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Searching for the Fountain of Health

In this excerpt from Ken Dychtwald's new book, "Radical Curiosity," he offers a glimpse into how our relationship with medicine has changed through the decades.

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For over 40 years, Dr. Ken Dychtwald has been a leading expert in the field of aging and longevity. His work has taken him on many paths, including founding Age Wave, a company that helps aging populations flow into retirement, and writing over 18 books on aging, health, reinvention, purpose, and retirement. In his new book, Radical Curiosity: One Man’s Search for Cosmic Magic and a Purposeful Life—which received glowing reviews from both Dr. Deepak Chopra and former President Jimmy Carter—Dr. Dychtwald takes a more personal approach to gerontology, introspecting on his own life to share some of the encounters he’s had, which lead him to live a more purposeful life. In this excerpt, he ruminates with his daughter on how yoga, meditation, and holistic health care has shaped his life.

My always curious daughter Casey (currently 34 years old and a yoga practitioner for 20 years) has of late become a critic of Western medicine and a vocal proponent of alternate approaches to wellness. She likes to lecture me about what’s wrong with Western medicine. Although I applaud her curiosity, her enthusiasm sometimes causes me to roll my eyes and sigh. She tells me, “You don’t get it, Dad.” Recently, Casey was home visiting, and she asked me why I was so resistant to the new ways of thinking about the body and mind. The following discussion ensued: 

Casey: Dad, I know you know a lot about the body and mind, but I want to know why you are so unwilling to consider new approaches to health?

Casey and Ken
Casey and Ken

Ken: Let me start by giving you some background. Until I was five, we lived on Lehigh Avenue in Newark, New Jersey, in the same house as my mom’s parents—my grandparents Max and Clara Siderman. Up the block, in a pleasant duplex, was the medical office of Dr. Victor Tepper, our family physician. If there was ever anything wrong, you went to see Dr. Tepper. If we were unable to leave the house for some reason, Dr. Tepper would show up at our front door with his medical bag to do an exam in our home. He usually checked what were then believed to be the key vital signs, so he used his stethoscope to hear how your heart was beating and how your lungs sounded. And he took your temperature and looked at your tongue. That was pretty well it. 

Casey: Was that OK? Did you and your family feel that you were getting great medical care?

Ken: We didn’t know better, so we thought it was fine. Dr. Tepper sure seemed like a kind and wise physician. Besides, back then, anyone who went to medical school was usually thought to be a stand-out individual. Before entrepreneurs, corporate executives, and hedge fund billionaires became glamorized, doctors were professional royalty.

Then, in the late 1960s, as mass media and mind-expanding education began to open the world up to us, we boomers were being taught to question authority. As you know, what emerged was a rebellious, antiauthoritarian mood: It was rebellion against militarism, materialism, gas-guzzling cars, the sexual mores of our parents and grandparents’ generations, and even medicine. That movement opened up a can of worms, for sure. Women—lead by the Boston Women’s Health Book Collective—and then men began to believe that people should have knowledge about and control of their own bodies. 

Ken and Swami Vishnudevenanda
Ken and Swami Vishnudevenanda

Around that time, as you know, I dropped out of college in order to fully immerse myself in the human potential movement at Esalen [The Esalen Institute]. As I upped my daily yoga practice to four hours each day (two hours each morning, an hour in the late afternoon, and an hour before going to sleep), I found that the Hindus don’t see the body as Dr. Victor Tepper did. They believe that the body is a vibrating, pulsing energy field organized around seven vortices, called chakras. It wasn’t some New Age idea—this yogic approach to health had been around for more than a thousand years. Maybe I was very open-minded or maybe I was foolishly gullible (or some combination of both), but I began to wonder if our whole notion of medicine in terms of blood pressure and heartbeat and lungs, and treatment with pharmaceuticals and surgery, was all bullshit. I wasn’t alone. This kind of questioning was popping up in progressive—or impressionable—cities such as New York, LA, Chicago, and San Francisco. When cultural influencers such as the Beatles started having Indian gurus, lots of folks began to wonder if we should all become yogis.

But there was a catch. In our immediate-gratification-oriented lives, the Hindu approach to personal development was very slow moving. Far swifter approaches to mind–body health were swirling—primarily in New York and California. One of Sigmund Freud’s medical students, Dr. Wilhelm Reich, believed that if you wanted to be mentally or physically healthy, you needed to free up your blocked emotions, fears, trauma, or sexual frigidity through intense psychotherapy and by practicing a variety of energetic and expressive movements. Reich believed that the body and mind were united and that at their core they were energy, which he called “orgone.” 

Just when everyone was trying to blend the Hindu and Reichian—Eastern and Western—approaches, elderly Bronx-born biochemist Dr. Ida Rolf showed up with an entirely different approach that promised optimal physical and mental health through 10 structured deep-massage sessions. People flocked from far and wide to get Rolfed by either Ida or one of her trained practitioners. During those years, I was Rolfed more than 150 times and also became friends with Ida.

Casey: OK, Dad. Since you were in the middle of all this, wasn’t it getting confusing? Were people doing crazy things?

Ken: You can’t even begin to imagine the range of things people were willing to try to find a shortcut to the fountain of health—even enlightenment. Suddenly you had a marketplace for anything and everything that promised to make you feel better. And the boundaries between mental and physical health were getting very fuzzy, which I guess I had contributed to a little. 

Ken on the cover of American Yoga
Ken on the cover of American Yoga

Casey: Didn’t people’s common sense guide their openness to try these new things?

Ken: It was all really confusing. I remember wondering if I should practice yoga, be acupunctured, get Rolfed, or attempt a primal scream. For the record, I tried them all! 

Then, swirling up from all this, when I moved to Berkeley from Big Sur, a diverse and high-minded group of doctors, psychologists, tai chi teachers, acupuncturists, psychics, biofeedback scientists, bodyworkers, and nutritionists got together and formed a study group to try to imagine a new model of medicine in which the mind and body weren’t separated and all therapeutic possibilities could be examined. From these meetings, Gay Luce, Eugenia Gerrard, and I started the Holistic Health Council and then the SAGE Project.

Then a young Bay Area physician named John Travis, trained at Tufts and Johns Hopkins, found himself taken by Abraham Maslow’s radical suggestion that you didn’t have to be mentally ill to focus on being more mentally well. Travis applied that notion to the practice of medicine. He was the man who popularized the word “wellness.” At the time the medical establishment thought Travis had totally gone off the rails! 

Casey: Did you write Bodymind during this period?

Ken: Yes, it came out in 1977. 

Casey: Nice work, Dad.

Ken: Thanks. 

Casey: This all sounds so interesting but confusing too. 

Ken: Exactly … and that’s what I was thinking then. Some people tried to connect a number of dots in their pursuit of a new health paradigm. My friend Dr. Dean Ornish followed up on Nathan Pritikin’s diet with a more comprehensive program of nutrition, yoga, meditation, and supportive group co-counseling sessions. His book Dr. Dean Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease became a best seller, and even President Clinton became a vocal fan of Dean’s approach. 

Over the decades, alternative approaches to health have multiplied like bunnies. One “holistic” approach tries to upstage another. One “alternative” nutritional campaign does battle with another. Similarly, the relatively straightforward world of yoga practice has morphed into hot yoga, vipassana yoga, hip-hop yoga, yin yoga, yang yoga, kundalini yoga, earth and sea yoga, indigo yoga, et cetera. Now in this far more entrepreneurial, capitalistic era, we’re being sold skin preparations, hormone therapies, vitamins, prepared meals, pillows, mantras, brain wave supplements, self-help apps, and exercise technology along with books and seminars.

Casey: Are you saying that these people are frauds? This takes me back to my opening question: Are you a skeptic regarding the very holistic health movement you helped create?

Ken: Some are frauds and some aren’t—and it’s not always easy to figure out who is, who isn’t, and who’s just full of shit. Also, just because someone has an interesting insight doesn’t mean they have the knowledge or skills to properly fix the problem. Over the past fifty years, I have heard and seen a thousand different “experts” make the case that they’ve got the secret sauce or treatment that can cure almost everything. Usually they make their case by first proclaiming, “You’ve got some things wrong with you that your Western trained doctor doesn’t properly understand.” Then they usually layer in how “Big Pharma doesn’t want you to get better because they make more money when you’re sick.” I’ve heard that from nutritionists, supplement sellers, energy medicine practitioners, anti-aging doctors, psychologists, chiropractors, life coaches, and biohackers. 

Casey: Don’t you believe in people taking responsibility for their own health?

Ken: Yes. I’m a big believer in self-empowerment. But because there’s so much information out there and so many choices, it can be utterly confusing and overwhelming. Sometimes it’s even just plain wrong, since much of what’s now posted on the Internet is not vetted for truthfulness. 

Do I think that everyone should become their own doctor? No, I don’t. Do I think we should have another era of Dr. Victor Teppers using their stethoscopes and thermometers to check a few vital signs? No. Do I think healthcare should include a wide range of alternative therapies? I do. Ultimately, I believe that in this modern age each of us should be an activist consumer trying to find healthcare providers who either individually or collectively can take a far more holistic approach to helping us manage our health and well-being at every stage in our lives. I think it’s about a partnership. For example, my doctor is at University of California San Francisco, and she follows a practical, high-tech, and traditionally allopathic approach to medicine. In addition, I regularly see an acupuncturist, have been counseled by nutritionists, get several kinds of bodywork and chiropractic regularly, and try to practice yoga and work out every day. And I’ll see a psychotherapist from time to time to sort my way through challenges or life issues. Because I have both high cholesterol and high blood pressure, I also take medications. For me, it’s more of a concert of care than anything, but I do not think I know more than my doctor. If I did, I’d get a better doctor.

Casey: Okay, Dad. So you’ve been there, done that for a lot of what I’m now just learning about. What’s in your crystal ball now? What do you see as the future of medicine?

Ken: A big part of the challenge is that while there are many similarities among us humans, there are lots of differences, too. And since now there might be literally thousands of things to measure and thousands of ways to improve one’s health, how can any one person know for sure which approach or which combination of approaches—with which practitioners—will get the best results? I can’t imagine that any one practitioner can mastermind or curate the right approach to a more holistic medicine for each and every individual. 

However, I think that within a few years, due to advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning, we’re going to transition relatively swiftly from this somewhat chaotic period of health diagnosis and treatment to an era of “precision medicine.” We’re soon going to see scientific breakthroughs that will allow us to arrive at a far deeper and richer understanding of the interactions between our genes, nutrients, molecular activity, and brain-body interactions so that we’ll be able to “holistically” track thousands of biomarkers. And if the AI is informed by a wide range of potential solution paths—allopathic, naturopathic, homeopathic, Ayurvedic, and others (always evolving based on outcomes research)—it could be far more effective at precisely diagnosing what’s not working right and then proposing the ideal constellation of solutions for each individual. This will create an entirely new science and practice of medicine, geared to optimizing physical and mental health, enhancing well-being and happiness, and maybe even forestalling aging.

Casey: Will this new health platform be available to everyone?

Ken: Eventually, but I worry that probably not at first. If optimal health is available to everyone, that would be grand, but if it’s only available to corporate billionaires, that doesn’t seem fair. If you think that income inequality is a big deal, how do you think folks will feel about longevity inequality, which already exists but could multiply?

Casey: Thanks, Dad, for this gift. Hearing your views on all of this was fun and has given me a lot to think about. 

Ken: And thank you Casey for your curiosity and willingness to listen to me. I sure love you.

Excerpted from Radical Curiosity: One Man’s Search for Cosmic Magic and a Purposeful Life by Ken Dychtwald PhD (reprinted with permission, Unnamed Press April, 2021).