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The Ayurvedic Way : Ancient Medical Treatment Uses Inner Peace, Hot Oil

August 21, 1988|IRIS KRASNOW | United Press International

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.

Beatles Era

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.

Check-Up, Evaluation

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