A friend, philosopher and guru

Print edition : March 13, 1999

AT least some of Dr. Dean Ornish's ideas in medicare are rooted in India. He was initiated into meditation, yoga and low-fat vegetarian diet by Swami Satchidananda, an India-born yogi who runs an ashram in the United States. Ornish acknowledged in his 1996 book Reversing Heart Disease: "He (Swami Satchidananda) began teaching me in 1972 and since then has remained my teacher and close friend, for which I am deeply grateful."

Swami Satchidananda, 85, who was born C.K. Ramaswamy (Ramu) in Chettipalayam in Tamil Nadu's Coimbatore district, has been running the Satchidananda Ashram-Yogaville on the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, U.S., since 1966. His disciples run Integral Yoga Institutes in several cities in the U.S. "Although they call me swamiji and my place an ashram, there is nothing religious or spiritual in what we teach there," says Swami Satchidananda. "Yoga is a scientific way of cleaning and exercising the body and the mind."

After training in Rishikesh under Swami Sivananda, Ramu was initiated into sanyasa in 1949 when he was 35 and renamed Satchidananda. He was then sent to Sri Lanka to spread the message of yoga. After 13 years, a film producer invited Swami Satchidananda to the U.S. to teach yoga to his son and a group of youngsters who had taken to drugs. Since then Swami Satchidananda has remained in the U.S., teaching and transforming the lives of thousands of people.

Recently in Chennai to inaugurate the Dr. Dean Ornish Heart Care Sup-port and Holistic Health Foundation, Swami Satchidananda gave a lecture on the integrated yoga system for the reversal of heart disease.

The most striking aspect of his methods is that they are neither spiritual nor religious but are based on the principles of logic and science and can be easily practised. For instance, the theory that pranayama, or breathing exercises, can be therapeutic and life-enriching makes sense in scientific terms. He says: "During normal breathing only 500 cu cm of oxygen is taken in. But during pranayama, 3,700 cu cm of oxygen is drawn in." The large amounts of oxygen one inhales during pranayama, he says, burns up even traces of addictive elements, such as nicotine, in the lungs, and obviates the need for heart surgery - or as he puts it, enables one to "bypass the bypass (heart surgery)". Pranayama, he says, can be a link between the body and the mind. Similarly, he says, meditation, the vibration caused by the chanting of mantras, exercise and a low-fat vegetarian diet have a positive effect on the mind and the body.

Says Swami Satchidananda, "I have heard doctors prescribe certain brands of cooking oil to patients after a bypass surgery. It does not make sense. The disease will recur after six months to a year. A bypass for blocked arteries is not an end by itself, unless you root out the cause of the problem." The solution, he says, is a combination of yoga, meditation, a low-fat vegetarian diet and abstinence from alcohol and nicotine.

Swami Satchidananda.-

Ornish, whom the swami calls one of his prime disciples, writes in Reversing Heart Disease that Swami Satchidananda gave him a fresh lease of life in 1972, when the swami gave a lecture in Ornish's living room, on an invitation from his sister Laurel, who was learning yoga from the swami. "Since then," says Ornish, "when I wake up in the morning, I consciously choose to live."

Combining his own medical training with such lifestyle interventions as yoga, meditation and dietary changes, Ornish proved, through a number of scientific studies, that these methods could not only stop the progress of coronary heart disease but reverse it. In India, the Delhi-based Dr. Bimal Chhajer, attached to the All India Institute of Medical Sciences, has since 1991 been applying Ornish's methods in his Science and Art of Living programme. He conducts a three-day non-residential programme in all major Indian cities. According to Chhajer, his programme (which costs Rs.10,000 per person) has demonstrably reduced coronary risk factors such as serum and HDL ("bad") cholesterol levels, hypertension, obesity, serum triglycerides and diabetes.

Says Chhajer: "The conventional approach does not treat the heart disease process but only gives a respite from symptoms. The side-effects of medicines can also be immense." The programme has also been shown to give relief from many stress- and diet-related problems, such as spondylosis, gastritis, insomnia, allergy and gout.

It was after going to one of Chhajer's programmes in Chennai in 1997 that Prof. A. Jayaveerapandian, who suffered from coronary heart disease and was advised a bypass surgery, opted for Ornish's methods. He attended Ornish's programme in Berkeley (in the U.S.) in July 1998. His disease was progressively reversed. In February 1998, Jayaveer-apandian launched in Chennai the Dr. Dean Ornish Heart Care Support and the Holistic Health Foundation, combining the methods of Ornish and Swami Satchidananda. The Foundation plans to start a one-day programme in March.

A yoga school run by Swami Satchidananda at R.S. Puram in Coimbatore offers similar programmes. He has also started the Satchidananda Jothi Niketan school in Mettupalayam, on the foothills of the Nilgiris, where special emphasis is given to the teachings of Satchidananda and Ornish.

According to Jayaveerapandian, in 1991 India had 4.04 crore people with cardiovascular diseases. This is projected to increase to 5.25 crores by 2001. Considering that the average cost of undergoing a bypass surgery is Rs.1.5 lakhs, the total costs would be enormous. On the other hand, lifestyle and dietary changes can lead to big gains in health at practically no extra cost.

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