What's Deepak Chopra's Secret (LONG)
Magazine: New Age Journal
Issue: January/February 1994
Title: What's Deepak Chopra's Secret
Author: Gregory Dennis
As press conferences go, this is a modest one: no klieg
lights, no media crush; just a few writers and photographers gathered
at Sharp Memorial Hospital, one of the six hospitals operated by Sharp
HealthCare, one of San Diego's largest health-care providers.
The occasion is Sharp's announcement that it is establishing a pair of
major new programs in mind-body medicine, the Institute for Human
Potential and Mind Body Medicine and the Center for Mind Body
Medicine. Having prospered in the complex world of high-tech scientific
medicine, the hospital system will now venture into unfamiliar territory,
sponsoring research and even basing patient treatments on some of the most
innovative and controversial alternative medicine theories.
"We're sure there's a relationship between the mind and body,"
square jawed Sharp ceo Peter Ellsworth tells the press. "But we don't
know what that is." Sharp, he suggests, may soon know more.
Then Ellsworth turns over the podium to the institute's new
executive director, a short, dark-skinned man with wavy hair. Though he is
dressed in a conservative brown suit, it's clear from the moment he begins
to speak that his ideas fall far--very far--outside of the medical mainstream.
Modern medical treatments too often "sow the seeds of the illnesses of
the future," he declares in a resonant voice modulated by an Indian accent.
Eighty percent of the pharmaceuticals prescribed by doctors are either
"optional, or of marginal benefit" because "they don't affect the
outcome of the disease." He describes the body as something akin to a
computer network infused with a soul: "The fact is we have a thinking body,"
he says. "Our cells are constantly eavesdropping on our minds."
Even growing old is a kind of mass hallucination, the speaker asserts.
consider normal aging is really just the psychopathology of the average." We
live in a "recreational universe," he tells the media, and are made for
Hardly the typical pronouncements of a corporate medical
insider. But then, Deepak Chopra, M.D., has not become one of America's best
known maverick healers and alternative medicine advocates by masking his
beliefs. A best-selling author whose seven books combined have sold some two
million copies-- his latest best seller, Ageless Body, Timeless Mind, has topped the
800,000 mark and recently spawned a companion journal-Chopra has
become a certifiable celebrity, racking up appearances on The Oprah
Winfrey Show and in the pages of People magazine. He drives a Jaguar
and recently bought a home in the posh La Jolla section of San Diego.
He counts among his friends Marianne Williamson, George Harrison, and
But Chopra is not just rich and famous; he is fiercely
controversial as well. Chopra's longtime close association with the
Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, founder of Transcendental Meditation and one-
time guru to the Beatles, has caused him to be reviled by much of the
medical mainstream, most notably the powerful American Medical
Association (AMA). TM's vocal critics say the doctor's credibility has been
seriously undermined by his association with an organization they regard as a
cult. Conversely, Chopra's recent decisions to break with his spiritual
mentor, abandon the TM organization, and sign on with Sharp HealthCare sent
shock waves through the TM community. What's he doing on their side? many
must have wondered. Just as many skeptical doctors are no doubt wondering,
What's he doing on our side?
Central to the controversy--and to the doctor's meteoric rise
to prominence--is Chopra's promotion in his books, tapes, lectures,
and workshops of ayurveda ("the science of life,"
as it translates from the Sanskrit), an ancient Indian folk medicine
revived and updated by the Maharishi in the early '80s and now, thanks
to his organization's promotional skills, experiencing something of a
renaissance. At times arcane, even by the standards of alternative
medicine, ayurveda is a multifaceted approach to health that relies on
meditation, herbal remedies, pulse diagnosis, panchakarma purification
techniques (which use massage, healing oils, and enemas), and special
diets keyed to body type and personality. Treatments may include
aromatherapy, stimulation of marmas, or sensitive points on the skin,
even music therapy. Yoga is recommended for strength and flexibility,
as are specific kinds of exercises that vary depending on the time of
the year and the patient's constitution.
Ayurveda's approach to health--indeed, its entire worldview--
represents a marked departure from that of Western medicine. In ayurvedic
medicine, health comes when the forces of the body and mind are in balance,
and restoring balance begins with a knowledge of the patient's mind-body type.
Ayurveda groups patients according to the predominance of one or more
basic life forces, or doshas: vata, associated with an enthusiastic
nature, restless mind, and occasional insomnia; pitta, marked by
orderliness, a tendency to anger quickly, and sharp intellect; and
kapha, showing an easygoing disposition, high stamina, and tendency to
gain weight easily (to determine your type, see accompanying
article, page 54). Different courses of diet, exercise, herbs, and
other treatments are prescribed to patients depending on their body
type and which of the doshas is perceived to be out of balance. Notes
Chopra: "The first question an ayurvedic doctor asks is not, 'What disease
does my patient have?' but, 'Who is my patient?'"
Maharishi Ayurveda, the TM guru's updated interpretation of the
healing art, adds to these traditional approaches new theories about the
"quantum mechanical body," a concept that applies the theories of modern
particle physics to human intelligence and biology. "By treating the
underlying quantum mechanical body itself," Chopra writes in his
Perfect Health: The Complete Mind/Body Guide, "Maharishi Ayurveda can
bring about changes far beyond the reach of conventional medicine,
confined as it is to the level of gross physiology." As Chopra sees it, the
quantum level holds the mysteries of the mind-body connection, and
ayurveda the key to unlocking those mysteries: "At the quantum level,
no part of the body lives apart from the rest. There are no wires holding
together the molecules of your arteries, just as there are no visible
connections binding together the stars in a galaxy. Yet arteries and galaxies
are both securely held together, in a seamless, perfect design."
While Maharishi Ayurveda shares much in common with other
forms of alternative medicine, including an emphasis on diet, herbs, and
meditation, many of its theories remain unproven. Despite the popularity of
Chopra's books--not to mention TM's claim to have reached two million
Americans with the Maharishi's teaching--only about 300 US physicians
have been trained in Maharishi Ayurveda. Only one school, Maharishi
International University in Fairfield, Iowa, teaches the techniques,
and no state licenses practitioners. Even some of Chopra's admirers
wonder whether ayurveda's ancient treatments will stand up to the
rigors of scientific research. For now, the practice remains at the
very margins of American medicine.
And yet, it has found a home at Sharp HealthCare. Though the new mind-
body center also uses other alternative treatments, such as biofeedback, ayurvedic
techniques will be the basis of most of the care delivered there.
Those same techniques will be researched in studies, one of which--
exploring the efficacy of an ayurvedic health-promotion program-
recently received funding from the National Institutes for Health's
Office of Alternative Medicine. Sharp's willingness to experiment with
such a program distinguishes it from virtually every other not-for-
profit community hospital system in the
nation. Though there are a few other hospitals with programs that
explore similar territory, virtually all the others do so within a
university setting. And no other American hospital system is investing
resources in testing ayurvedic treatments. The Sharp-Chopra alliance
can truly be called groundbreaking.
Sharp HealthCare isn't the kind of place you'd expect to find
perched out on the farthest frontiers of mind-body medicine. Though
San Diego is considered something of an alternative health mecca, and
Sharp itself enjoys a reputation for innovation, the sixhospital,
$1.14 billion operation has hewed mostly to the confines of conventional wisdom.But, well ahead of most others in one of the nation's most competitive
health-care markets, Sharp saw the value in preventive medicine--especially
as consumer preferences and the Clinton Administration's reform plan
push hospital systems to adopt new roles. Certainly it's no secret that market
concerns are central to Sharp's involvement with Chopra. "All you need
to do to assess the public's interest in [alternative medicine] is to
go into a bookstore and see what people are buying," asserts Peter
Ellsworth, the Sharp CEO.
A major study published last January in The New England
Journal of Medicine provides more concrete evidence of the rising interest
in alternative treatments. A research team headed by Harvard Medical School
instructor David Eisenberg, M.D., calculated that Americans in 1990
had spent a staggering $10.3 billion out of pocket on alternative
healing techniques --comparable to the estimated $12.8 billion they
paid out of pocket for hospitalization (see New Age Journal, May/June
1993). Though Eisenberg used a loose definition of "unconventional
therapies" that also encompassed chiropractors and diet centers, the
basic thrust of the study has not been lost on hospital officials
looking anxiously to figure out where their market is heading.
"They realize it is important for them to offer preventive
medicine programs," says Dean Ornish, M.D., a cardiac researcher and author
(Eat More,Weigh Less) whose alternative treatments for heart disease are
now reimbursed at six hospitals by Mutual of Omaha and other insurance
companies. "Hospitals are beginning to look at new approaches that will give
people what they want."
What's good for patients may also be good for business as
health care providers such as Sharp rely more and more on "managed
care"--which often means hospitals themselves assume the
financial risks that used to be borne by insurance companies. Says
John Bustelos, president and ceo at The Griffin Hospital in Derby,
Connecticut, which plans to soon offer Ornish's program, "The more we
move into managed care, the more we'll get into preventive medicine
and trying to help people stay healthy." Sharp, for example, might
contract with an insurance carrier to treat the employees of a large
company for a year for a set sum of $1 million. At year's end, if
Sharp has delivered care for less than that amount, it pockets the
difference. If costs have gone over $1 million, Sharp covers them out
of its own pocket. "The incentives had been stacked in the opposite
direction, where you got paid for doing medical procedures, not for
emphasizing wellness," Bustelos adds. "But now that's changing."
Testing ayurveda's preventive power, then, has become one of Sharp's
primary missions. If all goes as expected, for example, a program in the
coronary care unit will examine whether relaxation techniques can decrease
the incidence of cardiac irregularities. Cancer patients will be tracked to
see if ayurvedic treatments reduce the side effects of chemotherapy and the
length of their hospital stays. Those suffering from digestive
disorders, which are often related to stress, will be offered
ayurvedic treatments, as will chronic pain patients. Ravi Shankar, the
famed sitar player who also influenced the Beatles and who now lives
in San Diego County, will contribute to the institute's music program.
Taking a cue from ayurveda's emphasis on the soothing power of music,
researchers will seek to determine whether playing music in the
hospital wards each evening can reduce patients' need for sleep
In addition to the five Sharp affiliated physicians on the new
center's staff are a number of "ayurvedic technicians"--massage
therapists, a yoga instructor, two registered nurses, and people
teaching nutrition and biofeedback. The institute will also spread the
word about mind-body medicine by offering talks to the public and
seminars for health professionals. Participants in Sharp's health-
maintenance organization will be able to attend special seminars for a
nominal fee and receive a discount on ayurvedic treatments, but other
patients--or, in a few cases, their insurance plans--will pay the
going rate: $265 for a three hour consultation with a physician, a
health educator, and a yoga instructor; $3,000 for a week-long
David Simon, M.D., a neurologist and the chief of staff at Sharp
Cabrillo Hospital, is the medical director of both the institute and the
center. Simon, a longtime TM adherent who did his undergraduate thesis on
shamanism, played the key role in recruiting Chopra to Sharp. Joining
the Center for Mind Body Medicine represents a considerable risk for
him and his physician colleagues, Simon acknowledges. "I've certainly
received more than my share of concern from colleagues," he says. Why
are these doctors willing to take that risk? The Indian approach,
Simon says, appeals to their yearning for a renewed emphasis on
healing: "Are hospitals and doctors just going to be technicians of
disease, or are we going to start being experts on health?"
Simon--whose acupuncture chart is displayed in his office as
prominently as his samples of Midrin, a prescription headache drug--
emphasizes that the center's staff will draw on both Eastern and Western
approaches: "We're not going to do all this in lieu of standard medical
treatment. We're taking the bold step of offering these programs as a
complementary approach to everything else Sharp does."
It is an attitude, he says, that was partly inspired by Chopra
himself. "One of Deepak's great values," Simon explains, "is his ability to
translate the principles of mind-body medicine into scientific language, and
talk to people on both sides of the divide."
If Chopra can talk like the consummate Western style
scientist, it is because, for many years, he was one. Born and raised
in New Delhi, he was taught by his father, a prominent cardiologist,
to believe only in Western medicine. After graduating from India's
best medical school, he emigrated to the United States to do his
internship and residency in endocrinology and internal medicine. He
built a large private practice in the Boston area and lived a fast-paced
professional life, fueled by ambition, cigarettes, and coffee.
"In my own mind, I had joined the mainstream of modern
medicine. My ambition was to equal or surpass my American colleagues," he
writes in Return of the Rishi, his autobiographical account
of his discovery of the Maharishi and ayurveda. Affiliated with a half-
dozen hospitals, he rose to become chief of staff at New England
Memorial Hospital in Stoneham, Massachusetts. Several years before, a
chance encounter with a book on Transcendental
Meditation had led Chopra to take the TM training. Impressed by
the technique's ability to help him reduce his stress level and end his
reliance on tobacco, coffee, and alcohol, he used it regularly and eventually
began to explore its roots in his native India.
After establishing a close relationship with the Maharishi,
Chopra began to write a series of books detailing the insights
inspired by TM and his lengthy conversations with his teacher. Written
in clear and engaging language, the books mix the doctor's own medical
case histories with Eastern philosophy on health and the nature of
consciousness. As he told a wide-eyed Oprah, "When you get to the
level of thoughts, you're not just a human being who has occasional
spiritual experiences. You're a spiritual being who has occasional
Slowly the TM movement and his relationship with the Maharishi
grew to dominate his life. By 1990 Chopra had abandoned his practice in
endocrinology to practice and spread the word about ayurveda. He traveled
abroad to see his guru every six weeks. Even the growing demands of fame
came second to that relationship: Once, a friend recalls, he canceled a book-
promotion appearance on Good Morning America at the last minute
because the Maharishi had requested that he come immediately to his
residence in Holland.
Chopra became the best known of several prominent Western scientists
who spread the word about the Maharishi's teachings. "The Maharishi loves to
use scientists," asserts Joseph Kelly of TM-EX, a small group of former TM
practitioners that is highly critical of Chopra and TM. "He'll take
someone in a position of influence and power and use him to promote
Meanwhile Chopra's books and tapes were being snapped up by TM
practitioners and others, more than a few of whom visited his new
clinic, Maharishi Ayur-Veda Health Center for Stress Management and
Behavioral Medicine, in Lancaster, Massachusetts. Founded in 1986, and
still in operation, the facility under Chopra's direction treated
about twenty people a week on an outpatient basis, with about a dozen patients
participating in its week long residential program within the walls of what
was once a family estate. Before Chopra left the TM movement and cut his ties
to the Lancaster center last year, there was a story TM practitioners loved to
tell about him. In 1985, a psychologist friend persuaded him to fly down to
a Washington, D.C., hotel to hear the Maharishi speak on ayurveda. Several
hours into the talk, Chopra and his wife, Rita, quietly left their seats in
the back of the crowded auditorium, intent on catching their flight back to
Boston. Quite inexplicably, as Chopra tells the tale, the Maharishi
himself suddenly appeared in the hotel lobby, offering them flowers
and asking them to come upstairs to talk with him in private. They protested
that they had a plane to catch, but he persuaded them to stay. In more than two
hours of discussion, the guru and the endocrinologist formed the basis of a
relationship that would, for the disciple, bring wealth, fame, and a form of
enlightenment and would, for the master, supply an astoundingly
bright, charismatic devotee whose writing and speeches reached
millions with the gospel according to Maharishi.
But there is another part of the story that is told less
often, because it reflects the deep doubts Chopra had even before he
plunged into the Maharishi's inner circle. Those same doubts help
today to explain his departure from the TM movement.
"As we headed home, I thought about Ayurveda and Maharishi's desire
for me to become involved in it," Chopra writes in Return of the Rishi.
"Now that I was away from him, my inner silence evaporated, and the buzzing
of thoughts started up again. . . . Some silence remained in my awareness,
but now it was spoiled by anxiety. Over and over, a thought repeated itself to
me: 'Don't become an outsider.'"
But Chopra's close relationship with TM would virtually
guarantee him outsider status and attract controversy. He claimed in
Perfect Health, for example, to have treated 10,000 patients in five
years using ayurveda, treatments that--according to TM-EX cofounder
Patrick Ryan--could be quite expensive. Ryan, who makes his living
these days as a cult "exit counselor," says Chopra's patients have
told him the doctor would charge $700 for brief instruction in a
mantra technique, and that at least one Lancaster patient claims to
have been charged $11,500 for treatment that included a healing
ceremony performed for her in India while she remained in the United
Chopra dismisses claims made by TM-EX as coming from a group
of fanatics prone to extreme exaggeration. "Everyone in TM-EX is a former
fanatic on the inside who is now a fanatic on the outside," he says with a
wave of his hand. Nonetheless, the cultlike stigma attached to the TM
movement was a key factor in Chopra's decision to leave the Lancaster
clinic, and led him eventually to conclude that his affiliation with TM and
the Maharishi was preventing him from reaching many people who might otherwise
benefit from ayurveda.
Criticism of Chopra has been especially harsh from mainstream medical
doctors who were once his peers. They deride Chopra's blend of physics,
biology, and spirituality. Many even scoff at claims by Chopra and TM that the
meditation technique has beneficial effects--though the claims have
been explored over the past two decades in numerous studies, some of
The most serious criticism followed a May 1991 article in the
prestigious Journal of the American Medical Association co- authored by Chopra,
Hari M. Sharma, M.D., of the Ohio State University College of Medicine, and
Brihaspati Dev Triguna. Reviewing the literature on Maharishi Ayurveda, the
authors concluded that "with rigorous scientific investigation,
Maharishi Ayur-Veda may provide useful new insights and approaches to
the prevention and treatment of disease . . . and may give access to
therapeutic and preventive modalities that have been previously
ignored or considered unscientific."
Publication of these thoughts in the bible of mainstream
medicine caused jubilation in the TM movement and among advocates of
alternative treatments. But the authors could scarcely have provoked
a more heated response from the medical establishment had they advocated
that doctors be trained to kill babies. The barrage began with a lengthy
"correction" from JAMA's editors. Sharma, Chopra, and Triguna, they said,
appeared to be inconsistent in disclosing their financial interest in various
ayurvedic programs and products.
It's a charge Chopra heatedly denies: "My source of income was
never from the TM organization or primarily from the practice of
ayurveda," he says. In fact, he says, he resigned from Maharishi AyurVeda
Products International soon after having helped to create the
herbal medicine company, because "I knew that people would say there's
a conflict of interest."
The JAMA correction was just the first blow, however. Though a few
readers wrote JAMA to praise the article, many more weighed in against it.
Among the critics was TM-EX cofounder Ryan, who called Maharishi Ayurveda
"hocus-pocus medicine." He added: "I am frightened that JAMA would print, and
thus give credibility to, magic, astrology, rituals, and potions for
the prevention and cure of disease."
Wallace Sampson, M.D., of San Jose, California, wrote that the
TM movement "makes false medical claims" and called the article "trashy,
pseudoscientific blather." Nearly twenty other letters leveled accusations of
greed, deception, and fraud against the writers. The worst blow came from
JAMA itself, in the form of a lengthy October 1991 article by
associate editor Andrew A. Skolnick, which attacked, among other
things, TM's past claim of being able to allow meditators to walk
through walls and fly through the air. Skolnick's manuscript, which
contained as much invective as documentation, seemed to take Chopra
and his coauthors to task for every exaggerated claim ever made by TM,
and some made by Chopra himself.
The article's publication elicited widely divergent responses.
The American Association for Ayur-Vedic Medicine, which Chopra headed,
and the nonprofit Lancaster Foundation, filed a multimillion dollar
defamation suit (since put on hold, pending negotiations) against
Skolnick and his JAMA editor. The Columbia Journalism Review, however,
applauded the article's publication, while the Committee for the
Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal--in a move rich
with irony for ayurveda proponents--honored Skolnick with its 1992
"Responsibility in Journalism" award. Today, Chopra dismisses
Skolnick's work as "a tabloid thing" and the ama as a "business lobby
more than anything else."
But Chopra was clearly affected by the JAMA furor. "Right
after the AMA thing, I left the movement," he relates during an
interview. "I said, Who needs this?" A subsequent incident drove home
the cost of his continuing involvement with TM--and how it was turning
him into a permanent outsider. Researchers for Bill Moyers spent
considerable time with Chopra as they were doing background work for
what became Moyers's hugely popular PBS series and book, Healing and
the Mind. But Chopra says he eventually heard secondhand that Moyers
had decided not to interview him or mention his work: "Apparently he
was a little fearful that if he had me on his show, he might run the
risk of supporting a specific group. The word cult always crops up."
Chopra says that the JAMA and Moyers experiences coincided
with his growing desire to reach a wider audience. "I wanted to mainstream
the knowledge and not confine it to one group," he explains. "I didn't
want to be restricted by being TM's representative. I felt that if I
confined myself to just this, a whole body of knowledge that could find
legitimacy would never do it."
By mid-1992 he had left the guru's inner circle, though it was a year
before the split was publicly acknowledged. "I continue to respect him and
be grateful for all that I have learned," says Chopra, who still practices and
recommends Transcendental Meditation. "Deepak realized he has to start
talking not only of Maharishi's truth but of his own truth. But when
that actually happens, it's like a divorce," says psychiatrist and
author Harold H. Bloomfield, a friend of Chopra's who also remains an
intimate of many in the TM movement. Bloomfield, who wrote a best
seller on TM in the mid-'70s, says his friend also underwent something
of a spiritual crisis: "Deepak had to deal with a certain pain in his
heart. He wanted to remain loyal to the master but also needed to be
true to himself and therein lies what each of us has to confront."
The shock waves of Chopra's departure from the Transcendental
Meditation movement are still being felt by many of its practitioners. TM's
inner circle heard the news at a Washington, D.C., gathering in July 1993. The
announcement that the movement was no longer endorsing his work referred
to him as "our dear friend." Hoping to soften the blow of his
departure, the doctor sent out a letter of explanation to directors of
the nation's largest TM centers.
Meanwhile, Chopra has another best seller and is once again
affiliated with a mainstream health care system. He is also the object
of renewed media attention, even in the tabloid press. His recent
appearance on The Oprah Winfrey Show, for example, was quickly
followed by a splashy article in the National Enquirer. It quoted the
National Council Against Health Fraud, a self-styled "quackbuster"
organization that labels Chopra (along with countless others) a
huckster. The article's headline: Uproar over Oprah's TV Guru: Doctors
warn his advice is dangerous and viewers could die. At Sharp
HealthCare, executives chuckled about "the downside" to Chopra's fame
and confidently moved ahead with the new institute.
"A long time ago I stopped paying attention to what criticism
has been directed at people on the cutting edge," says Sharp's Peter
Ellsworth. "I've seen some of it written about me, and I know that's
not true. I feel very proud of our affiliation."
The doctor's alternative medicine peers are also quick to come
to his defense. "Chopra is a very important figure," says James S.
Gordon, M.D., director of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in
Washington, D.C., who served with Chopra on the ad hoc advisory panel
of the NIH's Office of Alternative Medicine. "He has helped many
people see the extreme power of the mind. He writes so well and seems
to have a deep experience of what it is possible for us to do with the
mind." Chopra's rapprochement with the medical mainstream means more
than just additional media attention. It's the latest step in a career
that has taken him from medical respectability to the outermost
reaches of consciousness, and back again. Back at the San Diego news
conference announcing his unlikely alliance with Sharp, the doctor
tells the local media that the formation of the new mind-body program
"represents a very exciting phase in the evolution of medicine as we
know it in this country."
Deflecting a reporter's question about whether alternative
medicine is quackery, he tells a joke about a doctor talking to his patient:
"The bad news is, you have a fatal disease for which there is no cure. The
good news is, I'm a quack." Then, in response to another query, he assesses the
program's potential. At a minimum, he asserts, the new institute will prove
that ayurveda can be a powerful adjunct to mainstream medical techniques.
"What we're going to do," Chopra says, "is scientifically
evaluate the things that we already know."
It is the supremely confident, almost brash declaration of a true