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  May 8, 2000

West Meets East in Class On Asian Medical Systems

With exams just around the corner, students in Usha Palaniswamy's class are feeling stressed. Learning how to relax might seem to be just what the doctor ordered.

Sitting cross-legged, eyes closed and hands in praying position, the students intone a mantra, following the instructions of their instructor, Sadhaka Byrns Ahluwalia.

The class is learning more than a strategy to survive exams. They're learning about the ancient Indian philosophy and practice of yoga, part of a new introductory class on Asian Medical Systems.

Byrns, media producer at the Center for Instructional Media and Technology and a yoga instructor, is one of a series of practitioners visiting Palaniswamy's class. The students also have learned about tai chi, acupuncture, naturopathy, and other medical systems.

The course is topical: interest in alternative forms of medicine is spreading.

"This is a direction many are going in health care," says Joe Smey, dean of allied health. He says nationwide there is an interest in how to incorporate other forms of medicine with established Western medical practices.

Palaniswamy says alternative medicines can be particularly helpful for long-term conditions such as chronic pain. "The treatment for such conditions can be expensive and is not always effective, so people are looking toward other systems and other cultures," she says. The interest in alternative forms of medicine may also be connected with changing demographics, she says, and a growing interest in promoting wellness and preventing disease.

Palaniswamy says most of the alternative medicine systems now under consideration in this country are Asian in origin. And most involve diet, nutrition and herbal medicines, as well as techniques for relaxation.

"The basis of these systems is the same," Palaniswamy says. "They all emphasize balance of human beings - within the body, with nature, with the surrounding society. They recognize the spiritual - the connections between mind, body and society."

"This medical approach says what you're feeling inside and what you're going through in life can affect how you feel," says Anisha Chanana, a sixth semester family studies major.

"A lot of things we've talked about in the class are about lifestyle in general," says Kristin Santini, a freshman. "Most Asian medical systems treat life as a whole, not just the symptoms."

At the heart of the course is an introduction to the differences between the philosophical underpinnings of Eastern and Western approaches to medicine. "The Eastern philosophy stresses understanding, acceptance and subjective aspects. It sees each individual as a unique person," says Palaniswamy. "Western medicine focuses on observation and the objective. It generalizes more."

She says the students taking the class found some of the Eastern philosophical concepts hard to understand. "Non-English terms like 'chi' have no direct English translation," she says, "they have to be experienced or shown by somebody practicing that approach."

She says having practitioners come to class and involve the students in demonstrations of techniques such as yoga and tai chi - an enterprise for which she received some support from the Institute for Teaching and Learning - has helped them to understand and remember the course material.

"At first doing the yoga exercise in class felt silly," says Priyanka Patel, a sixth semester student majoring in medical technology, "but it really got my attention."

Palaniswamy, who joined the faculty in 1999 as a visiting assistant professor, now has a tenure-track appointment in allied health and Asian American studies. Next semester, she will teach a course on Asian American health issues.

Roger Buckley, director of the Institute for Asian American Studies, says that around the country, Asian American studies centers are beginning to recognize the importance of health issues. Some are beginning to offer courses in disciplines such as medical anthropology or health care policy.

Palaniswamy, who has a master's degree in education and a Ph.D. in plant science, brings a special perspective to the study of Asian medical systems.

Looking at Asian medical systems from the viewpoint of plant science is novel but logical, says Buckley. "Much of the heritage of traditional Asian medical systems is plant-based," he says. "When we think of ethnic studies programs, we don't often think of the sciences, but there is a role for scientists to play."

Buckley says he hopes students will gain from the course an understanding of the ancient traditions that come out of India and China, and also their modern applicability. "Health care systems in the U.S. are looking at alternative medicines. Some HMOs will pay for acupuncture," he says. "This is all very current and exciting."

Elizabeth Omara-Otunnu