into different forms suitable to the body.

    Kapha is phlegm, which is made up of the basic elements of prithvi (earth) and jal (water). It is responsible for the cohesion and stability of the body. It lubricates joints, maintains sexual power and strength, and controls patience.

    The properties of kapha are heavy, viscous, cold, stable, dense, soft and smooth. It provides the body mass and firmness, and immune protection.

    Seven Dhatus

    The seven dhatus, or tissues, are responsible for sustaining the body. Each dhatu is the source from which the next dhatu is formed and nourished.

    • Rasa (Sap): comes from digested food. Takes the form of lymph, tissue fluid, chyle and plasma, through which it provides nourishment to the entire body.
    • Rakta (Blood): includes red blood cells and functions to invigorate the body.
    • Mansa (Flesh): includes muscles and ligaments, and functions to support and stabilize the body structure.
    • Meda (Fat): comprises fatty tissues, and reduces friction at the interfaces of body tissues.
    • Asthi (Bone): consists of bones and cartilage and functions as support.
    • Majja (Marrow): includes red and yellow bone marrow and functions as a filling for bones.
    • Shukra (Sexual fluid): includes male and female sexual fluids and functions in reproduction and immunity.

    Three Malas

    These are the waste products of digested food and drink. Ayurveda delineates three principal malas: feces, urine and sweat. Regular elimination of these malas cleanses the body and maintains proper functioning of body systems.


    There are three categories of agni:

    The major type is jatharagni (digestive enzymes of GI system) that assists in digestion and assimilation of food; it is active in the mouth, stomach and gastrointestinal tract.

    The second type is bhutagni, which comprises five subtypes, which are located in the liver. They effect the molecular transformation of digested food into usable form, which is then released into the blood to be circulated in all dhatus (body tissues).

     The third type is dhatwagni, which comprises seven subtypes, one for each of the seven dhatus. Each has its own dhatwagni to convert the earlier dhatu material into its functional form.


    Ayurveda proposes that the cosmos is composed of five basic elements: space (akash), air (vayu), fire (agni or tejas), water (jala), earth (prithvi). Human beings are miniature representations of the universe and contain within them everything that makes up the surrounding world. Dosha, dhatu, mala and agni also arise from these basic elements.
    All aspects of nature, including different phases of day-night and geographical locations are expressed in terms of these five elements. These elements are in a balanced state in the human body. Any imbalance in these elements results in various health disorders.

    Ayurveda believes that these five elements exist in different proportions in all forms of matter. The state and properties of matter depends on the proportions of these basic elements.

    The panch-mahabhutas can be defined in a material as well as a subtle sense. These basic elements constantly change and interact with each other resulting in a dynamic world.
    In the case of a complex human body, earth provides structure to the cell as it manifests in the solid structure of the body.

    The basic element of water is present in all body fluids, such as, plasma, saliva, digestive juices and enzymes. Water has the property of flowing and holding the things together.

    The basic element of fire is the universal force in nature that produces heat and radiates light. It regulates the metabolic processes regulating the cell by controlling the functioning of various enzymes.

    The element of air consists of the movement present in the body. This element sets the universe in motion. It is an invisible kinetic force that moves the blood through vessels, wastes from the body and thoughts through the mind. It also denotes the muscular movements of the body.

    The basic element of space is present in all cells. It is everywhere and generally touches everything. It also corresponds to spaces within the body like mouth, nostrils and abdomen.

    In summary:

    • Everything solid is the earth. In the body it provides definite mass to the human body.
    • All liquid is water which is responsible for binding all structures with each other in body.
    • Fire is the transformer of one thing into another and within the body it provides definite color, brightness and performs the process of digestion.
    • Air provides definite motion in the body’s internal environment.
    • Space is the field upon which everything rests, like structural organs of the body.

    Ayurveda views every person as a unique individual made up of these five elements. All these elements have the ability to combine with each other to perform various physiological functions. These five elements when joined in different combinations form three biological humors or doshas that form the nature of an individual, known as the body’s composition or prakriti. This is why Ayurveda treats each person as an independent unit.

    The combination of air and space forms vata or the kinetic biological mode. Vata is responsible for all in and out movements of the system.

    The combination of fire and water forms pitta or the transformative biological mode. It transforms the outer non-acceptable elements directly into the inner acceptable elements of the body.

    The combination of earth and water forms kapha or the constructive biological mode. It is responsible for lubrication and providing structure to the body.

    Each individual is a combination of two modes, of which one is primary and the other is secondary. The primary mode represents the characteristics of an individual and treatment is based on that.

    Ayurveda designs treatment, lifestyle and nutritional guidelines depending on the three modes (doshas).

    There are five sense organs in the human body and each of the senses is associated with a specific basic element.
    The sense of touch is associated with air, smell with earth, hearing with space, seeing with fire and taste with water.

    Ayurveda describes six types of taste: sweet, sour, salty, pungent, bitter and astringent. Each of these is comprised of at least two basic elements.
    Sweet is produced by earth and water, sour by earth and fire, salty by water and fire, pungent by fire and air, bitter by air and space, and astringent by air and earth.

    Thus, the panch-mahabhutas form the basis of all diagnoses and treatments in Ayurveda. Balancing these panch-mahabhutas is essential for maintaining health and curing diseases from any cause.

    Diagnosis: 10 Investigatory Steps

    1. Prakriti: Physical and Mental constitution
    2. Vikriti: Pathology
    3. Sara: Strength of Systems
    4. Samhanan: Body strength
    5. Pramana: Organic anomalies
    6. Satmya: Homologation
    7. Sattva: Mental state
    8. Ahar Shakti: Food intake and digestive capacity
    9. Vyayam Shakti: Physical strength of body
    10. Vaya: Age

    This age-old science of purifying the body is an important branch of Ayurveda. Treatment in Ayurveda consists of two main types.

    One is Shaman Chikitsa, used to subdue the vitiated doshas, due to which any ailments may be produced. It is administered by using various medicinal herbo-mineral preparations.

    However, if the doshas are spoilt beyond a particular level, they give rise to various endotoxins, which have a tendency to accumulate in the minute body channels. These are harmful and hence need to be eliminated from the body. In such cases, the second type of treatment, which is called Shodhan Chikitsa, or cleansing therapy, is prescribed.

    Panchakarma is a combination of two Sanskrit words panch, meaning ‘five’, and karma, meaning ‘action’. It means ‘five actions’ or ‘fivetreatments’. It is generally performed as part of a treatment regime.

    Panchakarma is the cornerstone of the Ayurvedic management of disease. It is the process which targets the root cause of the problem and corrects the essential balance of three doshas in the body. Panchakarma is not only good for alleviating disease, but is also a useful tool in maintaining excellent health. Ayurveda advises undergoing panchakarma at the transitions of the seasons to cleanse the body, improve digestion and improve the metabolic processes.

    Panchakarma has been given a special place in all ancient Ayurvedic texts. Acharya Charak, the author of the most important ancient text on internal supplement, Charak Samhita, has described a wide use of panchakarma therapy for almost all the major diseases.

    Two separate sections, Kalpa Sthanam, and Siddhi Sthanam in Charak Samhita describe the details of special decoctions and other preparations used for panchakarma therapy.

    Panchakarma involves three phases:

    1. Purva Karma (Preparatory Methods):
      • Pachan – Digestion
      • Snehan – Internal and external oleation (i.e., ingestion and external application of oils)
      • Svedan – Fomentation
    2. Pradhan Karma (Main Methods):
      • Vaman – Induced vomiting
      • Virechan – Induced purgation
      • Basti – Medicated enema
      • Nasya – Nasal supplement
      • Rakta Mokshan – Artificial bloodletting
    3. Pashchat Karma (Post-Therapeutic Measures):

    This includes sansarjan kram (specific diets), dhum pan (smoking of medicinal cigars) and some general rules to follow specific activities.

    Purva Karma (Pre-purification Measures):

    Before the actual process of purification begins, there is a need to prepare the body by the prescribed methods to encourage it to let go of the toxins. This is done by two procedures: snehan and svedan.

    Snehan is oil massage. Oil is applied to the entire body with a particular type of massage which helps the toxins to move towards the gastrointestinal tract. Oil massage also makes the superficial and deep tissues soft and supple. Snehan is given daily for three to seven days, as indicated.

    Svedan is sudation or sweating and is given every day immediately following the snehan. A herbal concoction may be added to the steam to further loosen the toxins from the individual. Svedan liquefies the toxins and increases the movement of toxins into the gastro-intestinal tract. After three to seven days of snehan and svedan, the doshas become well ripened and then ready to exit out of the body from their residing centre. A particular panchakarma method is then given according to the individual’s constitution and disorder, prakriti and vikriti, respectively.

    Five Basic Shodhans: (Cleansing Methods)

    Vaman: Emesis Therapy

    When there is congestion in the lungs causing repeated attacks of bronchitis, colds, cough or asthma, the Ayurvedic treatment is therapeutic vomiting, vaman, to eliminate the kapha causing the excess mucus.

    First, after the snehan and svedan, three to four glasses of licorice or saltwater is administered. Then vomiting is stimulated by gently rubbing the posterior part of the tongue. Alternatively, one may take two to three glasses of saltwater, which will also aggravate kapha, and then rub the tongue to induce vomiting. Once the mucus is released the patient will feel instant relief. It is likely that congestion, wheezing and breathlessness will disappear and that the sinuses will become clear. Therapeutic vomiting is also indicated in chronic asthma, diabetes, chronic cold, lymphatic congestion, chronic indigestion and edema.

    Virechan: Purgation Therapy

    When excess bile, pitta, is secreted and accumulated in the gall bladder, liver and small intestine, it tends to result in rashes, skin inflammation, acne, chronic attacks of fever, bilious vomiting, nausea and jaundice. Ayurveda recommends the administration of therapeutic purgation or a therapeutic laxative. Virechan is facilitated with senna leaves, flax seeds, psyllium husks or triphala in a combination that is appropriate for the individual person.

    In cases of blood impurities and skin diseases, too, virechan is recommended.

    Basti: Enema Therapy

    The predominant site of vata is the colon. Ayurvedic basti involves the introduction into the rectum of herbal concoctions of sesame oil, and certain herbal preparations in a liquid medium.

    Basti is the most effective treatment for vata disorders, although many enemas over a prescribed period of time are usually required. It relieves constipation, distention, chronic fever, cold, sexual disorders, kidney stones, heart pain, backache, sciatica and other joint pains. Many other vata disorders such as arthritis, rheumatism, gout, muscle spasms and headaches may also be treated with basti.

    Vata is a very active principle in pathogenesis. If we can control vata through the use of basti, we have gone a long way in going to the root cause of the vast majority of diseases.

    Vata is the main etiological factor in the manifestation of diseases. It is the motive force behind the elimination and retention of feces, urine, bile and other excreta.

    There are eight main types of basti, according to traditional texts, each with their own indications and contra-indications as listed below:

    1. Anuvasan (oil enema) is used in pure vata disorders and when a person has excess hunger or dryness related to vata imbalances.
    2. Niruh-Asthapan (decoction enema) is used in, among other conditions, nervous diseases, gastrointestinal vata conditions, gout, certain fevers, syncope, certain urinary conditions,  pain, hyperacidity and heart diseases.
    3. Uttar Basti (through the urethra in men or vagina in women) is used for selected semen and ovulation disorders and for some problems involving painful urination or bladder infections. This is not to be used for someone with diabetes.
    4. Matra Basti (daily oil enema) is used by someone emaciated by overwork, too much exercise, too much heavy lifting, walking too long a distance, too much sexual activity or someone with chronic vata disorders. It does not need to be accompanied by any strict dietary restriction or daily routine and can be administered, in appropriate cases, in all seasons. It gives strength, promotes weight and helps elimination of waste products.
    5. Karm Basti (schedule of 30 bastis).
    6. Kal Basti (schedule of 15 bastis; 10 oil and 5 decoction).
    7. Yog Basti (schedule of 8 bastis; 5 oil and 3 decoction).
    8. Bruhan Basti (nutritional enema) is used for providing deep nutrition in selected conditions. Traditionally, highly nutritive substances have been used, such as warm milk and herbs like shatavari or ashwagandha.

    Nasya: Nasal Administration

    The nose is the doorway to the brain and it is also the doorway to consciousness. The nasal administration of medication is called nasya. An excess of bodily humors accumulated in the sinus, throat, nose or head areas is eliminated by means of the nearest possible opening, the nose.

    Prana, a life force as nerve energy, enters the body through the breath taken into the nose. Prana is primarily stays in the brain and maintains sensory and motor functions. Prana also governs mental activities, memory, concentration and intellectual activities. Deranged prana creates defective functioning of all these activities and produces headaches, convulsions, loss of memory and reduced sensory perception. Thus, nasal administration, nasya, is indicated for prana disorders, sinus congestion, migraine headaches, convulsions and certain eye and ear problems.

    There are six main types of nasya, as listed below:

    1. Pradhaman (virechan) Nasya (cleansing nasya) uses dry powders (rather than oils) that are blown into the nose with a tube. Pradhaman nasya is mainly used for kapha disorders involving headaches, heaviness in the head, cold, nasal congestion, sticky eyes, hoarseness of voice due to sticky kapha, sinusitis, cervical lymphadenitis, tumors, worms, some skin diseases, epilepsy, drowsiness, Parkinsonism, inflammation of the nasal mucosa. Traditionally, powders such as brahmi are used.
    2. Bruhan Nasya (nutrition nasya) uses ghee, oils, salt, shatavari ghee, ashwagandha ghee and medicated milk and is used mainly for vata disorders. It is said to benefit conditions resulting from vata imbalances such as vata-type headaches, migraine headaches, dryness of voice, dry nose, nervousness, anxiety, fear, dizziness, heaviness of eyelids, bursitis, stiffness in the neck, dry sinuses and loss of sense of smell.
    3. Shaman Nasya (sedative nasya) is used according to which dosha is aggravated but mainly for pitta-type disorders such as thinning of hair, conjunctivitis and ringing in the ears. Generally, certain herbal medicated decoctions, teas and medicated oils are used.
    4. Navan Nasya (decoction nasya) is used in vata-pitta or kapha-pitta disorders and is made from decoctions and oils together.
    5. Marshya Nasya (ghee or oil nasya).
    6. Prati Marshya (daily oil nasya). This helps to open deep tissues and can be done every day and at any time to release stress.

    Raktamokshan: Traditional Ayurvedic method for purification and cleansing of the bloodToxins present in the gastrointestinal tract are absorbed into the blood and circulated throughout the body. This condition is called toxemia, which is the basic cause of repeated infections, hypertension and certain other circulatory conditions. This includes repeated attacks of skin disorders such as urticaria, rashes, herpes, eczema, acne, leukoderma, chronic itching or hives. In such conditions, along with internal medication, elimination of the toxins and purification of the blood is necessary. Raktamoksha is also indicated for cases of enlarged liver or spleen, and in gout.

    Extracting a small amount of blood from a vein relieves the tension created by the pitta-genic toxins in the blood. Bloodletting also stimulates the spleen to produce antitoxic substances which helps to stimulate the immune system. Toxins are neutralized enabling radical cures in many blood-borne disorders.
    Bloodletting is contraindicated in cases of anemia, edema, extreme weakness, diabetes, and in children and elderly persons.

    Today, Ayurveda has become accepted as a safe system for the holistic treatment of disease and maintenance of health. It is a therapy which teaches us to keep our physical, mental and spiritual health in balance to live a long, happy and healthy life.

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