Sandra's Deepak Chopra - an interview
Deepak Chopra was trained in India and the United States as a practising endocrinologist. A former chief of staff at the New England Memorial Hospital in Stoneham, Massachusetts, and founding president of the American Association of Ayurvedic Medicine, he is Educational Director of the Chopra Centre For Well Being in La Jolla, California.
Dr Chopra has written 14 books, selling nearly 3 million copies in English alone. He conducts workshops throughout the world.
You are one of the main exponents who has brought a lot about Ayurvedic Medicine to the public's attention. One of Ayurveda's distinctions is its individual, constitutional approach, especially around diet, as well as in every regard, which contrasts with dietary regimes from Western sources, which advocate the same treatment for everyone – raw food diet, fruit diet, macrobiotic diet and so on. I wondered what your views are comparing Ayurveda with the Western approach.
I think that the Ayurvedic approach to nutrition is a consciousness-based approach, so that more important than any approach is awareness of your interaction with food as part of conscious universe. And therefore the kind of awareness you have when you are putting food into your body, the awareness of the cook who is actually cooking the food, even the awareness of the farmer who is growing the product, all these influence the life energy or prana of the food which is a concept which is not part of Western nutrition. But yes, you know that when we eat something that comes out of a can or has a label attached to it because it has been in a packet, and even though it may have all the right constituencies and the right amount of carbohydrates, and minerals and vitamins, that it doesn't give you the same feeling of energy because it is missing the life force which we call prana, which is an expression of consciousness in Ayurveda. So that's the first important thing about Ayurvedic nutrition.
The second is the emphasis on taste as an indicator of what is in the food. After all, Nature gave us the ability to taste because in Nature, knowledge about nutrition is obtained through taste. The animals in the forest don't know how many milligrams of calcium there are in a certain item of food and yet they don't get calcium deficiency because they follow their internal cues. So Ayurvedic nutrition is very influenced by taste and the after-taste and the effects of food in terms of awareness. Whether they make you feel heavy or light or whether they make you feel congested or energised or hot or cold. These are the subjective experiences that come from putting energy into your body. Awareness and taste are two ingredients in understanding Ayurvedic nutrition.
And then, there is the whole notion that food affects different people in different ways which is what you were talking about. I think that it is obvious that some people can eat a lot and they never gain weight, whereas with other people, all they have to do is look at food and they have a tendency to gain weight or accumulate weight in their body.
I think that all diets, every single diet book out there, including diets advocated by naturopaths, raw diets, etc. is useful to some people. But every diet that is talked about works – but it works only for some people. When you take that principle, when the people write it – they are writing it very legitimately and very sincerely because they are writing from their own experience and it has worked for them. But no diet is universal in that it works for everyone. It cannot, because we are unique beings.
Along the same lines, in this issue, we have a major feature about water, and one of the other major distinctions between Eastern and Western approaches is the question of consumption of water. Whereas you have many Western approaches saying people should drink 8-10 glasses of water per day, I think that in Ayurveda and in Japanese and Chinese regimes, the advice is to drink when you are thirsty, but don't drink too much. I wonder what your thoughts were regarding this difference.
I think there is danger from overhydration. You know that physiologically it can cause damage, in fact, despite what everyone is saying about drinking water being good for your kidneys, drinking excessively may actually impair the kidney's ability to concentrate and to selectively discard toxicity from the body.
Could you elaborate on that?
Well, the kidney is an organ that has a lot of selectivity built into it. There are certain constituents in the blood that reach a certain limit of concentration and the kidney knows how to dispose of them. But if you are constantly flushing your kidneys and you are constantly overhydrating your kidneys, then the receptors are not too sensitive to minute changes in the chemical constituents.
Are you talking about angiotensin, could you mention what specifically could be impaired?
There is a condition, for example, called psychogenic polydypsea, where people overdrink themselves: where ADH which is the Active Diuretic Hormone becomes ineffective and after a while you cannot correct because the kidneys just don't respond to ADH anymore. ADH is controlled by angiotensin.
I thought that the attitude from Naturopathic approaches is that people are eating so many toxins in their fruit and vegetables and meat that they should be drinking the water to flush the poisons out of their bodies.
Up to a point that makes good common sense. But after a point it doesn't because the thirst mechanism is influenced by what you put into your body and the concentration of what is in the body. So thirst is nature's way of giving you a signal to drink water and therefore thirst is a very sensitive indicator of how much water you need in the body. That's nature's way of selecting it and nature is extremely wise and intelligent. Intellectually saying that I don't trust my body's intelligence – this makes rational sense – you are caught in a trap of rationality which is bad. I think people do, in general, drink less water than they should. Having said all that, I think they do drink less than they should, but to be fanatic or obsessive about anything, whether raw food or drinking water, is unhealthy.
There are different kinds of fasts as well – water fasts, juice fasts, broth fasts.
They all make sense at certain times for certain people. I think that it helps to detox and to purify. For certain body types can get more toxic if they fast.
How is that?
For example, if you are a Vata constitution, a hypermetabolic constitution, if you fast, your body will start to break up pretty fast and your metabolism will slow down.
I am a Pitta and I find it quite difficult.
Kaphas are easier. Once in a while it is good for anyone. In general there is also the information that if you fast too much your body will slow down its metabolism and start to break up muscle and then even though you are not eating very much, you start gaining weight because your body's metabolic set point goes up.
So how long does it take to reach that point. Three of four days?
Personally, I think vatas should fast no more than once or twice per year for no more than 24 hours. Kaphas can fast maybe once per month, Pittas once every two weeks, 24 hours at the most.
We read about the levels of pesticides. If you read the literature that we publish and allied literature they tell you that it's dangerous, but if you read the official view, they say that it is insignificant and it is not something we should be concerned about.
I think we should be concerned about it because the official view is short-term. They never look at what is happening. It's the same story about pharmaceuticals. The official view is that pharmaceuticals are safe in animal experiments but you know, twenty-five years later you find it might be Prozac or Valium that you associate with toxic effects. I think we should take the problem very seriously.
But how would we take it seriously as an individual?
It has to be a group consciousness that says we want organic farming. In the United States what is happening a lot, in states like Colorado, you can't buy meat that is contaminated by antibiotics or oestrogen.
In the whole state?
In the whole state, it is illegal now. And so this is a reflection of public opinion.
Do you think that we overrate the value of food? In the West, the body is regarded as a car, you just put a bit of gas in and oil and that is all it needs.
I think that the most enjoyable thing about food is the experience of it. All cultures traditionally have rituals and celebration around food and what we have done is sterilise some of the experience of food intake into calories, nutrients, etc. Then food is once again a celebratory experience that's a very healthy attitude.
I guess, extrapolating from what you said earlier about vitamins, you would say that it probably is a good idea that people take supplements.
Yes, I take them because it is difficult to ensure that my diet is excellent when I am travelling. So it's a good insurance policy.
What is your view of fat intake? Fat has been the big bogeyman in the West.
I think that there is a certain amount of fat that you need and all the receptors in the body are lipid receptors for hormones, for neuropeptides and therefore you need a certain amount of fat in your body. If you don't have it then you will convert other nutrients to fat and that takes a lot of extra energy to do that. So in Ayurveda we do use ghee for example, clarified butter, as part of the total nutritional intake of the day. And regarding the fear that people have for high cholesterol, results have shown it is totally unfounded because dietary intake of cholesterol doesn't control cholesterol levels; it's your body's metabolism that controls cholesterol levels. A lot of it has to do with constitutional body type and genetics. We are not even sure if cholesterol is damaging. It may be the peroxide toxic by-product of fat.
What about the essential fatty acids – the omega-3s and omega-6s in Ayurvedic nutrition?
Again, there is a lot of truth in all of that. And I think that in a balanced diet which is difficult to find these days, it is good to take essential fatty acids.
But even the foods that they come from – oily fish – do these foods have a part in Ayurvedic?
Yes they do.
Ayurveda is not necessarily vegetarian?
No. There is a spiritual reason for being a vegetarian. Some people have evolved to a certain level where their diet is not even a significant factor. But Ayurvedic nutrition usually includes meat and fish and fowl in the diet.
Do you think that Ayurvedic medicine is evolving with time? Is the West having any influence - is it changing?
I think that Ayurvedic medicine is evolving. I think that insights from the West – from science, are definitely going to influence some of our ideas, reinforce some of our ideas, and perhaps discard some of them. Like anything else, we have to be aware that much of Ayurveda has been interpreted and some things may not necessarily be true. We have to make a distinction between what is timeless and what stands the teaching of all time – ancient and modern. There are a lot of timeless things with Ayurveda.
Your writing has progressed from the more medicine-based and your own experiences as a surgeon, to the more esoteric and spiritual. I wonder whether this reflects how you treat people when you see patients.
I think I am more convinced than ever before that healing is a spiritual phenomenon. That the most important component is to get in touch with that part of yourself which is immortal, unchanged, timeless and that experience gets rid of all the fear that you have, including the fear of mortality. If you lost the fear of mortality then it wouldn't matter if you were going to die. I think that is more important: to lose this fear and have the experience of timeless spirit.
That's the direction I am going in, which doesn't mean that emotional and physical healing are not important. The very word "healing" comes from the word "holy." The word "holy" comes from the word "whole." And therefore although I am leaning more in the direction of spirituality as the most important component of that factor, I recognise the essential part that the spiritual, emotional, physical and environmental factors play in healing.
Do you still act as a medical physician to people that come to you?
Not on a one-to-one basis. How would I select who I am going to see and who I am not going to see? So my personal time is best utilised to giving people some insight into their own health via the workshops, the lectures, the seminars and books that I do. And I do have a Centre, it has many physicians, they are all trained in Ayurvedic and Western medicine. There are internists, allergists, family practice and obstetricians and gynaecologists.
If we take a few illnesses – such as arthritis and cancer. What happens when somebody presents themselves to your Centre?
First of all, they would be examined by an oncologist or arthritis specialist also as part of their evaluation. And if there was something very useful that modern medicine could offer them, for example if somebody had Hodgkin's lymphoma, which responds extremely well to chemotherapy, then we would use it. But at the same time, we would use herbal remedies, we would use pancha karma, we would use meditation, we would use massage, we would use complementary approaches. In some cases we would use a purely Ayurvedic approach. For example, if someone came with lung cancer and there is nothing to do in conventional medicine, but with Ayurveda, depending upon the stage, or with arthritis, whether it is rheumatoid arthritis, we could use a purely Ayurvedic approach – we would use herbal medicine, yoga.
So, in a way, we don't have a single approach to any one disease – it depends upon the person, what kind of disease they have. People have the same diseases but have different subtypes and there are different approaches to use. We have been successful in obtaining reimbursement of payments with insurance companies in the United States. We have been able to get Health Maintenance Organisations (HMOs) to take some of our programmes, we have actually offered them through hospitals.
What is your view of spontaneous remissions?
I think that the best source of that now is the monograph that was published by the Institute of Noetic Sciences in Sausalito California – over 3800 documented examples of remissions in almost every disease that is known to Mankind. So this much we know, that there is no disease that does not have at least one documented case of spontaneous remission. And, therefore, as scientists it behooves us to understand that if there is even one case in a million or ten million cases, that there must be a mechanism for it. And as scientists we must dig into what the mechanism is and I think the mechanism is a multi-factorial transformation that involves most importantly a shift in consciousness.
Although some people don't do anything particularly different – they don't alter their diet, they don't go on a meditation programme, they have a remission, whereas other people do the entire range of treatment and they still die.
It takes the whole universe to conspire to create a new event and we tend to want a linear explanation. It's never like that. It's a conspiracy of events in every area of life. It is like an aircrash where the accident is not necessarily as simple as either human error or mechanical failure, but rather a conspiracy so mind- boggling for a thing like that to happen. So too in spontaneous remission, it is a conspiracy of many events happening all at the same time.
Thank you very much.
It's been a pleasure.
This was first published in 1997 by www.positivehealth.com