When Prevention magazine published two articles about Integral Health Services—a groundbreaking integrative medicine clinic in Connecticut, the waiting list at IHS grew into a 2-year wait! Possibly the first health center of its kind in North America (and even the world), it was based on the teachings and practices of Integral Yoga. Swami Satchidananda, the founder of Integral Yoga, worked closely with Dr. Sandra (Amrita) McLanahan (a student of and physician to Swami Satchidananda), the medical director of this health center, to establish a trailblazing endeavor to bring the best wellness practices together in a comprehensive and integrated approach to health care. This approach would later be named: Lifestyle Medicine. As you read these articles, it’s interesting to reflect on how revolutionary (and really unheard of) they were at this time! Here is the second of the two articles  (published in December 1977) and written by Dominick Bosco. [Note: Read part 1 here.]

Prevention Editor’s note: This continues a roundtable discussion between Sandra McLanahan, M.D. (medical director), Dwight McKee, M.D. (assistant medical director), & other staff members of Integral Health Services, Putnam, Connecticut, and PREVENTION’s Dominick Bosco.   

Prevention: Yoga and meditation are two of your favorite tools, aren’t they?

Dr. McLanahan: Yes, Yoga becomes a real nice tool. With all the stress we live with, what we need is an antidote. Most stress, such as that caused by overcrowding, is overstimulation of the “fight or flight” response. Yoga meditation is the exact opposite of that. All the body functions are slowed down. Sort of like an anti-stress “tablet.” And to get the full effect, you have to “swallow” for an hour and 15 minutes a day.  But we like to see Yoga as sort of an insurance policy. If you do even one, 15-30 minutes a day, you have partial coverage. If you do the full hour and 15 minutes, you have full coverage. It’s the only tool I know that’s a preventive mental health device.

Prevention: How does Yoga work to keep your mind healthy?

Dr. McLanahan: Yoga meditation helps you keep your center and not get depressed or anxious.

Prevention: Are there effects that a scientist could look at, measure, and say, “Aha! Something good is happening!”?

Dr. McLanahan: Yes. During meditation the blood pressure goes down, the heart rate goes down, the oxygen consumption of each cell goes down. Overall, the need for the cells is less, so the heart has less work to do. That’s not exactly what happens in sleep. In sleep, carbon dioxide and lactic acid accumulate and in meditation they don’t. And if you measure the electrical output of the brain during meditation, you find that all the brain waves become synchronous. That doesn’t happen when you’re doing anything else. When we’re just sitting here talking, having all different thoughts, the energy output from different parts of the brain varies.

Prevention: Is it difficult to meditate? Do you need a long course of instruction and a special word to concentrate on when you meditate?

Dr. McLanahan:  Meditation is concentration on one thing. The one thing you choose can be according to your interests—whatever is elevating or can help. Sound itself is a therapy. That’s why certain sounds are sometimes used. But it doesn’t have to be a particular sound. It could be the name of God that is particularly inspiring to you, something from nature, the breath, the heartbeat—whatever is helpful for you to concentrate on. And that period of meditation can be as short as five minutes or as long as an hour, depending on your capacity. In the beginning, you start with a short period, a short rest for the body and the mind, from all this craziness and stress.

Dyrian Benz, M.A., counselor, psychological therapist: We have some tapes available to train people how to relax and mediate. That way, any practitioner could tell someone who needs it to simply get the tape and practice it on his own. So a person doesn’t have to spend a lot of time and money just on that.

Dr. McLanahan: We also have some tapes available on Yoga, which include relaxation, meditation, and breathing.

Ten Steps to Deep Relaxation As Practiced at Integral Health Services
  1. Lie flat on the back, placing the feet about 18 inches apart. The hands should rest slightly away from the trunk, with the palms up.
  2. Close your eyes and gently move all the different parts of the body to create a general feeling of relaxation.
  3. Then start relaxing the body part by part. First think of the right leg. Inhale and slowly raise the leg about one foot off the floor. Hold it fully tensed. After five seconds, exhale abruptly and relax the muscles of the right leg, allowing it to fall to the floor on its own. Shake the leg gently from right to left, relax it fully, and forget about the existence of this leg.
  4. Repeat this same process with the left leg, and then with both arms
  5. Then bring the mind to the muscles of the pelvis, buttocks. Tense them and relax. Once again, tense them and relax. Next, think of the abdomen. Inhale deeply through the nose and bloat the abdomen. Hold your breath for five seconds and suddenly let the air burst out through the mouth, simultaneously relaxing all the muscles of the abdomen and diaphragm.
  6. Move up to the chest region. Inhale deeply through the nose, bloating the chest. Hold your breath for five seconds and suddenly let the air out through the mouth while relaxing all the muscles of the chest and diaphragm.
  7. Move on to the shoulders. Without moving the forearms off the floor, try to make the shoulders meet in front of the body. Then relax and let them drop to the floor.
  8. Slowly, gently, turn the neck right and left, right and left, then back to center, mentally relaxing the neck muscles.
  9. Coming to the facial muscles, move the jaw up and down, left and right a few times, then relax. Squeeze the lips together in a pout, then relax. Suck in the cheek muscles, then relax. Tense the tip of the nose, then relax. Wrinkle the forehead muscles, then relax.
  10. Now you have relaxed all the muscles of the body. To make sure of this, allow your mind to wander over your entire body from the tips of the toes to the head, searching for any spots of tension. If you come across any spots of tension, concentrate upon this part and it will relax. If you do this mentally, without moving any muscle, you will notice that the part concerned obeys your command.

This is complete relaxation. Even your mind is at rest now. You may keep watching your breath, which will keep flowing in and out quite freely and calmly. Observe your thoughts without trying to take your mind anywhere. You are a witness, not a body or a mind but an ocean of peace and tranquility. Remain in this condition at least five minutes.

Do not become anxious about anything. When you decide to wake from this conscious sleep, do so quite slowly. Imagine that fresh energy is gently entering each part of your body, from the head down to the toes. Then slowly sit up. This exercise helps create a refreshed and peaceful feeling for the body and mind. Try to do this one to three times a day, especially upon arising and before retiring.

Prevention: Besides the effects of Yoga and meditation on the  mind and the body’s reaction to stress, aren’t there purely physical benefits, too?

How Yoga Helps

Dr. McLanahan: Yes. How you use the body affects what the body becomes. For example, all day long we use the back muscles for sitting. So the back muscles get weak. A period of time spent in meditation with the back straight uses these muscles and strengthens them.

Ronald Herrsche, D. C., chiropractor: From the chiropractic viewpoint, all the Yoga postures are very beneficial to the spine. The different stretching postures help keep the spine mobile and limber and vital, which is very beneficial to health. It’s when you have lack of motion that you have degeneration.

Dr. McKee: We use the Yoga postures therapeutically, too. If I have someone who has a hypothyroid condition, or if their thyroid function tests are at the lower end of normal, besides having them eat seaweed and so forth, I have them really concentrate on the shoulder stands. These increase the blood flow through the thyroid gland. We always encourage them to try the whole spectrum of postures, but we pick up certain ones to concentrate on.

Prevention: How do people react when they come in here expecting perhaps a prescription for a drug or some supplements and they get a Yoga lesson instead?

Dr. McKee: One of the ways in which I introduce it is after the exam, I give them a diet to follow and maybe some supplements. If they’re particularly tense, I’ll pull out a sheet of deep relaxation exercises which are traditionally done at the end of Yoga postures. And I’ll say we have an exercise here for relaxation. It’s not meditation, it’s not sitting cross-legged, and it’s not Yoga. It’s just lying on the floor and tensing one part of the body and then relaxing it. And they do this twice a day, it’s right on the prescription, along with everything else. They learn it from the typed sheet, which is completely self-explanatory.

And then what happens is they come back and say, “Wow, that exercise made me feel like a new person.” Then they’re really opened up and I tell them that we have a Yoga class on Friday nights if they want to learn more.

 Mukta Devi, receptionist: Most of the secretarial staff are also Yoga teachers. When someone comes in, they wonder, “Can I really do this? I’ve never heard of this.” So we tell them, “Can you believe that we did it and experienced the benefit, but we also had the same hesitation? I had this fear too, but I did it!” That’s also what people feel they’re getting here, the care and understanding, human to human.

 Prevention: There certainly is a feeling here that you don’t get in many other doctors’ offices.

Dr. McLanahan: There’s a yardstick in Yoga that we use to judge any action before we do it: something is good if it brings benefit to someone and harm to no one.

Prevention: That sounds a lot like what is supposed the motto of physicians, “First, do no harm.”

Dr. McLanahan: We sometimes use the word “student” when referring to patients or clients. And we feel that we are also students. And I think that this creates a good feeling. We are all learning a healthy way of living, and we’re sharing it with other people and trying to develop their interest and enthusiasm.

Prevention: It seems to me like a very nourishing experience.

Dr. McKee: Our perspective is that there’s more to nutrition than diet. You nourish your life in many ways.

 Prevention: Would you care to elaborate?

Dr. McKee: Well, there are five other things you might call “food.” The first is light. I tell my patients not to wear glasses outside if they can do without them. Don’t wear sunglasses. The full spectrum of light is what our bodies evolved in and they don’t change fast enough to keep pace with technology. So whenever we’re outside, you should allow full spectrum of light to get to your eyes. It stimulates the pineal gland, the pituitary, and the hypothalamus gland—the entire endocrine system. Many people with arthritis have gotten better just from taking their glasses off outside. Then there is contact with the earth. I encourage people to go barefoot outside whenever they can. The leather and the plastic we use to cover and protect our feet have divorced us from the earth. It’s natural to have your feet in contact with the earth. Get outside and walk barefoot. This is a natural message, it stimulates the organs. In the winter, just take your shoes off in the house. Even that helps too.

The third is touch. We need to touch other human beings. Babies will die if they’re not held. Massaging and hugging your husband or wife or friend—or anybody—breaks down emotional barriers as well as gives the body needed nutrition. Also, air is very much a part of nutrition. In the breathing exercises you have to sit quietly and breathe deeply, expand your lungs several times a day. And last, water. I encourage people to drink good water. I tell them to have their water tested, even if it’s well water. If the water isn’t good, I advise them to buy spring water for drinking.

Dr. McLanahan: We also encourage everyone to have a garden. Not only for the exercise and good food, but for the fresh air and the communion with the natural way. We have a garden in the back of the clinic.

Everything Is a Learning Experience

Mr. Benz: Everything we do feeds us in a small way. We have responsibility over our own lives, our own health. Somehow we have to account for our sickness and health either by what we put into our stomachs or into our brains. We have to learn to develop the right attitude, learn to see things in an appropriate perspective so that we can learn something about our lives. Whenever we experience what we would consider a failure or a mistake or when we make a fool out of ourselves, we should look at it as learning something about our life. It’s important to develop that relaxed attitude, to be a little more peaceful.

Dr. McLanahan: That should be a part of medicine, too: whether or not a person is living a positive life. What we really want to do is help people feel peaceful, useful and loving.

Aida Dodd, nutrition counselor:

There’s a very important level of healing that goes on at this clinic and, as the latest newcomer, I can sense it. And that’s the love and the care that people can feel when they come here, along with the nutrition and the therapeutics.

 Mr. Benz: A few days ago, a woman came to see me and she said, “Every time I come, everyone is so peaceful and I go home and everything is so crazy. How can I be like that more? Tell me what to do.” And the people that she sees are not only the doctors, but the receptionist and the secretaries. The whole atmosphere is what keeps her coming back, trying to get a little of that.

Dr. McLanahan: We’re all here to help each other and the patients see the joy in life.