Building Ayurvedic Bridges: An Eastern Medical System Moves West
by Grace Welker
In their native India, Rosy Mann and her husband ran a successful clinic that integrated Western medicine with Ayurveda, a holistic approach to health developed more than 5,000 years ago. But when the couple moved to the United States 10 years ago, Rosy discovered that no one she met in her small town of Stockbridge, Massachusetts, had even heard of Ayurveda. While her husband underwent the rigorous recertification that allowed him to practice internal medicine in Massachusetts, Rosy’s training as an Ayurvedic doctor had to be set aside.
“It was a struggle. My kids were little,” Rosy explains. “And it was a new country. I didn’t have a babysitter. Some days I would get a little sad.”
What Rosy didn’t know was that less than 15 minutes away, at Kripalu Center, Hilary Garivaltis—a former organic farmer—had spent three years developing Kripalu’s Ayurveda offerings and was about to launch the new Kripalu School of Ayurveda (KSA). When a friend told Rosy about Kripalu, she says, “It was kind of a dream come true for me.” As for Hilary, “Meeting Rosy was like a gift from God,” she says.
Because she didn’t have her working papers yet, Rosy volunteered her time at the new school, sitting in on sessions and learning how leading Western Ayurvedic teachers, like Vasant Lad and John Douillard, were teaching Ayurveda to Americans. She began to offer study sessions for the students and worked on curriculum development. “We became partners in the school,” says Hilary. “We really needed a highly qualified Ayurvedic doctor here.”
One of the fundamental beliefs of Ayurveda is that a state of optimal health and natural intelligence is inherent in who we are as human beings.
Now, four years later, in addition to working with the school, Rosy also runs Kripalu’s panchakarma program (a weeklong Ayurvedic healing retreat) and offers one-on-one Ayurvedic consultations through Kripalu’s Healing Arts Department. Rosy says, “When I talk to my colleagues and friends in India and I tell them how much Ayurveda we’re doing, they just cannot believe it.”
Despite the growth in popularity of Ayurveda—at Kripalu and throughout the United States—it is still a relatively new idea in the West, and most people here don’t really understand what it is or how it works. In his popular book, Perfect Health, first published in 1991, Deepak Chopra writes that the guiding principle of Ayurveda is “that the mind exerts the deepest influence on the body, and freedom from sickness depends upon contacting our own awareness, bringing it into balance, and then extending that balance to the body.”
In other words, one of the fundamental beliefs of Ayurveda (and its sister science, yoga) is that each person is already whole, that a state of optimal health and natural intelligence is inherent in who we are as human beings. The goal of Ayurveda is to reconnect a person’s body with this natural intelligence. “What drew me in with Ayurveda was its simplicity, and then the complexity behind that,” Hilary says. “Fundamentally, it comes from a spiritual understanding of what it means to be a human being and what the world or the cosmos is. We are a microcosm of the macrocosm. We can’t separate from it.”
With a background in science and agriculture, Hilary was first attracted to Ayurveda as a way to address her own health concerns. “I was coming from a scientific mind,” she says, “I wanted to know the reasons for things. Four years of science in college never really gave me the answers I was looking for. But when I discovered Ayurveda, every time I went in with a question, it got answered.”
From an Ayurvedic perspective, diseases are born in the inner realm first; Ayurvedic doctors or consultants set out to identify the root causes of disease. On a simplistic level, they look at how three primary energies are at work in a person. These are vata (associated with the air element), pitta (fire), and kapha (earth and water). A diagnosis in Ayurvedic terms means identifying an excess accumulation of one or more of these energies. In a consultation, eight features are evaluated to determine what is out of balance: a person’s pulse, bowel and urinary function, eyes, voice, skin, nails, and tongue. Prescriptions for reestablishing balance will include foods (the primary source of vitamins and minerals), herbs, and lifestyle practices such as exercise, yoga, meditation, and sleep habits.
“Once you identify the energies that are in excess and you identify what a person is doing that’s contributing to it, it’s essentially a matter of changing those habits, and then the symptoms are definitely going to diminish,” Hilary explains. In her own life, while studying and training in Ayurveda through the New England Institute of Ayurvedic Medicine, Hilary followed an Ayurvedic regimen that cured her of chronic aches and pains, restored her to a normal monthly menstrual cycle, and helped her lose the weight she had gained during the stressful years of raising her children and running a family business. Most importantly, she says, her mind was clear and she felt positive about life again.
In the West, getting clients to actually follow through is probably the biggest challenge that Ayurvedic doctors and consultants face. “People often tell me, ’I’m too busy to eat fresh foods,‘” says Rosy. It’s a little more difficult in the West because clients arrive with 30 or 40 years of habits that are contributing to their symptoms and diseases—and Ayurveda is not a one-pill cure. “Ayurveda is a living science,” she says, “it’s how we live every day. In my consultations, I tell people that this is the beginning. Ayurveda is a journey. Once they live the principles, the changes will come.”
Another challenge emerges from the conveniences of contemporary lifestyles. While most of us couldn’t live without air conditioning and indoor heat, it’s hard to deny that with them, we are less in tune with nature. “We don’t even come in contact with the elements,” says Rosy. “Recently, I was talking to someone in a consultation, and I told her, ’We’re approaching the winter season, you should eat warm foods and beverages.‘ And she said, ’But I don’t like them.‘ Because she’s used to artificial heat, her body never gets cold. If it did, she would automatically think, ’I want something warm.‘”
Yet despite these challenges, Ayurveda is gaining momentum, in part because of its relationship with yoga, which has seen unprecedented growth in the United States in the last decade. A simultaneous crisis in the American health-care system, with its focus on treating disease rather than creating health, has contributed to a fast-growing interest in alternative approaches. “A lot of people come to address lingering chronic conditions,” confirms Hilary, “like their general indigestion, or insomnia, or their gradual weight gain, or just a lack of energy—the sort of overall malaise that nobody can put a finger on.” It is also sought out by people with illnesses such as diabetes and arthritis that respond well to lifestyle change.
One aspect of Ayurveda fits in very well with the American ideal of individualism: there are no one-size-fits-all treatments. Each person is understood to be completely unique, in natural constitution as well as in the kind of life they are living. “Helping you find the right solutions is so much about what stage of life you are in, where you live, the foods that you eat, and the environments you spend time in,” Hilary says. Rosy agrees. “If someone is too busy, I cannot tell them, ’Well, leave your job,‘ or ’Completely change your lifestyle.‘ I look for the soft corner, and if they can do even 25 percent of what I recommend, they will still get results.” And results are one thing that Americans understand.
Since its inception in 2005, the Kripalu School of Ayurveda, with Hilary and Rosy at the helm, has become one of the top three schools in the country and counts 82 certified Ayurvedic Consultants among its graduates. Each year, six to twelve graduates also travel to the Jiva Institute in Faridabad, India, to further their training. Rosy says that she has been impressed with the students’ depth of commitment to their own personal transformation, which prepares them to guide and help others.
For Rosy, landing in a place where she can engage her knowledge, skills, and experience is something of a miracle. Five years ago, she was prepared to give up her career; today, she is fully pursuing her passion for this ancient approach to health and healing—a passion she first felt as a young girl. “When teachers asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up,” Rosy recalls, “I would say, ’I just want to learn what this body, mind, and spirit connection is and how it works.‘” Today—7,000 miles and two continents away from her native land—she is taking that passion in directions she could never have imagined.
As they move into the future, Rosy and Hilary are focusing on curriculum development for the KSA as well as a new English translation of the three classic texts of Ayurveda. Drawing on their combined expertise in Ayurveda, Rosy’s knowledge of Sanskrit, and Hilary’s knowledge of the American way of life, this dynamic duo plan to bring these ancient teachings of natural balance into the realities of today—in a country where it appears to be very much needed.
Grace Welker, MEd, is a writer and yogini living in New York’s Hudson Valley. Her career includes experience as a director of volunteer programs, teacher of English to non-native speakers, and trainer and administrator for the Peace Corps in Morocco.
© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. Originally published in the Spring 2009 issue of the Kripalu catalog. To request permission to reprint, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.