For millennia, Ayurvedic spa treatments have been a powerful method of releasing tension, calming the mind, and harmonizing the energy field. They do this by simultaneously addressing imbalances in the layers of body, mind, and energy; according to Ayurveda, a disturbance in one layer, creates a disruption in the other two. It is this interconnectedness of body, mind, and energy that underlies the physical, psychological, and spiritual underpinnings of Ayurveda’s well-loved bodywork treatments. To understand how these beneficial spa services originated and why they have stood the test of time, one must travel back in time to the mysterious origins of Ayurveda itself.
Origins of Ayurveda
What little is known of Ayurveda’s origins stems from the realms of mythology. The characters and concepts of its lore are considered by some to be vivid descriptors of individual traits contained within the consciousness of human beings. According to ancient mythology, Ayurveda is an eternal science that existed in universal consciousness (Brahma) before it was perceived by ancient Indian rishis in meditation.
Ayurvedic principles were first said to be intuited by a Himalayan king named Daksha Prajapati, who was loosely known as the creative force behind the universe. Prajapati passed the knowledge of Ayurveda to the Ashvin twin brothers, who were physicians in the court of Lord Indra, who then taught it to Lord Indra. From that point forward, the knowledge of Ayurveda was disseminated beyond divine and royal personages to spiritually receptive sages for the sole purpose of preserving harmony and easing mankind’s suffering.
Though the mythology may seem incomprehensible, if not irrelevant, to pragmatic analysts, it is riddled with meaningful symbolism. For example, Prajapati is thought to represent the power of creation, or pure potential, within each human being, which is tasked with populating the consciousness (depicted by Prajapati’s task of populating the world). As consciousness moved from formless into form (tangible actions), it entered the world of duality where all things have an opposite (darkness and light, sickness and health, evil and good). This duality was symbolized by the Ashvin twins. Upon entering the world of form, the formless wisdom of Ayurveda was used consistently to abate suffering and promote optimal well-being in all humankind.
An Ayurvedic Evolution
Distilled into a linear timeline, the genesis of Ayurveda would read as follows:
- Source energy contained all the wisdom from which Ayurveda would one day be birthed.
- The seed concepts of Ayurveda were planted in the minds of all mankind.
- Spiritually receptive individuals, those who had not yet become identified with form, provided the ripe soil within which the seeds began to grow (ideas began to form).
- Through intuition, seed ideas grew into tangible practices.
- The compilation of those practices, as they relate to well-being, came to be known as Ayurveda (the science of life).
- Since that time Ayurveda been used to treat and prevent the suffering of humanity.
Mythological origins aside, Ayurveda began to establish an independent identity somewhere between the second century BCE and the second century CE with the advent of three great classic written works, Charaka Samhita, Sushruta Samhita, and Ashtanga Hridayam Sangraha. These three classics formed the foundations of Ayurveda as you know it today.
- The Charaka Samhita delved into all aspects of medicine, including the philosophy behind the medicinal system, preventive and curative arts, anatomy, and the five elements.
- The Sushruta Samhita explained the concept and practice of Ayurvedic surgery, marma points, and herbal medicine.
- The Ashtanga Hridayam Sangraha focused mainly on internal medicine and presented a thorough breakdown of doshas and their sub-parts.
Ayurvedic Body Treatments
Ayurvedic medicine and bodywork was birthed along with the three aforementioned classic texts. Within those texts the foundational principles of Ayurvedic bodywork were introduced: marma points, lines of energy, restoration of doshic imbalances, herbal remedies, and oil application. For example, Ashtanga Ardayam: Sutrasthana states that, “Abhyanga should be resorted to daily. It wards off old age, exertion and aggravation of vata.” (Ashtanga Hrdayam: Sutrasthana: II: 8-9,1991) Though the modern spa industry has added additional elements of comfort, the basic premises have remained intact. The myriad Ayurvedic treatments, though differing in protocol, contain three basic elements that characterize this classification of bodywork.
1. Generous Application of Oil
Generous application of oils in Ayurvedic bodywork is a cornerstone principle. Regardless of the specific treatment, copious amounts of oil can be expected. The oil is believed to draw toxicity, known as ama, out of organs and tissues. The Chakra Samhita expresses the importance of massaging the skin with oil daily, “The body of one who uses oil massage regularly does not become affected much even if subjected to accidental injuries, or strenuous work. By using oil massage daily, a person is endowed with pleasant touch, trimmed body parts and becomes strong, charming and least affected by old age.” (Chakra Samhita,V: 88-89,1981)
2. Facilitation of Detoxification or Rejuvenation
Ayurvedic practices aimed at detoxifying the body are known as panchakarma. Panchakarma spa treatments facilitate the release of toxins through either sweat, nasal irrigation, or bowel movements. A trained Ayurvedic doctor or therapist will administer panchakarma treatments with close attention to the rate and volume of detoxification as it is appropriate for the individual. Treatments that support detoxification include swedna, netra, basti, and oshadhi. Each of these holistic treatments moves toxins from the body in order to facilitate optimal functioning.
Conversely, rasayana treatments replenish, nourish, and refuel the body. Translated from its Sanskrit origins, rasayana literally means to “lengthen lifespan.” Treatments such as marma, shirodhara, and gandharva have been used for centuries in Ayurvedic protocols to unlock energy channels and reestablish a healthy flow of prana within the body. These rasayana treatments restore vitality, life force, and energy to the physical body, return the mind to its natural state of relaxation, and harmonize the flow of energy in the energetic layer. They are deeply nurturing on every level.
3. Balance of the Doshas
While contemporary massage techniques aim to relieve muscle tightness and tension, Ayurvedic treatments are primarily concerned with balancing the elements in one’s individual mind-body constitution, known as the dosha. To cultivate balance, different treatments are used based upon the individual client; one person may need an herbal wrap, another pacifying energy work, and yet another lymphatic stimulation. Ayurvedic therapists are highly trained in assessing which treatment modalities will bring optimal stability to the client’s dosha. For all treatments, dosha balancing is a foremost consideration.
Mysterious Origins, Concrete Evidence
Though the origins remain somewhat mysterious, the benefits of Ayurvedic treatments are tangible and concrete. Modern researchers are just beginning to delve into the potential of traditional treatments such as shirodhara, abhyanga, and matra basti. All have shown favorable outcomes when pitted against conventional healthcare options for the treatment of a diverse array of ailments ranging from stress to arthritis. Perhaps Ayurveda massage will become a primary healthcare option as research continues to validate their powerful results. It doesn’t take a meditating rishi to figure out using Ayurvedic spa treatments in lieu of more invasive options is simply good medicine.
*Editor’s Note: The information in this article is intended for your educational use only; it does not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Chopra Center's Mind-Body Medical Group; and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health providers with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition and before undertaking any diet, supplement, fitness, or other health programs.