Western and Wellness: Can They Coexist?

This entry was posted on Aug 11, 2022 by Charlotte Bell.
Doctor with Patient

Until the ACA went into effect, I didn’t have health insurance for decades. I’ve been self-employed as a yoga teacher since 1986; expensive premiums were out of my reach. For the last few years before the ACA, I had an expensive catastrophic policy that covered next to nothing. So when given a choice between Western and wellness modalities, there was really no choice. I was on my own.

This motivated me to take really good care of myself. I stopped eating meat in 1978. I never cared for the taste or texture, and I don’t digest it well. I always cook from scratch, lots of fresh veggies and no processed foods. I minimize sugar intake, never smoked, and drink only on very rare occasion. I take advantage of living in a walkable neighborhood, and having hikable mountains almost in my back yard.

And I began practicing yoga in 1982—it’s been 40 years now! Yoga has kept its promise, on all levels—physical, mental, emotional and spiritual.

Fortunately, for all those insurance-free years, my body didn’t give me much trouble at all. There were no health issues I couldn’t take care of with diet, supplements, body work or yoga. I would say I was lucky—and I was—but I also attribute my “luck” to staying mostly on a healthy path.

When Wellness Modalities Aren’t Quite Enough

For many years, I eschewed Western medicine. I’d been taking care of my wellness needs with alternative methods for so long that I felt I really didn’t need to have a regular doctor. When I began having stabbing pain in my left hip joint, I relied on my trusted modalities—acupuncture, massage, chiropractic—to ease the pain. While these things helped, relief was always temporary. Within a day or two, I was back to square one. As time went on those periods of relief shrank, until they no longer existed.

The ACA required me to have a required me to have a doctor. On my first visit to my absolutely wonderful doc, I asked for a hip x-ray. The diagnoses came back: end-stage degeneration. I would need a hip replacement.

Because hip replacements are common on my mother’s side of the family, I wasn’t completely surprised. In fact, I suspected as much, which is why I asked for the x-ray. Still, all those years of yoga! How could this happen?

Here’s how: I was born with hip dysplasia, shallow hip sockets. This makes them far more susceptible to wearing out. So the structural anomaly that allowed me to do lots of crazy yoga poses had an expiration date. And it was overdue. No amount of yoga, acupuncture, or body work was going to grow my cartilage back.

Western Medicine to the Rescue

So I swallowed my wellness pride and had a new hip joint installed. It’s no exaggeration to say that the surgery gave me my life back. For several years I’d been putting up with ever-decreasing function. Toward the end, I couldn’t walk more than three blocks or lie on my left side. Hiking in my beloved mountains was out of the question. Hip replacement surgery is a miracle. Without this Western modality, I probably would have spent the rest of my life in a wheelchair, especially since I had to replace my right hip joint a year and a half later.

As much as I once eschewed Western medicine, I owe my life to it. But that doesn’t mean that all my years of wellness focus were for naught. Even though I couldn’t stop my hip joints from wearing out, I feel that my quick and easy recovery from surgery was the direct result of my years of yoga practice. I spent only five days using crutches—and only a single crutch at that. My physical therapist declared me to be officially functional after only five of my twelve allotted sessions. I was back to teaching yoga two weeks after my surgeries.

Can Western Medicine and Wellness Coexist?

So can Western medicine and wellness modalities coexist? Absolutely. As time passes, the two are melding more and more. I’ve taught yoga at Huntsman Cancer Institute’s Wellness and Integrative Health Center since 2013, and have offered mindfulness instruction for the past two years. The center offers yoga, Tai Chi, Zumba®, acupuncture, strength training, body work—including massage, craniosacral therapy and lymphatic drainage—and osteopathic manipulation.

These practices help cancer survivors—and the rest of us—live in our bodies with greater ease. They help decrease stress, which is especially important when you’re going through intense treatment. These modalities may even help strengthen the immune system’s ability to fight cancer. (Here’s an article about how yoga practice supports cancer patients.)

I hope that the two modalities continue to integrate. Taken separately, neither one can serve as the be-all-end-all for every person. Together, they can complement each other and provide unique solutions for all of us in this vast and varied human community.

About Charlotte Bell
Charlotte Bell discovered yoga in 1982 and began teaching in 1986. Charlotte is the author of Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life: A Guide for Everyday Practice and Yoga for Meditators, both published by Rodmell Press. Her third book is titled Hip-Healthy Asana: The Yoga Practitioner’s Guide to Protecting the Hips and Avoiding SI Joint Pain (Shambhala Publications). She writes a monthly column for CATALYST Magazine and serves as editor for Yoga U Online. Charlotte is a founding board member for GreenTREE Yoga, a non-profit that brings yoga to underserved populations. A lifelong musician, Charlotte plays oboe and English horn in the Salt Lake Symphony and folk sextet Red Rock Rondo, whose DVD won two Emmy awards in 2010.