Prologue: Reviving the Lost Art of Self-Repair

If your palms get wet when you are reminded of Bette Davis’ famous line, “Growing old is no place for sissies, ” then this book is for you. Its purpose is not to give you more years of misery, but more fun in some extra years, and to make you look forward to it, even if you already have a few infirmities.

There is nothing new under the sun, so this book is loaded with something that is nothing new. Its subject, the continuous renewal and repair of your body, has simply been lost, forgotten or neglected. This book may unsettle both medical providers and consumers alike, because modern medicine has made us drift away from health wisdom that has been time-tested. Doctors like to think their advice is based on scientific evidence, but much of what we do still lacks scientific documentation. Evidence-based medical recommendations may give a better outcome for populations as a whole, but may not necessarily be better for you as an individual, whose unique situation may instead require common sense, clinical judgment, restraint, procrastination or even, God forbid, something ancient and tested by time rather than randomized clinical trials.

Unfortunately, the people least benefited by the gains of modern medicine are those suffering from age-related chronic disorders addressed by this book. Moreover, most people open to natural options simply run out for the latest supplement heralded in the evening news, rather than address their problems with a systematic science.

We will be exploring a lost art of self-repair that despite its antiquity offers a revolutionary approach to stubborn conditions that have developed over time and which yield with extreme reluctance to modern interventions.

It is interesting that Vedic medicine has made a comeback in India recently due to an unlikely influence: the West. Just as South Asians have adopted high technology and some of the West’s worst habits, they have also witnessed the popularity of western Ayurvedic clinics, and installed Ayurvedic spas in many of the finest hotels to cater to the western tourist. After sixty years of relegating its own traditional practitioners to the villages where few trained physicians choose to live and where the villagers cannot afford western medicine, the growing middle and upper classes of India and Pakistan are rediscovering, through books and programs developed outside of India, the genius of the Vedic sciences that were always under their noses.

A Chance Encounter with the Field of Self-Repair

My journey to the realm of self-repair began in 1971, in Kampala in the heart of Africa, where I arrived tired and hungry, having not eaten a decent meal for a fortnight. Three weeks previously, I had dispatched my research samples of tuberculosis bacteria from rural Zulus to my medical school in Colorado and had embarked on a trek by motorcycle, thumb and boat northward through the Rift Valley. I was eager to see Africa in its pristine state. The local fare of mashed  tapioca root, grasscutter (rodent) stew and home brew left my taste buds begging for something savory. I asked the first Westerner I had seen in weeks where I could find the best meal in town. The tyranny of Idi Amin had left Kampala plundered, she replied, and the good restaurants had all closed. I could buy the inventory of a whole hardware store for a few hundred dollars cash because the Asian merchants were abandoning Uganda. The only good meal was at the Hindu temple. My first Indian feast has still been the best. As the servers brought dish after spicy dish of South Indian cuisine, I knew that the following year I would pursue my tuberculosis (TB) research in India.

Nine months later, I was staring at the dried herbs for a patient with tuberculosis at the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences in New Delhi, asking him how he could have been prescribed something so unquantifiable at such a prestigious research center. “If you will not tell my doctors that I am seeing an Ayurvedic doctor, I will tell you how to find the vaidya who prescribed them. ” he bargained. This patient opened my eyes to the science of life and led me to hear the body’s ancient song.

For the next five months, as my research permitted, I apprenticed myself out to the most renowned vaidyas who would accept a foreigner under their tutelage, journeying from the Himalayas to the tip of the subcontinent in the south. In Benares, I met PJ Deshpande, who initiated me in the secrets of Ayurvedic surgery because he professed that if a western doctor was interested, his lost art had a living future; in Thanjavur, I coddled in my hands an ancient crumbling Ayurvedic text that scholars were translating. I visited the forests where the herbs grew and followed the crafters who collected, crushed and fermented them. Under trees in the villages and in clinics in the cities, Vedic physicians tried to explain to me Ayurvedic theory, coaxed me to sing the Sanskrit verses which comprise the medical texts, and placed my fingers in the proper position on the pulse. It was during this journey that I first heard the body’s ancient song – transcendental Veda taking expression in a Brahmin’s chant – droning a thrill up my spine to awaken me to the vibrancy of life.

Since Ayurveda was unknown in the West in 1972, I wrote a journal chronicling my adventures and upon my return to Denver was asked to present the paper before the University of Colorado Medical School faculty and students. The Waring Society received my paper with polite interest, appreciating it mainly as a firsthand, historical analysis of a quaint relic of medical science. I protested that they had missed the point and that contemporary medicine had much to learn from Ayurveda, which offered therapeutic possibilities in areas where medicine failed. In 1972, an era when breastfeeding was discouraged, the medical profession and lay public regarded these arguments as nonsensical. So I quietly continued reading the ancient texts and put up with the admonitions of my superiors who pointed out that I was wasting my time feeling the pulse when I could plainly see the tracing on the monitor. Four years later upon completing my internal medicine board examinations, I realized I still needed to learn real medicine. Having learned the Transcendental Meditation technique while in medical school, I approached the program’s founder, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, to learn the science of life.

Completing a Proper Medical Education

Ten years passed in the role of a brahmacharin, a reclusive Vedic apprentice. I had no idea this real medicine would be more demanding than medical school and hospitals: the routines, the lessons learned, the changing winds the teacher conjured to break my boundaries and structure flexibility. Sometimes I found myself washing pots (open ego surgery for a doctor used to giving orders), sometimes doing research or teaching.

In his study in the Swiss Alps in 1979, I asked Maharishi when we could take up the discipline of Ayurveda, which I had been studying on my own for seven years but which was still unknown in the West. He replied that Ayurveda was a beautiful flower that would soon be ready for picking. Three months later, he returned to Switzerland from India with Dr. VN Dwivedi, a learned Ayurvedic physician and authority in rejuvenative tonics called rasa¯yanas. Other renowned vaidyas began to arrive from the various regions of India, each with their expertise in a specific area of Vedic medicine.

The following years were witness to a gathering of Vedic luminaries to rival the assemblages described in the ancient books. The western doctors felt humbled in their presence. Each expert described a different part of the flower of Vedic medicine that we were now picking: some its roots in the Vedas, some its stem in the three great encyclopedic medical texts, some its petals and leaves in the ancient Upanishads and systems of Vedic philosophy like the Yoga Sïtras and Vedanta, and some the flower’s reproductive organs, the texts that assure the perpetual transmission of Vedic sciences to other generations in their purity. From a discussion of agni, the digestive and metabolic fires, we would find ourselves considering Agni, the purifying source of intelligence, and then a poetic description of Agni in the experience of an ancient seer, and then back to the treatment of irritable bowel syndrome. The days dissolved into late nights and then into weeks and years as we buzzed around the flowers of Ayurveda and retreated to the hive, our own silent experience of the abstract field of Veda, the domain of self-repair.

On occasion, a Sanskrit verse describing a property of an herb, the treatment of a disease with an ancient physiotherapy technique or a benefit of meditation would set us wondering whether a remedy was really as good as the text implied and some of us undertook laboratory experiments to test the ancient record. The Ayurvedic doctors approvingly laughed, implying that being time-tested through the millennia was proof enough.

One day Maharishi surprised several physicians and me as we sat with him in his cottage, working on herbal preparations for treating chronic diseases. With a sweep of his hand he pushed the papers across the table and proclaimed, “This is fourth class Ayurveda! ” We were startled and speechless, wondering why he would debase knowledge he seemed to value. He continued, “If a medicine is truly first-class, it should work on the deepest, most subtle level, on the level of consciousness. These herbs, diets, massage and tonics function mainly on the physical body. How good can this medicine be? After all, I was aware of the possibilities of Ayurveda in 1955, when I came out of the Himalayas, but how could I talk about herbs and diets when people were not even meditating? ”

Validating Vedic Medicine in the Clinic

After several years, my medical colleagues and I realized that we had begun to reconstruct Ayurveda in its ancient dignity and integrity. It was a different Ayurveda than the Ayurveda practiced in India, where physicians with many years of training and recitation of Sanskrit medical texts find themselves practicing as herbal pill pushers or abandon Ayurveda to prescribe western drugs. Maharishi had restored the Veda to Ayurveda.

Meanwhile my former medical colleagues, family and friends wondered why a board-certified internist, who by then was over forty, had forsaken the standard medical model and could barely pay his debts. They were delighted when at last I announced my intentions to test these new clinical tools, joining Tony Nader, MD, PhD and Deepak Chopra, MD at an Ayurvedic medical center that Maharishi was establishing in Lancaster, Massachusetts.

I put Vedic medicine to the test in every soul who sought my help, referring to ancient texts when in doubt; keeping an experienced vaidya from India by my side during consultations; phoning to the land of the Veda for another option when the predicted response was not forthcoming; summoning my clinical judgment to conjure a new plan based on Vedic principles when neither the ancient or modern approaches kindled a cure; or simply singing a poetic Sanskrit verse from the medical texts predicting hopefulness to a disconsolate heart. I came to realize that the lost art of self-repair is still available to anyone.

Applying Vedic Wisdom to Self-Repair

My experience has shown me, however, that what the public has come to understand as Ayurveda, picking your body type and then avoiding foods and activities accordingly, had nothing to do with the principles used by experienced practitioners, who attempt to intervene at the source of a disorder’s cause. Most patients have several interacting disorders that cannot be resolved by simplistic prescriptions. These physical disorders are further aggravated by marital problems, depression, anxiety, job dissatisfaction, destructive habits and lifestyles, all of which may contribute to or even cause the problems.

This book attempts to help you identify the critical parts of your own life that may be involved in the age-related and chronic disorders that almost everyone eventually experiences and offers effective, drug-free treatments. Since ayu means lifespan and Veda means knowledge, it is only fitting that Ayurveda and its associated sciences should be the key components in your program of body renewal.

Because you may sometimes be a less-than-perfect patient, I have given you a break by selecting my Ayurvedic prescriptions carefully. If, in my own life, I adhered to one-tenth of the lifestyle interventions my Ayurvedic teachers have prescribed to me over the years, I would have no time for living. If an intervention is included in this text, it is considered important.

An Ayurvedic consultation is about imparting the essence of Vedic wisdom that bears on a patient’s problem, and it seems there never is enough time to convey what Maharishi called “first class medicine. ” This book has been conceived for those who cannot otherwise gain this knowledge. Except for a few instances, I have avoided introducing the concept of three doshas and the idea of body types, but have made these aspects of Ayurveda available as appendices for reference purposes. A book presenting the Vedic roots of healing may sound unfamiliar to people who have understood Ayurveda to be about the three doshas and yoga to be about postures. They should not be skeptical; these fundamentals are authentic, simple, intuitive and practical. The knowledge herein represents a distillation of the wisdom of the ancient texts, the insights of Maharishi and the dozens of vaidyas from India with whom I have worked over the past thirty-seven years, and the corroborating confirmation of this ancient wisdom from modern science.

This book is for those patients who have trepidation over future infirmities and who want to renew their bodies, those who could not come, and those who are still seeking to learn the art of self-repair.