Integrative Medicine Program Includes Yoga Therapy

As the government starts deliberations on how to transform the nation’s health care system, the Beth Israel Medical Center in New York City and the Urban Zen Foundation have taken concrete steps to put “health” back into health care. For these two institutions, health care is not limited to the usually invasive procedures of Western medicine; it also involves the more holistic interventions of Eastern healing practices such as yoga therapy and aromatherapy.

As an offshoot of its long-standing commitment to combine integrative medicine therapies with conventional treatment of non-terminal cancer patients, Beth Israel has launched a pilot program to study the effectiveness of using yoga as therapy, along with the breathing control and relaxation techniques associated with yoga for stress management, to help cancer patients deal with the stresses of conventional chemotherapy and radiation treatments. These two invasive treatments often bring such side effects as lingering pain, nausea, constipation, anxiety, sleeplessness and fatigue.

The yoga therapy program at Beth Israel receives financial support from the Urban Zen Foundation, a non-profit organization that promotes the use of yoga, aromatherapy and other Eastern healing practices in combination with Western medicine. The husband of Urban Zen’s founder was a cancer patient, and he used yoga as therapy along with other Eastern techniques to cope with treatment symptoms and acquire inner peace.

Urban Zen believes integrative medicine, incorporating such yoga therapy techniques as yoga breathing exercises, will be able to set the patient’s internal environment so that a healing process more optimal than conventional medicine alone can be attained. The pilot program seeks to demonstrate that integrative therapies can help patients obtain inner peace and relief from the side effects of chemotherapy and radiation treatment.

The program initially trained 15 teachers to provide yoga therapy to cancer patients. Nurses and hospital staff will also receive training in relaxation techniques such as yoga breathing exercises, visualization and imagery, and aromatherapy. Aside from yoga breathing exercises to attain better breath control, yoga therapy involves meditation and gentle restorative postures that help patients anchor themselves to a deeper sense of self and connectedness with a universal life force.

There is a research component in the pilot program. Its objectives are to track the progress of the non-terminal cancer patients and measure the effectiveness of the combination of Eastern healing traditions and Western medicine. The head of Beth Israel’s Continuum Center for Health and Healing, which is implementing the pilot program, believes yoga therapy and integrative medicine can help develop a more relationship-centered care program that should be part of any effort to reform the healthcare system.

The 15 yoga therapy instructors participating in the program have taught yoga for stress management techniques to about 500 patients already. The patients are taught to execute basic yoga postures, simple movements, and yoga breathing exercises. The patients have learned that yoga as therapy develops their inner strength and helps them become calmer and more relaxed. As a result, they sleep better and experience less anxiety, nausea and other symptoms.

The program also teaches yoga for stress management to the hospital staff. Nurses and other healthcare providers can become physically and emotionally depleted as they go about performing their demanding tasks. Unless they are able to rejuvenate themselves, they will not be able to provide quality care to their patients. Yoga as therapy helps them eliminate their stress and regain their energy.

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