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Ayurveda - In Harmony with Osteopathy

by Elisabeth Bird(more info)

listed in ayurveda, originally published in issue 114 - August 2005

An inexplicable inner voice has always encouraged me to explore Ayurvedic medicine, and as an Osteopath it was the practical modality that intrigued me the most. I have always believed it is invaluable to try and understand the true concept of alternative care, and this is often clearer when we view it from an alternative prospective, i.e. from another system of medicine.

Although in its infancy in the UK, Ayurvedic medicine records date as far back as 4000 BC. Many of today's alternative therapies may have had their beginnings in Ayurveda. Osteopathy, Acupuncture, Aromatherapy, and other treatments all emphasize the importance of lifestyle modification, and this has been a longstanding tradition of this ancient system of medicine.[1] In particular, the philosophies that theoretically play an integral part of alternative therapies such as Osteopathy have remarkable similarities to those of Ayurveda.


Philosophical Similarities between Ayurveda and Osteopathy

Although Osteopathy generally views the patient from the mechanical point of view, it also recognizes, likewise to Ayurvedic medicine, that much of life is non-physical, and cannot be studied merely objectively.[2] A practical therapist often relies on the intuitive approach, in addition to objective means. According to both forms of medicine, it is important to identify the limitations using only an objective logic towards disease, and this is illustrated in both their philosophical theories. Ayurveda recognizes that we cannot separate our body and its functioning from the other parts of ourselves, that there is little tangible about the mind and spirit, yet these things exert a very noticeable influence on the course of our physical existence.[2,4]

Osteopathy also recognizes that beyond the physical level, the mind, body and spirit are believed to be interdependent, i.e. the body is a unit. Osteopaths supposedly believe therefore that when assessing a patient, 'it is important to be open to the possibility of stresses in a domain other than the physical',[3] and this is more than just the psychosomatic phenomena that most Osteopaths accept. Ayurveda also observes the intimate connection between processes that occur inside our bodies, and those occurring in nature. Equally, Osteopathy acknowledges that when 'normal adaptability is disrupted, or when environmental changes overcome the body's capacity for self-maintenance, disease may ensue'.[1,3] Ayurveda identifies, and also puts faith on the body's ability to heal itself, a sentiment shared by Osteopathic philosophies, in that the body has the inherent capacity to defend and repair itself.[1,3,4]

Logically these similarities should emerge into the treatment modalities of both eastern and western medical systems. But do they? Ayurveda has many therapeutic forms; physical therapy being one that plays a vital role. Purvakarma (purva meaning before, and karma meaning actions) are massages that prepare the body for Pancharkarma, which is a series of cleansing techniques that aims to remove ama, or toxins. The oils used in the treatments are specially prepared for each patient, depending on his or hers unique constitution and condition. In Ayurvedic medicine, inflammatory diseases such as arthritis are treated with these therapeutic oils, natural resins and manipulative therapy, alongside dietary and lifestyle modifications. Not too dissimilar to Osteopathic treatment. However, to an Osteopath, a cream is a cream, and oil is oil. As long as it provides the necessary lubrication, there is little time spent analyzing its effects on the patient.

Ayurveda in India

My research inevitably took me to India, where over 300,000 members are found in the 'All Indian Ayurvedic Congress', making it the largest medical organization in the world.1 My aim was to discover from the birthplace of Ayurveda, what we can learn from it, and whether combining western and eastern physical medicine is possible, without losing the validity of either practice.

In India I very quickly discovered that the many courses set up in areas such as Goa, Kerala, and in the Himalayas where you can 'learn Pancharkarma in a month', were severely frowned upon by the Ayurvedic Doctors there. These 'tourist courses' are seen to be money-making schemes; the five years required to become an Ayurvedic Doctor illustrates the quality required to provide both safe and effective treatments. Doctors, who own authentic Ayurvedic practices, are equally distressed regarding the lack of control over the use of their treatment modalities. They believe that it has become a marketing concept in the west, instead of a form of genuine medicine, and ultimately, unless it is practised correctly, where the benefits are truly experienced, the Ayurvedic system will eventually become less 'à la mode' and recede.

They are, however, fervent supporters of combining both Eastern and Western physical medicine, and I talked at great lengths with many Doctors in ways that this can be achieved. I voiced my concern to them regarding the loss of philosophical concepts of many western medicines, particularly the alternative form, where the inquiry into the nature of medicine often vanishes as careers gain familiarity. In the western world we are often easily distracted, and lose sight of what makes medicine 'alternative'. Practical therapies become predictable and robotic, and we often forget the intricate and complex layers of physical and non-physical matter that our hands sense. I have observed this not just in Osteopathy, but other areas of alternative care, where intuition and philosophical reasoning is immensely significant, but has been misplaced or forgotten.

Combining Spa with Ayurvedic Care

My trip to India also took me to The Ananda, a destination spa, offering a western approach to Ayurveda, nestled in the foothills of the Himalayas. I was interested to see how they had successfully developed Ayurvedic care aiming at westerners visiting India. Colin Hull, the spa Director was aware of the mounting interest in Ayurvedic medicine, but recognized the loss of the remedial aspect in other health spas throughout the western world. Conversely, he understood that most westerners would be fairly taken aback if they received treatment in a typical Ayurvedic hospital in India. Undoubtedly the treatment received would be more effective, but the fairly rough approach and the rudimentary style of the hospital environments would be disconcerting to most privileged westerners. Subsequently, they have expertly devised Ayurvedic treatments that combine the experience of a spa but do contain some remedial benefits, benefits which have been lost in other health spas in the UK.

Colin Hull and Dr Thampi (Head of Ayurveda), concur that Ananda is not aimed at medical care, but they do offer effective weight loss, detoxification and lifestyle courses, that aim to provide effective preventative treatment. A concept that Ayurvedic (and Osteopathic) medicine strongly support.

In cosmopolitan areas of the UK such as London spa companies have recently begun to market the Ayurvedic massage concept, developing the treatments into spa experiences. An experience it maybe, but the authenticity and the therapeutic results have been lost. On the other hand, various clinics have successfully provided authentic and effective Ayurvedic medical treatment, with rising numbers of qualified doctors emerging from the UK.

So what is the future of Ayurveda in the western medical system? And can we learn anything new? Will it subsequently become only a spa experience, or will the growing number of Ayurvedic Doctors in the UK provide a significant system of medical care, where patients in the UK can benefit from the oldest system of medicine alive today?

With a cautious and open-minded approach, I believe we can at least gain valuable insight, since it is not so different to our way of thinking. At this early point of my research, the strength of the philosophical belief seems to be the focal distinction in treatment you receive in the west, comparative to the eastern perspective. They appear to have an effective balance between objective and subjective medicine. I found in true Ayurveda their philosophy is never lost and appears critical at every stage. From the consultation, through to the diagnosis, onto the treatment, and finally the after care.

Philosophical knowledge is based on logical reasoning not experimental design, but provides the ultimate pathway into the pursuit of wisdom for a practitioner.[5] How many Osteopaths allow their philosophy to permeate their patient's treatment, health maintenance and disease prevention? We need to remind ourselves of the true origins of alternative health, and by investigating other systems of medicine, as well as our own, we can be reminded of the importance of its inheritance. And act accordingly upon it.

As an Osteopath I am certainly responsible for of displacing my philosophical principles, and occasionally becoming almost computerized during treatment. And this is not acceptable. I have been lucky enough to be invited back to India to study alongside a reputable Ayurvedic Doctor, who specializes in musculoskeletal disease, with whom I hope to improve my practical skills, and also to develop the importance of philosophical and subjective knowledge.

However, this is clearly not a necessity. I am doing this because I am intrigued. You should not need to fly thousands of miles to India to be reminded of the difference between a principle and a philosophy. These can be found in a textbook or just need reviving from our cortical matter. Can you remember them? But most importantly, are you using them? And what will the future of Osteopathy and alternative medicine be if we don't?


1. Douillard J. The Encyclopedia of Ayurvedic Massage. pp3-9. North Atlantic Books. California. 2004
2. Joshi SV. Ayurveda and Panchakarma. p7. Motilal Banarsidass Publishers. Delhi. 1988.
3. Sammut E. Searle-Barnes P. Osteopathic Diagnosis. pp6-16. Stanley Thornes Ltd. Cheltenham. 1998.
4. Svoboda RE. Ayurveda. Life, Health and Longevity. pp34-45. Penguin Books. New Delhi. 1993.
5. DiGiovanna EL. Schiowitz S. An Osteopathic Approach to Diagnosis and Treatment. pp3-6. Lippincott. Philadelphia. 1991.

Photo Credits

Images courtesy of Ananda Spa


  1. G.HATHI said..

    coming to Goa next month. i have frozen shoulder and trapped nerve
    can u treat?

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About Elisabeth Bird

Elisabeth Bird BSc Hons Ost Med, ND is a registered Osteopath based in Cornwall and London, a regular contributor to various health publications, and can be contacted on Mob: 07789794693;

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