The ancient Indian healing system of Ayurveda is a truly holistic system. As one practitioner in the 2001 documentary Ayurveda: The Art of Being says, “I do not treat disease, I treat people.” Though it was released back in 2002, I saw it for the first time just recently. The documentary serves as an excellent introduction to Ayurveda, but it can also be enjoyed by those who’ve studied it for years. The reason is because the film largely focuses on the human element. Director Pan Nalin takes us into the lives of those who practice Ayurveda, from rural India to Greece, as well as those who’ve been helped by it. The documentary won’t make you an expert on the subject, but it will likely inspire you to learn more about this important healing art on your own.
Ayurveda: The Very Basics
I plan to go over Ayurveda and its philosophy much more in depth in future articles, but here’s a basic primer for those of you who are brand new to it.
One of the basic underlying philosophies behind Ayurvedic thought is that the universe, as well as our bodies, are comprised of five basic elements. The first four you might recognize: fire, water, earth and air. When discussing the elements, we’re generally talking more about particular qualities than the literal elements within our bodies. For example, fire is the active, expansive component of our physiology (and universe), while the air element is what gets things moving.
The fifth element in Ayurveda is ether, or akasha. Essentially, ether is subtle energy in its most pure, primordial form. It acts as the ‘field’ from which all the other elements manifest, but generally stays in the background. It’s sometimes referred to in English literature on Ayurveda as “space.” This concept is quite difficult for Westerners to understand at first, but it’s nevertheless an essential part of Ayurvedic thought.
The five elements are constantly interacting with one another. Each individual is comprised of a unique blend of the five elements which is divided further into what are called the three doshas. There’s Vata, which is an interaction between ether and air, Pitta, which is fire and water, and Kapha, a mixture of water and earth.
Why do people react differently to certain foods or medicines? According to Ayurveda, it has to do with one’s composition, or dosha. To make matters more confusing, it’s common for people to be equally two of the doshas at the same time. However, getting further into this takes us away from the point of the film. Ayurveda: The Art of Being does go over the elements and doshas, but it’s not essential for the concept to click with you just yet in order to enjoy the movie.
As one of the Ayurveda practitioners puts it, the system is about “Providing external solutions when certain things are lacking internally.” In the end, it’s all about putting the body and mind back into a balanced state.
Ayurveda: More than Just Herbs
Before watching the film, I was unaware of just how many different branches of Ayurveda there are. I think that when most people hear the word ‘Ayurveda,’ they think of herbs. Herbal healing, of course, is a major component of the system overall, but it’s certainly not all there is to the ancient tradition. For example, there’s the study of marmas, or special energetic points throughout the body (think acupuncture points in the Chinese system).
Then there’s mineral medicine. The film points out how certain minerals can be prescribed for issues like skin diseases, ulcers, and many other ailments. However, methods of preparation can be complex, especially when a mineral might contain toxins. The film reveals how long held local traditions and knowledge are vital when it comes to detoxifying minerals for medicinal use in a safe way.
I was also surprised to learn how in-depth Ayurveda goes in regards to treating psychological disorders. In the treatment of conditions like schizophrenia, one practitioner explains how the allopathic system focuses on putting the mind to sleep, while Ayurveda, in contrast, attempts to further awaken the suffering mind. Unlike with physical diseases, though, it’s very hard to show on film whether or not these psychological treatments were effective. It does, at least, provide some food for thought.
Another branch of Ayurveda examined by the documentary is ophthalmology. We’re shown some scenes of people applying various liquids and creams to a patient’s eyes, though we’re not told exactly what’s going on. But when describing the Ayurvedic approach to eye health, especially when it comes to those suffering from diabetes-related vision problems, one of the talking heads makes an interesting point: “Modern medicine works to stop the leakage, but makes no attempt to stop further leakage from happening in the future.” Ayurveda is more about determining and fixing the original cause.
One of the main practitioners featured in the film states how he studied under various different gurus throughout his lifetime, each one focusing on a particular specialty. Watching the film made me realize that Ayurveda is not only an incredibly deep system, but it’s also very wide. Unfortunately, not all the specialties are thriving. Sometimes when a local expert dies, his entire tradition might die along with him.
With so many branches of Ayurveda, how can a single 100-minute documentary teach viewers about the intricacies of all the different healing methods? It doesn’t, and it doesn’t try to. Instead of overwhelming its audience with statistics and an overuse of Sanskrit phrases, where Ayurveda: The Art of Being really shines is the way it draws viewers into its world with a captivating cinematic style.
Ayurveda: The Art of Being is not your typical health documentary. Some scenes are nothing but close-up, extended shots of people applying oils or mud to a patient’s body. Others show a patient doing various yoga poses without any explanation of what the poses are for. Personally, I found shots like these to be among the most interesting, although the artsy style of the documentary may not be suited for everyone.
In great contrast to recent health documentaries like What the Health, there’s no narrator, fancy charts or neat animations. The film also lacks any political elements whatsoever. You won’t find scenes of the filmmakers calling up or confronting local politicians, like in GMO: OMG and many others. The focus is instead placed on man’s relationship with nature, the need to mitigate stress and to bring back balance to our lives. While I don’t think the presentation styles of more recent, flashy documentaries are necessarily bad, watching Ayurveda: The Art of Being was a nice change of pace.
The Final Verdict
I really enjoyed this documentary, both in terms of the information it provided and the style in which it was presented. And I recommend anyone with an interest in holistic health to watch it. As mentioned above, you’re not going to become an Ayurveda expert just by watching this documentary. I’m certainly not! And even if you thought you knew quite a bit about Ayurveda already, then Ayurveda: The Art of Being will likely reveal just how much more there is to the tradition than you originally thought. Hopefully, the film will prompt you to do further research and seek out more information.
How to Watch
You can watch the film by ordering it from Amazon or other retailers. And I don’t know if this was done with the filmmakers’ blessing or not, but a number of people have also uploaded the documentary to streaming sites online.