Western Body / Eastern Mind?

The Western medical tradition dates back more than 2,000 years to the time of the Greek physician, Hippocrates. The ancient Roman saying, “Healthy mind in a healthy body” speaks of a long held recognition of an intimate mind-body connection. However, history shows that the majority of Western methods of attaining health and well being were directed at the body. Exercise, physical treatments, drugs (or herbs), diet and surgery have been the main methods by which ill health, both mental and physical, have been dealt with in the Western medical tradition. It has long been recognized that a healthy body is necessary for a healthy mind and our emphasis on understanding the body has led to ever increasing improvements in medical treatments and human performance in athletic and other endeavors.

The Eastern medical tradition was long dominated by Indian and Chinese conceptualizations of health and disease. There has been no less focus on the body in Asian medicine than in Western. However there has been a long tradition of exercises that were specifically mental in nature, performed to affect the body’s function. Traditional Indian yogic practices involving meditative techniques are famous examples. In China, meditative techniques involving concentration and imaging combined with relaxed physical exercises have long been thought to produce health, longevity and the ability to perform remarkable physical feats.

It was in the 20th Century when enough of the Eastern tradition had permeated the West and enough of the Western approach had entered the East, that scientific research began examining traditional Asian practices. The results have been fruitful.

As I write these words, Eastern practices such as meditation, Yoga and Taijiquan (Tai Chi Chuan) all have evidence supporting at least some of their claims of benefit to health. Medical research and clinical programs involving these practices have proliferated. I would argue that research mapping the effects of thoughts and emotions on brain microcirculation have been strongly influenced by Eastern concepts of training the mind to produce effects on the body. There are parallels between the use of biofeedback training and yogic training. Professional athletes hire sports psychologists to teach imaging and mental rehearsal in ways similar to those employed in some Asian martial arts for over a100 years.

In my opinion there is a strong rational basis for believing in the power of mental training to influence neurological and physiological function. We do not know the limits of this influence for certain but it likely ranks close to bodily influences on the mind’s ability to function.

We can train the mind and we can train the body. Next, I’ll discuss a method of integrating mental and physical training and why this may be relevant to pain management.

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