Integrative Medicine: Just What The Doctor Ordered
When Scott Lawlor first walked into a yoga studio three years ago, he was on three different medications to control his high blood pressure. Today, as he sits on the mat at The Well yoga co-op in Kill Devil Hills, that number has dwindled to just one. Lawlor, now an instructor who holds classes here and at Outer Banks Yoga in Kitty Hawk, describes yoga as a preparation for meditation. “People think that when you roll up the mat, yoga is over. But yoga begins when you roll up the mat. It prepares you to be still.”
Just to the south in Nags Head, Shirley Parker and Rosie Rankin of Outer Banks Inner Journey offer guided mindful meditation and are also trained in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR), an eight-week program they teach at their Nags Head practice. The first of its kind on the Outer Banks, the MBSR program is a comprehensive course offering experiences and skill development in stress reduction, interpersonal communication, meditation and yoga.
It is designed to help participants manage stress, pain, anxiety and depression.
“We tend to react to things automatically,” says Parker. “With MBSR, we learn how to respond in a way that inoculates us from the effects of stress.”
Not far from their office, aromatherapist Meg Errickson mixes lavender and golden chamomile to form a massage oil that, if rubbed on your feet before bed, can help you to drift off to sleep easier.
She relies on essential oils to heal a number of ailments and her two children, she points out, have never required antibiotics.
And in Southern Shores, licensed acupuncturist Cheryl Blankenship says she has seen referrals steadily grow in the last 10 years. Physicians are seeing the difference the ancient practice is having on their patients.
According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, more than 30 percent of adults and 12 percent of children use health care approaches developed outside of mainstream Western medicine to either to complement conventional methods or as an alternative.
Christina Bowen, MD, of Outer Banks Family Medicine in Southern Shores, isn’t surprised to see these complementary therapies, and others, grow in popularity as a way to enhance overall wellness. In fact, she’s one of their biggest cheerleaders.
Fellowship trained in Integrative Medicine, Bowen takes a holistic approach with her patients, taking into account everything from social stressors and nutrition, to the mind-body-spirit connection, sleep, and connections with others.
“Using practices like acupuncture, massage, mindfulness meditation, guided imagery and spiritual counseling as complements to allopathic medicine help us to achieve our optimal health,” Bowen says.
And while the Outer Banks may be small in size, it’s big in its offerings of the approaches Bowen mentions.
“There are as many yoga studios here as there are gas stations,” jokes Scott Lawlor. While he may not look like your typical yogi, Lawlor hasn’t missed more than three days since taking up the practice three years ago and doesn’t hide his enthusiasm.
He gives a rough estimate of about seven studios from Nags Head to Duck. Classes, he says, have proliferated on the Outer Banks, and for good reason. Yoga has a long list of health benefits including improved flexibility, posture, focus and balance just to name a few.
“I think the allure of yoga is that ‘ah’ speechless feeling you get,” says Lawlor, who became a certified instructor in February and after his first class, was hooked on teaching the practice. “It’s amazing what it does, how much better you feel mentally and physically. It’s incredible.”
Lawlor teaches Vinyasa at both studios, but says he does a lot of improvising and caters each class to the students who attend. “I liken it to a jam session,” he says, but adds that yoga is all about “making the body still so the mind can be still, too.”
Mindfulness practices and meditation were something that always resonated with Shirley Parker. When she began to integrate the practices into her daily life years ago, she knew mindfulness was something she not only wanted to continue to practice, but also share with others.
“Mindfulness refines our attention so that we connect more fully and directly to whatever is present,” says Parker, adding that the research speaks so clearly to its benefits.
Parker and Rosie Rankin, of Outer Banks Inner Journey Center for Self-Care and Well-Being, are mental health and substance abuse counselors, and also trained to teach Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR).
The eight-week program they offer at their Nags Head office is the same one offered in 700 medical settings around the world, including Duke Center for Integrative Medicine and UNC Chapel Hill.
“MBSR is one way to develop resiliency against stress,” explains Rankin, who adds that she and Parker also utilize the MBSR tools from the course within their counseling practice to help clients with stress, anxiety, depression and chronic pain.
Since everyone encounters stress in daily life, the program is beneficial to anyone. First developed in a medical setting in the late 1970s by Dr. Jon Kabat Zinn, the course follows a structured protocol that includes mindfulness meditation, yoga and a daylong retreat.
“MBSR moves us from reaction to response,” Parker concludes.
If she had to pick, Meg Errickson says her favorite essential oils are cardamom and ginger. But her home-based business, Nags Head Apothecary, is filled with healing oils of all kinds and a mixture of scents floats in the air as Errickson works.
A certified clinical aromatherapist, Errickson uses essential oils to make everything from anti-aging products, candles and lotion to chapstick, sunscreens and cough syrup.
While she’s always been interested in essential oils, Errickson was eager to learn the knowledge behind it. That desire led her in 2013 to become certified through the East West School of Aromatic Studies.
Aromatherapy, she said, can be used for a variety of ailments, helping to kill bacteria, prevent the body from going into deeper infection and aid in the recovery of a virus such as the common cold and tonsillitis.
Scattered around her work area are bottles of every size holding the healing oils and her shelves are lines with books on natural health.
Holistic aromatherapy, she says as she mixes and measures oils, “is practiced when the client and practitioner work together toward a balanced mind, body and spirit while taking into account physiological, psychological and environmental factors.”
The idea of Traditional Chinese Medicine, along with the ancient practice of inserting needles in the skin to stimulate specific points on the body, may still sound somewhat foreign to some.
But on the Outer Banks, licensed acupuncturist Cheryl Blankenship has been instrumental in mainstreaming the practice – one that treats everything from chronic pain, fatigue and headaches to anxiety and insomnia.
“Modern medicine has some challenges to treating chronic, difficult-to-treat diseases,” Blankenship says. With acupuncture, she adds, “we focus on the whole system.”
Since opening Island Acupuncture in Southern Shores nearly 20 years ago, Blankenship’s practice has become well established in the medical community.
Of acupuncture, she says, “There is not one particular point that performs a particular function. It is often the combination of points that produce an effect. In the same context, every human body is different and is going to respond differently to acupuncture as it does every pharmaceutical or manual therapy.”
“What I see as becoming more mainstream than anything right now,” says Blankenship, “is the integrative approach that includes diet, lifestyle and a variety of mind body practices and approaches that create an optimal functioning body. For being as secluded as we are, I feel very fortunate to be a part of the integrative resources available locally. It’s one less thing we have to drive to Virginia for.”
For Bowen, she says her patients are “super-receptive” to an integrative approach to health care, and are ready to make lifestyle changes. “It requires a certain level of intentionality, but life is a journey and we take small steps of intention as we work toward a goal.”
So the next time the doctor hands you a prescription, it may not require going to the pharmacy, but instead be one for cardamom and ginger, an hour of meditation, a yoga class, or perhaps a visit to the acupuncturist and massage therapist.
It may be just what the doctor ordered. ♦
Mindfulness Meditation: Cultivating Stillness In A Hectic World
We receive plenty of invitations in life. To parties, graduations, and weddings. But in a world that rarely slows down, there’s nothing quite like the invitation we receive when beginning a mindfulness meditation practice.
It’s an invitation to be still. To focus on the breath and pay attention to what is happening at the present moment – within us and around us – without judgment.
“The research speaks so clearly to the benefits of mindfulness, particularly mindful meditation,” says Shirley Parker. Parker and Rosie Rankin of Outer Banks Inner Journey offer guided meditation through their practice.
The benefits she speaks of include higher brain functioning, lowered blood pressure and heart rate; increased awareness, attention and focus; increased feelings of connection and well being; and lowered anxiety levels, just to name a few.
Parker and Rankin’s guided meditation often centers around the teachings of world-renowned meditation teacher Sharon Salzberg, which focus on cultivating three key skills: Concentration, mindfulness itself, and loving kindness.
“Each of these three skills can be complementary to medical treatment for problems with attention, anxiety and depression, and stress, and they can be alternative as well,” Rankin said.
Concentration, Parker said, steadies and focuses attention so that we can let go of distractions. Mindfulness helps us connect with whatever is present and loving kindness, she said, can be best described as “compassionate awareness that opens our attention and makes it more inclusive. It transforms how we treat ourselves, our families and others.”
Practicing loving kindness, Rankin says, “helps us recognize that simply living with gratitude makes all the difference in the world in regard to how we treat ourselves and others. And one of the biggest lessons from mindfulness is that in order to offer loving kindness toward others, we have to be able to offer it to ourselves.”
According to Emma Seppala, Ph.D., loving kindness meditation has been proven to increase empathy and compassion, decrease chronic pain and migraines, increase positive emotions and social connection and curbs the tendency to self criticize.
Their offerings include a variety of Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction practices, meditations on thoughts and emotions, mindful movement and stress-relieving visualization.
Sometimes, particularly with stress and anxiety, we can become out of balance which may require seeking professional help, Rankin said. “However, there are wonderful things like attending a mindfulness practice, yoga class or other forms of alternative care that will offer you the opportunity to recognize it and release it.”
And one more benefit to having these meditation skills is that they can be carried with us back into our busy lives. As Salzberg writes, meditation is “the ultimate mobile device,” one that can be used “anywhere, anytime, unobtrusively.”
Michelle Wagner is the editor at Three Dog Ink and has been living and writing on the Outer Banks for more than 15 years. Contact Michelle