The natural path

When it comes to alternative medicine, a healthy dose of skepticism may be just what the shaman ordered.

Now, I’m not certain whether I’m a card-carrying skeptic. Like many, I’ve stumbled my way through the maze of herbal remedies. Yes, I have a bottle of gingko biloba in the refrigerator. I probably took some, then forgot about it – not a terribly good endorsement for a product that’s supposed to enhance memory and concentration. I also have a bottle of kava kava I bought when that fad hit. A little bit of natural relaxation sounded like a good idea.

OK, I admit it. I have a shelf full of nutritional supplements that I have been tempted to try, intrigued by the idea of noninstitutionalized, "alternative" remedies.

The wavering skeptic, like myself, might wonder how to get more information, and how to choose an alternative practice and a practitioner to go with it.

Yoga, aromatherapy, massage therapy, acupuncture, homeopathy and reflexology, for instance, are rapidly becoming more familiar. You may also have heard of Ayurvedic medicine, naturopathy, visceral manipulation, craniosacral therapy, Pilates and Feldenkrais.

With all of these options, how can you find what works for you? That’s what I wanted to know. Figuring that just getting out there and trying various options was probably the best way to start, I recently went in search of my alternative health "thing."

My first stop was a meeting with Peter Gabel, co-owner of American Therapeutic Massage in Farmington Hills. I was prepared to ask all sorts of questions, but Gabel asked one first: "Have you ever had a professional massage?" Uh … not really.

Any latent skeptical attitude I had toward the value of therapeutic massage disappeared by the end of the introductory session.

But you don’t need to rely on personal experience, common sense, or even anecdotal evidence. There is much documented research on the many concrete benefits of regular massage.

Although a sizeable portion of the public remains skeptical of therapeutic massage, apparently the medical community is catching on. According to the American Massage Therapy Association, "Fifty-four percent of primary care physicians and family practitioners say they would encourage their patients to pursue massage therapy as a complement to medical treatment."

Numerous published studies show beneficial links between massage therapy and the treatment of conditions such as anorexia, asthma, attention deficit disorder and chronic fatigue syndrome.

Gabel explains that a good massage therapist will first talk to a client to learn about the client’s needs, and a good generalist will be able to find the techniques that work best for each individual client.

Next, I met with Kathryn Grace, director of Healthstyles Healing Center in Royal Oak. There, I more fully understood the range of styles in the world of complementary medicine. Healthstyles and American Therapeutic Massage were equally appealing, but unmistakably different in approach.

Both places were warm, welcoming and comfortable. Where American Therapeutic Massage offers a pleasantly clinical atmosphere, Healthstyles feels like a spiritual retreat complete with incense, statues of angels, pictures of the Dalai Lama, jars of herbs and clays, bottles of essential oils, and a shelf displaying crystals and New Age music cassettes.

Healthstyles provides a variety of healing options from massage to aromatherapy, but I specifically wanted to learn more about yoga. Grace, who began studying yoga at age 14, is articulate and convincing when describing the importance of the ancient art. Not only well-versed in the physical approach to yoga, Grace has a full knowledge of its history and philosophy.

What is appealing about yoga is that, in addition to the physical mastery, yoga incorporates devotion, wisdom, sacred ritual and inner focus.

As with massage, yoga involves many options. Internal yoga. Kripalu yoga. Kundalini yoga. Iyengar yoga. Ashtanga yoga. But finding the right form isn’t difficult, you just need to be willing to ask questions.

Grace recommends calling a yoga school and talking to an instructor or program director about their training, experience and teaching style.

Even if massage and yoga aren’t for you, if you’re interested in complementary and alternative medicine, chances are there’s something that’s perfect. Maintain your skepticism – to a degree – but don’t overlook the pleasures and benefits that come from a balanced approach to wellness.

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