close your eyes. Take a deep breath. Relax. Concentrate on a word, an image or just plain void. In other words, meditate. Let the mind take over the body, and various ailments afflicting the duo are tamed.
Magic or miracle? Neither, but a realm of spirituality and mysticism -- scorned till recently -- that promises to tackle a host of diseases and has attracted even the staunchest upholders of Western medicine (Down To Earth, Vol 3, No 23). While media is abuzz with stories of faith and its healing powers (normally set aside as examples of 'placebo effect'), the medical fraternity complements it by openly acknowledging that simple techniques like meditation, relaxation and prayers have the potential to heal patients.
In a recent demonstration of this, doctors at New Delhi's All India Institute of Medical Sciences (aiims) conducted an interesting study to ascertain the efficacy of meditation techniques. Under the leadership of Nita Saxena, a cardiac specialist in the hospital, 50 patients awaiting cardiac bypass surgery were put on meditation. Normally, anxiety and fear of cardiac surgery initiate the stress response much before the actual stress generated by anaesthesia and surgery. The aim of the study, therefore, was "to see a patient enter the operation theatre with a smile on the face," said Saxena.
After training the test subjects in meditation for some days, their pre-operative anxiety levels were compared to those of the control group having an equal number of members. Using the scale of multiple affect adjective check list (maacl), which assesses anxiety based on the emotional state of the patient, researchers found that anxiety was significantly reduced in the group that was put on relaxation therapy before surgery. During surgery, patients in the study group showed a stable blood pressure under anaesthesia; 44 per cent of the patients did not suffer from any pain following surgery. Another encouraging result was that 82 per cent of the patients were fit to go home on the eighth day of the operation, as compared to 60 per cent in the control group. The study, therefore, confirmed the assumptions that spiritual healing techniques stabilise blood pressure during surgery and reduce pain killer requirement, hospital-stay period and extent of wound infection after surgery. The hospital has now decided to put all the patients in the cardio-thoracic department on meditation as well as extend the facility to patients in other departments.
Today, in one of the crowded corridors of the hospital, is a room with a difference: tranquil and serene. A meditation room right inside this citadel of Western medicine, for instilling optimism and faith in patients who await surgery or those who have already undergone the trauma of surgery. Nita and her colleagues say that people who are under stress when they undertake medical tests and surgery are more depressed before, during and after surgery. They require more medication and anaesthesia, have lower immune functioning, suffer more complications, and take longer to heal compared to patients "who know how to draw on inner resources to calm or energise themselves."
It all began with the mystics in this very country. The modern wave of rigorous and sustained scientific studies in spiritual healing started in the early 1970s after it was demonstrated that Indian holy men could achieve seemingly impossible feats using meditation: they could lower their heartbeating rates, breathing rates, blood pressures and oxygen consumption capacities and shift their brain waves to semi-dream-like states at will. The mystics' achievements were soon duplicated in the laboratory with techniques like bio-feedback or muscle relaxation exercises. Researchers now conclude that the mind is like a storehouse that is connected to the body through a bridge called the brain.
An explanation for this mind-body link was provided by Stephan Kosslyn, a Harvard neuroscientist, at an unusual conference held in Boston, us, recently. Sponsored by usa's Harvard University, the conference provided a platform to medical doctors, nurses, psychologists and spiritual healers to delve into the various aspects of spiritual healing. One thing that was made clear at the onset of the conference was that distinction between 'psychological' and 'spiritual' practices in medicine was unnecessary as long as these practices worked to satisfaction.
Using positron emission topography (pet) brain scans, Kosslyn and his colleagues monitored the activation of brain areas in subjects during phases of neutral and negative imagining. The insula, a section lying just ahead of the brain's centre between the temples, was found to be activated more by negative images than the neutral ones. Insula activation is found to raise or lower heart rate and blood pressure. Moreover, this area has a network of connections to the part of the brain (located in its centre) associated with strong emotions, called the limbic region. Since the area also has a bundle of connections with the gut, Kosslyn suggested that meditation techniques reduced ulcer pain, stomach contractions and acid secretions.
While scientists do not make a clear distinction between the 'spiritual' and the 'psychological', the appalation of 'spiritual' or 'faith' healing bestowed on these psychological techniques invests them with a mistaken identity. Spirituality is often confused with religion. "Without a distinction in mind, spiritual healing is prone to be mistaken for a therapy with religious trappings," laments Usha Kiran, an anaesthesiologist at aiims.
Interestingly, this error in understanding was reflected in a time / cnn poll of 1,004 Americans conducted by Yankelovich Partners ( time , Vol 145, No 14); 64 per cent of the persons interviewed felt that doctors, as 'spiritual healers', should pray with their patients. However, many experts in usa feel that "one certainly cannot expect physicians who are professionally insensitive to the role of religion to indulge in something as intangible as prayers."
Back home, researchers at Shanti Kunj, an ashram in the holy city of Haridwar stress the religious neutrality of these techniques and offer scientific and philosophical explanations in support. "Spirituality has to do with the better part of the mind -- call it spirit or the soul. Spirit gives a person power and energy to conquer any adversity. Spiritual healing means tapping this power of the mind to bring various ailments under control. This can be achieved without being religious," philosophises A K Dutta, a scientist at the Bhramvarchas Research Institute, the research wing of Shanti Kunj.
Pranav Pandya, the institute's director, too advocates that the distinction between religion and spirituality should be kept in mind to enable both atheists and the devoutly religious to benefit from these techniques. "Religion is just one way of expressing one's spirituality. Spiritual techniques are in fact secular in nature and can be used to relieve the agony of patients irrespective of their religious faiths," says Pandya.
An institute that can truly boast of bringing spiritual techniques within the reach of thousands, Shanti Kunj holds 36 camps every year in which people learn meditation and relaxation techniques. Meditators are subjected to a thorough medical check-up to begin with, put on spiritual techniques and their condition regularly monitored. Finally, after a specific period of time, they are medically re-examined and the results are compared and meticulously documented.
Working relentlessly, the institution's scientists have developed some innovative devices that streamline measurement techniques for checking effects of meditation. The alpha wave recorder, an electronic instrument, is one of them.
Meditation slows down the brain waves. While a stressful mind produces a lot of beta waves in the brain, a calm and relaxed mind produces alpha waves. Reserachers call the state of normal wakefulness, the beta level and a relaxed state of sleepy wakefulness the alpha level. We put out 14 to 21 brain energy pulsations per second at the beta level (active wakefulness). Alpha, on the other hand, is a mental state at which about seven to 14 pulsations are emitted every second.
During meditation, people are taught to remain in a deep alpha state. It is the extremely peaceful and relaxed state of being that we pass through on our way to nodding off to sleep at night or on awakening in the morning. At this level, stressed organs and systems recuperate and get revitalised. Blood pressure normalises and the pulse rate stabilises. Interestingly, chanting of prayers has also been found to have a soothing effect on stressed nerves as it reduces the secretion of stress hormones like epinephrine.
By isolating alpha waves from other types of brain waves, this device etches out the alpha wave profile on a graph. The strength of the alpha waves shows the level of concentration attained by a meditator; the higher the density of the waves in the graph, higher is the level of concentration. By monitoring alpha waves periodically, accompanied with clinical tests like electrocardiogram (ecg), electroencephalogram (eeg) and psychological tests, the effects of meditation and relaxation techniques on vital organs of the body can be noted.
Yet another device developed here is the centre of attraction for visitors: a remote-controlled equipment to measure an individual's mental concentration (pic: page 27). Designed in the shape of a man sitting in a meditative posture, the electronic device gives out electric signals when a word is pronounced loudly in front of it. Scientists informed this reporter that the model is designed in such a way that during loud pronouncement of a word, unless the air is expelled from the lungs at the rate of 600 cc (cubic centimetre) per second for 40 seconds without a break, the mental concentration of the person is not total (100 per cent). Depending on the level of concentration of the person, the meditation routine is prescribed.
Doctors accept the fact that mental imagery alters the brain's biochemistry which influences the immune system cells. "By using imagery, patients can replace the negative images that provoke fear, hopelessness and anxiety with positive images of healing and well-being that contributes to recovery," informs Amitabh Verma, director of the Delhi-based Advanced Neurological Care Centre. For instance, secretion of a natural pain-relieving molecule called beta-endorphin in the brain is enhanced by positive imagery. "These molecules may attach to immune cells circulating through the brain. The immune cells may then act very differently. They may act with more immunological vigour, or may home in on a certain location in the body thereby relieving pain," Verma explains. Patients who flock to Verma are advised to avoid anti-anxiety medicines and rather, relax through meditation techniques.
Any relaxation technique works as long as it involves certain basic features, which include a repetitive focus on a word, sound, prayer, phrase or muscular activity, concluded an independent panel convened by the us National Institutes of Health recently. Similarly, when meditators focus their minds on a single word, image or simply breath, it leads to lowered blood pressure and more relaxed heart rate and respiration. Physiological changes that diminish the secretion and effect of stress hormones like epinephrine, set in. Secretion of hormones like melatonin (believed to fight aging, sleeplessness and jet-lag) and serotonin (responsible for the tranquility of the mind) increases. Electrical discharges in the brain tone down and strained muscles relax.
The question one is left with is that should we resort to faith healing as the 'add-on' or the 'only-one' treatment. Researchers admit that these techniques suffer from their limitations, and propose that hospitals should introduce them as supplements to mainstream medicine. After all, faith healing is an alliance between the mind and body in pursuit of health, and anything that cements the bond is welcome. Mainstream medicine certainly has come of age to accomplish that task.
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