Caribbean Beat Magazine

Ayurveda: finding the balance | Be well

Practised for millennia in the Indian subcontinent, traditional ayurvedic medicine, with its focus on achieving both physical and spiritual balance, was brought to the Caribbean in the nineteenth century — and recently has been more widely adopted as a form of “alternative medicine.” Cate Young learns more, and talks to two practitioners who say ayurveda has helped them bring their lives and health into equilibrium

  • Photo by frank60/

West Indians have always had a taste for “bush medicine.” Whether it’s orange peel tea for fever reduction and sore throat relief, bush baths for cleansing “maljo” and negative spirits, or ginger root for relieving gas pains, the knowledge that medicinal plants can be used for physical relief is not a foreign one. But a growing number are turning further east for relief. Enter ayurvedic medicine.

Ayurveda — a Sanskrit word meaning “knowledge of longevity” — is a system of medicine practised for many centuries in the Indian subcontinent, and brought to the Caribbean in the nineteenth century by Indian immigrants. And over recent decades, certain elements of ayurveda have been adopted more broadly worldwide, often under the heading of “alternative medicine.” As its principles and practices have become more mainstream, they’ve found a wider audience and become integrated into more general wellness practices and medicinal use. 

Ayurveda teaches that the body is made up of doshas, or elemental substances — vata, pitta, and kapha — and that every person is a combination of these three. The Ayurvedic Guidebook and Cookbook for Modern Living describes the doshas as “biological energies found throughout the human body and mind [that] govern all physical and mental processes and provide every living being with an individual blueprint for health and fulfillment.” Each dosha represents a specific bodily constitution around which diet and exercise plans should be made. While there is as yet no scientific evidence that supports ayurveda’s supposed effectiveness, for many practitioners the proof is in the pudding. 

Dominique Samaroo, co-owner of Tobago’s Namaste Café food truck, says she was drawn to ayurvedic medicine as a means to heal her body. As a teen, she suffered from polycystic ovarian syndrome, and was often in debilitating pain for several days of the month. The birth control pill she was prescribed was masking her symptoms, but caused her to suffer from additional undesirable side effects like chronic fatigue and bad acne.

“I went on a vegetarian diet, but I found that it wasn’t enough for relief,” she says. “I eventually started taking supplements to help balance my hormones and clean my blood while I was refining my switch to veganism. Now I’m no longer on the supplements, and I’m not dependent on them the way I was dependent on the pill,” she explains. “Ayurveda is a healing system. I wanted something that would fix me rather than simply make the symptoms go away.”

While she avoids doctors and has no independent verification of her results, Samaroo describes ayurveda as the means through which she was able to take back her life, and get back those many missing days during the month. “My skepticism about Western medicine is that the only solutions for my PCOS were to take the pill or have surgery. I wanted a natural remedy, and ayurveda helped me do that. Western medicine isn’t focused on healing the source of the problem, just cutting it out. It was too invasive.”

“I found ayurveda in 2013 when I went to an ashram to do karma yoga,” Samaroo explains. “An ayurvedic doctor gave a presentation, and it appealed to me, because it made sense. It breaks down your personality type and body type and gives you specific solutions based on them. It seemed practical, and I like that it was about healing and not just medication to prevent pain.”

For Dominique and her mother Judith, with whom she owns and operates Namaste Café, ayurveda is similar in purpose to traditional Caribbean bush medicine — it simply finds its roots in Indian and Chinese traditional medicine. As yoga has become more of a fitness trend, ayurveda has also slowly entered the mainstream, with digital spaces cropping up around its practice — it’s often seen as the next step in a yogic life.

According to Judith Samaroo, “it’s not really medicine, it’s an alternative lifestyle. This isn’t over-the-counter stuff, it’s stuff in your yard and things you’ve planted. It’s only medicine when you’re in ill health, because you need it to make you better.”

For ayurvedic practitioners, there is a central spiritual balance that everyone is trying to achieve, and their choice of food along with meditation helps balance the natural body type and bring it into alignment. While it may seem counterintuitive to forgo medication in favour of food, for those who follow ayurvedic principles, the focus on diet and lifestyle is about managing the two, avoiding side effects, and finding a holistic approach to healing themselves. 

Long established in India — where up to eighty per cent of the population use some form of traditional medicine — and other countries on the subcontinent, ayurveda has often been promoted as “alternative medicine” in other parts of the world, especially since the 1960s. In recent years, the World Health Organisation has begun investigating whether and how ayurveda and other traditional medical practices could be integrated into modern healthcare, recognising its importance to many communities, especially in maintaining general health and preventing disease. According to the WHO’s Traditional Medicine Strategy, published in 2013, traditional and complementary medicine “is an important and often underestimated part of health care . . . A global strategy to foster its appropriate integration, regulation and supervision will be useful to countries wishing to develop a proactive policy towards this important — and often vibrant and expanding — part of health care.”