Interest in Ayurveda slowly grew in the United States during the 1970’s and early 1980’s, though the seeds of Ayurveda had been planted and nurtured decades earlier. In 1995, I found myself at the frontline of its development when I began at the California College of Ayurveda. At that time, there were no official schools of Ayurvedic Medicine in the United States, or for that matter outside of India. Thus, The California College of Ayurveda became the first State Approved College in the United States. Since that time, I have both witnessed and participated in the growth of the profession. It has been an honor to do so and I am very grateful to the early teachers who inspired my journey: Dr. David Frawley and Dr. Subhash Ranade. This paper recounts the history of Ayurveda in the United States to date.
The Educational History of Ayurveda in the United States
Knowledge of the existence of Ayurveda has been known in the West for as long as scholars traveled to India. European scholars have traveled to India for thousands of years. As the United States formed and became a scholarly center, there have always been scholars who were familiar with India’s culture and Ayurveda. Early yoga teachers such as Swami Vivekananda and Paramahansa Yogananda came to the United States in the early 1900s and stoked interest in Vedic knowledge. However, a large-scale general awareness of Ayurveda did not occur until the 1970s and 1980s.
In the late 1960s and 1970s, several important teachers of Yoga came to the West. Although they came with a focus on Yoga, they planted the seeds of interest in Ayurveda. These promotors of Ayurveda from India saw Ayurveda as another important facet of Vedic teachings and one that beautifully complemented the traditional practices of yoga. Most notable among these teachers was the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi.
It was the Maharishi and the Transcendental Meditation movement that for the first time focused on widespread ayurvedic promotion. To the Maharishi and their TM movement, this was a business worth developing, even going so far as to claim a trademark on the term “Ayurveda”. While the trademark was ultimately unsuccessful the organization brought Ayurvedic physicians to the United States and began to provide both informal education and healthcare services. One physician who came over, the late Dr. B.D. Triguna inspired many Westerners within the organization. The most notable was the Indian-born, US physician, Dr. Deepak Chopra. Dr. Chopra would go on to write the best-selling popular book, “Perfect Health” in 1990. His effort brought awareness of Ayurveda outside of the TM movement into a much wider population.
As interest among Westerners was growing in the late 1970’s and early 80’s, additional Ayurvedic teachers arrived in America, often sponsored by devoted followers in the United States. Most notable among these teachers was Dr. Vasant Lad. Dr. Lad developed a small but highly devoted group of followers in the 1980s and together they started the Ayurvedic Institute in New Mexico which offered informal Ayurvedic education within the confines of personal and spiritual growth. More like an ashram in its early years, the Ayurvedic Institute promoted Hindu traditions as well as Ayurveda. In 2002, the Ayurvedic Institute became a State-Approved educational center in the state of New Mexico and more recently moved its headquarters to North Carolina.
Another important pioneer of Ayurveda in the United States is Dr. David Frawley, a student of Dr. B. L. Vashta (1919-1997) from Maharastra.
Dr. Frawley, who is commonly considered a pre-eminent Vedic Scholar, started the American Institute of Vedic Studies in 1988. His efforts focused mostly on writing as well as conducting a home-study Ayurvedic educational program. At that time, his home-study program was widely considered the most cohesive and complete effort to articulate the basic knowledge of Ayurveda in the United States. His course writings and popular books continue to influence just about every Ayurvedic practitioner in the United States. Another early promotor of Ayurveda, who also had a home-study course at the time was Dr. Robert Svoboda, the first American to complete his Ayurvedic studies in India.
By the early 1990s awareness of Ayurveda was limited to a very small but select group of yogis, holistic health practitioners, and fans of Dr. Deepak Chopra. There were only a handful of serious practitioners of Ayurveda in the United States at that time. In 1995, The California College of Ayurveda opened its doors with the mission to start a profession for Ayurveda in the United States. The California College of Ayurveda was founded by Dr. Marc Halpern and supported by his teachers: Dr. David Frawley and Dr. Subhash Ranade. California College of Ayurveda became the first college in the United States to gain formal government approval to operate and this set a new course for Ayurveda within the country.
Following the success of The California College of Ayurveda, additional Institutions of Ayurveda have developed in the United States, but few have been able to sustain themselves and eventually closed. New institutions offering basic Ayurvedic education continue to open and close within the context of yoga studios and spiritual organizations. In early 2002, The Ayurvedic Institute expanded its program and gained state approval, becoming a recognized school. Today, only a few institutions, aside from The California College of Ayurveda have state approval, offer well-developed programs, and have been able to sustain themselves over time.