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Talking Shop with Robert Svoboda

The Ayurvedic physician discusses the path that led him from Oklahoma to Africa to India, where he became the first Westerner to earn a degree in Ayurveda.

By Colleen Morton

YJ caught up with ayurveda">Ayurvedic physician Robert Svoboda at a friend's house in Sunnyvale, California. Asked where he is living now, he said he doesn't maintain a regular residence: "It started when I lived in India for 10 years. It felt like a duplicated effort to maintain a house here. Living without a fixed address became an agreeable habit."

Yoga Journal: What are you working on these days?

Robert Svoboda: I'm not entirely clear yet what project I'll take up next. I like it this way; it gives me the opportunity to avoid having to define myself in a particular way, and to allow things to develop on their own.

YJ: Do you still go to India every year?

RS: Yes.

YJ: You grew up in Texas and went to school in Oklahoma—how did you end up in India?

RS: I was 18 when I applied to medical school. The only school that accepted me—because of my age—was the University of Oklahoma. Before school started I wanted to go somewhere dramatic, exotic. So I went to Africa. When I got to Kenya I found out I had won a scholarship to participate in an ethnographical expedition. One week after a total eclipse of the sun, I was invited to join the Pokot tribe (they thought: total eclipse, alien humans, we've got to do something big). I killed a goat with a spear—this was before I became a vegetarian—danced around, drank palm wine, and blood mixed with milk, and had my head plastered with mud. I thought, I don't think I can go back to Oklahoma just yet...

YJ: Then from Africa you went to India?

RS: I flew to England from Kenya, then crossed overland to Nepal, then India, where I decided I needed to stay for a while. In Bombay, I met a gentleman outside a Chinese restaurant who invited me to dinner, and we became good friends. When I asked him how I could get a visa he directed me to a saintly man from Hyderabad who was staying in the apartment below him. One of that man's devotees was a friend of Pandit Shiv Sharma, then India's most eminent Ayurvedic physician.

You're in luck, said Pandit Sharma, the Ayurvedic college in Puna is going to be instructing one batch of students in English beginning this year. That's when I met Dr. Vasant Lad.

YJ: Do you have a yoga practice?

RS: I take "yoga" in the extended definition, which does not rely wholly on asana. I accept Patanjali's definition: citta vrtti nirodhah, restraining the fluctuations of the mind, particularly by pPranayama—controlling prana. Instead of "yoga practice" I prefer the word sadhana, which means spiritual practice. Sadhana suggests anything that moves you in the direction of the Divine.

YJ: I know that you like to chant. Do you listen to much contemporary music?

RS: I like any kind of music, except maybe hard-core techno. I like especially Mozart, Beethoven, Afropop, and of course rock 'n' roll. My mentor, Vimalananda, also liked rock 'n' roll; he found it easy to repeat mantras to.

YJ: What dosha are you?

RS: Vata predominant, pitta secondary. I'm more vata in the body and pitta in the mind.

YJ: So isn't your rather nomadic lifestyle an aggravation to vata, which requires routine?

RS: It certainly could be, but I think there are basically two ways to deal with vata. One is to lead a focused and abstemious lifestyle. The other is to lead a lifestyle of spontaneity, to do what your body tells you to do. But to control vata with spontaneity you must always listen carefully to the body and obey its wishes; your mind may give your body the wrong signals.

YJ: But how do you know when it's only your mind speaking?

RS: If you've cultivated your prana, you can think not only with your head but also with your heart and your gut, your dantian or hara point. When your head, your heart, and your hara are all aligned, you are probably headed in a good direction. But even if you can't quite manage that sort of alignment you can still do useful things with your system simply by paying attention.

Alertness is what's important, and adaptability. My mentor used to say, "Human beings are imperfect. We will always make mistakes. Always try to make different mistakes each time."

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Reader Comments

RISHI

I WAS LUCKY ENOUGH TO ATTEND HIS SEMINAR IN BIR , HIMACHAL PRADESH, INDIA. WITH MY FRIENDS. THAT WAS THE BEST TIME OF OUR LIFE WE FEEL FULL OF POSITIVE ENERGY.WE REALLY WISH TO BE WITH DIVINE PERSON LIKE DR SVOBODA.LOTS OF "PRANAM" TO HIM & THANKS FOR SHOWING US WAY. EAGER TO MEET YOU AGAIN. AUM

Sivam

I can only second that. We could sure use more of his books.

Ginger Lennon

Dr Svaboda's comments are always right on target. His eloquence and wisdom always illuminate the vidya he is immersed in. As a long time student of Ayurveda and yoga, we need of hear more of him.

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