Heart to HeartAn Ounce of Prevention
At this point in the evolution of modern cardiology, Western medicine truly has the best to offer in acute care. Computerized defibrillators can shock your heart back into action when it falters; nonsurgical bypass procedures heal with catheters instead of knives. All manner of modern tests and devices catch otherwise undetectable threats. "Physical events are quite obvious to the Western mind," says Oz. "We do well when it comes to organ-based care and tangible problems like unstable plaque, acute blockage of an artery, and so forth."
The problem is there is much more to it than that. Consider the case of Sheila Rosenfield. With the help of state-of-the-art diagnostics, doctors determined that the Texas woman's right coronary artery was 99 percent blocked. "They wanted me to lose weight, watch the saturated fats, exercise, and keep my LDL cholesterol levels down with the help of prescribed statins [cholesterol-lowering medication]," Rosenfield says. But heeding their guidelines still didn't address a major source of her condition: stress. The wife of an 82-year-old man with multiple ailments, Rosenfield was on-call around the clock. Returning to her responsibilities without recourse would continue to compromise her heart's health.
Like Delmas and a growing number of other heart patients, Rosenfield turned to yoga and found that she spent much less time worrying about her health. The fact that she had access to yoga for cardiac health sponsored by a hospital is testament to the inroads yoga has made in the medical community. When Dean Ornish, M.D., published his groundbreaking study in 1990 showing that lifestyle changes—including yoga—can reverse heart disease, he paved the way for yoga's acceptance in a field that depends on clinical proof. Many doctors have come to accept yoga as having a place in prevention, with a growing number of hospitals offering it as part of cardiac rehab. Meanwhile, hundreds of nurses and doctors are learning yoga techniques from teachers like Nischala Devi, who collaborated with Ornish to develop the yoga component in his original study and now teaches yoga instructors her own yoga for the heart program.
But even with these successes, the doctors who readily endorse yoga are still few and far between. "It's easier to prescribe things in a pill form, given the number of patients we have and the amount of time in the day," says Oz, whose book Healing from the Heart (Dutton, 1998) makes an impassioned case for complementary medicine. "It's just human nature. It takes time to talk about stress. Just to introduce the idea, especially to a patient who has never thought about it, would take hours we don't have."
What sets the Ozes, Goldbergs, and Ornishes apart from other doctors, however, is their insistence on finding a way. "I never had time to explain the mind-body connection," Oz adds, "but I felt I had an obligation to do it." So he launched the Complementary Care Clinic at Columbia Presbyterian, where patients explore mind-body relationships through yoga and other holistic paths. "Now I can say, 'Here's your surgery, here are some pills, but in addition, here's the Complementary Care Clinic.' "