The best way to learn about Ayurveda is to speak with those who practice it. Call practitioners and ask to interview them. Find practitioners in your area if you can, but do not hesitate to contact people in other areas. There is no substitute for learning from those who actually do the work. Although many practitioners run one-person practices, it may be possible to find work of some kind with a successful practitioner or a clinic in your area, especially if you live in a large city.
You should also do as much reading as you can on the subject. Many books on Ayurveda are available. Also look for information on Ayurveda in magazines that deal with alternative medicine or Hinduism. You may also wish to read about traditional Oriental medicine, which is similar to Ayurveda in many ways.
Ayurveda is a way of life rather than simply a system of healing. It is a holistic system, which means that it views physical, mental, and spiritual health as intrinsically connected. An Ayurvedic doctor or practitioner treats the whole person, not simply the symptoms that a patient displays.
Ayurvedic doctors and practitioners base their treatments and recommendations on a complex body of beliefs. One of the most important beliefs holds that everything in the universe is composed of one or more of the five elements: air, fire, earth, water, and ether (space). These elements are concepts or qualities as much as they are actual entities. For example, anything that has the qualities that Ayurveda associates with fire is a manifestation of fire. A person's violent temper demonstrates the existence of fire within that person.
For the purposes of treating people, Ayurveda distills the concept of the five elements to three combinations of two elements. These are the doshas, which may be thought of as qualities or energies. The first dosha, Vata, is a combination of air and ether, with air predominating. The second dosha, Pitta, is a combination of fire and water, with fire predominating. The third dosha, Kapha, is a combination of water and earth, with water predominating. Every person is dominated by one or more doshas, although every person contains some element of all three. The unique combination of doshas that appears in a person is that person's tridosha, and that combination determines the person's constitution, or prakriti.
Because Ayurvedic theory holds that a person's nature and personality are based on his or her doshic makeup, or tridosha, the first thing that an Ayurvedic doctor or practitioner does when seeing a patient is to determine what that doshic makeup is. This is done by various means, including observation of physical qualities such as build, nails, lips, hair color, eye color, and skin type; taking the pulse in various locations; examination of the "nine doors," which are eyes, ears, nostrils, mouth, genitals, and anus; and questioning the patient about past history, present problems, goals, and so forth. After analyzing all this information, the practitioner determines which dosha or combination of doshas predominates in the patient's makeup.
Vata people tend to be extremely tall or extremely short and to have long fingers and toes. They are generally thin and have dark complexions and dry skin. The air element that predominates in their makeup makes them tend to be light, cold, and dry in various ways. They are often extremely creative, but their minds tend to flit from idea to idea, and they may be spacey and disorganized.
Pitta people, who are dominated by the fire element, are generally of medium build, and their fingers and toes are of medium length. They tend to be fair in complexion, with blond, light brown, or red hair. All redheads are said to have a significant amount of Pitta in their tridoshas. Pittas are quick to anger, can be forceful and domineering, and are highly organized. They make good engineers, accountants, and managers.
Kapha people, who are dominated by the water element, are generally large and well-built, with dark hair and oily skin. Their toes and fingers are short and thick. Kaphas may gain weight easily but have great physical stamina. They are usually calm people who avoid confrontation, but once they are angered, they hold a grudge. They like routine, tend not to be extremely creative, and are reliable.
Once the practitioner has determined the patient's tridosha and has ascertained what the patient's condition, problems, and desires are, the practitioner creates a program that will improve the patient's health and well-being. One of the most important methods that the practitioner will use is diet. If the patient's tridosha is out of balance, controlled to an extreme degree by one of the doshas, the practitioner may put together a diet that will decrease that dosha and/or increase the others, gradually and safely bringing the patient to a state of balance. Ayurvedic practitioners must therefore have a thorough knowledge of foods, traditional nutrition, and cooking.
Proper eating and good digestion are extremely important in Ayurveda, but Ayurvedic practitioners also use many other methods, among which are the techniques of panchakarma, which means "five actions." Panchakarma is a powerful set of cleansing practices that is ideally undertaken only under the guidance of an Ayurvedic doctor. The treatment varies by individual, but generally a patient must undergo one to seven days of preparation before the treatment begins. The preparation involves oil massage and steam baths, which sometimes include herbal treatments. After the body is sufficiently cleansed, the panchakarma may begin.
The first of the five practices is vamana, which involves removing excess Kapha from the stomach by inducing vomiting by gentle means. The second practice is virechana, which involves using laxatives to purge the body of excess Pitta. The third and fourth practices are both forms of vasti, or enema therapy, in which herbal preparations are used to remove Vata from the system. One form is relatively mild; the other is stronger. The fifth practice is nasya, which involves ingesting liquid or powdered substances through the nose. This practice is generally used to treat illnesses that affect the head and neck. It can take up to 30 days to complete the process of panchakarma.
There are many more aspects of Ayurvedic practice, and one of the most important things that doctors and practitioners do is advise patients regarding their lifestyle. They recommend various practices, such as cleaning the tongue daily, engaging in meditation, practicing yoga, and massaging the body with oils suitable for one's tridosha and the time of year. They may even advise patients regarding what kinds of clothes are best for them and where they will be most comfortable living.