Rethinking Meditation

Rethinking Meditation

One day when my youngest daughter was in Kindergarten, she came home and told my wife that her yoga teacher said that someone had complained about yoga and the students would no longer be allowed to say Namaste at the end of class.  Namaste is a common Hindi salutation which is sometimes translated, “The spirit in me respects the spirit in you”.  Personally, I think there is great value in teaching children to show respect to those around them.    However, I do recognize that some people worry about Yoga as part of some sort of foreign religion.

Even for those who can get past any sort of religious overtones of Yoga, it is still often seen predominantly as the domain of affluent white suburban young mothers.  Claire Dederer captures this idea in her book, Poser : My Life In Twenty-Three Yoga Poses, which I thought about as I attended the meditation based Stress Reduction Program at Community Health Center.

By the sounds of it, the stress that the young mothers in Dederer’s book face are concerns about whether some potentially inconsequential action might scar the mother’s children causing them not to get into Harvard or have to spend a few extra years in therapy.  These were not the stressors that participants in the Stress Reduction Program were facing.  Instead, I spoke with a woman who was struggling to find work after spending time caring for an aging mother, being homeless, out of work, and sleeping in a car.  She spoke about using simple breathing exercises she had learned in the class to be calm and collected as she faced difficult tests while trying to create a new career.

One man had diabetes that the doctors were having difficulty controlling with medications.  He was facing being placed on insulin, but his doctor suggested trying meditation first.  As he combined a meditative body scan with the testing of his blood sugars, he found that meditation was doing something that medication had failed, getting his blood sugars under control.

I asked the patient’s doctor for an explanation of how a mediation program could help with diabetes.  He put it this way:

Glucocorticoids are our stress hormones.  They lead to higher sugars so that we can flee from the lion or fight the Neanderthals in the other gang.  So, even if somebody doesn’t change his eating, he might see lower sugars with lower stress.  But, a bigger factor—- somebody who eats out of stress or can’t attend to good nutrition because he is too stressed should do better when he gets some tools to use.

That makes a lot of sense to me.  Yet the story that perhaps touched me most was of an older man who had a history of anger management issues on top of health issues.  It had landed him in some pretty tough situations.  Now, he’s been coming back year after year to take part in the stress reduction program.  He’s experiencing better health and the battles of his youth have now given way to battles to raise his grandson in the best possible way.

Of course, I can’t promise that taking a stress reduction program based on meditation will lower blood sugar levels or high blood pressure.  I can’t promise it will help you find a job or a deeper meaning in your life.  Nor will I suggest that these stresses are any more or less important than the stresses that affluent white suburban young mothers face.  But I will say this: If you are a patient or a provider at any community health center, you should really be talking about how a meditation based stress reduction program can help and if you are a policy maker or run a health center, you should be looking at implementing a program like CHC has.

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