The woman extended her wrist, so the man in the turban--supposedly the finest "pulse diagnostician" in the world--could examine the health of her entire body.
After perhaps 30 seconds of touching the pulse in each of her wrists, the 70-year-old Indian physician provided his judgment through an interpreter: Tightness in the lower back and neck, pressure in the lower abdomen, heaviness in the stomach after meals, heat in the liver and upper part of the small intestine . . . nothing serious now, at least not yet.
The woman was mildly impressed. She indeed experienced more than a typical amount of tension in her back and neck, having once broken both. And though she wasn't aware of any abdominal difficulties, that part of the diagnosis made sense; her abdomen was the area in which she carried a disproportionate share of excess weight.
But how could the doctor tell her about the temperature of her liver by feeling her pulse? And what do you do for a hot liver anyway?
The physician explained that disruptions in specific areas of the body can be perceived in the central nervous system, which has effects on the heart and is reflected in the pulse. He added that pulse diagnosis is only one of three methods he may use, the others being visual observation and interrogation of the patient.
Exercise, dietary and life-style recommendations tailored to the woman's "constitutional type" (diagnosed as fire and movement), along with regular meditation (for stress management), specific herbal supplements and certain detoxifying procedures.
Dr. B. D. Triguna had come to the United States to appear at such medical schools as UCLA, Harvard and Johns Hopkins to discuss the ancient Indian system of medicine known as Ayurveda (pronounced eye-your-VAY-dah, which means "science of life" in Sanskrit).
It was all a part of the World Plan for Perfect Health, inspired by India's Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Guru watchers will recall that the Maharishi is the television guru who introduced Transcendental Meditation to the Western world about 25 years ago--largely through such celebrities as the Beatles, Stevie Wonder and the Beach Boys.
Though considered strange and bizarre at the time, TM is so accepted in Western culture today that some insurance carriers now pay for TM instruction when prescribed by a physician.
But the guru is not one to rest on his mantras. He and his followers are now promoting Ayurveda, a prevention-oriented system of holistic medicine that had died out even in India after it was suppressed there by the British.
(The Maharishi was not available for comment on Ayurveda, that is, unless one was willing to submit a taped set of questions to him, wait for him to receive the questions and tape a response from just outside New Delhi--where a 1,200-bed Ayurveda hospital is being constructed.)
But, in his place, along with Triguna, came Dr. Deepak Chopra, an Indian-born internist and endocrinologist who is the former chief of staff at New England Memorial Hospital in Boston.
At UCLA, the two addressed an audience of about 250 physicians, medical students and observers as a part of a lecture series, "The UCLA Medicine and Society Forum."
Chopra, who is one of about 50 physicians practicing Ayurveda in this country, told the audience that unlike Western medicine, Ayurveda uses entire plants for healing rather than extracting active ingredients and nothing else.
"It is the plant that has the intelligence of the universe within itself," he claimed. "The reason we see side effects in Western medicine is that we isolate the active ingredients from the plants."
To Ayurveda practitioners, Chopra continued, isolating active ingredients from plants is an affront to the wholeness of nature, "it's like taking the intelligence and leaving the wisdom behind."
(At present, about 6,000 patients have been treated in the last 2 1/2 years at four major Ayurveda centers in the United States: Boston, Washington, D.C., Fairfield, Iowa, and Los Angeles (Pacific Palisades). As Ayurveda focuses on the prevention of disease, the centers do not presently include surgical or acute-care facilities; however, according to Chopra, Ayurvedic surgical techniques are similar to those in Western medicine.)
At UCLA, there was so much interest in what Chopra and Triguna had to say that their scheduled one-hour address continued well beyond its appointed time in a small room near the lecture hall.
"I thought it was interesting. It was like sitting at the feet of Hippocrates," commented Dr. Bernard Towers, the UCLA School of Medicine professor of anatomy and psychiatry who directs the UCLA Medicine and Society Forum. "He (Triguna) obviously has a lot of clinical insight but there's no reliance on scientific data . . . It was an interesting experience to see what I guess you'd say was a traditional healer in operation."
Towers did not have his pulse diagnosed but Dr. Saul Matlin, a North Hollywood internist, did. Matlin said that Triguna correctly diagnosed an ailment he knew he had. But, even so, Matlin was not terribly impressed.
"It was so non-specific. It was the type of thing you could have gotten in a fortune cookie," Matlin said, adding that he had been asked his age and was then told he suffered from a problem common to men of his age group. "There may be something there, but if there is it has to be shown," Matlin insisted.
"I just keep an open mind but I can't say he showed anything. The bottom line is you either believe what he says or you don't believe what he says since he isn't giving you any basis for proof. He didn't have any criteria to compare how often he's right. All he would say is we need research for this."
Some of that research is currently under way at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where Dr. Tony Abou-Nader has designed three models to investigate Ayurveda in relationship to aging.
Abou-Nader, a visiting physician in neuroendocrinology at MIT and a fellow in neurology at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, is basing his first study on the idea that "if you eat an improper diet or highly imbalanced diet, you are likely to end up with an imbalance in your physiology leading to diseases like cancer or cardiovascular disease."
To see if Ayurvedic herbal prescriptions might counteract such disease, recently weaned rats were fed a high-fat, nutrient-deficient (choline and methionine) diet. According to Abou-Nader, such a diet typically leads to kidney and liver damage and ultimately to hypertension, high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease.
However, he said by telephone, rats who were exposed to the diet and given an Ayurvedic preparation were able to overcome the damaging consequences of the diet compared to a controlled group of rats given the diet alone.
"The diet did not improve the condition by supplementing the deficient choline and methionine," Abou-Nader added. "The Ayurvedic preparation did not contain methionine or choline. It's acting through some mechanism we don't understand yet."
The other models in Abou-Nader's research are concerned with the effect of Ayurvedic preparations on reducing cancer caused by carcinogens and the effect of Ayurvedic preparations on recovery from brain damage.
What sort of response has Abou-Nader received from physicians and researchers more oriented to Western medicine?
More Explanation Needed
"People are very positive towards some aspects of Ayurveda," he said, speaking specifically of the reaction at Harvard to Triguna and Chopra's presentation there. "Some aspects of Ayurveda need to be explained more. It takes lots of preparation and discussion to integrate this kind of knowledge."
As for the skepticism, Abou-Nader feels it is to be expected. "There will always be a reaction of skepticism," he said. "It is very difficult--from the present frame of thinking in modern medical science--to think how a man could take your pulse and tell you something about your liver.
"However, a proper scientific approach would be open and patient and looking into things in an objective way, continuing the same scientific thinking without prejudice in either direction. This is the only way we can learn and evolve."