Bridging East and West in medicine, self-care and education


Over the past several decades, bridging ancient Eastern with modern Western methods of medicine and self-care has become more commonplace. The reasons are multifold: increased accessibility, public demand, and the acknowledgment that this integration is beneficial for health and healing.

The 5,000-year-old procedure of acupuncture is no longer discounted or feared, Hatha Yoga, no longer relegated to the domain of eccentrics and kooks, and having a regular meditation practice has become commonplace.

Karate studios have proliferated, and the ancient art of Tai Chi is often recommended as a way to relieve stress. Chinese medicine and Ayurveda have taken root and entered our country’s consciousness; now, some educators are adapting successful Asian educational strategies into our failing schools.

Respected medical and educational facilities such as the Mayo Clinic have Complementary and Integrative Medicine programs. The Mayo Clinic program was established in 2001 specifically to address wellness and prevention. Other highly regarded hospitals and healthcare facilities have followed suit as the integration of East and West has proven to be an effective and cost-effective path to healthy living. Even the federal government has its started its own department, The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM), part of the National Institute of Health. Who would have thought that the federal government would fund research and be a clearinghouse for information on acupuncture, herbs, and Reiki? (http://nccam.nih.gov/).

Led by an army of tireless advocates who understood the value of time honored Eastern practices, the union of integrative practices into Western medicine has taken decades. Yoga is now so well integrated into our culture that we often see commercials with the actors in asana poses selling a product. The 2007 National Health Interview Survey found, “Yoga is one of the top 10 modalities used among U.S. adults. An estimated 6 percent of adults used yoga for health purposes in the previous 12 months.” Yoga classes have now been adapted to specific populations, from pre-natal to geriatric.

Individual teachers who are yoga practitioners have helped spread and incorporate yoga into both school curriculums and in after-school programs throughout this country. One impressive source of information on youth yoga in schools and the community is Shanti Generation, founded by the brilliant children’s yoga teacher Abby Wills. Her goals for children go way beyond seeing yoga as a form of exercise, to creating a movement for youth by empowering them with peacekeeping skills to last a lifetime.(www.shantigeneration.com).

It is interesting to note that our Americanized form of yoga is now being emulated in the East. The prototypical picture of a yogi on a mountaintop in India wearing little more than a loincloth has been replaced by luxury studios such as Absolute, a franchise in Southeast Asia. (www.absoluteyogabangkok.com). Yoga instructors from the United States have relocated to Asia and train teachers, and even China, that for many years did not permit the practice, has opened the door to yogic entrepreneurs. Born in the East, yoga is universally accepted.

Acupuncture is an ancient practice that was long disavowed in the West as not based on empirical science. My late friend, Mary McCabe, was the clinical director of New England School of Acupuncture from the late 1980s until 1995. Her studies were undertaken in China and Nepal because, at the time of her training, getting an education in this country was impossible. During the course of her all too short lifetime, Mary tirelessly advanced the use of acupuncture for many varied conditions, including reducing pain, helping to alleviate migraine headaches, and to stimulate and cleanse the organs of drug and alcohol toxins. Being an early advocate of acupuncture in this country, Mary and others often faced derision and setbacks. Accreditation was long in coming and each state has its own complex licensing rules.

How times have changed. There are approximately 28,000 licensed acupuncturists in the United States, and even the UCLA School of Medicine offers Medical Acupuncture courses to physicians. Practitioners have incorporated other Eastern modalities as well, including hand, ear, and scalp acupuncture, and in the process, an American school of acupuncture is emerging. More and more patients request acupuncture as a natural form of treatment.

Many forms of martial arts and Tai Chi are practiced in the United States and most have adapted and changed to accommodate the values of the new culture. T’ai Chi Chih was developed in 1974 by Justin Stone in New Mexico and is a series of 19 movements without a martial aspect, which focuses on circulating, developing and balancing the chi (in the traditional Chinese concept, a kind of spiritual energy residing in every living thing.) Additionally, one finds Chinese medicine, herbs, and Ayurveda (“science of life” practices descended from the Indian sub-continent) being adapted by Western practitioners.

Although there have been globalized exchanges in the field of medicine, technology, goods and services (think McDonald’s in China and egg rolls in the USA), one area, that has been rarely caught in this amalgamation of East and West is education. (At least not has much as it could, and in my opinion, should be.) It has long been acknowledged that the group of children who are most ignored by public education are those in the middle. There is ample support for special needs and those who benefit from accelerated programs; however, others do not fare so well.

This is where the Asian model can work and move thousands of students ahead. One need only look at the results from a handful of successful charter schools such as the Harlem Success Academy as illustrative (www.harlemsuccess.org).

Here, homegrown educational programs developed at Johns Hopkins University are combined with the structure used by many Asian and Indian schools to produce outstanding results. In these programs, key elements borrowed from Eastern educational formats are in place: high academic expectations are implicit, parents sign contracts to insure their involvement, and to deter competition, students wear a uniform. At other successful schools, antiquated long summer vacations have been shortened and school is in session half day on Saturday. More, rather then less is expected of students. Such programs work, and if more widely employed, vast numbers of students who consistently fall behind would thrive.

Education in this country can be described as having too large an emphasis on socialization and frivolity. Although catering to the whole child is beneficial in theory, unless in concert with stringent well-structured academics, little is accomplished. Rigor is the tool from which freedom is born. Some would criticize many Asian schools as being too academic and test-laden, and perhaps some of our more American-style playful approaches would enhance their systems; however, having taught college students for many years and noting how much remediation is needed, I am convinced that in most settings, higher standards are necessary across the board. Although there is much protest, nationally accepted and enforced standards of education could ensure a fair and comprehensive education to all.

Being positive about how skeptical we in the West were about Eastern medicine, but how a blend has strengthened our bodies, an adaptation of educational practices presents an opportunity to strengthen our collective minds. As the merging of East and West continues, let education be at the forefront. Our children deserve nothing less.