Meditating on Medication: Exploring the Presence of Alternative Practices in Modern Medicine


Sarah Healy

For Tara Reddy ’20, sitting on the cold cement of her back porch with her eyes closed and hands folded on her knees as the sun dips below the horizon is a daily practice. Surrounded by candles, lavender and white sage incense sticks, she inhales the herbal fragrances, and said she feels them drift through her body. After five minutes, her heart beat slows down and her mind begins to clear. With her body relaxed and thoughts less clouded, Reddy said she concludes her daily meditation, ready to begin her homework.

Reddy was initially exposed to meditation and incense-burning through Hindu puja, a prayer ritual she performs with her family. At age ten, when she started to experience high blood pressure and consistent stress, she turned to the methods she had been using her whole life for relief.

“Certain scents in general just calm your body down, and if you have a certain scent associated with an activity such as meditation and smell them, it naturally makes you feel calm,” Reddy said. “I just needed some peace and stability in my life, and that was just a way I knew how.”

Meditating in a cultural context has been an integral part of Reddy’s life from a young age. In contrast, Head of Upper School Laura Ross’s first exposure to non-Western medicine was in an educational setting. When she was asked by a former colleague to teach an academic elective on mindfulness and meditation, Ross had no prior experience with non-Western practices. She now regularly meditates and teaches centering exercises such as journaling, controlled breathing and meditation.

Ross said that although non-Western medicine is becoming more mainstream, its religious connotations have prevented it from gaining widespread acceptance in the United States.
“For a long time, mindfulness and meditation were considered religious,” Ross said. “Certainly Buddha was talking about this stuff 25,000 years ago, but this is really a secular wellness movement too.”

As alternative techniques are increasingly accepted as secular medicinal practices, aspects of Eastern medicine have been integrated into the school community. Upper School Dean of Students Jordan Church and Interdisciplinary Studies and Independent Research Teacher and Counselor Michelle Bracken redesigned the sophomore Life Lab class to include mindfulness units, and yoga classes, wellness-related clubs and weekly faculty meditation groups at school provide both faculty and students avenues to learn about new techniques.

Even so, the public has held back from readily accepting such forms of medicine because of a perceived lack of evidence supporting the practices, Arya Nielsen, former acupuncturist and Assistant Clinical Professor at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, said. She said she has seen prejudice coming from the medical community as they struggle to accept non-pharmaceutical options.

“The medical profession continues to situate acupuncture as ‘alternative medicine’ which implies ‘not studied,’” Nielsen said. “This is a myth.”

Acupuncture is approved by the Joint Commission for inpatient pain care, the largest hospital accreditation organization in the United States, Nielsen said. The most recent analysis found that acupuncture is effective for chronic pain and its benefits persisted after one year, something that no other medication has demonstrated.

Upper school yoga teacher Cindy Gannon said that another factor affecting the spread of non-Western practices is the prejudice against it from the public. According to a survey of 189 respondents, 15 percent have been criticized or received backlash for using non-Western practices. Gannon said she has been criticized for practicing yoga, as people view it as a fad rather than a natural way to improve mental and physical health.

“Some people see it as just easy exercise or even a trend, and I think some people are against the spiritual connection the practice entails,” Gannon said. “I have even had people tell me that my job as a yoga teacher is stupid and not very serious.”

Reddy has faced judgment for meditating in the past, but she said that she believes using a non-Western form of relief does not have to be associated with a particular religion. For her, it is simply a way through which she improves her mental and physical health.

“I like to hold off on using prescription medication,” Reddy said. “I just need to find more peace throughout the day so that I do not get stressed out and stress does not reflect physically.”
Gannon also said non-Western medicine can be frustrating because its benefits may not be as obvious.

“Non-Western practices do take longer because it does take work to heal from whatever ailment you are suffering from, and it takes consistency,” Gannon said.

Lucy Kim ’19, whose father is a former acupuncturist and oriental medicine practitioner, has been exposed to alternative medicine her whole life. Growing up, she said she doubted the efficacy of acupuncture and herbal medicine, but said she has ultimately grown to respect the practices.

“It is fascinating how inserting paper thin needles into strategic spots in your body can facilitate healing,” Kim said. “I think herbal medicine also relies more heavily on the cooperation between nature and the human body by using plants and roots as primary ingredients, while Western medicine is a lot more industrial.”

However, non-Western practices are still not students’ first choice for treatment, clinical psychologist Alexa Rabin ’03 said. She said that she thinks looking to Western medicine for solutions is ingrained in American society.

“Their cultural influences, whether it be family, socioeconomic, ethnic, racial or other, may have taught them to rely on Western medicine when they are experiencing a health issue,” Rabin said. “Our healthcare system supports Western medicine. Some health plans may not cover or reimburse for alternative therapies, leaving individuals with limited reimbursable options.”

Monica Guggenheim ’99, a licensed clinical social worker, said that she believes non-Western medicine can be beneficial but that it should be used in conjunction with Western prescription medication.

“There are times when Western medicine, such as psychiatry, is absolutely necessary and highly recommended,” Guggenheim said. “However, just addressing the symptoms with medication does not change the maladaptive behaviors underlying stress or unhelpful thinking patterns.”

Similarly, Teen Line Program Director and licensed marriage and family therapist Cheryl Eskin said that using non-Western medicine together with Western medicine is ideal.

“I think our world is scientifically driven, so people want to do what has been ‘proven,’ and do not always take alternative medication seriously,” Eskin said. “Ideally, I think people would embrace and use both to complement each other.”