Ayurveda Goes Chic

The talk in champagne circles that ranged from botoxed bosoms to derma fillers, has quietly morphed to mindful massages and the benefits of Ayurveda.


The sundowner spa party or a caviar (balut, for the more daring) evening is giving way to satvik luncheons, pranayama parties and traditional malish massages among the chi-chi set.

A Delhi socialite’s recent event was a throwback to basics. The invitations were printed on a scroll that talked up the ancient science of Ayurveda and accompanied with a potli (pouch) of strong smelling herbs So, a balmy spring day found a bunch of socialites in designer sunglasses partaking a simple satvik meal, sitting on the floor. Therewas no soda for drinks (alcohol? what’s that), but a concoction of plain water infused with melons, sweet limes and cucumber (virgin sangria, anyone?) The meal was followed by a session of Ayurvedic foot massage, where a generous amount of herb-spiked sesame oil was smeared on daintily pedicured feet with brusque movements. Post massage, the ladies-who-lunched politely scrubbed their feet before slipping into their Jimmy Choos and marveled at the magic of this ancient system of living.

The talk in champagne circles that ranged from botoxed bosoms to derma fillers, has quietly morphed to mindful massages and the benefits of Ayurveda.

Ironically though, Ayurveda, a 5,000-year-old system of natural healing derived from Vedic texts, has been lost in the flux of swish treatments and Western fads that promised quick results, were easier to follow and had a credible frame of reference behind them. Most importantly these Western treatments and beauty procedures had a posh appeal, best suited to the modish generation.

Interestingly while Yoga, another related discipline from India, also derived from the Vedic texts, was able to penetrate into the western world, especially in the 1960s, Ayurveda struggled to gain mainstream traction even in India.

Yoga is estimated to be a $80 billion industry worldwide, almost $27 billion industry in the US alone. By comparison Euromonitor estimates the market size of herbal and alternative products in the US at $4.6 billion, a mere 7 percent of the total consumer health retail sales in 2015 .

Herbal bundle therapy by Niraamaya Retreats.
In recent years, the alternative medicine market has surged, but Chinese medicines dominate the herbal medicine market worldwide. It is a space, Ayurveda exponents rue that should have belonged to India. This notwithstanding that wellness expert Deepak Chopra has opened a spa offering Ayurvedic treatments in Manhattan; super model Naomi Campbell famously checked herself in for a massage session in Kerala a few years ago; pop star Madonna, Cherie Blair and actress Demi Moore have all been known to explore the ancient science.

Lately actress Gwyneth Paltrow’s lifestyle is being studied to understand Ayurvedic benefits and Kate Hudson’s recent book, Pretty Happy: Healthy Ways to Love Your Body, discusses the implementation of Vedic principles for a fuller life. But even so, Ayurveda has yet to find its footings.

Shahnaz Husain, one of the best-known exponents of Ayurveda from India says: “When I began propagating Ayurveda in India way back in 70s, no one had heard about it. I was shocked to find that an entire generation of Indians had left behind the wealth that belonged to us. Ayurveda was no longer in the conscious minds of Indians, but was something that belonged in history.”

She says she us using the centuries old formulae for healing everything from cancer to arthritis. She adds: “Interestingly we may think that ayurveda belongs to one culture or generation, but Ayurvedic texts contain the details of a staggering number of plant products, minerals and other natural substances, along with their medicinal properties, their methods of collection and extraction, as well as specific combinations of complementary herbs that can be adopted in all times and all ages.”

Chitrangda Sethi, a holistic wellness expert who runs Atam Yoga, a holistic wellness center in Seattle, says, “I have been practicing Yoga and Ayurveda for 15 years now. When I started in the West, people didn’t know about Ayurveda. They were interested only in Yoga.” She adds, “Yoga also got diversified in the West. In India it is still practiced in its purest form, but over here it is divided into Ashtanga, Bikram, Hatha, Iyengar, Vinyasa etc. Perhaps Ayurveda too needs to be introduced to the West in a more specific and interesting way.”

Did We Miss the Bus?

Market analysts say that India missed a big opportunity to take Ayurveda to the world by neglecting branding and research in the 1960s and 1970s, when yoga was taking wings. Piyush Tiwari, director (commercial and marketing) India Tourism Development Corporation (ITDC) says: “Although the global propagation started with the basis of classical yoga, most of modern yoga that we practice today has become progressively physical in nature. Today, the main practice of yoga has moved from meditation and breathing to asanas or yoga postures. It has entered the world of exercise as people relate it with fitness and health. One of the reasons why Ayurveda is still behind is because of the fact that the British had closed down or neglected many Ayurvedic schools during the colonial era as Ayurveda was regarded as a backward and unscientific method of treatment and it continued to suffer for a very long period.”

Vivek Sahni, co-founder Kama Ayurveda, one of the contemporary skin care lines promoting ancient therapies says, “Back in 2003, when we started our operations, there was limited interest amongst Indians to explore this oldest codified system of medicine. So in reality the resurgence of Ayurveda began only 15 years ago, unlike Yoga, which started spreading as early as in the 50s. It took Yoga 60 years to reach where it is. Given some time, Ayurveda too can become a phenomenon.”

One reason that caused people to doubt Ayurveda and its efficacy was the mushrooming of a multitude of places offering Ayurvedic treatments without the intensive research its principles requires. Dr Arun Aravind, head of spa at Niraamaya Retreats, a wellness destination resort spread across Kerala says: “While it may seem that the power of Ayurveda is so pervasive in India that every small or big spa offers Ayurvedic programs, in reality it has done more harm than good. Ayurveda needs a studied treatment and research and without those prerequisites it is reduced to any other service you may partake in a salon.”

Dr Aravind says that geography and climatic conditions need to be favorable for the treatment. He says, “Unlike Yoga where all you need is a yoga mat, the effectiveness of Ayurveda depends on many factors. While opening up of retreats across India and world may bolster its popularity, in honesty the treatments work best in a tropical place like South of India.”

The Kerala tourism authorities are now raising awareness about the Malyalam month of karkikatam (monsoon), the season when the body responds best to Ayurvedic therapies. Since Kerela remains the focal point of interest in India amongst seekers of Ayurveda, as it houses some of the most authentic practitioners and chikitsalayams (Ayurveda hospitals), the tourism board has planned campaigns in the United Kingdom, France and Germany through trade fairs as well as conducting road shows within India to familiarize people with Ayurveda. The steps are making a difference. During the last two years, the number of foreign tourists visiting Kerala has grown 7 percent annually, topping 11.7 million in 2015. But the scope, Ayurveda proponents say, is many times higher.

Things May be Changing

Kama store in Khan Market in New Delhi.
The green movement and a rising interest to return to sustainable and natural roots, is a sweet spot for Ayurveda. There is growing interest amongst Non Resident Indians as well as foreigners in the practice. Shahnaz Husain says, “Most of our clients based abroad are new converts who have shunned synthetic treatments and have found our herbs, bhasmas and flowers so effective that they undertake long journeys for these massages. And if you thought I am only talking about beauty treatments then you are wrong. We have clients who are trusting Ayurveda to heal themselves from serious medical ailments like after effects of chemotherapy.”

Interest in naturalistic healing and nature derived products began in the 1980s, but lack of awareness and promotion stunted the growth of Ayurveda.

Husain recalls: “I created a moisturizing cream for famous romance author dame Barbara Cartland on her request way back in 1988. She came down to India to launch it personally. Cartland in turn also requested me to create a Ayurvedic kohl for Princess Diana. From Queen Mother of England who is said to have found a fondness for Shapeach (a moisturizing hand cream) to Hollywood stars of today, the magnitude of interest Ayurveda is creating over generations cannot be ignored.”

Dr Aravind says there is now renewed and widespread interest in Ayurveda: “We can break down our clients into three categories: the authentic Ayurveda seekers, there are more foreigners than Indians in this category, who plan their journeys to help themselves from an ailment through Ayurveda and follow the strict dietary and other restrictions too. The other category comprises mostly foreigners and a significant number of them are Europeans, who mix leisure with Ayurveda, and the third category is mostly Indians and NRIs who come purely for leisure, but just want a slice of Ayurveda because of the ongoing craze.”

Founder Vivek Sahni says,”It is important we bring credibility to Ayurveda.”
The inflow of tourists seeking out Ayurveda is growing, though a majority of Indians may not be actively seeking to travel to the South for the authentic forms of Ayurveda.

ITDC’s Tiwari says: “The ministry has been marketing Ayurveda as part of the ‘health tourism.’ The government has been aggressively promoting Ayurveda/wellness for the last couple of years under the Ministry of Tourism’s ‘Incredible India Campaign.’ The ministry has also circulated guidelines for accreditation of Ayurvedic and Panchkarma centres to all state governments for implementation. Apart from this, a new category of Medical Visa has been introduced, which can be given for specific purpose to foreign tourist coming to India for medical treatment, including Ayurvedic therapies.”

India has moved up 13 notches in Tourism and Travel competitive index and the medical tourism market in India reached $ 3.9 billion in 2014. The tourism industry is also looking to the expansion of E-visa scheme, which aims to double the tourist inflow to India.

A study by SRI International, a non-profit research institute, projects India to be the fastest growing nation in the wellness tourism sector in the next five years, clocking over 20 per cent gains annually through 2017. And while the medical tourism market continues to be dominated by allopathic and surgical procedures, Ayurveda also benefit, owing to its restoring and recuperative treatments. The government is reportedly mulling adding Ayurveda to the medical tourism streams for which visas are already issued.

Janet Hall, a 46-year-old musician from America says: “After my knee surgery in the US I came to India to meditate and relax according to Ayurvedic principles. I followed a cleansing diet, identified my doshas. And now I lead a lighter, healthier life.”

The government has also set up a dedicated department called Ayush,which includes Yoga, Ayurveda, Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homeopathy. The combined sector has an estimated annual turnover of about Rs 120 billion.

The Problems Within

Vivek Sahni of Kama Ayurveda says, “Though Ayurveda has a proven history, for the uninitiated it is an obscure system where there is no reference of the ingredients sold in brown bottles. Also a vaidya (physician) explaining the merits may not be convincing for the upwardly mobile generation. So it is important that we bring credibility to it.”

Niraamaya Retreat in Kerala, is among India’s most luxurious Ayurvedia resorts.

Sophisticated packaging and availability of the products in some of the ritzier locations seems to help, especially for the well-traveled cosmopolitan generation. Besides, given India’s diversity, the success of Baba Ramdev’s Patanjali range of products, which include everything from hair care to desi ghee (clarified butter), has reinvigorated the interest in Ayurveda among the masses. Patanjali Ayurveda founded in 2006 as a then unregistered company clocked revenues of $360 million in 2014-2015. Intrigued by its phenomenal success, Indian consumer companies are looking at expanding their portfolio of Ayurveda products. In some forms Ayurveda has always been a perennial favorite; Dabur’s Chywanprash (a marmalade like product made of herbs), which accounts for nearly 40 per cent of the company’s sales, has been a hot seller not just in India, but amongst Indians settled abroad too.

Ayurveda promoters say the next stage for Ayurveda is to explain its benefits in relatable and scientific terms. A project funded by the Austrian Science Fund FWF aims to reconstruct the original texts from Charksamhita (A pre 2nd century Sanskrit text on Ayurveda) by a Vienna based team of scientists. Also at the 17th International Ayurveda Symposium 2015, held in Birstein, Germany, experts from 14 countries including Argentina, New Zealand, United Kingdom and India, focused on the integration of Ayurveda into the Western modern medical system.

Tiwari says, “Unlike modern medical treatments, Ayurvedic therapies and medicines are based on ancient scripts and are primarily herbal, drawing on the vast botanical wealth of the Indian sub-continent including minerals, gemstones, steam baths and oil massages. There is a need to re establish Ayurveda with more research and scientific evidence.”

He takes a realistic approach adding: “Even though Ayurveda now qualifies under Complementary and Alternative Medicines (CAM), it is not easy to bring it to the level of pharmaceuticals, because of the mindset and lack of information associated with alternative medicines.”

Dr Aravind of Niramaya Retreat says: “Most countries do not allow import of Ayurvedic oils as they are not accepted as conventional medicine. Also pharmaceutical companies and allopathic practitioners do not want Ayurveda to be promoted. But things are changing, years ago there were no structured programs to promote Ayurveda.”

Today there are state approved Ayurveda colleges even in the United States, such as the California College of Ayurveda established in 1995 by Dr Marc Halpem, a renowned Ayurveda practitioner.


‘Ayurveda is the only solution,’

Shahnaz Husain, chairman and managing director of her billion-dollar Ayurvedic beauty brand, talks about Ayurveda and its place in the contemporary world.

What are the basic tenets of Ayurveda?

Established 5000 years ago, by the great sages of India, Ayurveda is the oldest system of herbal healing in the world. Literally, Ayurveda means, ‘The Science of Life.’ Ayurvedic philosophy is based on the belief that the human body, plants and all natural substances are part of universal life. Centuries ago, Ayurveda even addressed the problem of ecology.

Ayurveda is based on the theory of “Tridosha”…. The three “doshas” represent combinations of the five elements of Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Ether, giving rise to the three basic constitutions of the human body. The three “doshas” are Vata (a combination of Air and Ether); Pitta (a combination of Fire and Water) and Kapha (a combination of Earth and Water).

The three doshas not only determine individual constitution, but our physical form and other attributes, our mental make-up and even individual metabolic processes.

Do you think the ancient techniques involving heavy oil massages and pungent smelling herbs will appeal to the millennials?

While Ayurveda does rely heavily on herbs and oils, but if you study the texts there is enough to derive a cure for every possible ailment. In fact the modern world needs a holistic system like Ayurveda, as it can be most relevant to current lifestyles, in terms of counteracting the degenerative processes, environmental pollution, toxic build up and mental stress.

Recently I was invited to a Hollywood event in Beverly Hills, California, where I introduced my Starlight range of formulations. The line has been specially created for film and television stars, who have to counter the damaging effects of exposure to harsh arc lights, sun, pollution, dust, wind and heavy make-up. After my interactions with celebs that looked for a cure to combat this stress, I carefully went back to the ancient formulations and adapted them with scientific techniques to give them Ayurveda in a jar.

How do you foresee the Ayurveda market in the world?

Cultural industries, like Ayurveda, play an important role in the economy of developing nations, not only in terms of economic growth, but also to achieve social stability, generate employment, create wealth and also preserve culture. My experience has been in the Ayurvedic beauty care business and I have seen everywhere that I have been invited to lecture — be it at MIT or Harvard Business School or at the Oxford University — the interest in Ayurveda has been immense.

Now we hear that leading research and medical institutions in the U.S.A., like Harvard, Mt. Sinai, University of California and others, are conducting studies on the benefits of the Ayurveda.

Deepak Chopra, the renowned wellness expert, has already conducted studies on the effects of Yoga and meditation on the genes. The research on Ayurveda by medical institutions will deal with various aspects, like the effects of Ayurvedic remedies on the genes, metabolism, hormones, stress, bacteria etc.

The modern world having reeled under the side effects of chemicals has now no option but to go back to natural healing and Ayurveda is the only solution.

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