Mind Over Matter

No longer just New Age, contemplative practices are gaining a foothold in preventive health care.

     In the dimly lit sanctuary in the Light of Truth Universal Shrine (LOTUS) at Yogaville, an ashram on 600 acres in rural Buckingham County founded in 1986 by the late Swami Satchidananda, light beams upward from 12 altars—each representing a brand of spiritual faith—and converge into one over a central altar. “Truth is one,” says LOTUS Director Swami Dayananda, her voice skating across the dome in a soft echo, “paths are many.”

     I have come to this ecumenical structure whose painted dome gives it the outer appearance of a giant, pink lotus flower (an ancient symbol of spiritual revelation) to meditate, a daily noon ritual in the shrine. And I am not alone. More than 4,000 visitors from all over the world come to Yogaville for workshops, personal retreats and training each year, and nearly 200 permanent residents live in homes surrounding the retreat, which is set between the flat farmland extending eastward and the wavy wisp of azure that is the Blue Ridge Mountains to the west.

     Yoga, and the larger study of mindfulness—the calm observance of one’s physical, mental, emotional and spiritual sensations—is flourishing in Central Virginia. In addition to Yogaville, the University of Virginia’s new Contemplative Sciences Center and the China-based Arura Tibetan Medical Group, which plans to build a center in Charlottesville devoted to teaching Tibetan medicine, along with physicians who are combining Western and yogic medical techniques, are making the region a locus for the study of contemplative practices. Once considered only the ambit of the alternative-minded, these practices are increasingly becoming a significant part of the discussion surrounding the future of preventive medicine.

     Following a heart attack and open-heart surgery in 2001, cardiovascular surgeon Dr. Dilip Sarkar, 63, who is today executive director of the School of Integrative Medicine, Taksha Institute in Hampton, discovered the salutary effects of yoga. “I was already living a healthy lifestyle, the picture of health with good diet and exercise before my surgery,” he explains over a dish of Kerala-style seafood curry at Lehja, an Indian restaurant in Richmond. “My cardiologist did not know what to treat.”

     With no vices to eliminate, Sarkar, who had practiced medicine for 30 years, was prescribed a slew of drugs to prevent progression of heart disease. Frustrated by the lack of treatment available for his condition, he took a friend’s suggestion to visit a specialist in Ayurveda, the yogic wisdom of longevity and the healing branch of yoga. Though Sarkar is from India, he was trained in Western medicine and healing philosophy: Ayurveda and the 5,000-year old yogic tradition were new concepts for him.

     “I was transformed completely,” says Sarkar, from the moment he met Ayurveda guru Vijaya Stallings, executive director of Taksha Ayurveda Institute in Hampton. Sarkar, who looks decades younger than his actual age, became a certified Ayurvedic practitioner and slowly began practicing yoga. Over time, he began to actually reverse his heart disease and eventually was able to stop all medication.

     “My medical check-ups were getting better, and the physicians kept asking me to share what I was doing to gain such improvements,” he says. In addition to feeling more energetic, Sarkar’s cardiac stress tests and profusion scans showed improvement in the blood supply to the heart. He began to lecture on his experiences and is now recognized as an international expert in yoga as a preventive medicine and in the combining of Western and yogic medical practices for optimal health.

     “What we are finding out is that practicing yoga, especially when you practice a yoga lifestyle, triggers a relaxing response that is very effective in preventing and treating chronic diseases,” Sarkar says. Prolonged stress, poor diet, lack of physical activity and overwork cause the immune system to be suppressed, making the body vulnerable to diseases, including hypertension, heart disease and diabetes, explains Sarkar. Yoga’s relaxation response can—as in Sarkar’s case—actually reverse disease. Sarkar currently serves on the board of directors for both the American Heart Association and the International Association of Yoga Therapists and is a member of the National Ayurvedic Medical Association, in addition to many other medical, yogic and cultural organizations. “I am a living example of how yoga works,” he says.

      “Yoga is more than asana, the practice of the physical poses. It is a way of living,” says 60-year-old Nora Vimala Pozzi, director of the Integral Yoga Center in Richmond. Pozzi also operates YogaHelps (an Integral Yoga Center founded in 1981 in Richmond), teaches internationally and led the way in introducing River City residents to the overall health benefits of yoga. “The goal of yoga is to still the mind,” says the small woman with the big personality and Argentinian accent. She teaches classes in Integral Hatha Yoga, (a gentle style of sequential yoga asana that includes chanting, pranayama or breathing, relaxation and meditation), yoga therapy and Raja yoga (yoga philosophy) in addition to training new Integral Yoga teachers. In her calm voice, Pozzi explains, “More and more, people are wanting to understand how yoga can help balance the mind and body.” She is part of a group of mindfulness practitioners and psychologists who are promoting yoga therapy as a complement to psychotherapy.

     “Our life stories, including emotions, are stored in our bodies, but they get buried in our unconscious mind even though they still have an impact in our lives, habits and life choices,” Pozzi explains. “This type of yoga therapy empowers a person to change by bringing awareness to what is happening—in the body and mind—in any given moment while the client is supported in a particular traditional yoga pose.”

     Secular scholars at the University of Virginia have also taken up the study of yoga. Last spring, the university announced plans for its Contemplative Sciences Center (CSC), which has been endowed with a $12 million gift from billionaire Paul Tudor Jones, founder of the Greenwich, Connecticut-based Tudor Investment Corporation and a 1976 UVA graduate. His wife, Sonia, is another believer in the health benefits of yoga. She is a devotee of Ashtanga Yoga, a brand of physically challenging yoga popularized by the late Indian guru Pattabhi Jois that requires rigorous regular practice up to six days a week to perfect its gravity-defying balancing poses and pretzel-like twists and bends.

     “The purpose of the center is to bring together a humanistic and scientific method of research focusing on contemplative practice,” says head of the CSC John Campbell, who began studying under Jois in the early 1990s and is one of the few people in the world sanctioned by him to teach his version of yoga. Slender and well-spoken, Campbell, who holds a doctorate from Columbia University and wrote his dissertation on Indian and Tibetan Tantric systems, says the center—an interdisciplinary collaboration across the university that is part of UVA’s Tibet Center—will study the benefits of contemplative practices and yoga and integrate them into the school’s academic programs.

     Can contemplative practices help women suffering from major depression and reduce seizure frequency among epilepsy patients? And what can be learned from the brain scans of those engaged in deep meditation? What are the commonalities between athletes and artists who use visualization or breathing techniques to maximize performance and advanced meditation? In an article published last April on UVAToday.org, the university’s online daily news site, David Germano, a professor of religious studies who will help lead the center, said these are examples of the kind of research that the CSC will be involved in.

     The university has already incorporated mindfulness practices in the schools of nursing, medicine, education and psychology. “The Curry School of Education has been offering sessions in mindfulness and yoga to students and faculty each semester for the past three years on a voluntary basis with the goal of providing resiliency tools for those working in high stress jobs in pre-K-12 education,” says Senior Associate Dean Rebecca Kneedler. In partnership with the CSC and the nursing school, they plan to introduce these approaches, including meditation and pranayama into the curriculum for teacher preparation in 2013. Says Kneedler, “There is compelling evidence to support increased learning when teachers bring contemplation activities into their classrooms.”

     But it is UVA’s School of Medicine that may have presaged the mindfulness trend in health care when it started its Mindfulness Center 15 years ago to help medical patients and staff learn ways to deal with stress. In 1993, the school of nursing established its Center for the Study of Complementary and Alternative Therapies (CSCAT) and, more recently, launched its new Compassionate Care Initiative—an all-volunteer group of roughly 60 nurses, physicians and others who are learning new techniques for improving their compassion as caregivers. Says Dorrie Fontaine, dean of the nursing school, “We are part of the larger discussion going on about mindfulness in health care: Today, things that once had a New Age whiff are getting a second, much more serious look.”

      This work and the success of Yogaville have attracted other mindfulness groups into this orbit of study and practice, including the Arura Tibetan Medical Group, a partnership of leaders from the Tso-Ngon University Tibetan Medical College in the Qinghai Province of China. Arura has chosen the Charlottesville area to build its Tibetan Medical and Cultural Center. Its visitors will be able to study Tibetan medicine and traditions, as well as receive treatment by Tibetan medical practitioners. (Tibetan medicine, which dates back 6,000 years or more depending on the source, represents the integration of medical science with Buddhist philosophy.)

      “We are currently looking for land in or near Charlottesville because of the Tibetan Studies program [at UVA] and because it is beautiful and easy to get to and from Washington and other big cities,” says Gyaltsen Sangpo Druknya, president of Arura Medicine of Tibet, a Charlottesville nonprofit organization that is supported by the Arura Tibetan Medical Group.

     Druknya, a hairdresser and owner of Salon Druknya on Charlottesville’s Downtown Mall who was born in Amdo in the northeast corner of the Tibetan plateau, dedicates all his spare time and money to bringing the “mindfulness part of medicine” to America. Pending a land purchase, the organization hopes to begin building the center, which is being designed by architecture students at UVA, in the next three years. Costs for the project have not yet been determined.

     Last October, Druknya partnered with the UVA School of Nursing, the CSC, the Tibetan Center and the Arura Tibetan Medical Group and Tibetan Center to organize a symposium on Tibetan medicine and meditation that attracted medical and mindfulness professionals from around the world to Virginia, demonstrating the enormous potential for collaboration between these organizations. It was at the symposium that UVA announced its plans for the CSC.

     It is because of this increased attention to mindfulness in American medical care that His Holiness The Dalai Lama, spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism and winner of the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize, made a side trip during an October 2012 visit to the U.S. to give two talks in Charlottesville and one at the College of William and Mary about ethics, compassionate care and 21st-century medicine.

     “The visit by the Dalai Lama brought the medical community at UVA closer together in what we know we can offer our patients and families—true compassion, kindness and caring,” notes the nursing school’s Fontaine.

     Back in the sanctuary of the LOTUS temple, the noon bell rings, signaling the beginning of the 30-minute meditation. Before I slip into a peaceful, thoughtless bliss, I notice the intersecting lights at the top of the dome that represent yoga’s message of whole health—mind, body and spirit—and a feeling of peace washes over me. What could be better medicine than that?




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