East Meets West
medicine brings traditional and alternative techniques together
in a joint quest to heal
Patricia Brown was diagnosed with breast cancer nine years
ago, she initially relied on conventional medicine to manage
her disease. As a professor of biology at Siena College, Brown
was more interested in hard science than alternative forms
of healing such as acupuncture, meditation, nutrition, herbal
remedies and imagery work. But after having a mastectomy just
three months after her diagnosis, she started to wonder if
there were additional options for managing her illness. “It
wasn’t until I was diagnosed with cancer that I explored alternative
forms of healing,” says Brown. “After all, I am a scientist
and I believed in Western medicine because it is, in theory,
all based on scientific evidence. But since my diagnosis,
I realized there were a lot of limitations with Western medicine.
Part of this is that we overtreat with things like chemotherapy,
we overbelieve in mammograms and we oversell radiation, and
science doesn’t explore it. We do this without looking at
other forms of healing.”
for healing: Margaret Roberts founder of Pen & Palette.
Photo By Teri Currie
networking with other cancer survivors, Brown began to hear
about nonconventional practices that were helping people manage
their illnesses. The first alternative method she tried was
mind-body psychotherapy, which is a combination of relaxation
and massage coupled with physiotherapy.
just could feel the difference in my body,” says Brown. “I
just felt differently afterwards, more relaxed, and I had
not felt that with other treatments. That was the start, I
In the nine years since her diagnosis, Brown has incorporated
a plethora of alternative healing techniques into her medical
treatment regime, including imagery work, meditation, art
therapy, nutrition and acupuncture. She is an active member
of the group called Pen & Palette, where members use artwork
as a way of expressing their feelings about having breast
has allowed me to explore a deeper meaning of the disease,”
says Brown. “It is not a support group, but it is very supportive.”
Margaret Roberts, founder of Pen & Palette, says that
doing artwork offers an emotional balance that keeps one’s
intuition and imagination alive after having gone through
many invasive medical procedures. She started the organization
after both her sisters passed away from cancer. She has found
that many women who have joined the group have found a way
to express their emotions and deal with traumatic feelings
about living with cancer, which in turn, she says, has had
beneficial effects on their healing process.
involved in any type of creativity helps people,” says Roberts.
“Arts are a form of communication. It helps people communicate
with family and friends and even their medical teams about
some of the problems that they are having. It also offers
an emotional balance to people while going through therapy.
This relaxes them and reduces stress, which
aids in the healing process.”
While 10 years ago, programs such as Pen & Palette were
mostly balked at by the mainstream medical profession, a shift
has slowly been taking place: A number of hospitals, medical
schools and organizations are acknowledging the positive effects
of what is now called Complementary and Alternative Medicine.
The movement looks to integrate alternative forms of healing
into mainstream medicine. The long-term goal is to have one
health system instead of two, where both ideologies of healing
coexist. So a patient who is undergoing therapy for cancer
may also be required to seek acupuncture, herbal remedies
and energy work to complement his or her treatment. The hope
is that this will lead to a medical system where all types
of healers will work together to cure illness and disease
rather then having an “us versus them” mentality. Everything
from chiropractic work, acupuncture, energy healing, creative
visualization and—yes—even coffee enemas fall
under CAM’s umbrella.
Dr. Robert Weissberg is a family practitioner in Albany who
has been taking an integrative approach to medicine since
1983. He says integrative medicine looks to heal the whole
person by including the best of standard, complimentary and
alternative medical systems to enhance health, wellness and
integrative approach takes in the idea that there is not only
a mind-body interaction,” says Weissberg, “but that interaction
may be very critical and that the mind is not just centralized
in the brain but all over the body. . . . We are willing to
take the best of what any alternative systems have to offer.
We are not just looking to simply cure the disease—we are
looking to promote the whole healing process.”
Nationally, many of the country’s leading hospitals and medical
schools have been looking for ways to incorporate CAM into
their conventional medical practices. Georgetown University,
Harvard, Duke, Columbia, the University of Arizona and the
University of Maryland all have centers for integrative medicine
where research and training take place. With these integrative
programs, practitioners can become licensed in alternative
forms of healing, and at many sites, like at the University
of Maryland, clients can receive alternative treatment therapy.
In fact, many medical colleges now require students to take
classes in CAM.
Further, the National Health Institute’s Office of Alternative
Medicine, which as recently as 1998 was a small operation
with a working budget of $2 million, is now a federal agency,
renamed the National Center for Complementary and Alternative
Medicine, with a budget exceeding $100 million.
This wave of integrative medicine is slowly starting to hit
the Capital Region. Just two years ago, St. Peter’s Hospital
Care Services started a program dedicated to alternative healing.
Complementary Therapy Health and Healing Services works
to integrate complementary therapies such as reiki, therapeutic
touch, guided imagery, focused breathing, hand massage and
music/art therapy into conventional care. The program trains
all newly hired nurses in mind-body interventions. In addition,
staff at all SPHCS sites can request and receive specialized
training in alternative methods for patients.
Dr. Alicia Recore, director of the program, explains that
many of these healing techniques promote relaxation in patients,
which she believes aids the healing process.
simple as it may sound, relaxation is the key to many things
like reducing blood pressure, heart rates, pain, anxiety and
physiological symptoms,” says Recore. “To try to introduce
that and promote that and to have nurses and staff actually
working with patients is the first step.”
She says that referrals for the program have gone up by 700
percent in one year. Referrals come from patients, doctors,
pharmacists and counselors.
programs are really very effective in dealing with pain and
anxiety,” says Recore. “Conventional medicine is excellent
for acute incidents and certainly for emergency medicine,
but for chronic conditions, it just isn’t working. Physicians
seem to be very concerned about pain and anxiety levels in
their patients because they know it interferes with the healing
process. Because of this, they seem more willing to say, ‘Maybe
this will help,’ and refer patients our way.”
Recore explains that much of the push toward alternative forms
of healing came after a study was released in 1993 by Dr.
David Eisenberg of Harvard Medical School. His research showed
that 34 percent of all U.S. adults had undergone at least
one nonconventional therapy in 1990 and that consumer out-of-pocket
expenditure for alternative care was phenomenal, totaling
close to $30 million a year. Further, it was revealed
that people make more visits to nonconventional healers than
medical doctors, and that the number of consumers taking
herbal remedies had nearly quadrupled in a relatively short
period of time. However, few people were abandoning conventional
treatment, but rather incorporating the two. The risk of this
was that many people were not telling their doctors about
the alternative practices that they were embarking in, risking
adverse interactions between supplements and prescription
drugs. So Eisenberg called for a more proactive approach to
CAM by federal agencies, private corporations and academic
Henry Pole, vice dean of academic administration at Albany
Medical College, says that this is one reason why students
are required to take classes in alternative medicine.
is important for a doctor to know the risks and benefits of
such treatments,” says Pole, “so that if patients tell a doctor
of an herb they are taking or a method they are trying, the
doctor will know if this will have adversary effects in conjunction
with conventional treatment.”
However, he insists that the main reason students are required
to take these classes is so that they can better serve their
goal is that our students have an understanding of what alternative
medicine is and to be able to present that to patients,”
says Pole. “We believe in patient-centered care, so
we try to teach our students that health care is a partnership
between the two. To say, ‘No, we don’t want to hear about
that’ or ‘We don’t want you to do that’ wouldn’t be serving
Not all are sold on the idea of integrating CAM programs into
mainstream medicine. Many still hold the belief that these
practices are nothing more than sham treatments that are not
backed up by science. In an article by Geoffrey Cowely in
the Dec. 2 Newsweek, a group called Citizens for Science
in Medicine accused a White House panel that supported more
research of CAM programs of overthrowing “science based medicine
in favor of ‘invalidated voodoo.’” And The Washington Monthly
has said that NCCAM is “an expensive medical swindle being
abetted by the nation’s leading medical schools.” Others contend
that the only reason the medical profession is getting involved
with CAM programs is because they see the money-making opportunities
in this field.
While physicians like Weissberg are hopeful that integrative
medicine will someday hold an equal seat with mainstream medicine,
he is not so sure that this is happening at quite the pace
that others claim.
have seen the field change from one of open hostility of anything
that is not mainstream to just one of not complaining,” says
Weissberg, “I still think we have a ways to go.”
Patricia Brown agrees. She says that most of the physicians
she sees are still in the dark about alternative healing techniques.
And she even wonders if hospitals are jumping on the bandwagon
just to attract patients. Nonetheless, she says that the importance
of having these programs more available for people who are
ill takes precedence over the real reasons why they are making
their way into mainstream medicine.
of these things help you deal with fear,” says Brown. “In
many cases you use them on faith. I know there is no proof
that these programs make women survive longer, but it gives
us a better quality of life while we are dealing with the
disease, that is what is important. I can feel immediately
that my body feels better and I can go on about my day. And
that is a benefit that I have not been able to achieve from
other forms of therapy.”
for the burn: A class at Saratoga Yoga.
By Ellen Descisciolo.
Hot, Hot, Hot
up the temperature for a more intense—and sweatier—yoga experience
a particularly cold Sunday morning, I enter a brightly colored
room at Saratoga Yoga armed with a water bottle, a towel,
and an open mind. I am about to experience the phenomenon
of “hot yoga.” The room is heated to about 90 degrees, and
it soon becomes obvious to me that bringing a water bottle
was a really good idea and will be critical to my survival
throughout the next hour and a half.The class, instructed
by Bridgette Shea, is pretty strenuous. But then again, I
have done yoga only once before, so I’m diving into the class
headfirst, with little preparation. I’m sure my tolerance
and flexibility would build if I were to continue to do these
workouts, but as I contemplate this, I’m in the downward dog
position and I feel like my wrists are about to snap. Yes,
this will take some getting used to.
The class involves performing a series of positions over and
over, corresponding with the soft-spoken directions from Shea.
A key to the class, as with all yoga practices, is awareness
of one’s own breathing. Although it doesn’t seem so hot in
the beginning, I gradually feel the effects of the heat and
start sucking down water like crazy.
Traditional yoga has been around for centuries, but hot yoga,
at least in mainstream American exercise circles, is a relatively
recent trend. Some yoga practitioners have found that it works
better for them with the heat turned up. The heat makes your
muscles more malleable, making it easier to maneuver into
deeper stretches. Heat also makes you sweat. The more you
sweat, the more toxins are released, and the more toxins are
released, the more purified your body becomes.
There are different types of yoga practiced in a heated space.
One of the most popular is Bikram’s yoga, established by Bikram
Choudhury, founder of the worldwide Yoga College of India.
Bikram’s is practiced in a room heated to 105 to 115 degrees.
“Hot yoga” is based on Ashtanga yoga (one of the most common
types practiced in the United States), and done in a room
heated to 90 to 100 degrees. Besides the 10-degree temperature
gap, another difference between the two is that Bikram’s yoga
is limited to 26 poses, each one held for a relatively long
time, as Bikram’s stresses endurance.
Saratoga Yoga owner Mark Kinder, 33, got into yoga because—believe
it or not—he used to be a skydiver. Kinder started practicing
yoga in order to warm up for jumps. He soon felt that the
yoga was benefiting him physically and spiritually, and he
began to feel distanced from his skydiving friends, who were,
for the most part, partiers and drinkers. Kinder stopped drinking
and eating meat, and began practicing yoga full-time, training
in Florida and India. In 1999, he began teaching professionally,
and he brought hot yoga to Saratoga in November 2001.
Asked what motivated him to teach hot yoga instead of traditional
yoga, Kinder replies, “Wherever I was practicing, it was hot!
India was hot, Florida was hot.” Kinder goes on to explain
that when he practiced in unheated spaces, he didn’t feel
that he was purifying his body with the same effectiveness
as when he practiced in heat.
Not everyone is sold on the benefits of hot yoga. Casey Bernstein,
creator-director of the Center for Body/Mind Awareness in
Albany, teaches Vinyasa yoga or “yoga flow,” which, she explains,
integrates sun salutations (a series of movements used to
warm up the body) with conscious breathing and connecting
positions. Bernstein doesn’t teach hot yoga, but she has taken
a couple of hot yoga classes. Each time, she says, she left
the class feeling dizzy and spaced-out. She admits that her
woozy feeling could have been caused by dehydration. Bernstein
says that a lot of people are trying hot yoga without really
knowing what they’re getting into, and they go into classes
unprepared, which makes it potentially dangerous to their
health. A little research helps: For example, one studio’s
Web site advises that its students don’t eat for approximately
two hours before attending a class, and that they arrive totally
individual has to be really mindful of their own practice,”
If you’re a beginner and you decide to take a hot yoga class,
make sure you follow the Boy Scout golden rule: Be prepared
(which means make sure you’re hydrated). And don’t
try to overdo it the first day. Most likely, the people you
see around you who are twisting themselves into curious pretzel-like
shapes have been doing this a lot longer than you.
After taking the class, it makes a lot of sense to me to practice
in a heated space. Yes, you’re going to sweat. A lot, even.
But it seems to me that the benefit of the heat is worth becoming
the sopping wet mess you transform into by the end of the
As I leave the studio, Kinder asks me if the class was hot
enough for me. Boy, I’d say so. I was a bucket of slop. Although
I respect the practice and enjoyed myself at the class, I
don’t think yoga is for me. But it was an eye-opening experience—when
I wasn’t blinking sweat beads away.
your body: Jeanette Sommer of Albany Pilates Center.
by John Whipple.
an exercise regime established in the early 1900s, perseveres
to find new popularity today
3 AM. Suddenly you’re awake, you glance at the television
and realize that the late-night programming you had been watching
has turned into infomercials. You’re just about to shut off
the TV (or change the station) when you see Daisy Fuentes
touting the benefits of a body-sculpting system called Winsor
Pilates. You find yourself watching, because you can’t remember
when you last saw Ms. Fuentes looking that good, and
you come to find out that Winsor Pilates is a buy-it-from-TV,
do-it-at-home version of the Pilates Method, a body-conditioning
system developed by Joseph Hubertus Pilates more than 75 years
ago.So why is the Pilates Method gaining noteworthiness today?
Albany Pilates Center owner Jeanette Sommer, who has been
certified in and teaching Pilates for four years, says, “I
really think that celebrities brought it to the forefront.
I think it would have come to the forefront eventually; it’s
just that around the same time, several celebrities started
doing it and people started noticing a change in their bodies.
. . .That’s when all of a sudden you started to hear, ‘Pilates,
Pilates.’ ” Among the Pilates-practicing celebs: Courteney
Cox, Danny Glover, Madonna, Tiger Woods, the San Francisco
49ers football team and, of course, Daisy Fuentes.
The method originated with namesake Joseph Pilates who, as
a child in Germany, was frail and plagued by maladies. Determined
to achieve fitness and health, he studied both Eastern and
Western forms of exercise, including yoga and ancient Greek
and Roman regimens, and had some success as a boxer and gymnast.
He was also an acrobat, skier and diver. He moved to England
in 1912, and after World War I broke out, Pilates, a German
national, spent the duration of the war in an internment facility,
where he developed his system of original exercises. (This
became contrology—the complete coordination of body, mind
and spirit.) He worked on other internees who suffered from
wartime diseases and devised equipment to rehabilitate them,
using the springs from the beds and rigging exercise apparatus
for the bedridden.
It was these humble beginnings that led to the modern form
of Pilates. In 1925, Pilates made his way to New York City
and opened a gym in the same space as several dance studios
and rehearsal spaces. During the early years in the United
States, Pilates really belonged to dancers. You’d find studios
in the bigger cities that had large dance communities. According
to Sommer, “Even in New York there was only, really, one studio.
There were people teaching it out of their homes, but there
was really one studio there at the time. It really wasn’t
available, it was kind of word of mouth. You had to know someone
that knew someone that was taking classes to find it. It’s
only been in the last five years that it’s been more widely
George Balanchine, cofounder of the New York City Ballet,
found Joseph Pilates because of dancers who needed surgery
and might not return to 100-percent form. Sommer says, “Someone
told him about Pilates and they said, ‘You know, you should
try this guy because he’s doing really remarkable things with
rehabilitation.’” So Balanchine started requiring that all
his dancers learn Pilates, not just the ones who were injured.
“And then he [Pilates] ended up designing exercises specifically
for them,” continues Sommer. “He learned things about movement
by watching them, they learned things by studying with him,
and it just became this really great symbiotic relationship.”
Pilates is basically the incorporation of resistance into
the movement you would do in yoga, T’ai Chi and martial arts.
It focuses on aligning the “big” muscles of your torso, to
teach your body and your brain to communicate with each other
through repetition. “Neuro-muscular reprogramming is one way
to think of it,” says Sommer. Pilates uses machines and “mat”
or floor work to help reprogram the body and mind so that
all of the muscles are working together.
Two of the machines used are the reformer and the cadilac.
“You sense where your body is in space and how your body is
moving in space by being on the equipment,” says Sommer. “The
reformer helps us strengthen our muscles a little faster and
the cadilac helps us to feel the muscles that need to be stretched
more. But in the end it all comes down to—now we get on the
floor and we have no equipment whatsoever—‘Can you find what
that felt like and use those muscles correctly?’ ” Her clients
have begun to see improvement in the other physical areas
in their lives. The golfers feel that it was designed for
golfers; swimmers and skiers feel it was designed for them.
don’t understand—it’s meant for the body,” Sommer counters,
adding that people should “just enjoy their bodies and enjoy
movement. I don’t think you can enjoy life without feeling
good. We’re in this body day in and day out and if it’s not
working right, that’s going to affect how you relate to life,
to other people, to the world in general. And you stop using
your body when that happens.”