Congress Enters the New Age
Government-sponsored meditation centers encourage
By Rebecca Shannonhouse
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."
Outside link: Center
for Alternative Medicine Research and Education at Harvard
Outside link: The
National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine
at the National Institutes of Health