Growing up in the Himalayan foothills of Northern India, Shailinder Sodhi, ND (‘93), lived in a world in which food, medicine and community blended into a seamless whole. With his three brothers, he worked in the garden growing eggplant, carrots, tomatoes and other foods for the family kitchen.
He watched his mother practice meditation and yoga, then competed with his brothers to perform the best poses. He did school homework while watching the grazing cows that gave local milk and cheese. He picked herbs and berries in the surrounding jungle.
His mother and grandmother, practitioners of traditional ayurvedic medicine, treated neighbors regardless of their ability to pay. His father taught him to live with passion, whatever he did.
This childhood gave Dr. Sodhi a vision of wellness that guides his work as a healer, teacher and president of a family-run ayurvedic products company, Ayush Herbs. That vision sustained him during his difficult first years in the United States and his later studies at Bastyr University. And it led him to become a driving force behind Bastyr’s Master of Science in Ayurvedic Sciences program, the first such accredited program in North America.
Now, as Bastyr’s first ayurveda students approach graduation and starting their practices, he sees that vision of wellness bearing fruit in his students.
“My finest day was when I heard Bastyr’s ayurvedic program would happen,” says Dr. Sodhi. “There is no other program like this in North America. It started slowly, but it has huge potential.”
Last December, Dr. Sodhi led the program’s first externship in India, bringing six students to study at an ayurvedic college and hospital near his family home in Himachel Pradesh. Students heard lectures from ayurvedic professors at Rajiv Gandhi Government Post Graduate Ayurvedic College, then trained in an inpatient hospital that sees more than 1,000 patients a day.
Dr. Sodhi guided them between the college and his brother Jitinder’s guest house in the shadow of the Himalayas. He made sure they ate fresh local meals, with supplements to ease the rigors of travel.
“He put every ounce of energy into making sure none of us got sick there,” says Emily Passic, a Bastyr student of ayurvedic medicine and naturopathic medicine. “He bent over backward every day to make sure we were happy and healthy and comfortable. He’s really passionate about being healthy and keeping people healthy.”
The two-week externship underscored how far Dr. Sodhi has traveled since his youth.
He studied ayurvedic medicine at a six-year school in India, earning a Bachelor of Ayurvedic Medicine and Surgery (BAMS) degree he hoped to use in the United States. He came to Washington state with his brothers Virender and Tejinder in 1984, earning an ultrasound diagnostics degree to make a living during the recession. During those first years, he wondered if conventional medicine would be his only viable career path.
“I thought whatever would be quick money would be my best alternative,” he says.
Working in a hospital taught him about health challenges in the U.S. In India, infectious diseases such as malaria and typhoid were the greatest threats. In the U.S., it was cancer and chronic disease such as diabetes. After growing up eating three meals at home from local foods, he was shocked at how much his American patients ate fast food.
“That was deeply eye-opening,” he says.
Looking back, those first years in the U.S. were the most difficult in his career, financially and emotionally. Ayurveda was essentially unknown, and it wasn’t clear he could make a career in the medicine he knew best.
In 1985 he went to an Indian culture festival at Seattle Center and met two Bastyr alumni. They told him to consider Bastyr’s Doctor of Naturopathic Medicine program, which would give him training with similarities to ayurveda and a license to practice medicine. In 1993 he and his wife, Anju, both graduated from the ND program and began practicing while raising a baby daughter as well.
As a Bastyr student, Dr. Sodhi discussed the similarities between naturopathic and ayurvedic medicine with professors. Both traditions emphasized the patient’s responsibility for their health; both recognized the connections among mental, emotional and physical health and the major role of nutrition and physical exercise. While both provide highly individualized medicine, he says ayurveda goes further in providing tailored instructions for each patient.
Soon after graduation, Dr. Sodhi was teaching a new ayurveda course in Bastyr’s ND program. That fueled even more interest among students.
“We were teaching the basics, and when we were finished, students asked what to do next,” he says. “We were lighting fires that kept growing.”
He began making the case to University leaders that Bastyr needed its own ayurveda program. There is a growing evidence base supporting yoga and meditation, staples of ayurvedic medicine. There is growing evidence on the safety of well-sourced herbal supplements. (Shailinder and his brothers started Ayush Herbs to bring high-quality, responsibly grown ayurvedic herbs to the U.S.)
Because ayurveda is not a licensed profession in the U.S., practitioners need another degree to practice. Naturopathic medicine was in a similar condition decades earlier, before a group of trained practitioners showed the value of their medicine and won licensure in Washington and many other states.
It took more than 10 years, but Bastyr launched its accredited ayurveda program in 2013. Dr. Sodhi hopes legal recognition will follow as graduates establish careers practicing ayurvedic medicine.
That’s what Passic and her classmates hope to do as they graduate. On the trip to India, she saw how ayurveda functions as primary care medicine in a fast-paced hospital. She watched one arthritis patient receive massage from four therapists at once, then move into a steam sauna, then receive herbal nasal drops in the same visit.
Such therapies showed her the dedication required for potentially transformative health care. That makes it even more important for doctors to relate well to patients, a skill she watches Dr. Sodhi demonstrate at Bastyr Center for Natural Health.
“He’s easy to talk to, which is so important for a doctor,” says Passic. “Patients want to be able to tell their doctor things and not feel judged, and he can do that. He knows that ayurveda can be a hard journey because it’s asking patients to make major lifestyle changes. He gets patients to do that because he is empathetic. And he leads by example.”
On the India trip, he would pluck wild herbs from the roadside and quiz students on their Sanskrit names. Or show them how a tejovathi branch, broken into loose fibers, could be used as a simple toothbrush. Students watched as he learned to play traditional drums on the trip, one more hobby to join singing, hiking with his children, and meditating at a temple near his Bellevue, Washington, home.
Dr. Sodhi splits his time between Ayush Herbs, treating patients at his private practice, and clinical supervising at Bastyr Center, a juggling act he finds challenging — and rewarding.
“When you love something, it feels like flowing with the wind,” he says. “It doesn’t feel like busyness. It’s a constant battle, but I don’t find it a battle. I love what I do. I go to bed and enjoy what I achieved in the day.”
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