As Americans, we’ve got a fairly decent grasp on the ideas of Western and Eastern medicine, and the seemingly sharp divide between the two. We understand that when we are in a car accident, we go to the emergency room; that when we we’re feeling sluggish, we might consider supplementing our diets with vitamins or herbs.
But how often do we consider our primary care or family practice doctors as one-stop-shops for all forms of wellness, from science-based medicine to meditation and all things in between?
“Our goal in Integrative Medicine is to partner with patients to not only “fix” illness but to also improve wellness,” says Dr. Luke Fortney, Family Medicine and Integrative Medicine Physician at Meriter McKee. “Over time, we partner together to make sure that the important screening tests are done, health measures such as blood pressure and weight are kept in check, and that I am available for acute care needs when they arise.”
Integrative medicine (IM) is healing-oriented medicine especially focused on prevention of illness. IM doctors are traditionally trained but also take into account the whole person: body, mind and spirit, as well as all aspects of lifestyle, such as nutrition, exercise, psychology and more. IM doctors seek to work in partnership with their patients, making use of both conventional and alternative therapies.
The IM term was actually coined in the 1990s and has gained acceptance as the idea of a holistic approach to health has beomc more mainstream. Some healthcare providers, such as Meriter McKee, now offer IM in response to patient needs.
“Ultimately,” says Fortney, “the goal is for someone to get well.”
Perhaps you have a staunch philosophical aversion to pharmaceuticals. Or maybe you prefer traditional medicine but don’t dismiss notions such as a mind-body connection, and you want a primary care doctor who respects both modalities in a clinical setting. You could be simply looking for a doctor to work in partnership with you, rather than act in a “Father Knows Best” sort of way.
“Everyone is so different case by case, room by room, person by person,” says Fortney. “IM offers a provider that you work with, one that can hear your story and understand what your values, goals and motivations are. The real goal of Integrative Medicine is to drop the word ‘integrative’ and just make this a part of good medicine.”
Spotlight on: Yoga
The sun is settling into itself on a late Sunday afternoon in Fitchburg, melting atop the prairie fields framed by the double wall of windows at Perennial Yoga Studio. A handful of students sigh into their mats, flexing and releasing in unison inside this warm, quiet room.
“You see people putting their bodies into funny positions on the mat and you think, how is lifting my foot over my head going to make a difference in my life?” says Meg Groves, smiling. “Well, the simple act of that, isn’t. It’s what you need to do with your mind and your spirit in order to get into that position. Yoga starts its work on you from the outside, but it changes you from the inside. And once people realize that, they’re committed to coming back to their mat over and over.”
As the health benefits of yoga become undeniably clear, more and more Americans are turning to this ancient Eastern practice. Many Western doctors now send their patients to yoga classes as a more integrative approach to healthcare. Combining physical stretching with mindful breathing, yoga increases fitness, reduces stress and, according to a Mayo Clinic report, lowers heart rate and blood pressure and helps with depression, chronic pain, anxiety, insomnia and more.
“I think that when yoga came to the West it didn’t become really popular until it was recognized as a form of physical fitness and introduced in health clubs and through videos as an alternative exercise,” says Groves. “Now people are recognizing what has always been true about yoga: that it offers an overall transformation in their health, including how they’re dealing with stress, relationships and work-life balance.”
Still, there are some who have yet to give yoga a try, perhaps worried it’s a religion (it’s not). Groves says yoga is indeed a spiritual practice, but if only in connection with what you already believe. And there’s an even bigger misconception she encounters often.
“People think they have to be flexible to start yoga,” says Groves. “That’s like saying you have to be thin to go on a diet. Simply show up, arrive as you are, and let the practice do its work on you.”
Yoga definitely worked its magic on Groves, who initially only took it up as an alternative to the gym. She certainly never expected the comprehensive spiritual transformation that changed her entire life.
“I started wanting a work-out and ended up right away realizing it was also a ‘work-in,’” says Groves. “My first career was in social work and I set out to change the world, but I’m 50 now [and] more practical. And I still truly believe our community would be a kinder, gentler place if we all practiced yoga, so I’m loving being a yoga teacher and being a part of changing one yogi’s life at a time.”