Dr. Deepak Chopra is the leading advocate of ayurvedic medicine, also known simply as ayurveda, a healing system said by its followers to be the ancient medicine of India and to represent practices that are over 5,000 years old. In fact, most of it appears to date back only to the early 1980s, to the writings and teachings of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, founder of transcendental meditation. In fact, much of what Chopra has advocated belongs to a trademarked product line called Maharishi Ayurveda. Chopra started his medical career in a fairly orthodox, science-based manner, even brieﬂy teaching at Tufts University Medical School, but then he joined the Transcendental Meditation organization, eventually placed in charge of the Maharishi Ayurveda Health Center for Stress Management in Lancaster, Massachusetts, and running the Maharishi’s herbal-supplement business.
Since going out on his own, Chopra has become an industry unto himself, making millions of dollars from the sales of ten million copies of at least nine books, along with more than thirty audio and video programs. He has also produced several programs for PBS and runs seminars from time to time at the Chopra Centers at the La Costa Resort and Spa in La Costa, California, and the Doral Golf Resort and Spa in Miami, Florida. He has recently addressed the needs of a large and previously untapped senior market with the publication of Golf for Enlightenment.
It is easy to see why retirees might be interested in what he has to say. He has recently suggested that following his regimens can, among other things, reverse biological age by ﬁfteen years, as well as ﬁght the cognitive effects of aging by “eliminating toxins” (a usually undeﬁned phrase in the alternative-medicine community). It is convenient for Chopra to claim that his methods are over 5,000 years old because that removes the requirement that they ﬁt in with modern science and what is now known about how the physical world and the body work. Otherwise, some of his statements and claims might sound illogical: “Illness and aging are an illusion. We can achieve an ageless body and a timeless mind by the sheer force of consciousness”; “If you could live in the moment you would see the ﬂavor of eternity, and when you metabolize the experience of eternity your body doesn’t age”; and “If you have sad thoughts, and angry thoughts, and hostile thoughts, then you make those molecules which may depress the immune system and make you more susceptible to disease,” for example.
Most ayurvedic treatments consist of dietary recommendations and herbal remedies. There are three prakriti, or body types, based on the relative proportions of the three doshas, which govern mind-body harmony (much like traditional Chinese medicine’s chi, only there are three components rather than just Yin and Yang). Sickness is caused by imbalances among the doshas, so treatment consists of restoring harmony to the doshas. The doshas are as follows:
- Vata, made of air and space, responsible for movement in the mind and body.
Two kinds of imbalance can occur: an excess leads to anxiety and insomnia, as well as intestinal difﬁculties including gas, cramps, and constipation. Vata is also in control of the other two doshas.
- Pitta is made of ﬁre and water, and it is in charge of both mental and physical metabolism, in other words, not only our digestion and our “metabolism of sensory perceptions,” but also our ability to distinguish between right and wrong. Conditions caused by an excess of pitta include anger and stress, ulcers, skin problems, and hair loss.
- Kapha is made of earth and water. It is apparently responsible for much of the body’s physical structure, including strength, healing, immunity, joint lubrication, skin moisture, and healthy heart and lung function. This dosha, apparently, gives us greed and envy (though it is also claimed to be a source of peace, forgiveness, and love). An excess can cause lethargy and weight gain, along with congestion and allergies.
Given the Ayurvedic emphasis on digestive processes, the sort of treatments recommended is not especially surprising. An excess of Pitta, for example, is treated via the consumption of sweet foods and avoidance of the spicy. Nuts and dairy products are good for reducing Vata. Treatments available through Chopra’s organization have also included special gems, semi-religious ceremonies to appease angry gods, and an elixir that he recommends taking twice a day (at over $1,000 for a year’s supply). How the Ayurvedic physician determines which dosha is the problem remains unclear, but Chopra claims that an Ayurvedic physician can diagnose illness and prescribe the proper remedies simply by feeling the patient’s pulse. There’s no evidence of this, or a testable scientiﬁc hypothesis, but Chopra has tried to tie his ideas in with modern science anyway. However, the connection is with subatomic physics rather than human physiology and medicine: “Our bodies ultimately are ﬁelds of information, intelligence and energy. Quantum healing involves a shift in the ﬁelds of energy information, so as to bring about a correction in an idea that has gone wrong.”
Apparently, Chopra believes that quantum physics teaches that the physical world, including our bodies, is a creation of our own minds, and therefore we get the body (and overall health) that we choose to create for ourselves. Poor mental or physical health, stress, aging, senility, and so on, are all therefore completely preventable by our own free will—though it is unclear where nutrition ﬁts into this—we create our universe but can’t choose the state of our doshas.
- Chopra, D. Quantum Healing: Exploring the Frontiers of Mind/Body Medicine. New York: Bantam, 1989;
- Chopra, D. Ageless Body, Timeless Mind: The Quantum Alternative to Growing Old. New York: Random House, 1993;
- Skolnick, A. A. “The Maharishi Caper: Or How to Hoodwink Top Medical Journals.” Science Writers: The Newsletter of the National Association of Science Writers, Fall 1991;
- Stenger, V. J. “Quantum Quackery.” Skeptic, 4(3) (1996): 12–21.