“When I came to India first, I had been suffering for months from parasites that I had picked up in Africa. And despite several rounds of allopathic treatments I could not eliminate the problem. It was only after I began a programme of treatment with Ayurveda that I could eventually heal. Thereafter, I have continued to use Ayurveda often on myself!” says Dr Robert Svoboda, the first Westerner ever to graduate from a college of Ayurveda and be licensed to practice it in India.
Dr Svoboda’s association with India dates back to 1973, but his leaning towards wellness and medicine had earlier beginnings. Born in Texas, he obtained a B.S in chemistry from the University of Oklahoma and then went on to become the first white member of north Kenya’s Pokot tribe.
“Fortunately, I was good in school, and after graduating with a bachelor’s degree at the age of 18, the next step for me seemed to be to study medicine. It was after getting admitted into a medical school that I decided to travel in Africa, to see some of the rest of the world,” he says.
When he joined the Pokot tribe in Kenya and got to know a couple of its healers, Dr Svoboda realised that there was more to health and healing than modern medicine could provide. So he started looking further. “I first heard about Ayurveda in Nepal, and was extraordinarily fortunate to be introduced to Pandit Shiv Sharma, who was at that time India’s most eminent Ayurvedic physician. Thanks to Panditji, I was admitted to the Tilak Ayurveda Mahavidyalaya of the University of Pune, from where I graduated in 1980,” shares Dr Svoboda.
Dr Svoboda says all you need to do is simply develop a healthy daily routine
In June 1973, he crossed into India overland via the Attari Road border, and that night took a train from Amritsar to Delhi – the first Indian city he spent any time in. “My first impression of the country was that it was overwhelming: so many people, so much activity, such apparent chaos. I didn’t know what to make of it,” he says.
However, he says his overall experience of studying Ayurveda in India was excellent. “I had several sincere, experienced teachers, particularly Vd. B P Nanal and Vd. Vasant Lad, and I was guided overall by my mentor, Vimalananda.”
The move, naturally, came with challenges – the language barrier being one of them. However, Dr Svoboda not only picked up Sanskrit and Marathi but also learnt Gujarati and Hindi. “Fortunately my college had one batch of students that year being taught in English, so I didn’t have to learn both Marathi and Sanskrit simultaneously. After studying Sanskrit for three hours a day for nine months, some momentum developed and I gained a certain confidence in reading that language, and then I tried to pick up a little Marathi, Hindi and Gujarati. Eventually, I focused on Hindi.”
He spends at least three months in India every year and this time around he’s moderating a three-day wellness retreat on The Concept of Time at The Oberoi Sukhvilas Spa Resort, New Chandigarh.
“We all have a concept of time, but it is often implicit, not explicit. It is something we don’t even realise we have, though it affects us significantly. That means that often we interact with the world without realising that we have chosen to do so in a way that does not serve us well. Learning more about how we perceive the passage of time enables us to align ourselves better with temporal reality,” he explains.
Dr Svoboda might have specialised in ancient Ayurvedic techniques, but he is also aware of how the country has evolved over all these years he’s been visiting.
“Forty-five years ago India was much less urbanised, and I was fortunate to be exposed to many traditions that now no longer exist but were still vibrant and vital then, and many sacred sites that were off the beaten path. On the good side of things, phone and Internet are now excellent, and only rarely do I ever see a khatmal anywhere!” he laughs.
His simplicity and lightheartedness translates to his concept of wellness in Ayurveda too. “Pay attention to everything in your life, determine what supports your health and what damages it, and make healthy choices for yourself. Ayurveda is an excellent tool for learning how to navigate existence, which is not at all simple nowadays,” explains Dr Svoboda.
Heal the world
Dr Svoboda will be conducting his wellness retreat on The Concept of Time at The Oberoi Sukhvilas Spa Resort, New Chandigarh
What are the most common ailments his patients approach him with? “It’s surprising as well as refreshing to know that though many people do have serious medical issues, most problems are not complicated even when they appear to be,” he replies. How? “They do not eat right, do not get enough sleep or enough exercise, and they overstimulate themselves. When the causes of a condition are properly dealt with, the symptoms often then disappear automatically,” says Dr Svoboda.
Isn’t participation on three and four day retreats a temporary exercise in disciplining the body and mind? Well, says Dr Svoboda, a few basic wellness techniques can be incorporated into your lifestyle for healthy living. “All you need to do is simply develop a healthy daily routine,” he explains. “It can make a tremendous difference in your life. The human body and mind love healthy habits and the discipline that comes with them, and regularly following a well-rounded wellness pattern is possibly the most important action you can take to promote wellness.”
No wonder the West is taking to the concept of Ayurveda. Interest in it is gradually but progressively increasing there, says Dr Svoboda. “But outside India few people are aware of its existence. Most non-Indians who have heard of Ayurveda know it only from its spa treatments or as a way of classifying people by personal constitution. In my experience, as individuals learn more about the system and the depth of what it offers, they come to greatly appreciate what Ayurveda can do to improve their lives,” says the doctor of Ayurveda who also speaks on Jyotish and Tantra and has written books on Ayurveda that are sold the world over.
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From HT Brunch, February 9, 2020
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