There are many reasons for going to Kerala in south west India û the seductive cliche of palm-fringed beaches, tranquil backwaters filled with a never-ending array of bird life, the cultural haven and age-old spice markets of Fort Cochin, and of course the incredible seafood. But with all those fabulous things to explore, Ayurvedic retreats and teachings are what really inspired us.

Ayurveda û the Sanskrit word meaning Science of Life û is essentially lifestyle, routine and holistic medicine, Indian-style. Its core belief is that a full life will lead to longevity. The underlying philosophy is that our mind, body and spirit are linked by three energies, or doshas: Vata (movement and nervous system), Pitta (metabolism and heart) and Kapha (structure and weight). Each person is classified by his or her most dominant dosha, and lifestyle advice and/or treatment is issued accordingly.

The idea is to balance these doshas by way of a healthy lifestyle, including diet, yoga, breathing, massage, meditation and, if necessary herbal medicines. By treating the mind, body and spirit, its primary aim is to sustain health rather than make ill people better. Unlike in the West, where we relieve stress by drinking, smoking and bingeing, then, filled with remorse, rush to the nearest hydro or simply take to our beds, Ayurveda teaches self-care. Says British health and beauty guru, Bharti Vyas: "It stresses the importance of fuelling yourself with healthy food, exercising your body, offering your mind the tranquil spaces of meditation, and it provides natural remedies, not chemical ones, for the times when the body is out of balance."

Ayurveda has been successful in treating many modern conditions, such as insomnia, anorexia and arthritis, where conventional methods often fail. With its personalised approach and holistic emphasis, and with disciples like the charismatic Deepak Chopra, Ayurveda is becoming increasingly popular in modern society. In fact, after Buddhism, Ayurveda is the fastest growing lifestyle belief in the Western world. The UK's Body Shop last year released an Ayurvedic bath, beauty and well-being range; as did former supermodel and born-again health queen Christy Turlington, with her Sundari label (Hindi for "beautiful woman").

Says Vyas: "It is just common sense mixed with an interest in ancient Indian wisdom and an open-minded approach to herbal remedies, yoga, massage and meditation. While often we don't have time for a health regime that takes hours each day, we can extract the fundamentals and bring the health elements, beauty know-how and home remedies, effortlessly into our lives."

So how effortless is effortless?
There are endless suggestions and practical solutions, ranging from daily health care and dental hygiene, through to dietary advice, exercise and meditation. Ayurveda recommends incorporating pleasurable beauty and exercise rituals into your weekly routine, like bathing, oil massage and hair brushing. A true follower of Ayurveda would typically begin the day with the following ritual and be finished by sunrise.
  1. Rise early
  2. Toilet
  3. Brush teeth and gently brush tongue
  4. Oil body with oil best suited to your 'dosha'. This is done prior to exercise to maximise absorption and prevent friction on the body joints.
  5. Exercise carried out according to your dosha.
  6. Rest for 15 minutes before bathing in lukewarm water. Only cold water should be used on the head.
  7. Meditation.
"Effortless" is, after all, relative!

Here is a simplified version of an Ayurvedic doctor's consultation. Work through the questions then see below for how to achieve balance. Dosha is fixed at the moment of conception: look at tendencies that have persisted since childhood and be honest!

What is your physique?
a. Thin, fine boned. I don't put on weight, no matter what I eat.
b. Moderate height with muscle development. I gain weight if I eat too much.
c. Large, round build. I gain weight easily and lose it slowly.

How is your skin?
a. Thin and dry in places.
b. Warm and moist.
c. Smooth, oily and soft.

Your energy levels?
a. Comes in bursts.
b. Moderate to good.
c. Steady û slightly lazy.

Describe your temperament
a. Fearful, anxious, nervous.
b. Passionate, short-tempered, intense.
c. Loyal, loving, calm, careful.

Your appetite?
a. Irregular, I eat what I want when I want.
b. Strong appetite, I get irritable if I miss a meal.
c. Consistently good appetite, I enjoy food and eat slowly.

What do you suffer from healthwise?
a. Irregular appetite, joint pains, lower back pain, tension headaches.
b. Stomach aches, ulcers, hot flushes and heartburn.
c. Sinus congestion, coughs, colds, weight gain.

How do you react to stress?
a. Anxiety and insomnia.
b. Frustration and hostility.
c. I become depressed and despondent.

How is your digestion?
a. Irregular. Alternate between hard and loose stools.
b. Fairly regular and I have soft, loose stools.
c. Rarely constipated but food moves through me slowly.

If you answered mostly As you are dominated by Vat (air and space), if you answered mainly Bs you are dominated by Pitta (fire and water), if you answered mostly Cs, you are Kapha (water and earth).
It is quite common to be a combination of two doshas.

Vata (air)
Personality: You are active, talkative and creative, but may suffer from a weak memory. You tend to work in highly competitive environments and are always on the go, which can lead to you getting stressed out and doing too much. Body type: Slim, long-limbed, with prominent joints.

Skin type: Generally dry, so the products you use must be gentle and moisturising. Diet: You have a high metabolic rate and stay slim. But you feel the cold due to slow circulation. Eat warm, cooked meals and avoid cold or frozen food.

Exercise: Do resistance training with weights to develop curves as you are fine-boned and have little muscle mass. Combine with calming exercises like Pilates and yoga to help you slow down.

Typical health problems: Constipation and insomnia.

Lifestyle advice: Rest, recuperation, and regular massage. Sleep is very important and you should go to bed early, so you have time to calm down before falling asleep. Preferring warmth, you should avoid cold climates and cold foods. Daily oil application is helpful. Meditation is greatly beneficial although this applies to all doshas.

Pitta (fire)
Personality: You are dynamic, active and passionate. Beware not to overdo it, as you can become over-competitive, short-tempered and critical.

Body type: Average height with broader shoulders than hips. Low to moderate covering of fat.

Skin type: Clear complexion, which tends to flare up, under stress. Use gentle, calming products.

Diet: Avoid spicy food (you are "fire" and therefore want to keep this in check rather than stimulate it). Rather eat salad and fruit. Don't skip meals as you will become tired and depressed. Avoid fizzy or acidic drinks, tea, coffee and alcohol.

Exercise: Destress with cardiovascular exercise, but don't overdo it. Keep your competitive streak in check by doing solo sports, like running and swimming. Typical health problems: Headaches, excessive thirst, digestive problems, skin complaints and ulcers.

Lifestyle advice: Opt for cold food, cool drinks and a colder climate. Avoid too

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