An Interview with Dean Ornish, M.D.

Integral Yoga Magazine (IYM): Please tell us about your relationship with Swami Satchidananda.

Dean Ornish (DO): Let me begin by saying that I wouldn’t be alive today if it weren’t for Swami Satchidananda—because I was very close to committing suicide when we first met back in 1972. There’s an old saying that: “When the student is ready the teacher appears,” and that was certainly true for me. He really saved my life at a time when I was despondent. I was in medical school and had a spiritual vision that was more than I could handle, which was that nothing could bring lasting happiness. And this realization combined with the feeling that I was never going to amount to very much—and even if I did it wouldn’t matter anyway—was profoundly depressing. I had gotten a case of infectious mononucleosis that wiped me out. When my parents realized I wasn’t doing well, they brought me home to Dallas to recover. My plan was to get well enough to kill myself.

I was at home when Swami Satchidananda—central casting’s idea of a Swami, with saffron robes and a long white beard—walked in the door and he gave a satsang (spiritual discourse) in our living room. He started off by saying, “Nothing can bring you lasting happiness,” which felt very validating because that’s what I had figured out—even though everyone else was saying, “Oh, get married, get rich and famous, and you’ll be happy.” While he affirmed what I was realizing about lasting happiness, he was beaming and I was miserable! I wondered, What am I missing here?

He went on to say—and this is what really turned my life around—that nothing can bring you lasting happiness because you have it already, if you only don’t disturb that. He explained that, in the process of misidentifying where our peace and happiness come from, we end up running after so many things that we think are going to bring it to us. Doing that, we disturb the inner peace we already have—if we would just stop disturbing it.  It’s one of the great ironies of life.

Swamiji liked to make puns, and when people asked him if he was a Hindu, he’d say “No, I’m an Undo,” which I really love. The process of Yoga and meditation—and for that matter virtually all spiritual practice—is not about bringing us a sense of peace and well-being but, rather, to help us to identify and undo what disturbs our own innate peace and health and well-being. If we have to get our wellbeing from outside ourselves then everyone who has what we think we need has power over us. But if the question becomes, “What am I doing that is disturbing my own inner health and wellbeing?” That’s very empowering because that’s something I can do something about.

IYM: How did these teachings influence the way you pursued a career in medicine?

DO: Swami Satchidananda’s teachings form the basis of the Lifestyle Medicine Program I developed. Lifestyle Medicine is the most exciting trend in medicine today. A healthy lifestyle not only helps to prevent disease, but oftentimes can reverse it. I’ve been doing work in this area for almost 40 years. And we’ve been able to use these very high tech, state of the art, scientific measures to prove how powerful these very simple interventions can be.

We first showed that heart disease was reversible and later we showed that Type II diabetes could be reversed. When people are put on blood pressure medications, cholesterol lowering drugs, or diabetes medication, they ask the doctor, “How long do I have to take these?”, the doctor usually says, “forever.” When we began our research with heart disease, we were able to show for the first time that even severe heart disease could often be reversed when people made intensive changes in diet and lifestyle. That, I learned from Swami Satchidananda: whole foods, a plant based diet, moderate exercise, various Yoga practices, basically an Integral Yoga Hatha class—meditation and breathing techniques, and progressive relaxation, along with what we euphemistically call “social support,” which is really love and intimacy.  Eat well, move more, stress less, and love more. Sometimes people have a hard time believing this—that simple changes can have such powerful outcomes, but they often do.

One of the most important things that I learned from Swami Satchidananda was that he would always ask, “What’s the underlying cause?” revealing a causal chain of events that leads to a problem. If we can treat the underlying cause and not just literally or figuratively “bypass” the problem, our bodies often have the remarkable capacity to begin healing. Underlying causes are, to a large degree, the lifestyle choices that we make each day: what we eat, how we respond to stress, whether or not we smoke, how much exercise we get and, perhaps most important, how much love and support we have.

IYM: Fifty years ago, there was no such thing as Lifestyle Medicine. Now, it’s gaining wider acceptance?

Read the rest of this article in the Spring/Summer 2016 issue of Integral Yoga Magazine.