- Annie Internicola
The daughter of three generations of Western physicians, I was raised on a steady diet of scientific empiricism. I’m drawn in by soulful alternative practices like Ayurveda—Sanskrit for “the science of life”—but there’s a skeptic living inside me with one eyebrow raised; he has my grandfather’s voice. Nevertheless, I have to admit that Winnick is barking up the right tree about my digestion, which, though far from dead, is often in disarray. She goes on to tell me that she believes my digestive fires (called agni in Sanskrit) are “displaced” and perhaps lower than my stomach, their proper home. I’m intrigued, and I have to admit to that inner skeptic (sorry, Grandpa)—she’s right.
Wisdom from the East
Ayurveda is a complete medical system developed over 6,000 years ago in India. Its teachings are said to be passed down directly from the rishis, or realized beings, who established this method of caring for the body alongside interwoven concepts of philosophy and religion. In modern India, nearly 80 percent of Indians use it for health care, either exclusively or combined with conventional (Western) medicine. Here in America, Ayurveda is considered a complementary or alternative practice like traditional Chinese medicine. Though it has been slower to catch on than TCM, Ayurveda has gained recognition over the past decade—due in part to the work of Deepak Chopra, MD, the celebrity physician and New Age guru who unites the Indian practice with Western medicine. According to the National Ayurvedic Medical Association, the US is now home to more than 30 Ayurvedic training programs, many introduced in the past few years. And thanks to the widespread popularity of yoga—Ayurveda’s sister science and physical discipline—Ayurveda is poised to emerge from the realm of spas and health care “lite” to the larger mainstream world of holistic medicine.
Rooted in the five elements, Ayurveda holds that all health depends on the balance of the doshas, or vital bodily energies. Each person presents a unique mix of the three doshas: vata (ether and air), pitta (fire and water), and kapha (water and earth). The concept is similar to the somatotypes developed by William Herbert Sheldon in the 1940s, with slim ectomorphs resembling active vata types, muscular endomorphs reminiscent of fiery pitta, and softer mesomorphs corresponding with earthy kapha. Yet in Ayurveda, the typing is not so simplistic; the system recognizes that these qualities can blend into a constitution as one-of-a-kind as a snowflake. An individual will have one primary dosha, while another dosha will be secondary and the last, tertiary. An Ayurvedic doctor or practitioner can assess one’s dosha through diagnostic tools like Winnick’s insightful pulse reading, as well as tongue analysis, eye analysis, and discussion with the client.
Ayurveda regards all disease and bodily disorder as the result of a doshic imbalance, and treatment involves restoring the delicate equilibrium of vital energies through various approaches ranging from herbal remedies, diet, and exercise to daily habits and lifestyle changes. A great gift of Ayurveda—and one that is sorely lacking from the Western medical approach—is its offering of a complete program of preventive self-care tailor-made for each person. “It’s a matter of educating people about how to take care of themselves really well,” says Winnick, who holds a master’s degree in the science, consults with clients, and threads Ayurveda’s teachings through her yoga classes.
A Path to Wellness
When Kate Hagerman discovered Ayurveda eight years ago, she had just returned from a sailing trip around South America. The writer, photographer, and yoga teacher—now based in both New York and Woodstock—came back to the States filled with parasites, frightfully thin, and in a constant state of nerve-frayed exhaustion. She met with Ayurvedic practitioner Beth Biegler in the East Village, who told Hagerman that her vata dosha was so far out of balance that “she was going to put me in the ground and water me.” Hagerman was prescribed a pacifying diet of warm cooked foods, lots of ghee and oil, ginger tea, and dosha-balancing dishes like mung bean kitchari. She was told to steep herself in Epsom salt baths and to start a daily routine of abhyanga, or self-massage with warm oils and therapeutic herbs. Caffeine and other stimulants were banned—as was her vigorous, vinyasa-style yoga practice, which Hagerman replaced with a calmer Iyengar and restorative style including lots of meditation and gentle pranayama (breath work). “[Biegler] told me that I needed to lie on the floor for a year before I could do another sun salutation,” says Hagerman. “And I basically did.”
Trusting the age-old system, Hagerman changed her lifestyle completely; gradually, the Ayurvedic program nursed her to back to wellness and restored her energy. It was sometime later that a Western doctor confirmed her parasite condition—prompting a trip to an Ayurvedic center on the West Coast for the intense detoxification program known as panchakarma. An immersive experience lasting about a week—and involving a mono diet, purgatives, and herbal bhasti (enemas), among other methods—the program is designed to purify every organ, from the intestines to the spleen. “It’s an ancient cleanse for your body, but it cleans your mind as well,” says Hagerman. “It makes you so clear.” Best of all, when the panchakarma was over, a lab test delivered good news: Her parasites were gone.
Ultimately, says Hagerman, “Ayurveda brought me to effortlessness. Before I found it, I didn’t have a sense of peace from my aggravated states. We are our environment, our bodies are our environment, and what we put into them, even where we live, affects us.” Today, she views just about everything through the lens of Ayurveda and the quest for balance, even her physical surroundings. “There’s a reason why we’re drawn to Woodstock—it’s such a watershed. There’s water everywhere, there’s shade, which is kapha [earthiness]. We’re drawn to certain people for that too.”
Colony of the (Healing) Arts
Could the earthy, quirky Hudson Valley become a magnet for India’s science of life? Her hands wrapped around a mug of Oriole 9’s chai tea, Winnick tells me her grand plan: “I want to make this area a place to come for Ayurveda,” she says. And it just might happen: In spring 2012, Winnick’s own Shakti Yoga studio in Woodstock will become the East Coast satellite campus for the American University of Complementary Medicine’s certification program in Ayurvedic medicine. Tailored to distance learners as well as locals, classes will be led by a faculty that includes Winnick along with several Ayurvedic doctors trained in India. Some of these specialists—including Dr. Manjula Jishnu Paul, who trained in her native Indian state of Kerala, considered the home of Ayurveda—will be available to locals for consultations and treatments by appointment starting as early as November.
Asked how Westerners can benefit from using Ayurveda as a complement to conventional healthcare, Dr. Paul explains that the Indian system offers a more individualized context. “Your body type, eating habits, behavior, and attitude are all integral to establishing who you are and how to treat you,” she says. “This is not always the way with Western health care, which gives you medicine based on your illness or symptoms. The goal of Ayurveda is to look deeper into the body and determine what caused those symptoms. Two people displaying similar symptoms may walk out of my clinic with two completely different regimens and suggested treatments. The Ayurvedic dietary modifications and herbal and physical remedies are all based on one person— specifically, you.”
Dr. Paul is encouraged by Westerners’ increasingly warm embrace of the ancient science, which she notes is particularly helpful for health issues such as diabetes, high blood pressure, migraines, psoriasis, and digestive disorders. She also points out a bonus: Ayurveda offers none of the horrendous side effects of conventional medicine. But she acknowledges that in order to receive Ayurveda’s full gifts, Westerners must make a certain mental shift. “People are beginning to see the futility of the old mindset that says the answer to an unhealthy lifestyle can be cured overnight with a single pill—a concept that never made sense to me,” she says. “Ayurveda demands active participation from the person seeking care. If the client isn’t ready or willing to engage on this level, then the Ayurvedic experience won’t be as fruitful for them. It’s about doing your part and being responsible for your own health—and I’m glad to see that Americans are coming around to this approach.”
Clearly, there’s a lot to love about Ayurveda: the soul-warming foods, the individualized yoga practices, and the sensual, spa-adopted rituals like shirodhara—in which a stream of warm oil cascades over the forehead to quell anxiety and treat headaches and insomnia. But what can I say to satisfy those white-masked physicians, my inner skeptics? I go back to Winnick and ask how she would defend the venerable science from those who hold up Western medicine and its advances—life-saving antibiotics, gene therapy, and the like—as the gold standard of care.
“Ayurveda is a complex, broad system of medicine with branches in everything from pediatrics and psychiatry to fertility,” she says. “People can sit there in their modern world of newness, with Western medicine like the ultimate Mac computer, but computers are in their infancy, too. Ayurveda has been around for thousands of years, and there’s some practical knowledge that goes with its longevity. But the beautiful thing about Ayurveda is that it can evolve. It doesn’t disregard modern surgery and say, ‘Sorry, we only have leeches.’ It’s a living science. Yet Ayurveda recognizes that most daily care has nothing to do with groundbreaking medical practices. It’s concerned with questions like, What do you eat? What time do you wake up in the morning and go to bed at night? These things are much more intimate and immediate to our relationship to feeling well day to day.”
Linda Lalita Winnick www.shaktiyogawoodstock.com
Dr. Manjula Jishnu Paul www.soundshoreayurveda.com
American University of Complementary Medicine www.aucm.org