search feedback link archive home

Parathyroid hormone may help battle osteoporosis

Doctors control spread of antibiotic-resistant bug

Healthier cattle feed benefits animals and people

Younger than 55? Alcohol risks outweigh benefits

Women have poorer body image than men

Finding disease genes may not be so difficult

Drug users need regular medical, drug abuse care

Study links child's depression with later obesity

RAND: US faces healthcare 'quality deficit'

Exercise keeps women's minds in shape


The Natural Pharmacist: Striking a Balance

Perk Up with Periwinkle

The Natural Pharmacist: Introducing Christopher Terf, R.Ph.

Cleansing the Inner Self

Chronobiology: The Rhythm Method for Overall Health


May 24, 2000
Congress Enters the New Age
Government-sponsored meditation centers encourage self-healing
By Rebecca Shannonhouse

illustration: Michael Alto

In a dimly lit room, not far from the rumble of New York City traffic, Nancy sits silently in the lotus position. She concentrates on each breath to quiet her mind. Each week, she follows the same ritual at Columbia-Presbyterian's Center for Meditation and Healing. Once hospitalized for depression, the 41-year-old believes her meditation classes, led by a psychiatrist, strengthen her physical and mental well-being.

Like Nancy, more and more Americans are participating in mind-body healing programs to help treat conditions ranging from depression and anxiety disorders to cancer and AIDS. No longer dismissed as New Age antics, meditation and related disciplines, such as yoga and relaxation techniques, are gaining popularity at major medical facilities across the nation.

Though some physicians remain skeptical about these self-healing practices, last year the U.S. Congress agreed to give the National Institutes of Health $50 million over a five-year period to develop mind-body research centers. What's more, medical students are responding to the trend by signing up for spirituality classes that are offered at more than 50 U.S. medical schools.

"Research increasingly indicates that self-healing practices are valuable adjuncts to conventional medical care for stress and pain reduction, fatigue, depression and anxiety, hostility and reactivity -- and for regulation of a wide range of bodily functions, including blood pressure, heart rate, immune response, hormonal balance, and metabolism," says Joseph Loizzo, a professor of psychiatry at Columbia University. Dr. Loizzo founded Columbia-Presbyterian's Center for Meditation and Healing and leads classes there.

"We've systematically eliminated from our mainstream traditions the arts of self-healing," he continues, "but essentially Americans finally realized that there wasn't just one system of medicine."

Relax and heal thyself

Meditation, which originated in Eastern societies, is now a staple in the mind-body healing centers of many large medical facilities. It is the practice of deep reflection and focused attention, and it is often practiced in conjunction with hatha yoga, a system of breathing and stretching exercises that originated in India.

Since the Center for Meditation and Healing opened two years ago, approximately 250 people have participated in basic and advanced courses in meditation and yoga there. Offered as eight-week programs, classes cost $950; a sliding scale is available for those who cannot pay full tuition.

"This is not a religion; it's a way of life," says Robert Lafayette, who began meditating at the center to help combat the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder and depression. "It's taken me quantum leaps ahead in terms of my sense of self."

Physical and psychological benefits of meditation have been documented in studies conducted by Herbert Benson, M.D., an associate professor at Harvard Medical School and founder of the Mind/Body Medical Institute at the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, in Boston. Jon Kabat-Zinn, Ph.D., founder and director of the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, has also conducted research, including a 1998 study showing that psoriasis patients who listened to meditation tapes experienced quicker healing of lesions than other patients.

According to Dr. Loizzo, the value of meditation is clear. "In my view, the most important 'research' finding about this technique is that it's been used for 3,000-plus years. It's been preserved through different cultures over history and spread throughout Asia. That's a track record that makes our medical system look like an alternative medical system."

Keep one eye open

Still, some experts remind consumers that mind-body healing should not replace traditional medical care. "There seems to be fairly good evidence that people who have a positive outlook and can just relax tend to heal better -- just as long as they don't ignore other potentially helpful treatments that are proven," says Yank Coble, M.D., an endocrinologist and member of the American Medical Association Board of Trustees.

Though meditation and relaxation classes sponsored by medical facilities are generally secular, alternative-treatment programs that promote religion and spirituality have been criticized by experts. In a recent issue of the British medical journal the Lancet, Richard P. Sloan, a psychologist and director of behavioral medicine at Columbia-Presbyterian Medical Center, wrote, "When doctors depart from areas of established expertise to promote a non-medical agenda, they abuse their status as professionals."

But for Nancy, spirituality is an important component of mind-body healing. "Basically, people trust things that are very concrete, and it's hard to trust something you can't pin down," she says. "But I know, because of very strong experiences, that I trust the mind-body connection."

Related links:

Outside link: Center for Alternative Medicine Research and Education at Harvard Medical School

Outside link: The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine at the National Institutes of Health