A Few Thoughts on
Ayurvedic Mumbo-Jumbo

Stephen Barrett, M.D.

Deepak Chopra (1947- ) claims that "by consciously using our awareness, we can influence the way we age biologically. . . . You can tell your body not to age." He has reportedly made tens of millions of dollars marketing such messages along with books, lectures, tapes, and consumables based on a "modern" version of an ancient Indian healing system (ayurvedic medicine). Chopra promises "perfect health" to those who—through ayurvedic methods—can harness their consciousness as a healing force. Chopra claims that "remaining healthy is actually a conscious choice" and that "anything in your body can be changed with the flick of an intention." [1] He states:

If you have happy thoughts, then you make happy molecules. On the other hand, 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.

The rear cover of his book Perfect Health states:

Once you have determined your body type from the detailed quiz inside . . . this book provides you with a personally tailored program of diet, stress reduction, exercises and daily routines. It's based on a 5,000-year-old system of mind/body medicine that has been revived today as Maharishi Ayurveda. Its a total plan for . . . using the power of quantum healing to transcend disease and aging—for achieving Perfect Health.

Chopra claims that herbs prescribed in ayurvedic treatment "take the intelligence of the universe and match it with the intelligence of our own body." His audiocassette program, "Magical Mind, Magical Body," is promised to help you "achieve a brilliantly blissful life." Time/Life Video has advertised his "audiovisual workshop" as "a must for anyone seeking perfect health." Called "Growing Younger - Practical Guide to Lifelong Youth," it contains tapes and a guidebook containing "interactive exercises designed to help you personalize your anti-aging strategy to your body's individual needs."

In 1997, the Nightingale-Conant Corporation marketed Chopra's "Journey Into the Boundless," an audiotape set said to be "based on a life-changing seminar—that frees you to realize your full potential." The product brochure quoted Chopra as saying that, "Understanding your body's natural rhythms and needs activates unbelievably powerful disease-fighting processes within you." The product was also promised to tell: (a) how to eliminate fears and phobias from your life forever, (b) how to heal illnesses by stimulating the body's "inner pharmacy," (c) how to eliminate health problems simply by understanding your body type," and d) the secret of people who eat whatever they want and never gain a pound."

On a "Donahue" show, Chopra maintained that people who are happy not only have fewer colds but are less likely to get heart disease or cancer. During one segment, Chopra took Phil Donahue's pulse and diagnosed him as "a romantic." The program also featured a testimonial by Marian Thompson, a patient whose metastatic breast cancer had gone into remission with chemotherapy plus ayurvedic treatment. Chopra asserted that his methods had played a major role in the woman's apparent recovery by strengthening her immune system. Ms. Thompson subsequently died of her disease.

Another of Chopra's books, Ageless Body, Timeless Mind, is reported to have sold over a million copies in hardcover, including 137,000 in a single day after an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey show. Chopra has also attracted considerable criticism. In 1994, Forbes magazine dubbed him "the latest in a line of gurus who have prospered by blending pop science, pop psychology, and pop Hinduism." [2] A subsequent recent report in Esquire described him as "a personable, charismatic man of handsome mien and beguiling voice who has mastered the rhetoric of enhancement." As far as I can tell, Chopra has neither published nor personally conducted any scientific studies testing whether the methods he promotes help people become healthier or live longer.

Chopra's book Return of the Reishi promotes the idea that meditators can levitate. Chapter 13 describes his personal experience with "lifting off," which he calles "the first threshold in yogic flying":

As the meditator begins to practice, he lays down a pattern of repetition in which the body more and more begins to understand what the mind wants. In scientific parlance this is called behavioral conditioning. In common language, he is simply acquiring a habit. Mundane as it sounds, flying is simply a habit. Over time, the body stops shaking and, unexpectedly, while doing nothing more than the same practice he has done in the past, the person accomplishes the result. His body lifts up and goes forward.

Needless to say, this is a remarkable moment for every meditator, and of the fifteen thousand TM meditators in America who practice the yogic flying technique, each one remembers his first liftoff with incredible vividness. My own experience is fairly typical. I was sitting on a foam rubber pad, using the technique as I had been taught, when suddenly my mind became blank for an instant, and when I opened my eyes, I was 4 feet ahead of where I had been before.

"Ancient Roots"

Proponents state that ayurvedic medicine originated in ancient time, but much of it was lost until reconstituted in the early 1980s by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. Its origin is traced to four Sanskrit books called the Vedas-the oldest and most important scriptures of India, shaped sometime before 200 B.C.E. These books attributed most disease and bad luck to demons, devils, and the influence of stars and planets. Ayurveda's basic theory states that the body's functions are regulated by three "irreducible physiological principles" called doshas, whose Sanskrit names are vata, pitta, and kapha. Like astrologic "signs," these terms are used to designate body types as well as the traits that typify them.

Like astrologic writings, ayurvedic writings contain long lists of supposed physical and mental characteristics of each constitutional type. Vata, for example, is said to "govern all bodily functions concerning movement" and to accumulate during cold, dry, windy weather. According to Chopra's Time/Life Video guidebook: vata individuals are "usually lightly built with excellent agility" and "love excitement and change"; balanced vata produces mental clarity and alertness; and unbalanced vata can produce anxiety, weight loss, constipation, high blood pressure, arthritis, weakness and restlessness.

Ayurvedic proponents have claimed that the symptoms of disease are always related to the balance of the doshas, which can be determined by feeling the patient's wrist pulse or completing a questionnaire. Some proponents claim (incorrectly) that the pulse can be used to detect diabetes, cancer, musculoskeletal disease, asthma, and "imbalances at early stages when there may be no other clinical signs and when mild forms of intervention may suffice." Balance is supposedly achieved through "pacifying" diets and a long list of procedures and products, many of which are said to be formulated for specific body types. Through various combinations of vata, pitta, and kapha, ten body types are possible. Somehow, however, one's doshas (and therefore one's body type) can vary from hour to hour, season to season, and questionnaire to questionnaire.

This ad appeared in March 1988 in Vegetarian Times magazine. It asked about my memory, the size of my teeth, the visibility of my veins, the rapidity of my speech, and about 50 other characteristics of my body, personality, and lifestyle. When I responded, I learned that my body type was "kapha-pitta." To achieve "balance" and thereby enhance my health, I was advised to follow a "pitta-pacifying diet" in the late spring and a "kapha-pacifying diet" in early spring. I was also advised to drink herbal teas, take Maharishi Amrit Kalash, investigate TM, and consult an ayurvedic physician for a more detailed evaluation.
 

Some proponents state that the Maharishi Vedic approach includes "knowledge of how the influence of the planets affects health, prosperity, and every area of life" and that "negative influences can be neutralized through the proper procedures." [3]

Background History

The son of a New Delhi cardiologist, Chopra was born in 1947 and graduated from the All India Institute of Medical Sciences in 1968. After interning at a New Jersey hospital, he trained for several more years at the Lahey Clinic and the University of Virginia Hospital and became board-certified in internal medicine and endocrinology. Although he developed a thriving practice and became chief of staff at New England Memorial Hospital, he became increasingly uneasy about his situation.

Chopra's autobiography (Return of the Rishi) describes what impelled him toward ayurveda. One "pivotal" experience involved "pulse diagnosis" by Brihaspati Dev Triguna, "the preeminent living Ayurvedic physician," who, in 1981, told Chopra that his life was "moving too fast" and he was in danger of developing heart disease. Triguna advised Chopra to sit silently each morning, spend more time with his wife and children, chew his food slowly, make sure his bowels move at the same time every day, and eat skinned almonds slowly in the morning.

Another factor in Chopra's conversion was his experience with transcendental meditation (TM), which he credits for helping him stop "drinking black coffee by the hour and smoking at least a pack of cigarettes a day." TM is a technique in which the meditator sits with eyes closed and mentally repeats a Sanskrit word or sound (mantra) for 15 to 20 minutes, twice a day. TM is alleged to help people think more clearly, improve their memory, recover immediately from stressful situations, reverse their aging process, and enjoy life more fully. Proponents also claim that "stress is the basis of all illness" and that TM is the "most effective thing you can do to improve all aspects of health and to increase inner happiness and learning ability." Meditation may temporarily relieve stress—as would many types of relaxation techniques—but the rest of these claims have no scientific basis. Most diseases (including cancer) are not stress-related, and stress-reduction has no proven effect on the course of most illnesses.

In 1984, Chopra met the Maharishi, who encouraged him to learn about Ayurveda. Chopra did so and in 1985 became director of the Maharishi Ayurveda Health Center for Stress Management in Lancaster, Massachusetts. He also founded and became president of the American Association for Ayurvedic Medicine and Maharishi Ayur-Veda Products International (MAPI). The FDA inspected MAPI in 1991 and 1992 after an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association alleged that the company was distributing products for treating AIDS, cancer, and other diseases. An FDA report that summarized the inspection findings noted that Chopra had been MAPI's sole stockholder until September 1987, when the stock was transferred to the tax-exempt Maharishi Ayurveda Foundation and that Chopra's attorney said that Chopra was no longer associated in any way with MAPI. [4]. MAPI is now called Maharishi Ayurveda Products.

In 1993, Chopra abandoned these ties and moved to San Diego, where he became executive director of the Sharp Institute for Human Potential and Mind/Body Medicine (part of a large mainstream medical organization) and opened a treatment facility called the Center for Mind/Body Medicine, which charged $1,125 to $3,200 for its week-long "purification" program. He also marketed seminars, books and herbal products through Quantum Publications, which was owned by him and his family. Most of the products were marketed under the brand name "Ageless Body, Timeless Mind."

Something for Everyone

MAPI has advertised in health-food magazines that in 1986 three ayurvedic physicians revived an ancient herbal formula called Maharishi Amrit Kalash. The ads stated that the formula "brought perfect health to the Vedic civilization thousands of years ago" and could "restore balance and order to the entire physiology by enlivening the connection between mind and body." Through its catalogs, MAPI has offered an expanding line of herbal formulas and teas, "designer foods," personal-care products, cough syrups, mineral supplements (with herbs), books, audiocassettes, and CDs, variously promised to "nourish," "cleanse," "balance," "protect," "energize," "vitalize," "invigorate," "enliven," "soothe," "strengthen," "correct," "stabilize," "improve," and/or "regulate" the mind, the body, or a body component.

Many other herbal preparations have been marketed through ayurvedic physicians who could purchase them at a 30% discount for resale to their patients. A catalog from the late 1980s refers to these products as "food supplements" but states which ones are useful ("as a dietary complement") for cancer, epilepsy, poliomyelitis, schizophrenia, tuberculosis, and more than 80 other ailments. Another publication, marked "confidential," lists "indications according to disease entities" for about seventy products identified by number. Practitioners could also select remedies with "Maharishi Ayurveda Treatment and Prevention Programs," a computer program copyrighted in 1987 by Maharishi Ayurveda Corporation of America, that generated reports for both the doctor and the patient. The data entered included disease codes and body types. Federal law requires that products marketed with therapeutic claims be generally recognized by experts as effective for their intended use. I do not believe that these products met federal approval criteria, which would mean that such marketing was illegal. The documents to which I refer were collected between 1987 and 1991. I don't know whether these distribution systems still exist or when they were set up.

Quantum Publications' 1995 catalog offered books, inspirational tapes, musical tapes (some for each dosha), skin-care products, massage oils, seasonings (for each dosha), and herbal formulas. The catalog stated:

Ancient Ayurvedic texts describe each herb as a packet of vibrations that specifically match a vibration in the quantum mechanical body. All bodily organs, for example, the liver, the stomach and the heart are built up from a specific sequence of vibrations at the quantum level. In the case of a malfunction, some disruption of the proper sequence in these vibrations is at fault. According to Ayurveda, a herb exists with this exact same sequence, and when applied, it can help restore the organ's functioning.

The formulas included OptiEnergy ("for energizing and balancing the physiology"), OptiMind (to aid mental activity), OptiMan, and OptiWoman. Several products named after organs or diseases were identified as "supplements . . . to be taken only when recommended by a health professional trained in Ayurveda." These included OptiHep, OptiNeph, OptiCardio and OptiRheum. In 1995, an "American Journal" producer had samples of nine products tested by two laboratories, which reported that all of them contained insect fragments.

In July 1995, Californian Jonie Flint filed suit against Chopra, Triguna, The Sharp Institute, and various other individuals and organizations. Flint's husband David, who was suffering from leukemia, had consulted Triguna in April 1993. According to the complaint, Triguna was represented as a licensed health professional (which he is not) and concluded that David's liver function was down and that he had "heat" in his spleen and bone marrow, "wind" in his stomach, and pressure on his nerves. Triguna recommended dietary changes, "purification" treatment, and various herbal products. David then underwent treatment at the Lancaster clinic and purchased and used Maharishi Amrit Kalash and several other products. He also consulted Chopra, who performed pulse diagnosis and provided a mantra for "quantum sound treatment." (This is a technique—also called "primordial sound treatment"—described in one of Chopra's books as "similar to meditation, but . . . prescribed for specific illnesses, including those we consider incurable in the West, such as cancer.") In December 1993, Triguna retested David's pulse and declared that his leukemia was gone. It was not, however, and David died four months later. The suit charged that the $10,000 he spent for ayurvedic services and products was obtained by fraud. Unfortunately, Flint lacked the resouces to pursue her suit, so the accuracy of her allegations could not be investigated under courtroom conditions.

Whether Chopra practiced medicine after leaving Massachusetts is not clear. In 1995, a reporter who investigated his activities for New York magazine noted that Chopra was not licensed to practice medicine in California. When she asked how he could see patients, a Sharp publicist replied, "He sees patients, but not as a doctor."

As far as I know, Chopra has stopped seeing patients but devotes his time to writing, lecturing, and other promotional activities. In 1997, Newsweek reported that he charged $25,000 for most of his lecture programs [5]. He parted with Sharp in 1996 and became "educational director" of the Chopra Center in La Jolla, California. A press release describes the Center as "a 14,000-square-foot haven for relaxation and healing . . . featuring educational programs for the integration of mind, body, spirit, and environment." Chopra's web site has stated that that the treatments will:

Other goodies on Chopra's site have included an an interactive Body Type Test, the Dosha Quiz, the Chopra Center Store of Infinite Possibilities, from which products could be ordered, and Testimonials from four people who were treated at the center. One, a golfer, reported that he had just shot the best 18-hole round of his life.

In December 2004, I conducted a Medline search to see whether Chopra had published any data in scientific journals. I found none.

Significant Risk

In 2003, a survey of Ayurvedic herbal products manufactured in South Asia and sold in Boston-area stores found that 14 of 70 products (20%) contained concentrations of lead, mercury, and/or arsenic that—if the products were taken according to directions—would exceed published regulatory standards. The authors also noted that ayurvedic theory attributes important therapeutic roles to mercury and lead and that perhaps 35-40% of medicines in the Ayurvedic formulary contain at least one metal. The authors concluded that users of Ayurvedic medicine may be at risk for heavy metal toxicity, and testing of Ayurvedic HMPs for toxic heavy metals should be mandatory [6]. Several studies done in other countries have had similar findings. Another survey published in 2008 found potentially harmful heavy metals in many more ayurvedic products. After identifying 673 products on 25 Web sites, the researchers randomly selected 230, received and analyzed 193, and found that one fifth of them contained heavy metals in amounts that exceeded standards for acceptable daily intake [7]. In 2012, the CDC reported six cases of lead poisoning among foreign-born pregnant women in New York City who had taken ayurvedic products [8].

Because Ayurvedic medicine relies on nonsensical diagnostic concepts and involves many unproven products, using it would be senseless even if all of the products were safe.

For Additional Information

References

  1. Chopra D. Creating Health: Beyond Prevention, Toward Perfection. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1987.
  2. Moukheiber, Z. Lord of immortality. Forbes, April 11, 1994, pp 132, 135.
  3. Cosmic counterparts of the human physiology, Maharishi Vedic Vibration Technology Web site, March 11, 2010. (Citing Nader T. Human Physiology: Expression of Ved and Vedic Literature. Maharishi University, 2001.
  4. Summary of findings. Maharishi Ayur-Veda Products International, Inc, FDA inspections, 11/19-22/91, 1/13, 15, 21, 22/92.
  5. Patel V and others. Instant karma. Newsweek, Oct 20, 1997, pp 53-58.
  6. Saper RB and others. Heavy metal content of ayurvedic herbal medicine products. JAMA 292:2868-2873, 2004.
  7. Saper RB and others. Lead, mercury, and arsenic in US- and Indian-manufactured ayurvedic medicines sold via the Internet. JAMA 300:915-923, 2008.
  8. Lead poisoning in pregnant women who used ayurvedic medications from India—New York City, 2011–2012. MMWR 61:641-646, 2012.

Reader Protest

From a Chopra fan:

Oh the arrogance of medical doctors. Why can't you embrace other healing methods and work towards integrating other time-honored methods of healing?? Is it because all you are trained to do is CUT and push DRUGS? Is it because "quacks" are cutting into your profits? Surely you must acknowledge that the methods used by Deepak Chopra such as eating real food and meditating are also vital to the healing process. If you don't, you are so ignorant. Doctors nearly killed my mother with drugs to "help" her thrashed digestive system after a few joyous months of chemo. She spent just 3 days at the Chopra Center in La Jolla and has NO MORE problems with her digestive system. What do you have to say about that? Just more ayurvedic mumbo jumbo? Do the public a real service and educate yourself about what might compliment your methods of healing (ie. cutting & drugs). You might actually make a difference.

This report was revised on August 28, 2012.

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