The “unknowns” of energy medicine are the aspects that make it seem unusual, unique, and — unquantifiable. The very things that make the work profound are also the things that have kept much of the medical establishment at arm’s length on this side of the world. Now, as science is slowly proving out what energy practitioners have always known about their work, traditional medicine is gingerly extending its hand. Will it be welcomed?
Both scientific research and anecdotal accounts tell us that the gentle giant we know as energy medicine has potential in every aspect of our being — from fighting addictions to healing trauma to balancing emotions and spirit. It can create structural change, and it can heal the oldest of psychic wounds. It gives only what you need, and its lessons can last a lifetime. This field of work has so much potential for health and well-being, yet it struggles to find a proper place in the paradigm of Western medicine. Even as we watch energy medicine making its way into integrative medicine clinics and teaching hospitals, we still have to wonder are we witnessing the birth of a new, energy-friendly medical model, or watching a slow assimilation that promises a future more bleak?
From the traditions of 3,000-year-old therapies to their most recent energetic renderings, one wonders, can energy medicine fulfill its modern-day promise? Can it be part of a new health paradigm based on the premise of achieving wholeness? Can it survive in a world of traditional Western medicine, all while maintaining its heart and soul?
These are the questions we asked those in the trenches — the therapists, educators, authors, scientists, and doctors who are witnessing these changes up close and personal. Here’s what they had to say.
A Part of Us All
When we talk about energy medicine, Reiki and Therapeutic Touch are often the first modalities that come to mind. But energy is evident in every modality on the bodywork tree. From Swedish massage to structural integration, energy is a part of the transaction between client and therapist, whether intended or not.
“All interactions can be described using energetic language, and most effects of touch have an energetic explanation, in addition to whatever physical explanations are offered,” says John Chitty, co-founder of the Colorado School of Energy Studies in Boulder, Colo., and an important voice in the polarity therapy camp.
“Swedish massage has more energetic action going for it than the obvious electromagnetic circulation effect,” he says. “We could also talk about the practitioner intention having a measurable effect of electromagnetic resistance in the tissues, the electromagnetic properties of muscle and especially connective tissue, and the electromagnetic field data processing capacity of connective tissue — energy anatomy that is being unknowingly contacted, among many others. So I think anyone who touches is doing energy work. They just may not know it.”
Suzanne Nixon, author, educator, holistic psychotherapist, and somatic bodyworker, takes it a step further. “An exchange of energy is always happening between practitioner and client, whether conscious or unconscious. Whatever the type of massage, stroke, movement, or modality, energy is always being exchanged.” She says the real question in her mind is, what is the intent of practitioner and the modality? “That sets the whole framework for the energy concept, and then that directs the whole session.”
Seeing is not always believing when it comes to things of the unknown. This is doubly true for a medical establishment trained to rely on the strictest science. When it comes to energy medicine, most allopathic practitioners think the case has yet to be made.
“There is little doubt that physicians have been exposed to, and some support, energy therapies,” says Elliott Dascher, M.D., author of Whole Healing: A Step-by-Step Program to Reclaim Your Power to Health. “This is a definite shift from just a few decades ago. However, this is clearly a small minority clustered around major cities, integrative healthcare centers, and perhaps academic institutions.”
Dascher says it will take time — a long time — to find real acceptance. “My sense is that the younger physicians entering medicine will have already been exposed to the alternative and complementary approaches through both their cultural experience, perhaps their individual exploration, and in certain cases, through medical school teaching programs.” These doctors, he says, will clearly be more open toward energetic approaches than those who’ve come before. “Yet, all who have gone through the rigors of medical training will relate the strong pressures to conform to the traditional approaches of ‘modern science.'” Fully accepting energy therapies will be too big a pill for some, he says.
On the other side of the coin, there’s Brian Dailey, M.D., an 18-year attending physician in emergency medicine at Rochester General Hospital in New York. “I can’t keep up with the demand,” he says. Dailey has incorporated energy medicine into his practice in tantamount ways. Reiki has been his biggest asset, especially in the emergency room, as well as with cancer and hospice patients. Reflexology, aromatherapy, sound, guided imagery, and massage are just some of the other healing tools he makes available to his patients. “We are open to all forms of healing.” His goal is just to get people feeling good again.
Dailey says the hunger for energy medicine information is “phenomenal,” taking him around the country and around the world to speak about it. He optimistically believes the battle to bring energy medicine into a traditional medical paradigm has already been won. “We are doing it now,” he says.
It might be “baby steps,” but Dailey is right. Change is occurring. For instance, in addition to seeing Reiki in hospitals throughout the East and medical schools across the country offering rotations through complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) programs as part of the curriculum, one place energy therapies are showing up is in integrative medicine clinics. Some of these clinics are being opened by physicians trained out of places like Andrew Weil‘s Program for Integrative Medicine at the University of Arizona, a two-year residential fellowship program, the first of its kind in the country.
Growing at a tremendous rate, these integrative facilities are offering a melding of therapies for patients. Christine Gustafson, M.D., says as a graduate of Weil’s program, she’s found tremendous results with biofeedback, Therapeutic Touch, and meditation in her Alpharetta, Ga.-based integrative medicine practice. She says her patients are taking to it like water.
While many are eager to see these clinics be successful, others are reserving judgment until they see it in action. For Nixon, the concern is that today’s energy workers will be thwarted under the power of such clinics. She’s fearful practitioners will be lost in the mix, and so the depth of knowledge of their work will be lost, too. Physicians, trained briefly in energy techniques, won’t have the expertise of those thoroughly knowledgeable of its intricacies and strengths. “I’m afraid they’ll still follow the Western mind, and we’ll move away from client-centered to protocol-centered,” Nixon says. Either way, most agree these clinics might help pull the rest of the medical system toward a new, more holistic mind-set.
Concerns aside, Nixon says another aspect of what’s brought energy medicine to this new level has been a change in the language. Twenty years ago, energy therapies were a novelty in the medical world and far from appreciated for the most part. Nixon describes that era of energy work as “flighty,” “ungrounded,” and too “New Agey.” Today, it’s described with the moniker energy medicine, a move Nixon says worked immediately to change the context of the work.
Case in point was a recent psychotherapy symposium she attended where energy medicine was a dominant theme, and people like neuroscientist Candace Pert were offering continuing education courses in energy psychology.
A big part of the contextual change came with the publication of James Oschman’s book, Energy Medicine: The Scientific Basis, in 2000. In it, Oschman lays out a significant amount of historical research that supports the legitimacy of energy therapies. The book, and his 2003 release, Energy Medicine in Therapeutics and Human Performance, have been heralded as extremely important contributions to the field of energy medicine.
“It helped doctors break through the ‘woo woo’ factor,” Oschman says of his first book, which details the science of energy medicine. Today, doctors are ordering the book for themselves and their patients.
As the language has changed and become more grounded, energy medicine is being noticed in other arenas. Spas are including more energy therapies than in years past to answer consumer demand, says Hannelore Leavy, executive director of the Day Spa Association. Leavy sees spa owners keeping their therapy menus fresh by including adaptations of ancient modalities from a variety of cultures. No longer afraid to include lesser-known therapies, spas are doing it to keep up with the competition down the street.
That’s OK by Leavy who appreciates the inclusion of therapies that address the total well-being of a person and not just our parts.
In addition to quietly making its way into a variety of health settings like spas and hospitals, energy medicine has benefitted from the endorsement of professional athletes who have opened a door of acceptance. “The use of energy medicine in the athletic community is really proving how valuable it is,” Oschman says, noting the success of one of America’s favorite sons. Six-time Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong is working on his next victory and has no problem sharing the fact that his chiropractor/trainer Jeff Spencer uses energy therapies, including an Erchonia laser, for treating him and the rest of the team.
By Karrie Osborn, contributing editor to Massage & Bodwork magazine.
Originally published in Massage & Bodywork magazine, August/September 2005.
Copyright 2005. Associated Bodywork and Massage Professionals. All rights reserved.
1 Eisenberg, D.M. et al. Trends in alternative medicine use in the United States, 1990-1997: results of a follow-up national survey. JAMA 1998 Nov. 11, 280(18):1569-75.
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