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When East Meets West

Integrative medicine brings traditional and alternative techniques together in a joint quest to heal

When 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.”

Art for healing: Margaret Roberts founder of Pen & Palette. Photo By Teri Currie

Through 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.

“I 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 guess.”

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 cancer.

“This 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.

“Being 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 vitality.

“The 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.

“As 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.

“These 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 institutions.

Dr. 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.

“It 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 patients.

“The 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 the patient.”

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.

“I 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.

“Many 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.”

Going for the burn: A class at Saratoga Yoga.
Photo By Ellen Descisciolo.

Feelin’ Hot, Hot, Hot

Turning up the temperature for a more intense—and sweatier—yoga experience

On 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 hydrated.

“Each individual has to be really mindful of their own practice,” Bernstein says.

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 class.

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.

Work your body: Jeanette Sommer of Albany Pilates Center. Photo by John Whipple.

Find Your Center

Pilates, an exercise regime established in the early 1900s, perseveres to find new popularity today

It’s 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 available.”

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.

“You 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.”

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