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Ayurveda Has Been Around for 5,000 Years. Why Is the West Suddenly Enthralled?

December 6, 2017

The magnificent Amber Fort, located just outside of Jaipur in northwestern India's Rajasthan (or "land of kings") state, embodies the mystery and opulence associated with the country's once-mighty royalty: secret candlelit passageways used by an early seventeenth-century maharaja for assignations with his many wives; a mirror mosaic–encrusted hall with a wow factor to rival that of Versailles.

There are few objects, however, in the palace's vast, empty, now-crumbling spaces to suggest the abundance of life they once contained—the pulse of soldiers, servants, and bejeweled, sari-swathed princesses—save for one: a tulsi, or holy basil, plant, encased in a stone-latticed shrine. Sacred to Hindus, tulsi was worshiped by the royal family (the queens, helpful signage explains, sang hymns to praise the plant every sunset) and was cherished for its medicinal uses as an antiseptic, digestive, and pain reliever. As I lean in to peer more closely at its little green leaves, a British woman next to me whispers to her daughter, "I take that stuff in pills."

 

From left Marigolds, an Ayurvedic skin brightener, in bloom, workers at Uma's organic farm in Raipur, Holecek helping with the vetiver harvest.

SIBSA DIGITAL PVT. LTD + ALAMY + SHRANKHLA HOLECEK

 

Ayurveda, the ancient Indian holistic healing tradition, is more than 5,000 years old, but it's taken until 2017 for the West to take notice. While some of the discipline's less palatable remedies—leech therapy, for example, or aggressive colonics—haven't yet been fully embraced by Westerners, Ayurveda's emphasis on mind-body balance resonates with our zeitgeisty obsession with wellness, and most of us have already incorporated Ayurveda-derived practices into our lives whether we know it or not—doing yoga, meditating, drinking warm lemon water, using the Breathe app on our Apple watches, or knocking back powdered ashwagandha root in Goop-approved smoothies.

 

Translated from Sanskrit as "the science of life," Ayurveda's central thesis, as you may have learned in the early '90s when Deepak Chopra arrived on the scene and gave Ayurveda another major Western moment, is that every human being is predominantly ruled by one of three doshas—vata, pitta, or kapha—constitutional energies that affect everything from energy levels to sleep patterns to bone density. If a dosha is out of whack, say from a poor diet or extreme stress, this can manifest itself in various ailments, including red, dry, or breakout-prone skin. Recognizing that the notion of doshas can sound daunting—or borderline woo-woo—to some, a new crop of beauty entrepreneurs is stripping away the less approachable elements of Ayurveda when it comes to skin care and focusing on bringing the regimen's time-tested wisdom—and traditional, high-performance ingredients—to a global audience.

 

Shrankhla Holecek, who launched the luxurious oil-based Ayurvedic line Uma in 2016, certainly has bona fides: For 800 years, her family served as Ayurvedic physicians for Indian royalty. When the monarchy began to fall apart in the mid-1800s, her ancestors turned their attention to farming and producing ultrapure organic botanical oils for the perfume industry. Now Holecek sources her ingredients—such as vetiver, clary sage, rose, and chamomile—from those same plots of land. And while Uma's skin-care formulations are derived from recipes created and cataloged by Holecek's learned forebears, they've been selected due to their suitability for all skin types.

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