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The Medical Benefits Of Your Yoga Class

In the past decade, a yoga mat rolled under a person’s arm has become the surefire mark of a someone heading to the gym. Those who practice yoga, which at BC seems to match running on a treadmill and lifting weights in popularity, are not just involved in the latest fad.

For Helene Langevin, the director of the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, a collaboration between Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital, yoga is part of a field called integrative medicine, which brings together conventional medicine and alternative practices—such as yoga, tai chi, and acupuncture.

“People are very curious about understanding whether therapies like acupuncture and yoga work, and how they work,” Langevin said.

“Yoga has become hugely popular,” she said, adding that it helps people to relax and is good for the body. “We’re also interested in it because people can injure themselves from doing too much yoga—especially people who are already very flexible and who overdo it. If it’s not done carefully you can injure your ligaments and your joints, your connective tissue, actually.”

At the Osher Center, Langevin and her fellow researchers strive to find answers to these kinds of questions.

“The Osher Center is really a very special place,” Langevin said. “There’s a very open attitude at Harvard to integrative medicine, I have found.”

Langevin, who originally practiced only conventional medicine, said that she has not always enjoyed the open attitude to the field. When she first became involved with integrative medicine, some of her colleagues were skeptical, but many have since accepted that this field provides solutions to real medical issues.

Before becoming involved with integrative medicine, Langevin was dissatisfied by her inability to help patients with chronic pain problems. She could prescribe them medications, but they were not terribly effective. Looking for a solution, she tried something new.

“I decided to study acupuncture part time and found that it was actually quite helpful for my patients, but I didn’t understand why that was,” she said. She became involved with research on the mechanisms of acupuncture, which she studied for almost 20 years, finding that acupuncture needles interacted with human connective tissue in compelling ways.

“And then that’s when I started becoming interested in integrative medicine and bringing together alternative and conventional medicine, not just in research, but also in education and clinical practice,” said Langevin, who became the director on the program in integrative health at the University of Vermont from 2009 to 2012.

When she became the director of the Osher Center in 2012, Langevin was happy to find that a great amount of research into integrative medicine was already being done at Harvard—but it was hard to tell how coordinated the research was or whether or not the various researchers even knew about each other.

“We decided to create a visualization, to essentially show the network to itself,” she said. This visualization, called the Osher Center Integrative Medicine Network Map, launched over the summer. It is a massive web of information—drawing lines between various doctors who have published research on different facets of integrative medicine, including yoga, tai chi, acupuncture, nutritional supplement, and meditation. Langevin said that she knows of no other network map that has been put to this specific use.

To create the network map, Dr. Peter Wayne, the research director at the Osher Center, created a massive list of the doctors who have published integrative medicine research, using information from PubMed and the Harvard Catalyst, a database of the research conducted at the university. Harvard Catalyst does provide a type of map to show with whom the researchers have co-published, but it does not illustrate this map for the specific categories that the Osher Center’s network map does.

The Osher Center hired Exaptiv, a company that creates network visualization software, to complete the map—the work took several months.

Following its creation, the Osher Center invited all of the people documented on the map to Integrative Medicine Research Forum on Nov. 3. Already, Langevin said, nearly half of the 600-plus individuals featured on the map have indicated that they will attend the forum, which will feature Dr. Albert-Laszlo Barabasi, a professor at Northeastern, as the keynote speaker.

“We think it’s going to be very interesting meeting these people, because it’s going to be essentially the in-person version of the network map,” Langevin said.

Bringing together individuals invested in related research, lies at the very heart of the mission at the Osher Center, which Langevin and others at the organization call “a center without walls.”

“Our job is to help connect people throughout Harvard Medical School—the people that we see on our map—to have them work together and to have joint efforts in education and research and in clinical practice,” she said.

Featured Image by Emily Sadeghian / Heights Editor

Correction: An earlier version of this article misspelled Exaptiv. 

October 22, 2014

ONE COMMENT ON THIS POST To “The Medical Benefits Of Your Yoga Class”

  1. I think the idea of integrative medicine is excellent. I
    often have back pain and muscle aches due to stress that I used to take Advil
    for. Now that I have started practicing yoga, the pain has lessened
    substantially. Yoga not only focuses on breathing but also stretching and
    building of the muscles. These two aspects paired together have helped me tremendously.
    There are different poses that help with different kinds of back pain that I am
    having and the breathing exercises help me to relax. When I first started doing
    yoga I didn’t think it would be physically demanding. Some of the poses require
    a lot of balance and muscle strength. On a normal day, I sweat as much doing
    yoga as I do when I run on the treadmill. Yoga leaves me feeling relaxed and
    accomplished. I hardly ever get sore from running but yoga often leaves me a
    little bit sore indicating that I am building muscle. I’ve never tried
    acupuncture but it seems effective. I have friends that have tried it and had
    great results. I imagine that it is very good for blood flow and circulating
    blood into the areas of your body with pain. While I am interested in sticking
    to yoga, the different integrative medicine techniques are very effective. I
    think that it is often better to treat the body naturally rather than with
    medicine. Humans used to survive without drugs and we can today too. Prescribed
    medicine is helpful but taking Advil for pain that can be solved through yoga
    seems silly to me.