Ayurveda is the Indian science of health and well-being. Founded more than 5,000 years ago in southern India, the practice is known as the first form of medicine ever fully created.

From surgery to pediatrics, to mental health and gerontology, the path of Ayurveda was the main form of medicine in India for thousands of years. When the British arrived in the 19th century, they banished the practice, labeling it village medicine or folk medicine. They brought in Western medicine, for better or worse, and the practice of Ayurveda receded into the background for 100 years under British rule.

Mahatma Gandhi was instrumental in bringing this indigenous medicine back, and Ayurveda is now practiced all over India as well as around the world. India, the United States and Europe all have Ayurvedic colleges. Ayurvedic products like ashwagandha, triphala and golden milk are available from CVS to Wegmans. While gaining in popularity as an alternative form of medicine – much like Chinese medicine – there are many things to be aware of.

Literally translated, Ayurveda means “Science of Life.” While based in Hindu teachings, Ayurveda is universal and looks to the world around us to bring harmony and balance into one’s life. Through food, lifestyle changes, meditation and yoga, Ayurveda is excellent at prevention of disease and increasing longevity. In conjunction with Western medicine, Ayurveda can be a complementary force to alleviate stressors caused by allopathic treatments, such a chemotherapy or unintended complications from medicine.

Ayurveda looks at each person as an individual, made up of the five elements that surround us – space, air, fire, water and earth. These elements combine to create the doshas – the mind/body constitution of the person. Some people are more airy, spacy and ungrounded, creative, thin build (Vata dosha), some are more fiery and intense, sharp, medium build (Pitta dosha), and others are more earthy, sweet and content, more robust, and heavy build (Kapha dosha). While we are all a combination of these elements, one or two usually predominate. We treat that as an imbalance, and by changing habits of lifestyle such as the food we eat, the hours we work, how much we sleep, what sort of exercise we do, etc., we can begin to bring balance to our lives. Disease is also viewed as doshic, so by treating the area of imbalance we can help to mitigate disease.

One of the main theories of Ayurveda is that food is medicine. Ironically, Western medicine is based on the same principal as Hippocrates is quoted as saying, “Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food.”

Somewhere along the way, this seems to have been forgotten. However, not in Ayurveda. Many remedies can be found in your kitchen, where spices have been used as medicine for centuries. If you just open up your spice cabinet, you will find a pharmacy of helpful, non-addictive, non-harmful items just waiting to heal you. The idea is to stay healthy, avoid pharmaceuticals when possible, as well as the hospital, and take control of your health.

A final note: one should always do their research when visiting a practitioner of any kind, from yoga to meditation to Chinese medicine, Naturopathy, Allopathy and Ayurveda. Buyer beware! Ask where they studied, and how long have they been practicing. Do they have experience in what ails you? Will they take the time to really listen to you?

Practitioners of alternative medicine usually spend 1 to 2 hours or more with you on your initial visit, so as to really understand, holistically, what you are going through, as well as your history and current situation. Do your research into your practitioner.  Ask many questions. After all, you are the client and you deserve to understand how your practitioner will be working with you.  Only then, make an appointment.

In addition, if you do not feel that you were heard, or you do not understand the diagnosis and it was not explained clearly to you – see someone else. Take your health into your own hands. Ayurveda can teach you how to create a lifestyle that you agree on with your counselor or practitioner.

A Reisterstown resident, Susan Weis-Bohlen is former owner of breathe books and café in Hampden. She received her first certification in Ayurveda from the Chopra Center for Wellbeing in 2008. She is the author of “Ayurveda Beginner’s Guide: Essential Ayurvedic Principles and Practices to Balance and Heal Naturally,” published last February by Althea Press. She can be reached at susan@breatheayurveda.com and breatheayurveda.com.