Watch: Dr VL Shyam, UAE’s first licensed Ayurveda practitioner from Kerala, walks down memory lane

Dubai: Talk of Ayurveda in the UAE and one of the first names that pops up is that of Dr V.L. Shyam. The Indian expat doctor from Kerala will tell you how he has come a long way since 2001 when he first landed in the UAE.

“Back then, I was excited to be here. But I was disappointed too,” said Dr Shyam in an exclusive interview. The reason for the disappointment was that Ayurveda was yet to be approved in the UAE at the time.

What is Ayurveda?

Ayurveda is an alternative medicine system with roots in the Indian subcontinent dating back thousands of years. The Sanskrit word loosely translates as “science of life”. Ayurveda often involves using herbs and diets for treatment instead of conventional prescription medicine.

Having studied Ayurveda for over eight years, including surgical practice during his post-graduation, Dr Shyam said it took him a while to overcome the initial “shock”.

But 20 years on, he does not want to be anywhere else other than the UAE.

With a 10-year UAE Golden Visa and many other feathers in his cap, Dr Shyam is now a global ambassador of Ayurveda based in the UAE.

Penchant for Ayurveda

Sharing his journey with Gulf News, Dr Shyam recollected how Ayurveda not having approval in the UAE had come as a shock to him.

He said he was brought up in a traditional middle-class family that trained him to follow disciplined daily routines such as: Early sleeping, morning readings, oil baths, healthy diet, intake of Ayurveda tonics, etc.

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Dr Shyam had an early liking for Ayurveda and wanted to pursue his higher studies in the subject.
Image Credit: Virendra Saklani/GUlf News

“My parents used to teach me about the moon cycle, solstices, seasonal changes, and their influence on health, also about herbs and plants around us. Back in my school days, medicines were home remedies or the recipes from the village Vaidya (Ayurveda practitioner),” he said.

With this background, Dr Shyam naturally found a liking for pursuing Ayurveda for his higher studies.

“After my 12th grade, I got into my BAMS (Bachelor of Ayurveda Medicine and Surgery) at Government Ayurveda College Thripunithura in Kerala. When I studied Ayurveda professionally, those childhood learnings benefited me to develop better insights. I was able to pass the BAMS degree with a gold medal from Mahatma Gandhi University,” he said.

Thereafter, he joined the Coimbatore Arya Vaidya Trust to teach short-term courses on Ayurveda for overseas students.

“I was under the mentorship of the late P.R. Krishna Kumar, head of Arya Vaidya Pharmacy (Coimbatore) Ltd, and he gave me the inspiration to delve deeper into an Ayurveda career. I got my admission for MD in Salyathantra (surgical aspects of Ayurveda) at the reputed Government Ayurveda College Trivandrum and graduated in the year 2000, having my thesis published in ano-rectal diseases.”

Pursuing overseas dreams

It was immediately after his MD that Dr Shyam got the opportunity to start an Ayurvedic centre in Kempinski Hotel in the UAE. He said he grabbed the chance due to the zeal to explore his profession outside India in his younger days, instead of taking up a monotonous government job.

However, when his dreams of providing “Ayurvedic cure” did not materialise, Dr Shyam was not ready to practice just “Ayurvedic care” through spa and wellness therapies.

“I am sure that there have been other Ayurvedic practitioners also at that time in the UAE. But they all had adapted to the situation, continuing with massages and wellness therapies. I didn’t want to be one of them.”

Dr Shyam said he contacted the Ministry of Health, providing explanations about the therapeutic benefits of Ayurveda and offering to undergo any qualifying examination to practise the medicine.

He also created public awareness through various media outlets, including Gulf News, for which he has written over 1,000 columns in Friday magazine and answered over 3,000 patient queries so far.

“I feel I was here at the right time as there was a transformation happening in the healthcare delivery system. As part of globalisation, Ayurveda was getting popular across the globe,” he said

First licence

“In 2002, the Ministry of Health [MOH] formed a department for Traditional, Complementary and Alternative Medicines [TCAM] and officially approved Ayurveda, Homeopathy and Chinese Medicine. I was interviewed by a panel of allopathic doctors in 2002 and received the first license by MOH to practise Ayurveda. Since then, I continue as a member of the TCAM interview board for issuing MOH evaluation licenses for other Ayurveda doctors.”

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Dr V.L. Shyam has made a conscious effort to spread greater awareness about the benefits of Ayurveda in the UAE and beyond.
Image Credit: Virendra Saklani/Gulf News

He said he had taken the licence of a clinic. Yet, he faced challenges.

“One of the main challenges in the beginning was to get the support from general practitioners. Lack of scientific validation of Ayurveda was a big challenge that I have faced in convincing the GPs [General Practitioners] and policy makers. I used to promote the phrase ‘clinical legitimacy’ of Ayurveda which can be a trump card that overrides ‘written legitimacy’.

“I played my role reasonably well…being instrumental in creating more awareness about Ayurveda since then. With the support of the Indian expat population and media, I organised several seminars, conferences, workshops, radio talks and published articles.”

Time for growth

During his initial 10 years here, he opened and operated a few Ayurveda clinics as well as Ayurveda wellness facilities in Kuwait, Malta and Djibouti.

In between, Dr Shyam pursued MPhil in Healthcare Management from BITS Pilani in association with Christian Medical College, Vellore.

Slowly, he started getting awards and recognition for his professional contributions.

“I also received an opportunity from Birla Wellness to develop and operate a chain of Ayurveda clinics across India. In the role of Senior VP Operations, I have opened and operated 30-plus outlets in India – across Mumbai, Bangalore, Chennai and Kerala during 2010-11.”

First clinic

During the same period, Dr Shyam opened a small clinic – Dr Shyam’s Ayurveda Centre in Karama. “I used to visit every month from Mumbai for consultation. In 2011, I left my job in India and started my full time engagement with Dr Shyam’s Ayurveda Centre,” he said.

Currently, his chain operates five clinics – in Karama, Al Nahda, Jumeirah, Dubai HealthCare City and Ajman.

“We are the largest Ayurveda service operator in the UAE having on board 10 doctors, 30-plus therapists and supportive staff offering authentic Ayurveda therapies for several chronic and lifestyle diseases like arthritis, spondylosis, neurological problems, skin diseases, allergies etc.”

Dr Shyam also holds the position as the CEO for ‘Vaidyashala,’ which operates a luxury Ayurveda clinic integrated with Burjeel Day Surgery Centre in Abu Dhabi.

Going global

“I have set up Ayurveda clinics in Malaysia, Morocco, Nigeria and Egypt with investors in these countries and have got my Ayurveda practice license in Malaysia. I also own ‘Back to Roots’, an eco-friendly Ayurveda retreat facility in Kerala that will allow people to embrace nature and connect with their roots,” he said.

He also teaches Ayurveda at the Southern Californian University of Health Sciences, USA, which offers one year Ayurveda certificate programmes.

“I try to take the message of Ayurveda across the globe. I have been active in almost 20 countries, but I have not seen such an acceptance of Ayurveda as in the UAE.”

More recognitions

Earlier this year, he became one of the first Ayurveda practitioners to receive the UAE’s prestigious Golden Visa.

“More than any personal achievements, I believe all these recognitions are for Ayurveda. I am glad that most of the insurance companies in the UAE recognise Ayurveda and treatments by licensed professionals are covered through reimbursement. We are looking forward to the implementation of basic coverage of Ayurveda for workers as well in Dubai,” said Dr Shyam.

The recognition of Ayurveda should make the Ayurveda practitioners, therapists and business houses more responsible to practice authentic Ayurveda with utmost care in the legal and ethical way, he said.

No magic remedy

“Our commitment to ‘get the patient better’ shouldn’t be compromised with gimmicks. Patients should not believe anyone who projects oil massages as a magic remedy for all diseases,” he cautioned.

“My ultimate commitment is to my patients, and I try my best to do justice to the trust of my patients. I have met over 50,000 patients – from paediatrics to geriatric – in the UAE since 2002 and treated acute and chronic health problems ranging from different types of arthritis and musculo-skeletal problems, skin conditions and allergies, gastric issues to autoimmune conditions.”

Spreading awareness

Dr Shyam continues to spread awareness about authentic Ayurveda through various means.

“We conduct events both for the public and Ayurveda doctors separately. I have associated with the Indian Consulate, the Indian Embassy, the Emirates Ayurveda Graduates Association, Science India Forum and several other cultural and regional organisations to conduct several public awareness programmes on Ayurveda. Our clinics operated a free clinic at the Indian Consulate in Dubai, as a part of our Corporate Social Responsibility, in association with the Indian Ministry of AYUSH for five years till the COVID-19 pandemic.”

He has presented papers at several international platforms and was a member at the International Expert Consultation Meeting (IECM) 2019 on WHO Benchmarks Documents for the Practice in Ayurveda and Unani Medicines.

He was also instrumental in the organisation of the first International AYUSH conference in 2017 in the UAE.

“The event had ministerial level participation from the Government of India, 25000 visitors, 182 paper presentations, and participation from 22 countries. The second edition is planned for the first quarter of 2022,” he said.

Connecting with youth

Dr Shyam is reaching out to the younger generation to make them aware of the benefits of Ayurveda.

“I consider social media a good platform to promote Ayurveda among the young generation. My Instagram page has a good following among the young generation. We have submitted requests to include some of the basic principles of Ayurveda and TCAM systems of medicine as a part of school curriculum in UAE. It would be great if any of the medical universities in the UAE starts an Ayurvedic course to create opportunities for Ayurvedic education here.”

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