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Though I've experienced firsthand the tangible health benefits of yoga and meditation, there are times when I've gone to the doctor for the "nuclear option": a dose of Western medicine when the body's own pharmaceutical panoply is unable to contend with the ailment at hand. Of course, I'd prefer not to resort to such extreme measures, but sometimes it seems unavoidable.
Many of us have sought to complement Western medicine with the wisdom of Eastern traditions, whether we've turned to acupuncture, herbal remedies, meditation, yoga or ayurveda. As Western physicians become more knowledgeable about these systems, Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM) therapies are gaining credence alongside conventional medical treatments.
The conference "Longevity & Optimal Health: Integrating Eastern & Western Perspectives," organized by Tibet House US and the Columbia Integrative Medicine Program, brought together superstars from the fields of science, medicine (East and West), and spirituality to discuss how Western medicine can learn from the Indo-Tibetan traditional schools of healing. Featuring presentations from accomplished Tibetan doctors as well as scientists such as Elizabeth Blackburn and Leonard Guarente — who have done groundbreaking research into the biology of longevity — the event reflected the growing dialogue between traditional and Western medical practitioners.
In his opening remarks at the event, Indo-Tibetan Buddhist scholar Robert Thurman commented on the profound benefits of one such "complementary therapy." "Meditation is a big help," he declared, as he went on to enumerate the physiological benefits of the practice, such as slower heart rate, lower blood pressure and lower cortisol levels. The essential question, Thurman said, was to figure out "how to derive things to help ordinary people."
One way to do that, of course, is by demonstrating the results of alternative therapies through studies and experimentation, which several organizations such as the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine, the National Cancer Institute, and the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine are now doing.
The experimental evidence amassed at these programs helps to prove the legitimacy of alternative techniques while convincing skeptics of their benefits. Among the studies currently underway at the Columbia Integrative Medicine Program, which was co-founded by Mehmet Oz, are a project showing how yoga-derived breathing exercises can improve lung capacity in those with congenital heart failure. At the Osher Center, researchers are looking into pranayama as a treatment for depression in older adults.
In the realm of cardiac care, meditation seems to be one of the best things. Dean Ornish, a former student of Swami Satchidananda, has shown that patients with heart disease are able to reverse their symptoms by making changes in diet and adding a regimen of meditation and exercise. Ornish's work demonstrated the efficacy of such an alternative therapy to the point that Medicare agreed to cover costs for those patients participating in the program. Speaking at the conference, Ornish noted, "You couldn't convince Medicare to pay for these things if you said that you wanted the subjects to achieve oneness with the universe, but you can do it if you show that you can save them money."
Alternative therapies are also being considered as a way of treating illnesses and diseases such as cancer and AIDS. In a study to be undertaken at M. D. Anderson's Integrative Medicine Program, based at the University of Texas, scientists are investigating the impact of Tibetan yoga on women who are receiving chemotherapy for breast cancer. Degenerative disorders have also garnered interest as a focus of investigation. The neuroscientist Cynthia Husted and the Tibetan doctor Lobsang Dhondup have been working together to develop a treatment for multiple sclerosis by establishing a correlation between certain cellular structures and the framework of the Tibetan medical system.
In pretty much any realm you can think of, resources are now available in which doctors or specialists in alternative medicine explore the benefits of CAM treatments. For new moms or moms-to-be, there's The Whole Pregnancy Handbook by Joel Evans and Robin Aronson. Parents seeking some guidance for how alternative medicine might be helpful for their children can refer to books like Lauren Feder's Natural Baby and Childcare. A more general guide to CAM includes Balanced Healing.
Online, Andrea Pennington and Andrew Weil offer their insights on alternative approaches to good health. The National Institutes of Health offers resources for herbal and alternative medicine and the New York Online Access to Health has a section on CAM; to sort through the overwhelming amount of material available on the web.
One reason that many of us turn to Western medicine is because the results are more immediate; yet it tends to focus primarily on treating only our symptoms. Systems like ayurveda or Tibetan medicine help us to address the underlying causes of our illness. And that, ultimately, is the best prescription for well-being.