The New York Times March 9, 2005
Ayurveda is gaining a large following at luxury spas and health resorts, where the treatments are being promoted as a way to rejuvenate the skin.
Skin Deep Awash In Ancient Hindu Wisdom March 9, 2006, Thursday By PETER JARET (NYT); Thursday Styles Late Edition
LIZ VEREA tends to be pitta. “Or pitta with a little vata,” said Ms. Verea, 47, who runs a business consulting firm in Los Altos, Calif. “But mostly pitta, which means my skin has a tendency to develop dry patches.” Pitta? Vata? The terms come from Ayurveda, the traditional Hindu medicine of India, which teaches that everyone has a predominant mind-body type, or dosha. There are three: pitta, vata and kapha. What do they have to do with skin?
“Everything,” said Reenita Malhotra Hora, an ayurvedic practitioner in San Francisco who is also the author of Inner Beauty: Discover Natural Beauty and Well-Being with the Traditions of Ayurveda. “Your dosha influences everything about you, not just personality and body type but even the qualities of your skin.” Kapha is composed of water and earth. Vata is air and space. And Pitta is fire and water, which explains, if that’s the word, Ms. Verea’s dry patches.
Ms. Verea had been looking for a spa where she could simply get a good massage now and then when she found Ayoma Lifespa in San Jose, which offers a variety of treatments based on ayurveda. One treatment, called abhyanga, is an herb-infused hot oil massage performed by two masseuses at the same time. Another involves being dusted head to toe with an herbal powder and then luxuriating in a steam bath. “I leave there feeling totally relaxed,” said Ms. Verea, who promptly joined the spa and goes in once a month for a massage and steam treatment. “And my skin has become incredibly smooth and glowing.”
Ayurveda, which means “knowledge of life,” has been practiced for 5,000 years. In many places across India, ayurvedic hospitals still exist alongside those that offer modern medical treatments. Rather than dispense prescription drugs or perform surgery, the ayurvedic centers provide massage, herbal treatments and dietary advice meant to cleanse the body of toxins, fortify the immune system and boost energy.
In the United States ayurveda is gaining its biggest following at luxury spas and health resorts, where the treatments are being promoted as a way to relax the body and mind as well as to smooth and rejuvenate the skin. In a 2004 survey of spas that offer so-called wellness treatments, the International Spa Association found that 12 percent had recently added ayurvedic services and that an additional 7 percent were about to introduce them.
“Five years ago you would have been hard-pressed to find any spas offering ayurvedic,” said Marc Halpern, director of the California College of Ayurveda in Grass Valley, which offers courses and operates a clinic and spa. “Today my guess is that about one-third to one-half of the higher-end spas include some treatments based on ayurveda.” It’s easy to see why ayurveda, which emphasizes skin and beauty, should find a home in spas. “In ayurveda, skin is the external reflection of what’s happening internally,” Dr. Halpern said. “Beauty is more than simply a topical treatment. It’s reflected in consciousness, a loving mind, energy flowing more freely through the body, less tension in the face, a reduction in wrinkle lines.”
Ayurveda’s new popularity may seem surprising at a time when so many mainstream skin cream makers promote the scientific merits of ingredients developed by dermatologists and tested in research laboratories. But ayurveda’s mystical trappings appear to be what draw many people. “One of the things that attracted me was the idea that mind and body are really one,” said Ellen Price, 48, who receives oil massages and other treatments at the National Institute for Ayurvedic Medicine’s day spa in Manhattan.
Many treatments have an aspect of ritual. One, called shirodhara, involves lying supine while a thin stream of warm, herb-infused oil is poured onto the forehead at the site of what is believed in Hindu tradition to be the “third eye.” The ingredients used in facials and body plasters include turmeric, ground coriander seeds, dried orange peel, black pepper and a number of exotic Indian herbs.
The three doshas — pitta, vata and kapha — are the heart of ayurveda, Ms. Malhotra Hora said. In most people, one predominates, influencing health, appearance, personality and character. “People who are vata, which is space and air, tend to have cold extremities and dry, thin skin,” she said. “People who are pitta, which is fire and water, have oily skin that’s warm to the touch.” They make excellent managers and mathematicians, she added. Imbalances in doshas are thought to cause ill health. And ayurvedic practitioners believe that the application of certain oils or powders to the skin can draw out toxins and restore a proper balance. Ayurveda also posits the existence of 107 points in the body, called marmas, somewhat similar to acupuncture points. Massage is believed to release toxins from the marmas and help restore normal energy flow. Traditional ayurveda is far more rigorous than a day at the spa. Central to the ancient practices is a regimen for detoxifying the body called pancha karma, which includes oil massages as well as herbs that induce vomiting and the use of leeches for bloodletting. A cleansing diet featuring mung beans and herbal teas is also part of the mix. “Frankly, many Americans would find traditional ayurveda too complicated and too scary,” said Ms. Malhotra Hora, who trained in Mumbai. A handful of alternative medicine clinics in the United States offer ayurvedic therapies to treat chronic conditions like rheumatoid arthritis, asthma, constipation, anxiety, chronic fatigue syndrome and allergies.
But American spas generally offer a form of ayurveda “lite” that never draws blood. “You have spas that offer what they call shirodhara, but they might just as well call it pouring oil on the forehead,” said Dr. Scott Gerson, who founded the National Institute for Ayurvedic Medicine in Manhattan. Western-trained doctors are skeptical for other reasons. Few of ayurveda’s claims to treat serious medical conditions have been rigorously tested. And some recent studies have been disappointing. A trial conducted in 2005 by researchers at the University of Exeter in England, for instance, found that ayurvedic treatments for asthma did not relieve symptoms.
The claims made for ayurveda’s purely cosmetic benefits likewise raise eyebrows among dermatologists. “There’s a good rationale for applying oil, which moisturizes the skin and adds luster to the outer layer, which is, after all, just dead skin cells,” said Dr. DeeAnna Glaser, a professor of dermatology at Saint Louis University. And massage, she said, can ease stress and temporarily increase circulation in the skin, giving it an extra glow. “But there’s no reason to think that powders or oils applied to the skin remove toxins,” Dr. Glaser said, disputing one of the central claims of ayurveda. And while a balanced diet is important to healthy-looking skin, she said, there’s no evidence that so-called detoxifying diets do any good. Some extreme regimens may actually rob the body and skin of essential nutrients.
Still, ayurveda is gaining devoted converts. Claudette Spence, who teaches writing at St. John’s University, first became interested in ayurveda because of its potential health benefits, but after several treatments at Body Essentials Day Spa and Ayurvedic Center, she noticed that her skin “is smoother and has a glow to it.” Ms. Price, who likewise turned to ayurveda primarily for health reasons, also noticed the difference in her skin. “I can’t explain it except that there’s a sense of calm that the body then exhibits that shows in skin tone, coloring, an essence,” she said. “After I started doing ayurveda, people would say to me, ‘Wow, you look so refreshed. Your skin looks so great.’ “