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The top five traditional Indian health practices

Last updated on: November 22, 2010 12:23 IST

Image: Some very traditional health-enhancing routines continue to be widely practiced
Photographs: Dedda71/Wikimedia Commons

While embracing the latest fitness fads, it's important to keep in mind that these routines have helped preserve the health of generations over centuries.

The past few years have seen increased health awareness in India. Today's urban Indians, especially, are not only better informed, but actively making the choice to embrace good health and fitness.

But ironically, for a country with diverse healing traditions, the thrust is often skewed in favour of patronising Western imports such as new-fangled diets or five-star gyms.

At the same time, some very traditional health-enhancing routines continue to be widely practiced too. In the following pages, we bring you five of the most popular ones.

1. Warm water in the morning

Image: Warm water in the morning
Photographs: Jenny Downing/Wikimedia Commons

Many of us are familiar with the ayurvedic injunction to start the day with a drink of warm water.

Drinking a glass or two, with a little lemon juice and honey stirred in first thing in the morning on an empty stomach, is said to cleanse the digestive system and also relieve constipation.

"Water works like a broom in sweeping toxins out of the body," writes Shubhra Krishan in her book, Essential Ayurveda. The lemon also induces saliva in the mouth to flow freely and thus promotes digestion, she explains.

2. Walking barefoot on grass

Image: Walking barefoot on grass
Photographs: Lorenz Kerscher/Wikimedia Commons

We may own some of the most expensive designer pairs of shoes, but many of us make it a point to spend at least a few minutes a day walking barefoot, preferably on grass, earth or a similar natural surface. The practice stems from the belief that nature intended us to walk barefoot and smothering our feet in shoes and chappals has negative effects on our health.

According to Eastern healing traditions, the abundant nerve endings in the soles of our feet are pressure points that correspond to different organs in the body. Walking barefoot on different textures and surfaces helps to massage these nerve endings, which stimulates the different organs they are connected to, keeping them active and helping them to function better. Walking barefoot even for as little as 15 to 30 minutes daily is said to ensure this benefit.

3. Oil pulling

Image: Oil pulling
Photographs: Itineranttrader/Wikimedia Commons

This popular Indian health remedy is mentioned in the Charaka Samhita, the classic text on ayurveda, as Kavaala Gandoosha or Kavala Graha.

It involves rinsing the mouth with about a tablespoon of cold-pressed oil, usually sesame or sunflower, early in the morning before eating or drinking anything. Typically, a person takes the oil and swishes it around thoroughly in the mouth. This is supposed to stimulate bodily enzymes to eliminate toxins from the blood and purify it. After mixing with saliva, the oil becomes whitish and foamy at which point it is spat out and the mouth is rinsed with water.

While the overall benefits of oil pulling have not been medically proven, studies have established that it can help to reduce oral bacteria (Streptococcus mutans).

4. Surya namaskar

Image: Surya namaskar
Photographs: Joseph Renger/Wikimedia Commons

Surya namaskar is the Sanskrit term for prostrations or salutations performed to honour the sun. These prostrations form a cycle of yogic postures that are performed in sequence under the rising sun at dawn. While performing the surya namaskar routine, it is important to maintain full awareness to ensure fluidity of movement and help the body flow gracefully from one position into the other. Also, breathing during the cycle is well-defined so that both inhalation and exhalation correspond to specific steps in the cycle.

Performing surya namaskar typically exercises most parts of the body and is believed to help digestion, improve grace and agility, boost immunity, foster confidence and help longevity.

5. Pranayama

Image: Pranayama
Photographs: Jahnavi Sheriff

Pranayama refers to the breathing exercises performed by Indians generations before Ramdev Baba made them popular on national primetime television. There are different types of pranayama, or techniques of breath control and they all seek to regulate the prana or vital force that, it is believed, is absorbed by a person through the air while breathing.

While medical studies have established the effectiveness of pranayama in managing stress and relieving conditions such as asthma, practitioners also claim other benefits such as increased focus and ability to concentrate. But pranayama techniques are also believed to be potent exercises that are only to be practiced under the guidance of an experienced teacher.

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