From an early age, Kavitha Chinnaiyan knew she wanted to be a physician. It was in her first year of medical school that she knew she wanted to pursue cardiology. For a doctor that practices Western medicine professionally but incorporates Eastern spiritual practice, perhaps it’s a fitting specialty — the heart is traditionally understood as the seat of emotions in human body.
But Chinnaiyan is the first to acknowledge that her spiritual journey didn’t begin with firm conviction, nor did it proceed smoothly. There have been many doubts and many more questions, Chinnaiyan says. “I was quite conflicted as an adolescent. First, we lived all over the place. Second, I attended mostly Christian convent schools. Though there wasn’t a particularly overt effort to proselytize, and most of the teachers were Hindu, there was a subtle influence of Christianity all around. And let’s be honest – Christianity could be very appealing to an adolescent because it is so simple. It is easily explained. And it is not so with Hinduism.”
It was just her good fortune that she attracted the attention of her teacher, Smt. Anantha Lakshmi Natarajan. “She picked me in class one day and said, ‘I will teach you Bhagavad Gita slokas, and I want you to attend slokarecitation competitions.’ That’s it. That changed my life forever.” Natarajan gave her a miniature copy of the Bhagavad Gita, one she’s still holding on to.
After that initial introduction, Chinnaiyan took classes in yoga and meditation alongside her medical education. It wasn’t until several years later, as she settled into her life in Michigan as a young medical professional and mother (Chinnaiyan and her husband Arul are parents to daughters Anya and Annika), that the practice of meditation began to take on greater significance in her life again.
It has been a different kind of evolution to blend this into her medical work, Chinnaiyan says.
She began to offer a six-month long program Beaumont Hospital; the group would meet every other week to meditate and practice pranayam. She also provided practical instruction in incorporating lifestyle changes, based on yoga sutras and Vedanta teachings, concluding the program with a weekend retreat. Now, the program has served as her foundation for teaching others.
Can these methods be integrated into actual medical treatment? Yes, Chinnaiyan says. “I call this the ‘Bliss Prescription.’”
“I have been actually prescribing this in my cardiology practice, to patients. Those who are open minded enough take me up on it. The results show that they benefit from following this program. The practice itself brings up in the practitioner the tools and the methods they need for progress.”
Her hospital and department were supportive of her running the program, and she was careful not to bill it as any kind of an alternative therapy or treatment program. Her findings showed that, over a six-month period, the patients experienced a significant reduction in stress levels and overall improvement in quality of life.
Chinnaiyan feels that the knowledge of Ayurveda neatly complements Western medicine. “While studying in medical college — and even through my residency, here in the US — I used to have many doubts which were not answered in my textbooks or by my professors, she says. “Why a certain something happens in the human body. There was an inability to explain some phenomena through the lens of Western medicine. Then I started studying Ayurveda. Suddenly, it was like a series of bulbs switching on in my brain, lighting up the path of medical knowledge and leading to a deeper understanding. Ayurveda has developed a deeper understanding of how physiology and anatomy worked.”
She is quick to caution that Western medicine has serious value and advantages. “I would never say Western medicine is useless,” she says. “But it also has some gaps in understanding. When I study now, I find complementary explanations from Ayurveda and yoga. So much so that I don’t find them at all to be separate, but quite unified and complementary.”
In her role as a cardiologist, Chinnaiyan distills the Ayurveda jargon into more understandable terminology. “They don’t need to know that their vata is out of balance or kapha is too dominant,” she laughs. “With patients, I just use the day-to-day language. In the body, everything is connected. If something is wrong with one part of the body, usually, the root cause lies elsewhere. I just follow that thread. Sometimes, the patient is surprised because they hadn’t told me about that other part of their life. But usually, they respond positively. They are enthusiastic to understand better.”
Now that she has established herself in cardiology, Chinnaiyan is working to diversify the profession. “Cardiology is heavily male dominated, she says. “The kindness of a couple of people at the correct time helped me to progress in cardiology, but that is not generally prevalent.”
She works as a mentor for younger cardiologists, “but it continues to be a struggle. Even in academia, whether it’s a paper for publication or application for a grant, a submission with male first author has better chance of acceptance. This has to change.”
And she is hoping to lead a broader wellness movement in her field; she has authored two books on spiritual practice and holistic approaches to wellness in the last two years. In them, she reconsiders the Western approach to disease and the body and suggests that Eastern practice is fundamental to that rethinking. “I am just presenting this paradigm shift, realizing the bliss,” she says. “Once you realize this, your relation with the body changes.”