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Ayurvedic Medical Practitioners Seek to Enter American Mainstream


India's ancient ayurvedic medical tradition is about to get some mainstream recognition in the United States. Plans are under way to introduce the alternative practice to future physicians at some U.S. medical schools. VOA's Steve Herman reports from Washington.

The roots of ayurvedic medicine go back to the beginning of recorded history in South Asia. Aspects of it, such as herbal applications, yoga, massage and diet have become popular in North America, Europe and Japan in recent years. But most physicians outside South Asia, unfamiliar with the practice, have not accepted it into the medical mainstream.

That may be about to change, thanks to a suburban Washington urologist, Navin Shah.

Shah recalls a meeting with then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee in India several years ago. Mr. Vajpayee urged him to propagate ayurvedic medicine in the United States.

"I told him 'Sir that's not my line. I'm a urologist. I have no knowledge of ayurveda.' But if you know Vajpayee … that means you have to do it," he said. "So then I looked it up and surprisingly I found that there is a $40 billion business of herbal medicine in this country and very little goes to ayurveda actually."

Shah says he realized the ancient practice from his native country, which he had not previously studied, appears to have scientific validity.

The urologist met with a number of U.S. medical school officials. Indian Embassy officials here say 16 medical schools plan to offer short courses in ayurveda. The teachers will be experts from India, with their expenses paid for by the Indian government.

Shah, who practices in the U.S. state of Maryland, says he will caution the ayurvedic instructors that U.S. medical students and their professors may greet them with skepticism.

"If you tell me that you're good, I want you to give me a two-hour lecture on 10 specific diseases in which ayurveda has made a difference - either it has cured or it has ameliorated the symptoms or stagnated the disease progress," he said. "Anything you can do, show me on a Western-style evidence basis, not anecdotal cases."

He hopes that, eventually, all U.S. medical schools will participate in the program.

Ayurvedic medicine is already being taught in the United States at about 20 non-medical institutes, which offer students hundreds of hours of classroom training.

An ayurvedic practitioner in Rockville, Maryland, Lakshmi Mishra, wants U.S. states to regulate and license ayurvedic doctors, as they do physicians. He says that because of a lack of standards, many of those trained in ayurveda in the United States or elsewhere are ill-prepared for treating sick people.

"It's a medical system which is very extensive … I would not give my life to a person who has only 300 hours of training," he said.

In India, ayurvedic physicians undergo a five-and-a-half-year classroom program, followed by a year of training in a hospital.

Mishra, a toxicologist, graduated from such a program in India. He explains that some of ayurveda's herbs are poisonous in the wrong hands or dosages.

"There are at least 50 herbs, which are very potent, but … they are very effective," he said.

But millions of Americans already have accepted other alternative and complimentary practices such as acupuncture or homeopathy. They may be willing to put their fate into the hands of ayurvedic doctors, unaware of the lack of standards for such care providers in the United States.

Cancer survivor Charles Braun, who has been seeking advice by Lakshmi Mishra, says he is interested in learning more about the ancient Vedic discipline.

"I have a very open mind," he said. "I have a doctorate in physics, so I know something about scientific discipline and I value scientific rigor in terms of testing things, making sure they really do work. I realize there's a lot we don't know."

Proponents of the ancient practice say prospective patients in the West should understand that ayurveda's approach to illness differs from more modern medicine. Ayurvedic medicine melds the physical and the mind, and the best outcome emerges over time, through treatment combined with lifestyle changes, such as regular exercise and a radically changed diet.