Priya Walia wanted to practice ayurvedic medicine since she was a child. She just didn't know there was a name for it.
Growing up in Tacoma, Washington, she learned traditional cold and headache remedies from her parents, who are Indian immigrants.
"It was always in my blood," she says. "When I thought about going to the doctor, my mom gave an herbal remedy and said, 'Let's give it some time.' And most of the time that worked."
Later, Priya learned that ayurveda, a traditional Indian medicine, was growing in popularity in North America, and that practitioners were developing ways to integrate it with modern Western medicine. That discovery led her to Bastyr University's Master of Sciences in Ayurvedic Sciences program, the first such accredited program in the country.
But first she had an experience that transformed her vision of her future.
At 15, Walia was a 10th-grader playing soccer and violin, taking a heavy load of advanced science courses and working part-time as a receptionist. She fell ill with what felt like a flu for four weeks. Then, on the day before Thanksgiving, she lay in bed and noticed she couldn't lift her right arm. She dragged it off her bed and walked to the kitchen to show her mother, who thought she was faking at first.
Her mom turned to bring her a glass of water. Then Priya passed out. Paramedics came and sent her to her family doctor. He suspected a minor stroke and sent her to the emergency room. She had a battery of tests: CAT scan, MRI and X-ray. It wasn't a stroke. The numbness spread, and doctors struggled to determine the reason. She went home two days later in a wheelchair.
She didn't return to school all winter, still wheelchair-bound. In the spring, she began an intensive recovery program at Seattle Children's Hospital, designed for patients with muscular dystrophy. The program began with the slightest attempts at walking, which she hadn't done in months.
"After the first day, I was in so much pain," she says. "So much pain."
The program restricted visits from family so that patients could focus on recovery. After four days, Walia took her first steps. Gradually, she recovered the ability to hold a pen and write. She switched to an outpatient program, where her mother drove her to the hospital five days a week. She found further help from a medical doctor (MD) trained in homeopathy, from distant relatives who are Ayurvedic practitioners, and from her mother, who used traditional family remedies for strength and immunity.
Priya returned to school in May and began the work of catching up on studies. Doctors never gave her a diagnosis or a cause, though some suggested it was stress-related.
"I was doing a lot for a 15-year-old," she says. "It may have also been a way of telling me that my path was a little different."
Science of Life
Walia gradually made a nearly full recovery. She learned that recovering her strength would depend on her physical activity. During her illness, several doctors had told her they couldn't do anything more for her. Some urged her to pray.
"That experience shifted what type of healer I wanted to be," she says. "I don't want to be one who has to tell a patient, 'Sorry, I can't help you.' I wanted to know about more than medications and a little physical therapy. There’s more to healing than having a one-treatment mindset. You need to think of the entirety of the individual."
She discovered Bastyr's Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine program through a web search, visited campus, and quickly began planning. She enrolled in community college courses while in high school, then began Bastyr's Bachelor of Science in Psychology & Human Biology program, a major designed for pre-med students. That led to acceptance in the naturopathic medicine program, in which she's now a fourth-year student.
In December 2012, the University announced the ayurvedic program that she'd been hoping for (and urging school leaders to launch). Like naturopathic medicine, ayurveda is a prevention-oriented tradition that seeks to cultivate wellness by looking at a patient's entire life — diet, exercise, sleep, thought habits, social relationships and more elements. Ayurveda considers an individual’s constitutional make-up (or "Prakruti") and possible imbalances, seeking to restore a healthful balance.
"Ayurveda means the science of life, and I think it really holds its foundation in living in balance with nature’s elements," Walia says. "With food, for example, it teaches us to eat according to the seasons, the weather, the time of day and our individual constitutions. Ayurveda really holds its foundation in living in harmony with nature."
In early spring, that might mean lighter meals and seasonal vegetables balanced with spices that help reduce the excess "Kapha" (an energy form) from wintertime, she says.
"Ayurveda addresses the purpose of life and how to live your life to its full potential with minimal suffering,” says Dhaval Dhru, MD, director of Bastyr’s ayurveda program. “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."
Learning by Doing
Walia was among the first to apply for the inaugural class. The two-and-a-half-year program meets on evenings and weekends, accommodating working practitioners (or medical students like Walia). The format seems to fit the material, she says.
"To learn this type of science properly, you have to start practicing it," she says. "The way the classes are structured helps my mind learn to focus. Often we begin class with a chant to help ground us in the present moment, and we end with another chant."
In the fall, her class will begin clinical training for the program. Next winter she will travel to India for an externship.
Pa Lao, a classmate in the naturopathic program, says study sessions together have shown her Walia’s potential as a healer.
“Priya can get very wrapped up and focused in what she’s doing, but she also has a gentleness,” says Lao. “She’s very caring and compassionate, but also very thorough about preparing for patients.”
In describing her hopes for her future practice, Walia draws on the languages of both naturopathic medicine, with its emphasis on the body's innate vitalism, and ayurveda, with its emphasis on balance and understanding oneself. That's fitting, since she will be trained in both medicines and plans to collaborate with healers of multiple integrative therapies.
"I'm excited to help patients find their balance," she says. "I'm excited to listen to their stories and find where they are and guide them in understanding themselves while becoming more healthy and vital."