In ayurveda, food isn't just nourishment, it's medicine
During the 30 years she worked as a registered nurse, Kimberly Ulrich lamented that some of her profession's procedures seemed to do more harm than good.
Prescription drugs, Ulrich noted, had serious side effects. Similar symptoms emerged among certain types of patients, but her medical training provided no explanation for the forces at work.
"I was always kind of looking for something that made a little more sense to me," the 55-year-old says.
The ancient Indian discipline of ayurveda provided the answers.
"It's all explained in a way that's individual to you," she says. "That's an important thing that doesn't happen in allopathic medicine."
Ulrich went on her first trip to India 15 years ago "for spiritual reasons," but she didn't think much about ayurveda, a traditional healing science that experts say has been practiced for at least 5,000 years. Ulrich's moment of awakening came much closer to home.
Shopping at Ashland Food Co-op, Ulrich was compelled to pick up a magazine with the "most beautiful Indian woman" pictured on the cover. Inside was author Maya Tiwari's account of curing her ovarian cancer with ayurvedic nutrition and meditation techniques. Ulrich soon started incorporating ayurveda into her own life and pursued certification as a clinical specialist at California College of Ayurveda, followed by six months of study in India.
Before opening her own business, Ashland Ayurveda, Ulrich cared for her parents, both of whom died of complications from serious illnesses. Because she couldn't cure their ailments, Ulrich focused on easing her parents' pain with ayurvedic techniques, which included a diet of easily digestible foods supplemented with herbs, herbal poultices and massage.
"I think it helped with comfort," she says.
At Ashland Ayurveda, located on Ulrich's residential property outside Medford, a range of treatments are designed to help clients cleanse their bodies, which promotes longevity. Beyond massage, aromatherapy and sound therapy, the most intense treatment — called pancha karma — can incorporate colonic irrigation, a prescribed diet and fasting for a period of one to three weeks.
"It's a rest time for the gastrointestinal tract," she says.
Ulrich says she has guided about 50 people through the process while they remain in their own homes. A handful of clients have stayed at the center, paying as much as $2,500 for pancha karma, other treatments and accommodations.
Her budget unable to accommodate full-fledged pancha karma, 29-year-old Eileen Hayes of Ashland adjusted her diet based on suggestions from clinical ayurveda specialist Noah Volz. To keep her constitution's vata aspect in balance, Hayes turns to cooked foods, as well as drinking more warm liquids. Ayurveda is the most recent of several diets Hayes says she has attempted, hoping they would pacify a lifetime of food allergies and digestive disturbances.
"I've tried low carbohydrates and focusing on my proteins," she says, adding that she also heard raw foods were the solution, but found they weren't for her.
Contrary to popular notions, ayurveda is not synonymous with vegetarianism, Volz says.
"Meat has a lot of value for people," he says.
And while ayurvedic medicine resembles some aspects of naturopathy, ayurveda's practitioners don't take a hard stance against prescription drugs.
"Sometimes ... you may have to rely on pharmaceuticals for a period of time," Volz says. "Ayurveda is totally open to that."
Mainstream medical doctors in India actually integrate their culture's traditional approach to health with the much more recent, Western discipline, Volz says. Nothing in ayurvedic teaching contradicts myriad medical studies that conclude regular exercise, proper nutrition and stress management engender health, the 29-year-old adds.
Food, however, isn't just nourishment in the ayurvedic philosophy. It's considered medicine. And yoga — ayurveda's "sister science" — isn't just exercise or a means of releasing stress. It's the path to self-realization.
Similarly, ayurveda places much significance on the patient's role in their own health — to the extent that it's considered a system of "self-healing," Volz says.
"Ayurveda really puts a lot of responsibility on the client, and some people aren't ready for that," he says.
Most clients, Volz says, need about six to 10 months of working with an ayurvedic practitioner to learn how to treat themselves. Acute conditions like colds or flus may warrant follow-up visits, he says, adding that most of his clients are seeking alleviation of muscular-skeletal pain, gastrointestinal disturbances, thyroid dysfunction, diabetes and cardiovascular conditions like high blood pressure and cholesterol, even "cold hands and feet."
Yet ayurveda, Volz cautions, isn't a "magic bullet" to those hoping to cure all ailments.
"My approach is more about long-term care," he says.
Acknowledging that some people don't reap the results they desire from ayurveda, Volz says the fault is an unsuccessful relationship between client and practitioner. Its value proven over millennia, ayurveda, he says, is sound.
Michael Haritos, 55, of Ashland has eschewed medications for her arthritis and says she believes diet is the key to maintaining strength and energy. Attending a recent lecture Volz held in Ashland, Haritos found numerous connections between ayurveda and her diet of whole foods.
"I found that it was pretty right on," she says. "I've been kind of living that way for a long time."
A visit to a local ayurvedic specialist provided further validation of Haritos' favorite foods and an unlikely indulgence billed as a digestive aid.
"She says to eat your dessert first," Haritos exclaims, "and I love that!"