NANCY LONSDORF is a physician who believes traditional Western medicine puts too much stress on being ill, and too little on how to stay well. Maharishi Ayurveda, a traditional form of holistic health care that is 5,000 years old, works differently, she says.
Lonsdorf, a 1983 graduate of the Johns Hopkins Medical School who received postgraduate training as a psychiatrist at Stanford University, is director of the Maharishi Ayur-Veda Medical Center in Washington.
There, her education in Western medicine takes a back seat to methods such as pulse diagnosis, herbal treatments, transcendental meditation, and a system of treatment based on body types or doshas called vata, pitta and kapha.
In Hindu, Ayurveda means "knowledge of life," Lonsdorf says. "The goal of ayurveda is to make a perfectly healthy person."
According to the American Association of Ayurvedic Medicine, about 200 physicians are trained in ayurvedic medicine in the United States. (The AAAM certifies only licensed physicians and chiropractors to practice ayurvedic medicine in this country.) A number of those physicians practice in 13 Maharishi Ayur-Veda out-patient centers around the country and others incorporate their training into their practices. The association claims that since 1987 more than 20,000 patients have been treated in ayurvedic clinics around the country.
At a 230-acre estate in Lancaster, Mass., Deepak Chopra, an endocrinologist and former chief of staff of New England Memorial Hospital, directs the country's anchor ayurvedic center, called the Maharishi Ayur-Veda Health Center. Chopra became a champion of ayurveda after an accidental encounter with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the Beatles' guru and the man who introduced transcendental meditation to the world. For the past five years, the Maharishi, with Chopra's assistance, has expanded his espousal of TM to the entire realm of ayurvedic medicine.
Traditional modern medicine's "magic bullet" approach of treating disease and stress solely with drug-dependent remedies and surgery is incomplete and even harmful, says Chopra, president of the American Association of Ayurvedic Medicine.
In his book "Perfect Health: The Complete Mind/Body Guide," Chopra writes: "The guiding principle of ayurveda is that the mind exerts the deepest influence on the body, and freedom from sickness depends upon contacting our own awareness, bringing it into balance, and then extending that balance to the body. This state of balanced awareness, more than any kind of physical immunity, creates a higher state of health."
Through TM, exercise, soothing herbal treatments, massage and a seasonal holistic regimen based on body types, ayurveda sparks the healing process we are all capable of, according to adherents.
Experts from schools such as Harvard Medical School and UCLA have praised ayurveda's focus on patient interaction and stress reduction, but contend there is no scientific basis for the reputed powers of its herbal treatments. They also question the accuracy of diagnoses made on pulse alone. (Using pulse diagnosis, ayurvedic doctors read subtle signals in the blood stream which they say reveal what is going on throughout the body.)
At first, Lonsdorf's path to the holistic healing art appears as incongruous as Chopra's. She tells of her "all-American family" and childhood in Wisconsin. There, Lonsdorf excelled as a ballet dancer and musician. From Oberlin College and Conservatory where she majored in flute performance, Lonsdorf transferred to an early admissions program at Johns Hopkins.
Even before medical school, Lonsdorf developed an open view of health that looked beyond traditional Western boundaries. In high school, for example, she learned TM, a skill that allowed her to survive the endless hours of her residency with a clear mind and no coffee.
Although she praises her education at Johns Hopkins, Lonsdorf also recognizes its limitations. It was a "science-oriented not people-oriented" experience that did not give her an understanding of how to help patients help themselves be well, she says.
While enrolled at Stanford, Lonsdorf studied the effect of meditation on brain waves at the Maharishi European Research Center in Switzerland. In India, Lonsdorf studied at the World Center for Ayurveda.
After completing her training, Lonsdorf went on in 1987 to become director of the Washington ayurvedic center where she practices modern and ayurvedic medicine in tandem.
It was from Lonsdorf that Baltimore physician Robert Ginsberg learned the basics of ayurveda. After apprenticing with her, Ginsberg left his job at the Columbia Medical Plan to join the practice of Marc S. Posner in South Baltimore.
Listening to Ginsberg, Posner became a convert to ayurveda as well. The two family physicians, both graduates of the University of Maryland Medical School, find that ayurvedic methods are the best remedies for stress-related disorders, the major complaint of their patients.
Traditional modern medicine falls short in its management of such complaints, Ginsberg says. Without a pathological explanation for an ailment, it is common for physicians to dismiss a patient. "It angers me when I hear a patient tell me their doctor told them nothing was wrong," he says.
Not all of Ginsberg and Posner's patients are receptive to the tenets of ayurveda. But Posner thinks of one unlikely candidate who became a convert to this ancient Indian form of natural healing. "He was a young guy, overweight, with hypertension and diabetes. He was taking six different drugs, and was very high strung," Posner says. "He was always coming in unhappy with his job and family."
Posner convinced his patient to read Chopra's books, change his diet, increase his exercise and take some introductory TM lectures.
The last time the patient came in, Posner says, "He had no complaints. His blood pressure and sugar were better and we tapered off the medicine."