The Ancient Practice of Ayurveda in the 21st Century

59Cover(sm)Joanna Berkowitz Interviews Scott Gerson, MD, PhD

Dr. Scott Gerson, medical director of the National Institute Of Ayurvedic Medicine (, is one of the nations foremost Ayurvedic physicians and researchers. Ayurveda is the oldest surviving complete medical system in the world, with roots dating back some 5,000 years.

JB: Dr.Gerson, times change, the evolution of humanity undergoes changes. How is the ancient practice of Ayurveda applicable to 21st century man’s modern lifestyle and resulting illnesses?

Dr. G: In the past, for now more than 25 years that I have been probing the nature of human health and disease, I have come to understand that there is one fundamental defect at the core of all human disease, and also of the planetary maladies that we are experiencing. This fundamental defect is that we have lost the memory of our true nature. Although things do tend to manifest in a much more material way, what’s really at the basis of the ills of mankind and planet earth is that we have forgotten what we truly are. Centuries and centuries ago in societies, now lost in the midst of some distant time, people did have a connection to their true and whole nature. According to Ayurveda, there are three aspects to the Universe. These three aspects are: the material, the subtle, and the causal. With respect to human beings, these same three aspects, which have many names, are regarded in Ayurveda as the body, the mind, and the spirit. It’s only the body and the mind aspects of the human being that are subject to fragmentation, decay, and disorder. The spirit parts of us are not subject to this kind of fragmentation because the spirit is in a different realm. It is indestructible, ageless, and eternal. So, in Ayurveda, we have as the object of this science, the restoration of wholeness of the individual and wholeness implies restoring the memory to the individual of what he or she truly is, not just the body, but also the mind, and of course the Spirit. You might say that in order to repair the fragmentation and disorder of what may have occurred in the body and the mind, Ayurveda seeks to reestablish the unimpeded flow of the spirit through those two realms.

JB: Those who come to you with chronic conditions such as cancer, diabetes, addictions, and also ADHD—do you see a transformation in these patients who are dealing with these modern illnesses?

Dr. G: I will answer this in a roundabout way. If the predictions of the environmentalists, climatologists, and scientists are correct, then we have entered a time of great challenge for humanity; in fact for all beings on the planet. The ecosystems of which we are a part and which support us in a hidden way, are really in danger of being pushed to the limits of their considerable resiliency. We have managed to get to the point where we are seeing the planet, of which we are included, reach a dangerous condition in its state of health. Is this planetary illness that we are facing terminal like an acute disease? Will we be wiped out in a relatively short time or will we continue to plod along like an individual suffering from a chronic illness? Will we continue in our current state of chronic illness with our resources dwindling, and human beings becoming more and more separated from their true natures, or will we cure ourselves and enter into a period of peace and enlightenment, which is our true destiny? I can tell you this; the solution lies within each individual. Here is where I come to the answer of modern diseases. Ayurveda says that we must ask ourselves this question. Am I willing to make the changes in my thoughts and actions that are going to promote life not only for me but for my children’s children’s children? We have to fight the battle against this world view of materialism. Once we understand that we are living in an energetic matrix and recognize that this is the reality, the next steps in fighting against disease are relatively simple. Are we willing to make living in harmony with nature our own personal mission? That is what Ayurveda asks. Ayurveda is like a users manual for the journey of life.

JB: I do like that description. Dr. Gerson, how does Ayurvedic medicine connect disease with the soul and spirit?

Dr. G: This is my favorite theme to discuss. For health to manifest, Ayurveda advises that we must align ourselves with that ageless omniscient interior Self, which is the same in me as it is in you, and that by the grace of this Self we may achieve health. You see, it’s not the medicines or the oils and massages or even the foods that create health, but rather, it’s this healing force of nature that in Vedic terms we call the Self. In yogic terms it is called Prana. Within the homeopathic tradition it is called the Vital Force. It’s that which heals. The ancient Sages were aware that this was indeed reality. I would like to recite for you a passage from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, an ancient text of Ayurveda, that poignantly summarizes what was known about the true nature of health and the true nature of human beings. As you may know the Upanishads are text that crystallize the very essence of the Vedic realizations about the nature of the Universe. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, one of the earlier writings, was a long conversation between a student and his teacher. The part I would like to recite goes like this:

Question: When the Sun has set and the moon has set and the fire has gone out, and the sounds are finally hushed, what then is the light of man?
Answer: The Self verily is this light.

Although people come to me to treat various conditions such as Lyme’s disease, or ADD or Cancer, or HIV, and though the focus when they walk through my door is understandably on the materialistic physical aspect, it is my duty as their guide and physician to make them aware that their is more to them and to their disease than just the physical aspects. We’ve lost our appreciation for the power of the thoughts which we cultivate in our minds and the emotions which we allow to proceed in our minds.

JB: Thoughts are living things. Thought leads to action, action leads to habit, habit leads to destiny.

Dr. G: This is so true. How one lives really determines one’s health and one’s destiny.

JB: Your expertise in Ayurveda is undoing the negative thoughts that lead to bad habits and illness.

Dr. G: Exactly. Years ago I was formulating this very idea that you are speaking about. In Ayurveda we learn through aphorisms, what are in Sanskrit called Zlokas. One very appropriate Zloka in English with regards to this idea is that your biography creates your biology.

JB: Would you comment on Vata, Pitta, and Kapha, the three doshas or forces of Ayurveda?

Dr. G: Ayurveda really originated in the context of a very small society of pious and contemplative people who had as their main goal in life the realization of the true nature of the Universe and of themselves. In other words they were focused on enlightenment. It was only after a short time that it was realized that disease was a true obstacle to that goal. What emerged from these contemplations was the science of living which we call Ayurveda; loosely translated as knowledge of longevity. The most important principle of establishing and preserving health is to always remember that all things including the human body are structured in energy or consciousness and that this consciousness is one. It pervades all living and all sentient beings on the planet. They described this one consciousness in terms of its three aspects. Those three aspects are the three psychobiological energies that regulate the structure and function of life and are termed Vata, Pitta, and Kapha.

These three, that come from one universal indivisible energy, are responsible for different aspects of life. The Vata Dosha composed of space and air is the universal energy responsible primarily for movements of all kind. Movements are due to Vata at every scale of existence. Pitta the fire element, is responsible not only for digestion, but the correct and intelligent transformation from one thing into another. If Vata is movement, Kapha is the opposite of that. Kapha is the tendency for a person to remain cohesive, stable, unchanging, solid, and secure. It derives its qualities from the earth and water elements of nature.

JB: Thank you for illuminating these universal energies that govern all life processes. I would like to culminate this interview with a focus on health care reform. In India there are five forms of medicine acknowledged by the government including homeopathy, Ayurveda, and allopathic medicine. What are your thoughts about health care reform and how we can move the US society forward toward more acceptance of medical systems other than allopathic?

Dr. G: There is already a grassroots movement underway throughout the world that is acknowledging the fact that people are willing and able to participate in their own health care. People need to have a voice in how to utilize resources that we have for promoting healthy minds and bodies. In a recent study there was a measurement of the amount of time from which a patient sits down with their physician in which they are allowed to speak without being interrupted by the physician. I believe that time was 14 seconds. Today we are seeing that more and more people are rejecting the approach to health care that focuses on the suppression of symptoms and the killing of different organisms with antibiotic substances. We are now becoming more aware of addressing illness at the root cause. Many of the remedies for what ails us are found in nature. With proper guidance and with educational initiatives a large percentage of the human population can learn for themselves how to treat many of the more common maladies. In the 30 years I have been going to India, having lived there on and off for more than 14 years of my adult life, I can observe that those Indians who are truly observing a lifestyle guided by Ayurveda, homeopathy, or one of the other traditional health care systems, no doubt are experiencing less of the modern health afflictions we are experiencing here in the west.

JB: It’s plain to see from our discussion, that certainly there can be a transformation to well-being if 21st century man moves in the direction of self-healing and balance by integrating into lifestyles, systems of healing such as Ayurveda

Dr. G: Absolutely! I experience a great deal of professional fulfillment and joy when I am able to encourage and cajole my patients to eat in a healthy way, to do a daily oil massage, to drink warm water everyday and to incorporate some of the other lifestyle modifications that can have profound effects on their health. Ayurvedic physicians try to enter into the heart and mind of each person. We take time to hear their stories and usually between the lines are hidden the energetic obstacles that they will need to overcome in order that their physical health improves. It is at that point guided by the wisdom of Ayurveda, that I can make these gentle suggestions such as which foods are best, which herbs might be helpful, and what type of exercise program would be the most beneficial. If you listen with full attention to the person sitting in front of you they will not only tell you what the diagnosis is, they will tell you what to do about it. Therefore my work is very little.

JB: Your accomplishments and devotion to your medical practice are a great inspiration. Many thanks for sharing the wisdom.