Last summer Oprah Winfrey devoted an entire hourlong chat show to a little-known Indian physician named Deepak Chopra and his book, "Ageless Mind, Timeless Body."
In a wide-ranging discussion, Chopra discoursed on Ayurvedic medicine, the mind, the spirit, and prolonging life through meditation, exercise and the elimination of toxic emotions.
Oprah sat riveted.
Overnight, sales of the book skyrocketed and today have passed the 1-million mark.
Cynics chalk Chopra's hit up to what they called "the Oprah factor," Winfrey's ability to sell anything. But a spin around the bestseller lists these days raises another possibility: that mind/body books like Chopra's are big business, not just in fringe New Age outposts but in malls across America as well:
* Doubleday has printed 450,000 copies of Bill Moyers' "Healing and the Mind," the book tie-in to his popular PBS series on mind/body medicine.
* Internist Larry Dossey's "Healing Words: The Power of Prayer and the Practice of Medicine" climbed to No. 10 on the New York Times bestseller list in May.
* Former Yale Medical School surgeon Bernie Siegel's 1986 book, "Love, Medicine & Miracles," reappeared on the list this spring after spending more than 52 weeks on the bestseller list in the late 1980s and selling more than a million copies.
"This is a big and growing area," says Mike Ferrari, a senior buyer for Waldenbooks at the company's headquarters in Stamford, Conn. "There's a whole group of authors who bridge the New Age and self-help markets."
Mind/body medicine books explore the relationship between the mind and physical health, the role that the mind may or may not play in disease and healing.
The books are hot for a number of reasons, say those in the publishing industry. Baby boomers bravely facing old age and infirmity are looking for kinder, gentler alternatives to traditional medicine. At the same time, changes in the health-care system are for the first time creating economic incentives to preach prevention.
So awash are readers in mind/body books that Consumer Reports Books has seen fit to publish a consumer's guide to the field.
Ferrari points to Moyers' top-selling book as "legitimizing the whole thing. It showed that here's a category that's worth pursuing in itself."
"There's a certain mainstreaming of the New Age movement," says Barb Burg, Bantam director of publicity. Shows such as "Oprah" and "20-20" have done favorable pieces on mind/body practitioners, she notes, adding of PBS's interest in the topic, "that imprimatur is really helping."
Bantam, attempting to capitalize on an emerging market, launched a New Age imprint in the early 1980s. But as the movement has infiltrated the mainstream, the label is often seen as a liability to wider sales.
Take, for example, the recent Bantam release, "Women's Bodies, Women's Wisdom: Creating Physical and Emotional Health and Healing," written by holistic physician Christiane Northrup. The book covers herbal medicine, visualization, nutrition, and the effects of thoughts and emotions on disease. "Before," Burg says, "we would have called it New Age. Now, it's a women's health book."
Sydny Miner, executive editor of trade paperback books at Simon & Schuster, agrees that the New Age label can harm mind/body books. "People who wouldn't want to consider using a New Age book would use something in psychology and self-help," she says.
The notion that the mind can influence the body, that thoughts, emotions and beliefs can dramatically affect health stretches at least as far back as the 4th Century BC, when Hippocrates theorized that disease resulted from a disharmony between mind, body and the environment.
In the 20th Century, the seminal mind/body work is Herbert Benson's 1975 book, "The Relaxation Response." The Harvard-trained cardiologist explored the links between high blood pressure and stress, and experimented with the use of biofeedback to control blood pressure. His book on the simple technique he called the relaxation response was an instant bestseller. Thirty printings and 3 1/2 million copies later, Benson is the founding president of the Harvard-affiliated Mind/Body Medical Institute.
"I was told I was throwing away a brilliant career," Benson says, recalling comments made by friends and colleagues. "But no, the data were there."
Although his research on the beneficial effects of transcendental meditation gave the TM movement a huge boost, Benson notes that his bigger contribution was in showing how meditation worked and translating it into non-religious, scientific terms.
"The market was right for the scientific proof behind (meditation). People were looking for other ways to achieve these benefits," he explains, adding: "We are in fact a model for how something alternative became mainstream."
Benson's work went beyond providing the hard science behind the mind/body mythology. It showed people how to work the mind/body connections and improve their lives. At bottom, it was a self-help book.