If you were to imagine a form of medicine designed especially for 21st-century Americans, it might have the following traits:
- Preventive: It would cultivate wellness before illness takes root, strengthening a person's resilience to disease.
- Low-intervention: It would pursue health through diet, exercise and lifestyle, using drugs and surgery as a last resort.
- Affordable: It would be cost-effective by reducing surgeries and hospital procedures for chronic disease.
- Holistic: It would see a person's body, mind and spirit — and their environment — as deeply interconnected.
- Personal: Practitioners would build relationships with patients, viewing them as unique individuals.
In short, it would look a lot like ayurvedic medicine, the traditional Indian health system growing robustly among Americans looking for wellness-focused health care.
Bastyr University is launching the nation's first regionally accredited degree in ayurvedic sciences, recognizing the demand has never been greater. As one of the world's most widely used natural medicines, ayurveda makes a natural fit for Bastyr, says Timothy C. Callahan, PhD, the University's senior vice president and provost.
"The name 'ayurveda' may sound strange, but it means 'science of life,' which is what Bastyr already does," says Dr. Callahan. "It's preventive medicine through nutrition, herbal medicine, bodywork and healthy living."
Launching in fall 2013, the Master of Science in Ayurvedic Sciences offers a comprehensive two-and-half-year program that includes clinical training and an externship in India. It is open to currently licensed medical professionals, such as medical doctors (MDs), naturopathic doctors (NDs), acupuncturists, chiropractors, osteopaths and physicians assistants. It is also open to current Bastyr students in programs that lead toward licensure.
Classes will take place primarily on evenings and weekends. The program includes a diverse array of courses, including ayurvedic philosophy and psychology, medical Sanskrit, yoga theory and practice, herbology, pathology, preventive medicine, nutrition and business management.
Science of Life
Dhaval Dhru, MD, a former ear-nose-throat surgeon who retired from surgery to practice ayurvedic medicine, says the system is broader than most Western conceptions of medicine.
"Ayurveda is a science of life — not just a science of medicine or a science of illness," says Dr. Dhru, whose Seattle-area practice will be a preceptorship site for the program. "It addresses the purpose of life and how to live your life to its full potential with minimal suffering. It offers a way to keep ourselves and others healthy and happy, and to proceed with the full benefits of what life has to offer."
As a surgeon, Dr. Dhru watched patients with chronic diseases fall into a spiral of medication, side effects, and more medication to manage side effects, without ever addressing the root of their illness. He discovered ayurveda the way many people do: through yoga, a core component of ayurvedic mind/body therapy.
There is no "typical" ayurvedic treatment for a condition like diabetes, Dr. Dhru says, because a practitioner assesses a person's unique constitution before providing treatment. Ayurvedic philosophy views the mind, body and soul as connected to the external world; when these relationships fall out of balance, illness arises.
Dr. Callahan explains it another way: "Ayurveda views the individual human being as a microcosm of the macrocosm. Our bodies are made of the same elements as the universe. So it makes sense that the medicines that would cure us are found in nature."
Diet, herbs, meditation and bodywork (such as yoga and massage) are the foundations of ayurvedic treatment. Those low-intervention therapies appeal to Christine Bussiere, a fourth-year student of naturopathic medicine at Bastyr. She has experienced personal health benefits through ayurveda and is considering applying to the master's program.
"Too often in modern-day culture we overcomplicate things when what we really need to is simplify," Bussiere says. "An ayurvedic provider will always start with the basics, which can be very therapeutic and helpful."
Ancient Roots, Bright Future
Ayurveda's roots reach back at least 5,000 years (some scholars believe it is much older), with its knowledge passed down through Sanskrit poetry. Some 360,000 registered ayurvedic doctors practice in India, often integrated with practitioners of Western medicine. In the United States, a 2007 National Health Interview Survey found that more than 200,000 people had used ayurvedic medicine in the previous year. A handful of U.S. institutions offer certificate programs in the field, but Bastyr's Master of Science is the first such accredited program.
Bastyr developed the program working closely with the National Ayurvedic Medical Association, which is eager to see high-level academic programs develop. An accredited program is a key step toward states licensing ayurvedic medicine and helping it gain even more exposure in the U.S., Dr. Callahan says.
"There are a lot of people who now visit acupuncturists or chiropractors who thought they never would," he says. "Ayurvedic wellness counselors and health practitioners could become much more common in the near future."
The University plans to add three core faculty members by the program's second year.
"We want to be world leaders in natural medicine," says Dr. Callahan. "That means we have to look at all the world's important medicines. This is a natural progression."