Building Ayurvedic Bridges: An Eastern Medical System Moves West

Kripalu School of Ayurveda

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, the new Kripalu School of Ayurveda (KSA) was coming into being. When a friend told Rosy about Kripalu, she says, “It was kind of a dream come true for me.”

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 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. 

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.

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.

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. 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. “I was once talking to someone in a consultation, and I told her, ’We’re approaching the winter season, so 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 healthcare system, with its focus on treating disease rather than creating health, has contributed to a fast-growing interest in alternative approaches.

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. Rosy says, “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 has become one of the top schools in the country and counts hundreds of certified Ayurvedic Health Coaches among its graduates. 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. When she first came to the area, 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.

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