As an emergency room physician in Portland, Maine, Joseph Semmes was more accustomed to treating patients than being one. But at age 46, Semmes was diagnosed with a rare form of pancreatic cancer. He underwent two operations and seven months of chemotherapy, then returned to an Iyengar Yoga practice he had started years before when going through a painful divorce.
"What drew me back was a hope that by reducing stress I would enhance my immune function," says Semmes. Adding yoga as an adjunct therapy was a physiologically sensible approach, he says, given the vast information on the benefits of stress reduction. However, what was perhaps more important is something Western science has a harder time measuring: Psychoneuroimmunology, which is the effect your thoughts and feelings—and the meaning you attach to them—have on your physical health.
"When you are threatened with death, there is a not-so-subtle shift in your search to find meaning and a sense of purpose," Semmes says. "What yoga shares with many other spiritual and healing traditions is a sense of connectedness that is heart-based, love-based, and unselfish. What I find is that while the theory of many of the Western spiritual traditions is very good, the techniques have not been as effective as those in the East in helping people develop a centered, inner life that permits them to recognize the extraordinary nature of the ordinary."
For the past 27 months, Semmes has shown no further evidence of cancer. Though he laments that for the most part we lack adequate scientific studies on yoga's benefits, he says positive experiences like his are one reason that medical institutions like Columbia Presbyterian, Stanford, and Scripps Institute have incorporated yoga as an adjunct therapy to traditional treatment for a variety of patient problems.
"I used to think spirituality meant intellectual concepts, but increasingly I believe it has to do with the capacity for being in the present, for being loving, and breathing," says Semmes, whose work schedule now includes one day a week in the ER, serving on a state advisory panel for end-of-life care, and consulting on the creation of a new holistic wellness center at a local hospital.
"The one thing that is going on all the time is your breath. Yoga is a wonderful place where mind, body, and spirit—spirit being breath—come together, which may have a lot to do with subtle energy, something Western science doesn't know much about."
A regular Iyengar practice is now a part of Semmes's life, and his children, grade school age to teenage, sometimes join in. "I used to think yogis looked like fakirs, the little skinny Indian men who charmed cobras out of pots. I thought yoga was a self-denying pursuit. It is just the opposite; it is a self-embracing pursuit," he says. "When my children are my age, they will think of it differently than I did."
Semmes also recommends yoga to patients as part of a stress reduction and physical conditioning program. However, says the doctor, it comes after getting people to stop smoking.