Ayurveda in the United States

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Ayurveda is an indigenous medical system of India that arose over 2,000 years ago. Despite its long history, this system has a dynamic, continually changing past and present: as Ayurveda spreads form the East to the West and encounters new influences, it has become redefined by cultural and social biases.[1]

History of Ayurveda in the West[edit]

Initial Western encounters with Ayurveda[edit]

Ayurvedic doctors and European doctors initially encountered one another through the spice trade that also exchanged botanicals and pharmaceuticals. Some Indian medicinal knowledge had already spread through texts and oral transmission. Later, the export of medicines along with the basic knowledge of their traditional applications became an international, large-scale commercial enterprise. By the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, during the British colonial period, this exchange reached its peak. Colonial Britain and British scholars initially took a keen interest in the ancient medical system and encouraged the study and practice of Ayurveda.[2]

A 1924 article in The Lancet provides interesting insight into Western attitudes toward Ayurveda. The anonymous author, presumably of Western origin and education, writes in reaction to the establishment of a new scientific journal, the Journal of Ayurveda, published from Calcutta, India and edited by a Western-educated medical doctor and Sanskrit scholar. The writer notes that in earlier literature, Ayurvedic practitioners denounced Western medicine entirely, alienating the West; he then writes that the new magazine showcases efforts to use empirical scientific methods to test the efficacy of Ayurvedic treatments and consequently allies itself closely with Western biomedicine advances. The brief article thus indicates that a new collaborative relationship was forming based on mutual respect. Even at this early stage, there were well-known Western scholars who encouraged Ayurveda as the primary medical practice of India, although this respect was reserved for “modern Ayurveda,” that which was supported with the more “progressive Western medicine” and did not only depend on “charms and incantations."[3]

As the colonial era ended, a nationalistic push to standardize Ayurvedic education was born; the age-old teaching system of passing down knowledge exclusively from master to disciple or through family lines (thereby maintaining educational lineages) began to come to an end. By this time Western biomedicine had earned a name as reputable and even “superior,” so when Ayurvedic colleges developed and became established, Ayurveda was recast in Western terms and taught alongside biomedicine in order to seem competent. For the first time, Ayurveda had to directly compete with another medical system, though previously it had coexisted for centuries among various medical traditions.[1]

Ayurveda arrives in the West[edit]

Besides the initial pre-colonial and colonial transfers of Indian medical knowledge, Ayurveda arrived to North America and Europe as Indian immigrants spread across the globe. However, very little information about Indian medicine (homogeneous or otherwise) became accessible to the public (Source12). In the 1970s and 1980s, the political and social environment was largely characterized by an effort and rebellion against the mainstream.[2] During this time, Ayurveda came into public view primarily through the New Age movement that rallied around the work of a few individual spiritual leaders. The New Age movement is centered on the idea that a new epoch of human history is approaching and as a result teaches that humans must strive to achieve spiritual balance and wellness.[4] The recently standardized system of biomedicine of this time began to represent empiricism, commercialism, and impersonal industry, and those who comprised the New Age Movement looked to alternative systems of medicine that would be personalized, ethical/spiritual, less expensive, and holistic. Thus when the New Age movement brought Ayurveda into the American public eye, and the system was introduced in juxtaposition to mainstream medicine. Ayurveda could not and did not become popularized as a legitimate medical system.[2]

“New Age Ayurveda”[edit]

Several paradigms of Ayurveda unique to Western practice have emerged over the past few decades, but perhaps the most pervasive paradigm imprinted in the mind of the American public is a form of practice termed “New Age Ayurveda."[4] Although the New Age movement slowly died out in past decades, many of its core ideologies have begun to resurface in recent years, bringing along with it a revival of sorts for a new form of Ayurveda. The earliest successful promoters of Ayurveda in America included individuals like Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Deepak Chopra, Vasant Lad, David Frawley, etc.; who sought to popularize their particular varieties of Ayurvedic practices to a larger audience. These varieties of Ayurveda all share a common acceptance of New Age beliefs and incorporate many of these beliefs into their practices.[1] Zysk (2001) identifies four particular characteristics unique to New Age Ayurveda in America in particular: linking Ayurveda to Indian spirituality (using yoga in particular), depicting Ayurveda as ancient beyond evidence, calling Ayurveda the foundation of mind-body medicine, and trying to use Western scientific principles to prove that Ayurveda is legitimate and more effective than biomedicine.[4] Such forms also tend to make extensive, broad claims about efficacy and “correctness” that directly contradicts even the writings of classical texts. New Age Ayurveda often claims to be without side effects, that natural remedies can provide great benefit without any detriment to other aspects of health. Classical Ayurveda distinctly refutes this by warning that prescribing inappropriate remedies or misdiagnosing a malady can result in illness.[4] Classical Ayurveda also employs methods such as surgery for various diseases (such as cancer)[5][6] along with rational therapies for understanding and healing the mind, which are often ignored or even refuted in New Age Ayurveda against the classical opinion[7]

Classical or Traditional Ayurveda in India also has no references to such techniques as Reiki, Pranic Healing and Chakra-balancing that are being practiced as part of modern-day American Ayurveda, either. While techniques such as Pranayama were employed in Yogic healing, these systems dramatically differ from the "faith healing" techniques in New Age Ayurveda circles. While traditional Tantric Ayurveda did employ these practices, they were more in-depth and elaborate systems that required several decades of study and practice by sadhaks or spiritual adepts.

Ayurveda has experienced many historically or academically inconsistent portrayals as a five- to eight-thousand-year-old practice,[8] as a direct descendant of the Vedic medicine, as a Tantric tradition, etc.[2] For any particular version of New Age Ayurveda, one or more of these claims are made as a method to increase authenticity (no matter how misleading), and therefore also popularity and recognition.[9] Even these small controversies have caused a general rift between the scientific or academic communities and Ayurveda practitioners, resulting in a general disgust with and misconceptions about the whole medical system. Modern American practices have appropriated authentic practices so drastically that Western Ayurveda has taken a form of “wellness and self-help culture” which scholars and academics critically view as the commoditization of a deep and complex tradition.[1]

Ayurveda in a contemporary lens[edit]

Ayurveda in popular culture[edit]

Influential representatives and writings[edit]

In the 1980s and ’90’s, Ayurveda was brought to the attention of the American public primarily through a few key individuals who found a ready audience in the young middle class white men and women who were dissatisfied with established religions and spiritual organizations of the time. These individuals, with mixed and matched education in Ayurveda returned to America with their own compilation and version of Ayurvedic principles and practices. They established their own schools of Ayurvedic learning and wrote extensively on their brand of Ayurveda, successfully reaching their market and making a lasting impression on the development of current Western Ayurveda.[4]

One of the first non-academic books that introduced Ayurveda to the general public in America was Vasant Lad’s Ayurveda: The Science of Self-Healing. Lad is a product of the earlier New Age movement, and he learned extensively under several gurus in India through the traditional master-disciple system; he also earned degrees in Ayurvedic Science from Tilak Ayurveda College.[4] His interesting background of traditional educational lineage as well as the nationally standardized schooling is reflected in his unconventional presentation of Ayurveda. Published in 1984, Lad’s first book shows a dedication to traditional Ayurveda, but it also mentions many supposedly Ayurvedic practices and tools that are not found in any Ayurvedic texts, ancient or recent. What perhaps more profoundly influenced America’s initial perceptions of Ayurveda is his definition of Ayurveda as a way of innovative and empirical thought rather than one of strict adherence to classical texts.[2]

Robert Svoboda, a similar figure whose Ayurvedic education has roots in both formal and traditional Indian systems of schooling, also contributed to the promotion of Ayurveda in the late 1990s. Rather than defining Ayurveda in a Western framework, his written work primarily set Ayurveda within its own concepts. His 1998 work Prakriti: Your Ayurvedic Constitution avoided all discussion of Western or allopathic parallels, unlike predecessors who still used Western terms to juxtapose Ayurveda with biomedicine.[2] However, the Ayurveda he explains is different from the classical Ayurveda; the emphasis is on eating, nutrition, and routine, while disease diagnostics and treatment take a backseat. His particular brand of Ayurveda makes a strong appeal to those seeking a blend of spirituality, mystique, and medicine, a characteristic trait of New Age ideology.[4]

Deepak Chopra began his medical career in strictly biomedical sense, and he earned his medical degree in the US and specialized in endocrinology. Though Chopra is not formally or traditionally trained in Ayurveda, he spent time with vaidyas (Ayurveda practitioners) in the 1980s and eventually studied and worked with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi in the first wave of New Age Ayurvedic promotion. In his early days, Chopra established Maharishi Ayur-Ved Products International Inc., though he later separated from the group in order to pursue further individual growth and success.[4] Chopra has written dozens of best-selling books for American audiences that portray a distinctive brand of Ayurveda, stripped of most of the Sanskrit terms, classical principles, and technical concepts. His work concerns itself primarily with issues of “quality of life” and uses accessible concepts of mind-body medicine to bridge Ayurveda and Western biomedicine. The books make use of a spiritual, optimistic tone and format that appeal to a wide audience. The overarching conceptual connections, often phrased in terms of Western science or biomedicine, are not diagnostic or treatment-based; thus the books essentially ignore a large part of Ayurveda itself: the diagnosis of disease and subsequent treatment. Over the past few decades as his popularity has increased, Deepak Chopra has become the quintessential Ayurveda practitioner in the American public’s eye.[2]

David Frawley, founder of the American Institute of Vedic Studies, initially earned a Doctor of Oriental Medicine degree through a New Mexico-based correspondence course. He later studied with Vasant Lad and Ayurveda practitioners in India and decided to become a teacher of Ayurveda himself.[2] His approach to Ayurveda is a conventionally a Traditional approach that relates Ayurveda to Indian astrology, Hinduism, and Vedic studies. For example, he argues the traditional Yogic view of chakras in traditional Yoga and Ayurveda against the New Age views.[10] Frawley is particularly concerned with antiquity and the classical Vedic texts as a justification or proof of authenticity, and in his many books, he often interconnects Vedic and Hindu history with that of Ayurveda and looks back to the ancient Tantric and spiritual traditions of Ayurveda, notably through Vasishtha Ganapati Muni and BL Vashta.[11][12][13] He has coauthored books alongside traditional BAMS (Bachelor of Ayurvedic Medicine and Surgery) Physicians from India, notably Dr. Vasant Lad, Dr. Subhash Ranade and Dr. Avinash Lele.[14][15][16]

Baba Hari Dass was one of the early proponents who helped bring Ayurveda to the US in the beginning of 1970s. He combined Patanjali's Ashtanga Yoga, Samkhya, and Ayurveda in his teachings. As interest grew, he taught classes in the three dosha theory, pulse detection and personal prakriti types derived from the classic scriptures of the Suśrutha Saṃhitā and the Charaka Saṃhitha, leading to the establishment of the Mount Madonna Institute, College of Ayurveda, Ayurveda World, and Ayurvedic pharmacy. His emphasis was often placed on ayurvedic remedies, pancha karma, svedan massage and other practices that were helpful in yogic life and in attaining dosha balance. During a period of expansion in the 1980s and 1990s, he invited several notable Ayurveidic teachers, Dr. Vasant Lad, Sarita Shrestha, M.D., Professor Ram Harsh Singh, Ph.D, Dr. Shekhar Annambhotla, BAMS, MD (Ayurveda) and others. Michael Tierra, Ayurvedic medicine practitioner, wrote: "The history of Ayurveda in North America will always owe a debt to the selfless contributions of Baba Hari Dass" (The way of Ayurvedic Herbs, Lotus Press, 2008, XIV).[17]

Popular Americanized practices[edit]

In recent years, Western Ayurveda has been drained of most of the details and distinguishing features of the first millennium classical literature, including descriptions of extreme therapies or the use of animal products in treatments. Health in the alternative medicine context has been transformed into a booming industry that propagates a diluted, exoticized and romanticized version of Ayurveda for Western markets.[9]

Today American Ayurveda has specialized its chief market even further to young, white, middle to upper class women. The past couple decades have brought a surge in products, books, and classes that address women, through Ayurvedic versions of beauty care, yoga, aromatherapy, weight loss programs, etc. Interestingly, this trend has reached India as well; even modern Indian Ayurveda is being marketed for both Indian and Western female audiences.[9] Perhaps one of the most obvious examples of the misappropriation of Ayurveda as an attractive marketing label is the burgeoning Ayurvedic spa culture.[9] Aimed primarily at elite and wealthy Western women, Ayurvedic resorts located in remote locations in the US or the most scenic paradises in India provide the most expensive and elaborate commoditization of Ayurveda. Ayurveda Yoga Villa, located in Kerala, India is the archetypical example of spa culture; providing Ayurvedic massages, cosmetic treatments, yoga classes, and spiritual rejuvenation, the resort “assures the effectiveness of the applications of Ayurveda and yoga."[8]

Slightly more accessible to the masses are the herbal medicines, “Ayurvedic yoga classes,” books/DVDs that comprise the general “self-help” market. The chosen market is still by and large well off and female, but these practices are more accessible to a wider socioeconomic group. With celebrity endorsements of various practices and treatments, studios and spas selling “Ayurvedic packages,” and dozens companies specializing in Ayurvedic and yoga accessories and products, the transformation from practice to product becomes even more evident. Thus in the West, Ayurveda is rarely associated with science or medicine, and becomes instead another market to be exploited.[9]

American practitioners[edit]

Scott Gerson, who received his M.D. degree from the Mount Sinai School of Medicine and completed his Internal Medicine training in New York, initially studied Ayurvedic medicine at Benaras Hindu University and the Ayurvedic College in Tiruvanathapuram and earned his M.Phil. and Ph.D. in Ayurveda jointly from the University of Pune and Tilak Ayurved Mahavidyalaya (Pune). He is an Adjunct Professor at TAMV in the Department of Kayachikitsa. Dr. Gerson established The National Institute of Ayurvedic Medicine in 1984 (now The Gerson Institute of Ayurvedic Medicine) where his medical practice specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of difficult disease. His brand of Ayurveda differs from others in that he integrates, where appropriate, conventional Western medicine with the full range of Ayurvedic therapeutics including herbal medicines, individualized diets, Vedic meditation and related practices, and comprehensive medical Panchakarma (the subject of his doctoral thesis).

In popular culture media[edit]

The realm of popular print and Internet literature is vast and still growing: there are a plethora of articles and books on Ayurveda (in the Western sense) that are successful because they capitalize on the romance and mystique of India and alternative therapies. The majority of these is not written by Ayurvedic doctors,[2] and most articles simply prescribe the “Ayurvedic lifestyle” and provide guidelines for ideal eating, sleeping, and exercise routines.[9] Garden-variety lifestyle magazines such as Living Green Magazine that feature pieces like “An Ayurvedic Approach to Staying Cool” are more often than not the American public’s only education about Ayurveda.[18] These articles are typically written by authors with no education or training in Ayurveda and providing only vague details that pertain to classical Ayurveda: “Through vedic principals, it’s believed that to live optimally in balance your Dosha should be in fact, IN balance."[18] These articles and guidelines focus on lifestyle/beauty routines and philosophy rather than historical or technical concepts.[9]

Ayurveda in academia[edit]

In Western academic literature[edit]

In the realm of academia, few researchers or doctors have published literature about Ayurveda in technical peer-reviewed journals.[citation needed] Even then, scholastic works on Ayurveda are barely known or read outside of a few relevant but small academic circles.[2] In the past decade however, due to the resurgence of popular Ayurveda in America, those in the field of biomedicine have cautiously begun to reconsider Ayurveda as a legitimate medical science and are trying to glean relevant and useful knowledge using Western methods.[19][medical citation needed]


  1. ^ a b c d Warrier, M. (2011). Modern ayurveda in transnational context. Religion Compass, 5(3), 80-93. doi:10.1111/j.1749-8171.2011.00264
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Smith, F. M., & Wujastyk, D. (2008). Modern and global ayurveda: Pluralism and paradigms. Albany: State University of New York Press.
  3. ^ Anonymous. Ayurveda. (1924). The Lancet, 204(5268), 332. doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(01)36001-4
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h Zysk, Kenneth Gregory. (2001). New Age Ayurveda or What Happens to Indian Medicine When it Comes to America. Traditional South Asian Medicine, 6,10-26.
  5. ^ Charaka Samhita (Chikitsasthana XII, 81-87; Ashtanga Hridayam, Sutrasthana, XXX.3 & 42).
  6. ^ http://www.aip.de/~ibiswas/broadcast/health/Changes_in_Lifestyle/Ayurveda/cancer%20ayurvedic.1105357764.pdf
  7. ^ Charaka Samhita (Sutrasthana, XI.46, 54); Charaka Samhita (Sutrasthana, XI.46)
  8. ^ a b American Institute of Vedic Studies. Home. http://www.vedanet.com, accessed December 7, 2013.
  9. ^ a b c d e f g Selby, Marta Ann. (2005). Sanskrit Gynecologies in Postmodernity: The Commoditization of Indian Medicine in Alternative Medical and New-age Discourses on Women's Health. Asian medicine and globalization (120-31). Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.
  10. ^ Dr. David Frawley, "Yoga and Ayurveda: Self-Healing and Self-Realization", p. 138-147
  11. ^ Tantric Yoga and the Wisdom Goddesses: Spiritual Secrets of Ayurveda, p.16
  12. ^ Ayurvedic Healing: A Comprehensive Guide
  13. ^ http://vedanet.com/about-2/about-acharya-david-frawley-pandit-vamadeva-shastri/
  14. ^ Dr. David Frawley, Dr. Vasant Lad: "The Yoga of Herbs: An Ayurvedic Guide to Herbal Medicine"
  15. ^ Dr. David Frawley, Dr. Subhash Ranade, Dr. Avinash Lele: "Ayurveda and Marma Therapy: Energy Points in Yogic Healing"
  16. ^ Dr. David Frawley, Dr. Subhash Ranade, Dr. Avinash Lele: "Ayurveda: Nature's Medicine".
  17. ^ Karta Purkh Singh Khalsa and Michael Tierra: “Independently, we both first learned Ayurvedic medicine from our respective spiritual mentors – myself with Baba Hari Dass and K.P., with Yogi Bhajan.“ (p.X); The way of Ayurvedic Herbs, Lotus Press, 2008, ISBN 978-0-9409-8598-8
  18. ^ a b Witherby, Michelle. (2013). An Ayurvedic Approach to Staying Cool. Living Green Magazine. Retrieved from http://livinggreenmag.com/2013/08/23/food-health/an-ayurvedic-approach-to-staying-cool/
  19. ^ Francis C Assisi. (2007). Ayurveda in America. India Currents, 21(2), 12-14.