For a couple of years after the collapse of a long-term relationship, Joanna Pawlus suffered from anxiety and depression.
Although the condition wasn’t debilitating and did not require medication, the 36-year-old says she never really felt fine. She saw a therapist briefly while living in London, but stopped going for sessions in mid-2017 when she relocated to Zurich in Switzerland.
Three years on, Pawlus (who now lives in Singapore) decided to seek Ayurvedic treatment . She did not know whether the traditional Indian science and health-care system would help her with her emotional issues, but gave it a go out of curiosity. After more than 15 sessions of head-tapping and eye and liver detoxification with her Ayurvedic doctor, she insists she’s never felt better.
“I am genuinely happy and catch myself smiling more often now,” says Pawlus, who works with children who have developmental issues. “I used to cry for no reason, but those days are gone and I feel emotionally lighter.”
Ekta Taneja can also vouch for the therapeutic power of Ayurveda. In 2017, she was diagnosed with spinal stenosis – a narrowing of the spinal canal – and disc herniation. Taneja was told that surgery was her only option to get better, but she wasn’t keen to go that route.
Medication and steroidal injections only provided temporary relief for the avid runner. A year of intensive physiotherapy in 2019 helped, but the 38-year-old still experienced irregular pain in her back and legs.
“I was curious about my body’s potential to heal on its own, so I learned everything I could about the spine and tried to figure out how to create an environment for healing to happen naturally,” Taneja, who lives in Singapore, says. “My journey led me to yoga and Ayurveda.”
After 12 sessions, Taneja is running again – something she never thought she’d be able to do. She has also returned to the gym for complementary strength-training workouts.
Unlike conventional medicine, which addresses symptoms of illness and disease, Ayurveda, which began in India thousands of years ago, focuses on the cause of a symptom and helps individuals strengthen their immune system. This is done through therapies that include detoxification, rejuvenation with herbs, yoga, chanting, breathing exercises and meditation.
Turmeric, ginger , licorice root, cardamom, and other herbs and spices are frequently used in treatments, which are sometimes applied to the skin by way of carrier oils such as sesame, mustard seed and coconut in knotted bags called potlis to help ease aching muscles.
Ayurvedic practitioners usually determine their client’s dosha – the energy that defines every individual’s make-up – and review their lifestyle and diet before prescribing a treatment. The aim is to strike a balance between the three doshas, or energies, one of which is usually predominant. To achieve this, the practitioner focuses on ridding the body of toxins.
In India, Ayurveda is considered a form of medical care equal to conventional Western medicine, traditional Chinese medicine, naturopathic medicine and homeopathic medicine. The first World Ayurvedic Congress, held in 2002 in Kochi, India, helped promote Ayurveda internationally. And in November last year, the World Health Organisation announced plans to set up a global centre for traditional medicine in India.
While the traditional Indian medicine system is more widely known and used today than a decade ago, there is little scientific evidence – in the form of human clinical trials – to prove that it works. Those who practise and subscribe to it believe that it can help with issues from joint pain and insomnia to anxiety and even hormonal imbalances.
“In Ayurveda the mind and body are intrinsically linked, and, in my experience, when the mind is calm the therapies just seem to work faster – this is why meditation and chanting are a main component,” says Bindiya Surtani, an Ayurvedic doctor based in Singapore.
“Meditation helps rid the mind of negative emotions like anger, sadness, anxiety and fear, and allows you to have better control of your emotions in general. And chanting creates vibrations, which in turn calm the mind, slow the heartbeat and relax the body … when the mind is in a good place, the body is better positioned to begin healing naturally from within.”
Taneja agrees that the meditation and chanting she did during her sessions helped with her back and leg pain. She also received a hot-oil pichu – a thick layer of cotton wool soaked in warm medicated oil applied on painful areas – and was prescribed special yoga poses and stretches to target the soreness and tightness in her body.
“The treatment was so relaxing,” she says. “The calming music playing in the background also put me at ease. I had some anxiety related to my condition and I let it all out during my session. The treatment always concluded with meditation, which helped me feel more connected to myself.
“Emotionally I noticed a change almost immediately after the first session, but it was only after the fifth session that I was able to run again. Through Ayurveda I learned how to slow down and stress less – that has been a total game-changer for me.”
Pawlus agrees that meditation and chanting played big roles in her recovery.
“I used to over-analyse situations in my head, which made me really anxious. After trying new breathing techniques and learning how to chant and meditate during my sessions, I began noticing changes in my mood and the way I looked at my problems.
“The meditation is guided and focused and done by candlelight. I learned how to shift my gaze from the wick to the flame and then to the aura around the flame – this quietened my mind and was quite energising. After my Ayurveda sessions, I began sleeping better, too.”
During the time that she was undergoing Ayurvedic treatment for her anxiety and depression , Pawlus sprained her ankle. She went into a session on crutches and, after receiving a hot-oil pichu treatment, her ankle felt stronger and she walked out of the room on her own. She says she almost cried from relief.
Ayurveda had another surprising benefit for Pawlus: About a month after she started treatment she fell pregnant. She’d previously believed that she would have trouble conceiving because of her age and the fact that she’d worn an intrauterine device for birth control for many years. She is now in her third trimester.
“I don’t have to understand how Ayurveda works but I’m an open-minded person and I truly believe that our life force – or prana , as Ayurveda practitioners call it – does the job and we just have to surrender to it,” she says.
“I’d felt sad and anxious for so long that I was convinced I would be feeling that way for the rest of my life and told myself I’d just have to deal with it. Ayurveda released me from this emotional prison and gave me a new sense of purpose and joy.”
This article was first published in South China Morning Post.