Yoga Journal, Spring 1994
Staying Healthy with Ayurveda
by Eva Herriott
Through diet and lifestyle changes and a purification program known as panchakarma, Ayurveda can enhance overall health and help prevent serious illness.
Few will disagree with the adage that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. The only question is, what preventive measures should we take? For all its high-tech dexterity, Western medicine knows surprisingly little about how to effectively avert the common scourges of later life- heart disease, cancer, diabetes, arthritis, and osteoporosis. As a result, less than one third of the U.S. population reaches old age without contracting one or another of these. Because such diseases generally develop over a lifetime, they are precisely what preventive measures are intended to prevent. But the keys to prevention continue to elude researchers. Preventive measures for cancer consist largely of early detection. In the case of coronary heart disease, studies have identified the lifestyle and dietary factors that increase the risk of heart attack, yet these factors still explain only half of all incidents. Furthermore, eliminating risk factors isn't always easy and doesn't always give the expected results. For example, only about half the predicted reduction in heart attacks results from reducing the patients' blood pressure via conventional methods.
In this environment, more and more doctors and patients are exploring traditional systems of health care and prevention. In particular, the bestselling books of Dr. Deepak Chopra have focused increasing attention on the ancient Indian science of medicine, Ayurveda. Ayurveda seems to have remarkable results with many health problems Western medicine just can't touch.
As a case in point, take Dr. Layne Longfellow, a writer and lecturer based in Boulder, Colorado. Longfellow had various complaints-including heart palpitations and a cough that just wouldn't go away-which neither a cardiologist nor a pulmonary specialist were able to diagnose or treat successfully.
"I wasn't clinically sick, but my whole system was flashing red lights," recalls Longfellow. "I was down with one cold or flu after the other, had digestive problems, and in general had no energy. I wasn't feeling good at all." On top of it all, Longfellow saw his cholesterol level increase from 231 to 245 over a nine-month period in spite of the fact that he followed a strict low-fat diet.
In addition to seeing his regular doctor, Longfellow tried alternative approaches ranging from homeopathy, chiropractic, and acupressure to nutritional counseling. But he didn't get any better. As a last resort, he decided to enroll in an eight-day Ayurveda health and preventive care program at The Raj, a luxury Maharishi Ayurveda Health Center in Fairfield, Iowa.
"The results were impressive", says Longfellow. "My cough disappeared. I had a blood panel done immediately after I arrived home and found that my cholesterol level had dropped from 245 to 191. I've been in phenomenal health ever since."What astonishes Longfellow is that the doctors at The Raj never focused on treating any of his symptoms. "We didn't target my high cholesterol level, we didn't set out to get rid of my cough or heart palpitations, we said nothing about my colds or low energy. But it's all gone."
"All disease has a common cause-the accumulation of imbalances in the body", says Dr. Chris Clark, medical director at The Raj. "Instead of dealing with specific symptoms, it's far more effective to deal with the problem at its root by eliminating the imbalances. Symptoms that appear very different on the surface commonly disappear when their underlying cause is removed. The beauty of the Ayurveda approach is that it specializes in detecting and removing the potential for problems before they become structurally evident."
Ayurveda is one of the oldest systems of natural medicine in the world. Much of the Ayurveda knowledge was lost during the foreign domination of India. However, over the last decade Maharishi Mahesh Yogi-otherwise known for bringing Transcendental meditation (TM) to the West-has worked closely with leading Ayurveda experts to restore and pool their combined wisdom into a comprehensive body of knowledge. The result is Maharishi Ayurveda, which has been introduced broadly in the U.S. by the Maharishi Ayurveda Association of America, an organization of doctors who integrate Ayurveda techniques into their practices. The traditional system of Ayurveda is also practiced at the Ayurveda Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico, founded by Dr. Vasant Lad, an Indian doctor trained in Ayurveda and author of one of the first books on Ayurveda to be published in the U.S. The concept of body types, or rather mind-body types, is one of the pillars of Ayurveda. Each one of us is born with a specific mind-body type that profoundly influences all aspects of our being, from the structure of our physiology to our tastes, preferred activities, and mental and emotional make-up. Any preventive or treatment measure must take this psychophysiological makeup into account to truly eliminate the accumulation of imbalances.
"If you don't know your constitution, you won't know how to eat, what lifestyle to follow, or how to deal with emotional factors in daily relationships," says Dr. Vasant Lad. "The body is constantly acting and reacting to seasonal , dietary, lifestyle, emotional and mental patterns. Unless you know how to work with your specific body type, imbalances will inevitably arise."
According to Ayurveda, a person's body type is determined by the relative presence of three bodily humors, or doshas, known as vata, pitta, kapha. Each dosha regulates many functions in the mind-body system, but these functions can be summarized in three basic principles. Vata represents the element of air; it controls any form of movement in the body, including blood circulation, the passage of food through the digestive tract, breathing, the movement of nerve impulses, and so on. Pitta represents the element of fire; it governs metabolism and biochemical processes and is responsible for the transformation of food, air, and water into the building blocks of physiology. Kapha represents the elements of earth and water and governs the formation and structure of tissues, muscles, bones, sinews and so forth.
Disease results when the balance of one or more dosha is disturbed. The dominant dosha in one's body will tend to be the one that becomes unbalanced. A range of behavioral, dietary, mental, emotional and environmental factors can cause this to happen. Each of the doshas has various subdoshas, and it is on the level of the subdoshas that imbalances are first detected. Knowledge of the doshas and subdoshas enables the doctor to help the patient pinpoint and eliminate imbalances before they give rise to symptoms. This makes it possible to structure a specific prevention program in which all aspects of a client's daily life-including diet, exercise, daily and seasonal routines-help recreate or maintain balance in the body.
Although a number of good "do-it-yourself" books on Ayurveda are available, many people prefer to have a consultation with a doctor trained in Ayurveda diagnosis and treatment before they undertake an Ayurveda prevention regimen. The doctor can assess body type and use pulse diagnosis to ascertain which doshas and subdoshas may be out balance. If any pre-illness imbalances are present (as they are in most people), the physician can give practical advice on how to balance the doshas, including recommendations about which diet, lifestyle and seasonal routines are best suited to one's body type and the prescription of herbal remedies to balance specific subdoshas. In addition to these conventional Ayurveda approaches, Maharishi Ayurveda incorporates a number of other techniques to "chisel away" imbalances from various angles. These include aroma and sound therapy; yoga asanas and pranayama exercises that balance specific doshas and subdoshas. Emphasis is placed on using mental techniques, especially TM, to help reduce stress and increase bodily awareness so that individuals can detect the negative effects of bad habits and spontaneously correct them.
Another of Ayurveda's comprehensive bids to eliminate disease at its root is known as panchakarma. According to Ayurveda, the aggravation of the doshas is only the first stage in the development of disease. When a dosha gets imbalanced, it impedes the digestive process, reducing the effectiveness of digestion, absorption and assimilation. The result is the creation of toxins in the form of ama, a sticky, noxious residue that gradually clogs up the cells. Ama is identical to the cellular debris that has been observed by Western medicine to build up in every cell in the body over time, impairing cellular functions and accelerating aging; it could even be a factor in causing DNA to make mistakes, an etiological component in most cancers. Accumulated ama, or toxins, creates imbalances in the body that will eventually result in disease. Whereas simple attentiveness to living in accord with one's body type will help prevent the accumulation of ama, the techniques of panchakarma flush out the ama that has already been lodged in the system.
The purifying and eliminating actions of panchakarma first dislodge the toxins from the cells and then flush them out through the organs of elimination-the sweat glands, intestines and urinary tract. The actual structure of the panchakarma treatment varies from client to client, but in general, a person starts out with oleation therapy, or snehana-intake of large quantities of ghee, or clarified butter, over several days to loosen impurities at the cellular level. This is followed by a purgative to flush out the toxins. Oleation therapy is a preparatory treatment. The actual panchakarma begins with an abhyanga, an oil massage, during which the client is rubbed with sesame oil from head to toe. The mechanical pressure of the massage increases circulation and helps move excess doshas toward the central area of the body, from which they can be eliminated through the intestinal tract. Because of its soothing, calming influence, abhyanga also helps balance vata dosha. After abhyanga, the patient undergoes one or more of the following treatments, depending upon constitution and specific imbalances. Swedana, an herbal steam bath, further increases the circulation through the periphery of the body and helps loosen more impurities. In the shirodhara, warm sesame oil is poured in a slow stream onto the forehead, a simple procedure that is surprisingly relaxing and especially beneficial for people with aggravated vata. Nasya is a special treatment for everything above the collarbone; it consists of an oil massage of head, neck and shoulders, combined with steam inhalation and herbal oil drops that are dripped into the nostrils. Nasya is helpful in removing excess kapha and is said to nourish the senses, brain and eyes. Finally, most treatments are capped with a basti, or medicated enema, which eliminates the impurities that have been disposed to the intestinal tract as a result of the other treatments. Bastis also help balance vata dosha, whose seat is primarily in the intestinal tract, and are considered one of the most important components of the panchakarma treatments.
"There are basically two themes in panchakarma," says Dr. Chris Clark of The Raj. "One is pacification, helping the person settle down and getting the doshas loosened; the other is the actual elimination of the excess doshas."A typical panchakarma program involves about two hours of treatment per day for 3 to 14 days, depending on the individual's constitution and financial means. For maximum effect, a person should undergo panchakarma several times a year, preferably at the change of seasons. However, many people find that even three days once a year make a difference.
Actor Steve Collins went through panchakarma when his wife gave him a one-week treatment as a surprise birthday gift. "It was a wonderful experience," says Collins. "The treatment is so unique that it is difficult to describe the tranquillity and peaceful quality of it. The ancient principles of ayurveda are so commonsensical, and they combine to make the whole experience delightful and restful." Jody Bargerstock, a real estate agent in Washington, D.C. has been going through panchakarma several times a year since 1984. "The first two weeks of panchakarma completely changed my life," says Jody. "I got all this creativity and energy; everything I did was blissful. I've been regular with it ever since and find that I manage to stay in excellent heath. People can't believe I turned 50 in June-I have more energy than I ever had, and my body seems more resilient."
Even people with chronic diseases have found that following Ayurveda prescriptions in general and panchakarma in particular helps them slow the progression of their disease. Dr. Lisa Paine, who is the director of the Nurse Midwifery Education program at Boston University and now in her late 30's, has had preliminary symptoms of multiple sclerosis (MS) off and on since the age of 21. In 1989, however, when she came down with optic neuritis, she faced the very real possibility that her symptoms could develop into full-fledged MS. She decided to give Ayurveda a try and went through panchakarma treatments at the Maharishi Ayurveda Clinic in Washington, D.C. By doing panchakarma regularly and following various Ayurveda prescriptions, she has managed to stay well enough to continue with her often extremely demanding job. Says Dr. Paine: "Of course, MS is a disease where you don't ever look for a medical cure. However, I feel that the Ayurveda treatment modalities I've undertaken have allowed me to be extremely healthy with the limitations posed by a disease that leaves most people incapable of working within a fairly short time. I haven't had to be hospitalized, or, as is most often the case, to take steroids to avert some of the more severe complications of MS. I feel that I've experienced a definite decrease in the morbidity of the disease." Dr. Jay Glaser explains that panchakarma can be helpful in cases of MS because the disease results from the aggravation of the vata dosha, which panchakarma is particularly effective at pacifying. In addition, the deposition of plaques in the body that causes symptoms of MS can be considered an expression of ama, or metabolic residue, which get removed during panchakarma treatment.
The panchakarma treatment is labor intensive and requires a high staff-to-client ratio, in some places-for example, The Raj in Fairfield, Iowa-as high as two to one. Needless to say, such a high level of care doesn't come cheap-at the Maharishi Ayurveda clinics and at Dr. Lad's Ayurveda Institute in New Mexico, fees are in the lower range of what one would pay at a good spa. To people who go through panchakarma regularly, however, the treatment seems well worth the cost.
"I just look at it as an investment," says Jody Bargerstock. "If I invest in myself, my mental outlook, and my ability to approach everything in a positive way, I'm able to be much more creative and think of better solutions in my work. I'm more successful that way, so the treatment ends up paying for itself."
"Panchakarma has traditionally been costly because of the labor and materials involved," says Dr. Chris Clark of The Raj. "But to most people it's a matter of priority. Once they've experienced the value of the treatment, most find that they naturally reprioritize their expenses so they can afford at least some panchakarma every year." As valuable as the panchakarma treatments may be, however, Ayurveda doctors emphasize that a person only derives full benefits from it by using it in conjunction with other Ayurveda measures. Says Dr. Vasant Lad, "Panchakarma helps most when there is a proper lifestyle and diet according to the individual's constitution. These are supporting factors in the healing process. Diet and lifestyle are not a quick fix, but their regulation brings long term results; it creates a foundation for good health."
A study by Dr. David Orme-Johnson and Robert E. Herron at Maharishi International University (MIU) in Fairfield, Iowa, illustrates just how effective a comprehensive Ayurveda prevention program can be. Since 1985 the university administration has encouraged faculty to take part in a Maharishi Ayurveda prevention program. Using data from MIU's health-insurance carrier, Blue Cross/Blue Shield, Orme-Johnson and Herron compared the 1985-1991 health-care utilization of the MIU group with that of a group of small, private colleges in Iowa, matched for age, education, and profession. The MIU group's health-care utilization was considerably lower on all indicators. Compared to the control group, they had 76 percent fewer inpatient days. Compared to the norm of the 600,000 individuals insured by the same carrier, the total medical expenditures of the MIU group were 68 percent less.
"Its time that more attention be given to the tremendous potential in Ayurveda preventive methods," says Dr. Clark. "We live in a country with one of the highest per capita health expenditures in the world, yet more than 50 percent of our health-care expenditures are made in the last three months of a person's life. Our priorities are extremely out of balance. We should be using our resources for prevention and for maximizing the potential for perfect health that resides in every man, woman and child in the country."