My Vision is of a Society Where the Public has Access to Ayurvedic Doctors in Every Community: Dr Marc Halpern

Dr. Marc Halpern, D.C., AyD. (Ayurvedacharya)  is a pioneer in the establishment of Ayurveda medicine in the United States.  Awarded the All India Award for Best Ayurvedic Physician, he is co-founder of the National Ayurvedic Medical Association for which he served as Chairman of the National Committee on Ayurvedic Education. He is also a co-founder of the California Association of Ayurvedic Medicine,  and the National Council on Ayurvedic Education in the United States.

Dr. Halpern is the author of two important textbooks in the field of Ayurvedic Medicine as well as the popular book, Healing Your Life: Lessons on the Path of Ayurveda and the audio recording, Yoga Nidra and Self Healing.

How were you inspired by Ayurveda?  As you mention in a talk people come to Ayurveda usually with a problem. Is that how it will continue to be in the future? 

 Most people do not like to spend money on their health unless they are sick. Wise people are willing to invest in preventative care. There is growing interest in preventative and lifestyle-based medicine. Ayurvedic Health Counselors focus on this area of service. Our Clinical Specialists and Ayurvedic Doctors focus on disease management through they l also provide preventative care services.

I was inspired to pursue a career in the healing arts at a very young age when I desired to know the reason why people get sick, why they are unhappy, and how to help. This led me at first to study Chiropractic Medicine. From there I studied Chinese Medicine, Homeopathy and Herbalism. Eventually I found Ayurveda and Yoga, and this spoke deeply to my heart. Ayurveda and Yoga answered all my deepest questions and I knew that I would devote the rest of my life to these sciences. I also suffered from some serous illnesses in my life and Ayurveda and Yoga played important parts in my healing journey. This is detailed in my book: Healing Your Life; Lessons on the Path of Ayurveda. (Published by Lotus Press).

Could you take us briefly through the changes in public perception of Ayurveda from the time you started the California College of Ayurveda up to the Covid period.

I started the California College of Ayurveda in 1995. At that time only very small percentage of people had heard of Ayurveda. I would guess less than 1%.  It was even relatively unknown in the Yogic community within the US. There, perhaps 3-4% had heard the word. Today, I would estimate 10% of the population has heard of Ayurveda and 80% of the US Yoga community. So, awareness has grown tremendously.

Public perception of Ayurveda varies. Among those who have heard of Ayurveda it’s very good. Here in the US, holistic medicine is quite respected. The public realizes that there is more to healing then taking drugs or receiving surgery. Ayurveda is appreciated for its broader view of prevention and for supporting the body to heal itself.  There are certainly some conservative individuals who do not accept approaches that are new to them. They reject all forms of medicine other than Western medicine.

You are Co-Founder: National Association of Ayurvedic Schools and Colleges (NAASC) and Co-Founder: National Council on Ayurvedic Education (NCAE). How has the syllabus been structured keeping in mind both Indian traditions as well as modern scientific research?

 Here in the United States, there is a lack of centralized regulation. Regulation occurs at a State level and each State can have different laws.  Some states have legalized the practice of all forms of healing through what is called “Health Freedom Legislation”. This allows practitioners to practice their healing art within the parameters set forth in the legislation. No license is needed. Other states do not have this provision. Still, in all states the practice of Ayurveda is legal so long as it is practiced in a manner that does not break any existing law. Hence, a practitioner must know the existing laws. At the California College of Ayurveda students are trained how to practice legally.

In almost all States, educational institutions must be State Approved. This means that they meet the financial and administrative guidelines of the State. The State does not look at curriculum. There is no legal body that regulates Ayurvedic curriculum. There are membership associations however that set forth some parameters. Even still, these are only voluntarily followed, and schools do not need to be a part of these associations.

At most schools, the syllabus evolves over time. As schools grow, so do their curriculums. The California College of Ayurveda is the largest school of Ayurvedic medicine in the United States. Our Ayurvedic Doctor program is now a 4-year program consisting of more than 4000 hours of education.  Only a few Ayurvedic Doctor programs exist in the United States. Most programs in the United States are shorter and focus on preventative and lifestyle medicine. Most of these programs are 6-12 months in duration. At the California College of Ayurveda, our Ayurvedic Health Counselor program is a 1-year program.

What place does Ayurveda occupy in the spectrum of alternative medicine in the US. It is neither complementary nor integrated in India?

 In the United States, Ayurveda is classified as a “Complementary and Alternative Medicine”. Alternative is a term used relative the standard medicine in this country which is allopathic medicine. All forms of medicine outside of allopathy are classified as Complimentary and Alternative Medicine.  Some practitioners integrate Ayurveda into other disciplines. This is the meaning of “integrative medicine”.

Today terms like Pro Life and Pro Choice are bandied but Ayurveda has always been about these things.  What aspects of Ayurveda are being integrated into conventional medicine without many knowing their origin?

 The terms “pro-life” and “pro-choice” are opposing terms used politically and morally in the United States in relationship to the issue of abortion. Occasionally, the terms are used in other contexts. Ayurveda is pro-personal responsibility. The moral code is first and foremost dharma – that which is in alignment with the Divine rather than based on the ego. The final judgement lies in individual karma and one’s experience of the afterlife in various lokas.

Conventional, or allopathic, medicine has accepted and integrated aspects of Ayurvedic and Indian modalities. Some aspects are subtle, others are more obvious. For instance, it is now generally accepted that the practice of neti is beneficial to sinus health. It is also generally accepted that swishing the mouth with oil and pulling it through the teeth is beneficial to dental health. Even cleaning the tongue has been accepted as an approach to keeping the breath fresh.  Other aspects are more subtle. Western conventional medicine recognizes the value to moderating the diet, of keeping a regular sleep routine, and the importance of deep relaxation. These more subtle approaches are common sense. Western medicine values Western science. Science has been validating the value of these lifestyle behaviors. Western Science has also been validating the usefulness of many herbs from India.

What is missing however an understanding of the broader paradigm of Ayurveda. Lacking is an understanding about individuality in relation to sleep rhythms. Lacking is an understanding of utilizing herbal medicines according to the nature of the individual and the nature of the disease. Western Medicine takes pieces of Ayurveda, validates it scientifically, but strips it from larger body of knowledge. This is reductionism and it is the opposite of Ayurveda which is based in holism.

Many Westerners are now utilizing aspects of Ayurveda in their lives though they do not know the word or the broader basis of the knowledge. While they are utilizing parts of the whole, they are not really practicing Ayurveda. Others however, those who go to see Ayurvedic Practitioners, learn the broader principles of Ayurveda and apply them to their lives. This is part of what makes the practice of Ayurveda unique in the West. The Western practitioner spends considerable time educating their patients.

Ayurvedic principles are part of many Indian households passed on as granny's remedies and recipes.  Does learning it as a formal science rather than intuitive wisdom take away anything from it?

 No, I don’t think so. I think they complement each other. Formal study allows for the complete body of knowledge to be studied. Intuition allows for a deeper connection to the knowledge. Wisdom comes from the embodiment of the knowledge, whether it was originally attained through intellectual study or intuitive insight.

Ayurvedic medicines are regulated as dietary supplements rather than as drugs in the United States, so they are not required to meet the safety and efficacy standards for conventional medicines - says a Johns Hopkins report. What does this augur for people looking for validation?

While the FDA classifies herbal medicines as dietary supplements rather than drugs, this does not mean that there is not extensive research supporting efficacy and safety. There are thousands of high-quality research papers published on various herbs from India and these are indexed in peer reviewed journals. The main reason that herbal medicines are not classified as drugs in the United States is due to the extraordinary high cost associated with the process. Some of this is research related. Larger scale studies are often needed.  Much of the cost however is administrative. Because herbs belong to nature and not to a specific company, it is not possible to gain patents on herbs. This means that there is little profit to be gained relative to the cost of going through the process of classifying an herb as a drug. In summary. For those needing validation, I provide extensive research summaries on the medicines we use.

What is your vision for Ayurveda and public health in the United States?

My vision is of a society where the public has access to Ayurvedic Health Counselors and Ayurvedic Doctors in every community. The public sees these practitioners at first for preventative medicine based on their prakruti. When the public gets sick, they see an Ayurvedic Doctor first, before the condition progresses to the point where emergency medicine is necessary. I see a population that values living in harmony with nature and with each other. I see a society where we ask the most important question. How did I participate in creating this illness?  With this awareness, each person is empowered to take different actions, those that will support healing and re-create a state of health.