October 11, 2012

Paging Dr. Ayurveda: Debunking Yoga Quackery. ~ Molly McCollum

It’s that time of year again, elephants.

The “doctors” and “clinicians” and “healers” of the Ayurvedic mumbo-jumbo world once again crawl out of their nests to offer us bogus, unscientific, untested and non-FDA-approved cures for our sniffles and post-summer depression.

Ah, yoga.

For those of you who are blissfully ignorant to this particular branch of quackery, here it is in a nutshell: it is the reason Deepak Chopra is a millionaire. It is also an ancient Indian healing system theorizing that your body’s functions are regulated by doshas, or physiological principles named vata, pitta and kapha.

These doshas work much in the same way astrological signs do, in that there are personality types associated with them as well as body types. They are analogous to the four “humors” of ancient Greece and Rome: yellow bile, black bile, phlegm and blood. Just like the humors, if any of your doshas are “unbalanced,” you will contract disease or diarrhea or lose your mindfulness.

Or something.

If it’s true then, that your entire body’s well-being and therefore your life depends on the balance or imbalance of three ambiguous “principles,” you’d better gosh-darn know what your doshas look like, am I right? Right!

After filling out a very scientific Cosmo-style quiz on Chopra’s website, in which I was asked such relevant questions as “Do you have a penetrating gaze?” “Are you lively and enthusiastic by nature?” and “Is your hair thick and abundant?”, (in case you’re wondering, my gaze is penetrating and yes, I do have a thick and abundant mane), I was presented with my dosha profile:

“You exhibit nearly equal characteristics of pitta and vata, making you bi-doshic.”

Bi-doshic! Don’t tell my mom.

We then move on to the second part of the quiz. “Have your bowels been loose?” “Have spicy foods been agreeing with you?” and “Have you been holding on to extra pounds?”

This part, of course, functions to convince the worried test-taker that his or her unique individual physical needs are being considered, and whatever happens when he or she hits “submit” will doubtless be scientific and accurate and founded in medicine.

My results told me that I need to drink more tea, paint my walls earth tones and, of course, consult an Ayurvedic physician, (that’s “physician”) for more healing.

Perhaps you’re not feeling quite so confident in Ayurvedic medicine now.

Or perhaps you’re simply casting a blind eye to the fact that it is essentially another form of the discredited Greek and Roman nonsense that informed medieval medicine, (that’s “medicine”). Before you hand over your paycheck to Dr. Ayurveda, know these facts first:

1. In 2003, a survey of Ayurvedic herbal products sold in Boston-area stores found that a whopping 20 percent contained concentrations of lead, mercury and/or arsenic. Thirty-five to forty percent of medicines in the Ayurvedic formulary contain at least one metal, and the amounts of these metals are not regulated by any governing body. The authors of this survey explicitly noted that users of Ayurvedic medicines may be at risk for heavy metal toxicity.

2. In order to call oneself an “Ayurvedic practitioner,” one must enroll in a two-year program, many of these offered at ashrams. To call oneself an “Ayurvedic doctor”—and thus be referred to as Dr. Smith, Dr. Jones, etc.—one must enroll in a four-year program, for which the only entry qualifications are college-level biology and anatomy. The book list for these programs contains titles such as Loving-Kindness: The Revolutionary Art of Happiness, The Rainbow Bridge, Botany in a Day and The Ayurvedic Cookbook. Nothing remotely related to organic chemistry, physics, genetics, neuroscience or any other discipline so critical to responsible medicine.

I get it.

Your yoga teachers preach Ayurveda at you all day long, and taking some concoction with the word “grass” or “root” in it sure does sound safer than the pills Pfizer puts out. It may be that whatever Dr. Ayurveda prescribed, or recommended is actually working and you feel much better, but we’ll leave placebos for another day.


Molly is a medical researcher, enormous science geek, and habitual know-it-all residing and teaching yoga in Brooklyn, New York. Information about her “yoga for atheists” classes can be found at here.




Editor: Thaddeus Haas

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