To most Westerners, a prescription of meditation, hot-oil massage, a diet that shifts with the seasons and daily hits of Himalayan herbs sounds like New Age hocus-pocus.
Yet these methods of ayurveda designed to trigger the body's own healing responses are actually 6,000 years old. True believers swear that they are rejuvenated, free of stress and headed for longevity.
"When we introduce someone to meditation, go through cleansing treatments, change their diets, these all act synergistically to let the body do what it really wants to do--heal itself," said Dr. Deepak Chopra, a Boston endocrinologist and president of the Maharishi Ayurveda Assn. of America.
Ancient ayurveda (Hindu for science of life) was brought to this country in 1985 by Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the Hindu mystic and former Beatles' guru who introduced transcendental meditation to the West 30 years ago.
In a slow but steady trickle, knowledge about this holistic regimen that incorporates TM is starting to attract the attention of traditional medicine. The ayurveda association claims that about 20,000 patients have been treated at its clinics in Pacific Palisades; Fairfield, Iowa; Cambridge, Mass.; Washington; Seattle; New York City; Palm Beach, Fla., and Lancaster, Mass.
There are now 100 physicians in the United States trained in ayurveda principles. Like its predecessor TM, the movement has lured its share of celebrities, such as Elizabeth Taylor and Mike Love of the Beach Boys.
"There is more and more interest in the healing practices of systems other than our Western modern medicine," said Dr. Herbert Benson, associate professor at Harvard Medical School and chief of behavioral medicine at New England Deaconess Hospital. Benson points to meditation as one alternative practice that is becoming "firmly incorporated" into modern medicine.
Meditative relaxation techniques form the basis of his hospital programs. "We have been studying meditative relaxation techniques for 20 years, and have documented the physiological changes brought on by diminishing anxious thoughts," said Benson, author of "The Relaxation Response."
Benson's praise of ayurveda is "only in so far as it contains techniques that elicit the relaxation response." He says other related remedies, such as the intake of herbs and rubbing on of oil, lack scientific proof.
"The fundamental question to be asked of ayurvedic medicine is this: Is there something inherently curative in therapies like oil dripping or is it the belief that oil dripping works? You have to make sure that it is the therapy, and not belief, that is bringing it about. That's the hurdle non-Western medicine will have to cross over to gain widespread acceptance.
"They have to pass this test of scientific evaluation."
Believers in ayurveda aren't concerned with lack of scientific data. Talk to a patient of panchakarma --an oily purification process said "to open all the channels"--and you'll hear simply that it works. And these takers aren't otherworldly New Agers.
"The myth would be that it is the hippie types coming in for treatment," said Dr. Nancy Lonsdorf, medical director of the Ayurveda Center in Washington. "In fact, the great majority of our patients are professionals.
"The flower child from the '60s is a rarity. The people more resistant now to modern medicine are the so-called yuppies, the more highly educated people." Lonsdorf counsels about 50 patients a week. At times, the wait for an appointment is more than two months.
Even in Midwest
Ayurveda is even taking off in Muncie, Ind. "There is a large population in the Midwest that is very open to this," said Dr. John Peterson, a family practitioner in Muncie schooled in ayurveda.
"Here I am in the middle of the Bible Belt and making recommendations such as 'start meditating,' and people are accepting them. Using purely ayurvedic approaches, I've had success with heart disease, asthma, peptic ulcers, functional bowel disease, depression, insomnia and a long, long list."
However, Peterson is not a total purist. He "will not hesitate" to use some drugs if the patient's case demands it.
For Kathy Corcoran, 35, of Washington, an ayurvedic diet and herbal supplements alone helped her lose 40 pounds and eliminated severe menstrual cramps.
"Before I had gone to a local medical center for cramps, and the doctor told me 'this pain is normal' and he prescribed Motrin," recalled Corcoran, who works for a contracting company. "I was so angry at that, because as far as I'm concerned pain is a sign of imbalance."
A routine visit to an ayurvedic clinic runs about $135 and starts with a pulse diagnosis, a procedure that helps "pick up imbalances before they are manifested into disease," Lonsdorf said.
This is followed by a lengthy check-up and evaluation that determines an individual's body constitution, or doshas , called vata , pitta and kapha . The doctor then prescribes a program that can include meditation, warm oil dripping on the forehead, massage, herbal steam baths, enemas, and a diet that changes with the seasons.
Another popular ayurvedic procedure, aroma therapy, involves immersing the patient for several hours in the scents of heated oils laced with floral and herbal aromas.
Dr. Bernard Towers, professor of anatomy and psychiatry at UCLA, met with Chopra in 1986 when he was the featured speaker at the UCLA Medicine and Society Forum.
"I'm impressed with the care that the physicians exercise. . . . They really are very much involved with the patient, which is something Western medicine tends to lose sight of with all our technology," Towers said. "But I personally think the ayurvedic practitioners must be doing a great deal of guesswork when they make diagnoses purely on pulse.
"Maharishi has been promoting this widely here and has been able to arrange a lot of presentations in major medical centers. They use that to say, 'We are now actively involved in medical education in this country.' I don't believe that is the case. Just because we're interested in it doesn't mean we endorse it."
Educated in West
A native of India who originally trained in Western medicine, Chopra was once the chief of staff at New England Memorial Hospital. He believes drug-dependent medicine could benefit from a dose of ayurveda.
"For everything in this country, we have a magic bullet," said Chopra, who in 1986 established the 230-acre Lancaster, Mass., clinic, the flagship ayurvedic center.
"If you have chest pains, there is always nitroglycerin to swallow . . . antibiotics for infections, tranquilizers for anxiety, sleeping pills for insomnia. Not only is the approach incomplete, but in many cases it can be harmful.
"Nature is intelligent. We have within us the capabilities to trigger the healing mechanisms, not just to mask the symptoms of disease, but actually cure the disease."
Not a Miracle
When Chopra talks of his cancer patients in spontaneous remission, don't call the news miraculous. He believes the disappearance of cancer is about as miraculous as a broken leg mending.
"When someone breaks a bone, the surgeon puts the two ends together, and the bone gets healed. Why isn't that miraculous and why is a cancer cure miraculous?" he asked. "The body is capable of healing both minor and major illnesses if we stop interfering with the healing response, such as zapping someone with chemotherapy."
Linda Rindt of Yorba Linda says her own recovery is proof that ayurveda has it over drugs. Once riddled with bone cancer, Rindt "amazed" her doctors when she lived to turn 40 last June.
In March, 1987, a bone scan revealed that her breast cancer (resulting in a double mastectomy) had spread to her hips, pelvis, vertebrae and ribs.
Not Expected to Live
"The best prognosis was I might live six months, and no longer than two years," said Rindt, president of a truck parts distributor. "The doctors at City of Hope Medical Center (in Los Angeles) said anonymously, 'Kiss it goodby.' "
Chemotherapy, she says, led to "intense side effects," such as high fevers and no visible change in the bone scans. In June, 1987, Rindt checked into the Lancaster clinic for two weeks of meditation, herbal treatments, psychophysiological exercises and lots of fresh air.
She returned to California "feeling 15 years younger," but a new bone scan prompted doctors to resume chemotherapy. Plagued again by debilitating side effects, Rindt chose to quit the therapy.
"My feeling was that the (chemotherapy) was superficial; I wasn't living, I was dying."
Herbs From India
She visited Lancaster again last December, and new herbs from India were added to her treatments. Back in California, she continued her meditation and ingesting the herbs.
In March of this year, a bone scan showed all the massive cancer to be gone, with only one tiny spot on a rib. Another scan done in June was also clear.
"It's amazing" said Dr. John Zamarra, a cardiologist in La Brea who has been Rindt's physician for more than five years.
"The oncologists gave her a matter of months to live. When Linda took those treatments at Lancaster, I could see an immediate improvement. It was remarkable--there was more life in her. Then the bone scan cleared up, and I was just amazed. I, I, you know, I can't explain it.
"I think the chemo helped and I think the treatments in Lancaster had a profound effect. As a doctor observing the phenomenon, I can say they turned the situation around. Technically, the bone scan is cleared up except for one tiny spot.
"This is a gal who was given a death sentence by traditional understanding of oncology. I only have to conclude that whatever they do there is very good for her. It's more than just psychology--something is affecting her body's ability to fight off this cancer."
Rindt has gone from 99 pounds to 118 pounds. Told a year ago to be careful getting out of chairs, she is riding her horses again. Financially, the cost has been high--her insurance doesn't cover ayurvedic remedies--but she says "survival is well worth a few thousand dollars."
Chopra believes it is Rindt who is healing herself--not the herbs, nor anything else external.
"The most important factor is the loss of fear and anxiety," he concluded. "What I'm talking about is the fact that the mind and body are inseparable, completely and totally.
"Your state of mind IS your body, period. So lead a happy life."