Deepak Chopra arrives at the hotel, diamond-studded glasses twinkling in the sun. He’s just finished his daily two-hour meditation session, followed by an hour of yoga. He has the prospect of a 10-mile walk ahead of him, followed by his one (vegetarian) meal a day, so it’s no surprise that he’s glowing. Either that, or he’s exhausted.
The bestselling American author — who, in the 30 years since he rose to public attention as a pioneer of ‘mind-body medicine’, has been variously dismissed as a self-help guru, a ‘spiritualist to the stars’ (he counts Oprah Winfrey among his best A-lister friends) and a ‘personal transformation icon’, is in the UK to talk about his new book, The Healing Self: Supercharge Your Immune System and Stay Well For Life. Written in collaboration with Dr Rudolph E Tanzi, a Harvard neurology professor, it is also, he says, about the importance of taking responsibility for your own health.
‘Many people aren’t aware of the possibility of self-healing,’ says Chopra. ‘We’re not talking about anything outside proven medical practice, like placebos or faith healing. We don’t promise cures for cancer or incurable diseases, and once you have developed a full-blown disorder, you must seek qualified medical care.
‘But staying healthy is often seen as a gamble,’ he says. ‘People lose control of their situation. It doesn’t have to be this way — self-healing is invisible, not mystical.’
Take diet, for example, one of the many aspects of self-healing covered in the book.
‘It’s now recognised by doctors that low-grade chronic inflammation, a condition with almost no overt signs that you would generally be able to detect, is linked to more and more disorders, including heart disease and cancer. Fighting that inflammation is absolutely critical to total immunity, and that involves controlling stress and diet. ‘This,’ says Chopra, ‘is something we can all do.’
It’s hardly earth-shattering that eating well is good for you, but Chopra’s wider point is that not being in full control of your health — ‘thinking that known risk factors, such as eating high fat, sugar and salt, or not bothering with exercise, don’t apply to you’ — is slowly killing us. ‘The only magic thinking involved is by those who think that they can carry on eating, smoking and drinking and get away with it,’ he says.
It’s not just those with poor lifestyles that Chopra has in his sights; he also blames the current medical system for many of our ills.
‘Forty per cent of all diseases are iatrogenic,’ he says, ‘which means they result from medical treatment. I think doctors and hospitals are dangerous, unless it’s for acute intervention. In the States at least, physicians are the number one cause of addiction; opiate addiction is going to destroy the country and more people are dying of it in the US than the rest of the world combined. More people have died through this than a combination of all the wars America has been involved with.’
And Chopra, 70, should know. Born in India, where he trained as a doctor, he moved to New Jersey in the 70s with a wife and two young children. As a lowly consultant neuroendocrinologist in Boston, he found himself working flat-out in ‘a job that brought me no joy. I smoked and drank and felt life was meaningless.’ It was an experience that informs much of the thinking in The Healing Self.
Combining his medical knowledge with transcendental meditation and ayurvedic philosophy to encourage a more holistic approach to medical care helped Chopra to turn his life around.
Yet ever since his 1989 book, Quantum Healing, became a global bestseller, the medical establishment has vilified his singular approach to what he calls integrative medicine. ‘People always attack what they can’t understand,’ he says. Which is why at the heart of The Healing Self is a simple proposition to appeal directly to the reader’s self-interest in being healthy.
So how, then, should we boost and protect our immune system? A better diet is a given, he says, and as good as any place to start is avoiding a few ‘old enemies’: sugar, alcohol, too much meat, sweeteners.
‘These can seriously damage the gut microbiome,’ says Chopra. ‘They cause essential bacteria to release so-called endotoxins, and if these leak through the intestinal wall into the bloodstream, markers for inflammation are triggered. A healthy diet helps keep your gut microbiome in order.’
But it’s not as simple as cutting down on booze and burgers and eating more broccoli. There are other contributory factors as to why some people get sick and not others, says Chopra. He points to research that has shown that some people have ‘emotional immunity’, which can protect against infection.
In one study, participants were given a dose of rhinovirus in their nose; some got colds, others didn’t. They were marked on a list of 12 relationships — friends, family, clubs, church, etc. Those with few relationships were more likely to show cold symptoms than those who had more.
Similar results were found by the University of Texas medical school when they examined mortality rates of open heart surgery patients. People were asked if they regularly participated in social groups, and whether they draw strength and comfort from a spiritual faith. Those that said ‘yes’ had a less than 5 per cent chance of mortality six months after surgery. For those who answered ‘no’ to both questions, it was 25 per cent.
After 88 books, Chopra is still at it, throwing curveballs to make readers rethink their health and lifestyle. ‘I am writing my next book, probably the last one I will write. It will be called ‘Metahuman: Waking Up to Fundamental Reality’. I want to spend the rest of my life exploring the nature of fundamental reality — what the universe is made of, the nature of our consciousness.’
Like or loathe his approach, Chopra is a shrewd businessman. He has earned enough money to put him in the top 2 per cent of earners in the United States, which has helped him make enemies who accuse him of ‘selling out’ to his beliefs. ‘People don’t question when conventional doctors earn annual salaries in the millions of dollars, but if you do it through alternative sources, you’re immediately suspect,’ he says. ‘I make money from my books, but that’s hit and miss,’ he says. ‘Books aren’t read as much these days. My income now comes from my lectures.’
So what does Chopra do with his millions?
‘I keep $30,000 in the bank. I give my wife money to spend on our three grandchildren. Otherwise, I don’t need money. I prefer to get some cash from the bank and give it to people who need it on the street. I don’t want a car, and live in New York as it’s easy to walk everywhere.
‘Holidays? I take a week maybe twice a year. But fancy restaurants? No, I don’t need that. I don’t drink, and we entertain very little — we have a few friends who might come round to talk about my latest research.’
Chopra also started the Chopra Foundation, which involves his son Gotham, a film producer and director, and his daughter Mallika, a published author and entrepreneur. The Foundation helps send two and a half million children to school in India and it also supports an orphanage.
What about life’s little luxuries? He admits a fondness for ‘a decent hotel and first or business-class flights, both usually paid for by my sponsors. Oh, and a good cup of coffee occasionally.’ But that’s as far as extravagance goes.
When it comes to his own health, Chopra also walks his talk. ‘I take no tablets, and am very healthy. I have the physical fitness of a 35-year-old,’ he says. And I believe him. He looks terrific.
And finally, what about those diamond glasses? He smiles. ‘They’re a gift from my grandkids. The stones are fake. What would I do with real ones?’
The Daily Telegraph