It need not be one or the other, Eastern and Western medicine can and do compliment each other and can work symbiotically together. In my view Ayurveda as a comprehensive body of wisdom covering all aspects of health and wellbeing from herbal remedies and daily practices to advanced surgical techniques, is well placed to bridge the gap between the two.
One of the main differences between Eastern medicine and Western medicine (and when I say Eastern medicine I don’t just mean Ayurveda but rather the Eastern take on health and wellbeing generally, whether the particular discipline or teaching be of Indian, Chinese or Japanese origins) is the approach to health and wellness. It is simply a different way of looking at health, a conditioning which is all pervasive within society, an integral part of the culture, woven into the fabric of daily life.
This difference in culture and approach can be summed up by the primary aim of Ayurveda about which I spoke in my post Ayur What???, namely to maintain good health. The principles can also be applied to rectify disease in the body but the main focus is to tune into your body and implement behaviours, diet, exercise and daily routines that maintain your health so that you don’t get ill.
I experienced this myself first hand when I moved to Hong Kong. The office in which I worked was a very local office, I was one of only two Westerners when I first started there. I noticed that all of the staff had regular doctors appointments every month or every couple of months. This was of course not because they were all ill but rather because they went regularly to their doctors to ensure that they did not get ill. Quite a striking difference to the general approach in the West where people only go to the doctor when they are ill and even then not always. It is not uncommon to just struggle through and wait for symptoms to pass and only when they don’t and you are now very ill to go to the doctor.
As a result, understandably, Western medicine focuses on treating the presenting symptoms.
“Doctor I am having chronic headaches.”
“Take these pills when you next get one and it will relieve the symptoms.”
Whereas the Eastern approach is to look more deeply into the cause of the symptoms and to treat that so that you stop getting headaches. In this deeper investigation, the mind, body and soul are given equal weight, as all having the potential to be the cause of the headaches. This approach is usually not as fast acting against the immediate symptoms as the Western approach, and requires often times a degree of personal honesty, commitment to working on oneself mind, body and soul, and enough patience and belief in the process and science to allow it time to work. All of which we, in the West, are not conditioned to have.
We live in a society where ‘instant gratification’ is the norm. We don’t want to wait for anything, and given the option of taking a pill and no longer having the banging migraine so we can get on with what we ought to be doing, versus perhaps months of working on ourselves to understand why we get the headaches, all the while perhaps still suffering with the headaches, well, the majority of us would, and do, most often go for option A please Bob!! We are impatient on a macro level, not simply individually but as a society. We want solutions and we want them NOW, and we want the solution to be unobtrusive and interfere as little as possible with the status quo. We don’t want to have to change our lives, our habits, our diets, we just want the damn headache to go away!
Now of course I am generalising, and appreciate that not everyone in the West fits into that category, nor is it the case that those who grew up in the East steeped in the tradition and culture and approach that is taken in the East to health and wellbeing, would never take a headache tablet when they get a migraine. Indeed the increased recognition of Eastern medicine in the West is testament to the fact that we are, as a society, beginning to take a more holistic approach to our health, and it is not that so called ‘Western Medicine’ is not practiced in the East.
I am not a purest, I don’t believe that it must be one way or the other but rather that there is a place for both approaches, they each bring something different to the table and can compliment each other where there is openness to, appreciation of, and respect for each from both sides. Knowledge is never a burden. I would never, for example, have advised my aunt who has suffered from a number of different types of Cancer to stop her chemotherapy in favour of taking herbal supplements and changing some aspects of her lifestyle which may not have been conducive to good health or more accurately likely had a direct causal link to her illness. Rather I would advocate a combination of both.
I do however subscribe to the Eastern approach which takes a holistic view of health and wellbeing, treating and respecting the emotional, mental and spiritual dimensions as much as the physical. As the thigh bone is connected to the hip bone and a weakness in one can lead to trouble with the other due to over compensation or additional strain for example, so the mind and soul are connected to the body and weakness in either can similarly manifest on the physical plain. I also absolutely subscribe to the idea of tuning into yourself, and changing little things in your daily lives to help you stay healthy. Who knows, maybe that might prevent you from developing an illness or disease that you might otherwise have.
In my view, Ayurveda is uniquely placed to be the bridge between the two approaches, East and West. Not because the wisdom contained in the ancient Ayurvedic textbooks is unique to Ayurveda but because it is the most comprehensive and codified version of ancient wisdom on the subject of health and well being that is still in existence and practiced today. It is living knowledge, constantly being updated and evolving as new lessons are learned so that it stays relevant to modern living whilst maintaining its integrity. It not only covers herbs and herbal remedies and daily routines to maintain health but also includes volumes of text on surgical practices in use today in the West.
It’s not that we in the West don’t already have some of the knowledge, nor never had the knowledge, we just don’t necessarily link it all together. For example, we all know that a walk after a heavy meal can aid digestion. We don’t necessarily think of this as ‘medical advice’! It is however one of the recommended daily practices written down in Ayurvedic textbooks as something to help maintain good digestive functioning and thereby good health. Poor digestion and a weak digestive tract is considered to be one of the primary causes of disease in the body according to Ayurveda. It is therefore something that your Ayurvedic Doctor or practitioner may ‘prescribe’ so to say, as part of your way back to health, or of course to maintain your current health.
A more natural and holistic approach to health and well being was of course at one point in history, also part of the culture and daily lives in the West, but the demonization of pagan herbal healers as witches amongst other historical events, such as migration of peoples due to war or natural disaster wiped out a huge body of knowledge traditionally passed down via oral tradition, or drove it underground taking it out of the mainstream and resigning it to the realm of the esoteric or mystic. As we became more industrialised and more removed from the land in our daily lives and lost touch with our natural rhythms and those of the universe around us, old herbal remedies and ancient healing wisdom were not honoured but rather categorised as ‘old wives tales’ and dismissed in favour of the more pharmaceutical approach to medicine
I am very pleased to see a resurgence of this ancient wisdom and a growing respect within our society for its value. Change however takes time, as a race, we can be sceptical, we stick to what we know, and it takes time for big changes to occur or to get a strong footing. This is true not just on the macro-level but also from an individual perspective. We don’t need to change everything overnight however, small changes can make a big difference. You don’t need to get so overwhelmed by all the recommendations and new information that you are paralysed to make any changes. Nor do you need to abandon Western medicine completely. It can co-exist alongside a more holistic and alternative approach to your health. Just take it one step at a time and don’t be too hard on yourself. No doubt we can all relate to this quote I saw on my friend’s Yoga Page which made me giggle:
Think about implementing 1 thing into your life that is manageable and which you can then build upon.
One such recommended daily Ayurvedic practice which has become part of my daily routine, has huge benefits for lots of reasons and which is in my view, something that is very easy to incorporate into daily life is tongue scraping. Actually I had originally intended to write this post on tongue scrapping, why I do it every day and why I recommend that you do too, but when I started writing something entirely different came out! Sometimes it happens that way. As I have rambled on long enough today with my musings on the differences between East and West, I will write another day on tongue scraping and all the wonderful things your tongue can reveal to you about your current state of wellness. Now you are intrigued eh?!!!
So until next time beautiful souls.