The trouble with Dr. Oz?

IMG_1356The New Yorker is my favorite magazine.  Every once in awhile, though, I encounter an article that really makes me scratch my head:  Actually a couple of these have been written by Michael Specter, including his recent “The Operator,” subtitle (in the contents), “The Trouble with Doctor Oz,” February 4, 2013.  (Specter is also the Author of Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives.)

I think Specter, along with some other Oz critics, is right to question the unbridled and hyped up promotion of herbs or foods, like raspberry ketones to burn fat, or green coffee beans for weight-loss, or red palm oil for Alzheimer’s disease, though I do think its helpful to bring attention to these things:  In my mind the hype and overemphasis is problem.

On the other hand, I strongly part ways with Specter when it comes to Oz’s showcasing of some “alternative” approaches to healing.  I am like Oz in not needing scientific proof that these approaches work.  If one thinks physicians should stick within the scientific, Specter’s argument is understandable.  But medicine is also an art.  In addition, science has shown us that sometimes placebos work as treatment.  Specter says that Oz’s practice of mixing “sensible” and scientifically proven information with unproven information is hard to understand—IS IT?  Science, after all, is sometimes used in specious ways to promote pharmaceutical drugs.

These are old questions representing two camps, the Western scientific and Eastern, the rationalist and the mystic, the chemical and surgical with the natural (the latter has not been studied as extensively).  Here’s where I come from.  The two major health conditions that have affected my wellbeing have been untreatable by modern medicine.  If they progress to cancer or blindness or an autoimmune condition, medicine will have an “answer” or treatment, but I have used alternative methods to reverse or stop the problem in their tracks.  These modalities, ayurveda, acupuncture, and herbal medicine, were off the radar of modern medicine, and science would not have given me reinforcement for pursuing them.

My experiences with keratoconus, an eye disorder, and candida/gluten intolerance, a digestive disorder, taught me how to address illness from a system, organic, natural, and energetic  angle.   Arresting of the keratoconus and resolving the candida issue involved processes that took quite a long time and a commitment to my health at emotional, spiritual, physical, social, and environmental levels.  I may not have healed had I not meditated, prayed, dropped unhealthy friendships, actually adjusted my way of exercising to a more gentle one focused on yoga and walking outdoors in the sunshine.   Without all these angles of approach, I would have become sicker and repeatedly visited my physician, who could only have given me temporary measures and helped me manage chronic illness.

Western science and medicine exist in one realm while some of the healing arts tap into another.  We have to acknowledge the limitations of our mechanistic medical sciences, to realize there is a realm of healing, of energy, that we do not understand with our rational minds.  We need a practice of mindfulness, of openness, of listening to the body, emotions, spirit, and chi, to old traumas and the need for radical self-care on all these levels.

This approach is not easy.  It requires time, energy, and an ability to go through upheaval and reorientation.  It demands an openness to uncertainty and to life changes.  It means loosening dependence on the rational, analytical intellect and paying attention to the body and its sensations.  I think the process also leads to examination of our culture, to a reengagement with our selves, and to a new relationship with the fruits of the earth, the herbs and natural foods. Not many of us will engage in such a process, particularly if we are working hard and are engaged with a profession of status, busy in our day-to-day lives.  It is easier to turn instead to the scientific, the prescription, the surgery.  Valid too, but sometimes not enough.

Specter quotes Oz:  “All I’m trying to do is put a couple of road signs out there.  I sit on that set every day, and that is what I am focusing on.  The road signs.”  Oz says he wants to erase barriers between patients and medicine, wants to raise issues that remain undiscussed, wants to walk the line that divides conventional medicine and alternative cures.   I am glad for his efforts.

Specter also says of Oz, “He describes modern medicine as a “civil war” waged between conventional physicians and those who are open to alternative cures for maladies ranging from anxiety to cancer; he considers it his mission to walk the line that divides them.  But more often his show seems to erase that line completely, with results that may be less benign than Oz and his many viewers realize.”

I tend to think the marriage of pharmaceutical companies and medicine is also less benign than many realize.  I for one think that Oz is doing important work inhabiting that zone between medicine and holistic health, between science and energy healing.  Many of us are grateful that he’s talking about these things, engaging with people out there seeking healing.  Medicine does not have all of the answers, and we need people like Oz to ask the questions and to present other sides so we might actively engage in our own healing in ways that involve our bodies, minds, and spirits.  I believe we need just such a wizard to catalyze a transformation.

“The Trouble with Yoga”

There is an excellent article of that name (in post title) here: http://www.lisadc.com/artical_detail.php?ID=10

The trouble with yoga, says Lisa Nash, a chiropractor, Feldenkrais practitioner, and long-time yoga practitioner, is that we westerners approach it as we do most other things, with an achievement mentality, a “do it harder” approach. We do not really know how to unwind, and the poses present a challenge that we often rise to with gusto or retreat from in discouragement.

It can be different, but we may need Feldenkrais, or Continuum, or another Western somatic approach to teach us how to unwind old movement and muscular patterns, says Nash. I think she is right, and I only know that because I have had a yoga teacher steeped in Continuum, and I have studied Feldenkrais. Considering that I am a runner and hiker and am the tightest yoga teacher on the planet, I have needed a lot of help to unwind. Only particular ways of practicing yoga, only these Western approaches, really show me what it means to open to the flow of life streaming through me.

Here is Nash herself:

“From my vantage point, it is clear that many who are riding the wave of yoga’s immense popularity are practicing asanas without connecting with the heart of yoga—practicing diligently for years without ever experiencing the “union” for which “yoga” is named. At its root, yoga is about radical transformation or unveiling of the self; it challenges us to dissolve or transmute habitual ways of perceiving and thinking, feeling, and moving. But too often yoga instruction fails to meet modern Western students where they are; it fails to begin from the point where such profound somatic learning must begin. As a result, yoga classes often leave intact, or even reinforce, students’ unconscious embodied habits of trying, performing and straining. They inadvertently perpetuate, rather than defuse, students’ habits of violence toward the body.”

Perhaps there will be folks who disagree with us, or folks so open and limber that yoga does not directly reinforce old habits. But I believe we need help in learning the truer meaning of yoga, and I think we should sprinkle in more restorative, yin yoga as well as Feldenkrais, Continuum and other movement practices. Not lose the poses or practice, just shed new light on them.

My journey as a teacher has taken a detour away from working with veterans of war to working with healthcare professionals in a hospital. Here are some folks facing life and death scenarios, dealing with great stress to their bodies and minds; many are overweight, unhealthy themselves. Together we unwind and perhaps in time we will together meditation the deeper meaning of yoga, the union of body, spirit, and mind, or the union with our higher selves.

I don’t preach in yoga, but I sometimes mention this meaning of union. It is what keeps yoga fresh for me, the aspect of it that engages me on many levels and over many years. I would have lost sight of that without my teacher, and without Feldenkrais and Continuum. Thanks Lisa, for voicing a truth. I hope your article stirs the yoga community and gets it talking!

When the shell cracks

I’ve been wrestling with my job in a disability center since I started it a year and a half ago.  Once I went in to the boss to quit, which led to a surprisingly good outcome:  She clarified my job description for me and then for the staff, which seemed keen on having me do parts of their jobs.  But I continued to struggle with defining my tasks for each day.  All the while I’ve squirmed with my role in a free-form environment with a complex clientele.  To top it off I felt a disconnect between my identity and the role.

Yet this complex situation has taught me more than the jobs that felt like a natural fit.   I’ve learned to stand up for myself, to really assert what will and won’t work for me, and I’ve learned to let go of my ego, my previous way of defining myself.  Sound paradoxical?  Yes, and true, and the beauty in the paradox is more evident to me through the help of yoga and mindfulness meditation.

Here is one good lesson:  When new to the job, I met with three women working in similar positions at an organization in a town nearby.  These folks have created elaborate social activities for their constituents.  They go out to restaurants, take vans of people on weekend trips.  Made me want to run the other way if those things are part of my job.  But I’ve built my program with smaller support groups, based around assistive technology and other topics, leaving room for some sharing.  I started a yoga class.  And I carved out some time to retreat to the computer for record keeping, newsletter creation, and website management.

I’ve been able to find ways to serve that are compatible with my more introverted temperament.  Instead of den mother, I am behind-the-scenes facilitator.  I water flowers, set out recycling, demonstrate use of assistive devices.  I participate in community gatherings and parties through setting up, clearing up, socializing.  I connect more deeply with those in my yoga class.

I watch myself respond; I honor my nature; I let go of some resistance.  And the environment accommodates me.  Whatever this job is in terms of career development, I cannot yet say, but in terms of spiritual development it is filled with fruit.

This strange little job has cracked me open while yoga and meditation kept me grounded.  I have been witness to the lives of those with disabilities, and I have been part of a community sharing experiments on healing, on living with limitations, on finding our roles in the community.  It is an unusual job in a unique environment.  I love my alone time as much as ever, but I also love this way of being connected.  I love having the chance to experiment.

It’s been very uncomfortable and rewarding at the same time.  I move out in the world, and yet I am authentically quiet and gentle, finding the background when I need it.  The stories I tell myself shift; my experience in the world transforms; my body and mind soften; my feet stand steady; and my heart engages.  That yoga and mindfulness practice has taught me how to feel, how to open, how to free fall:  It is pretty smart stuff.

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