Shaolin Monks Visit UCSF's Osher Center for Integrative Medicine

By Shipra Shukla

Susan Folkman, PhD, director of the UCSF Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, presents a welcome gift to Shì Yǒngxìn, principle abbot of the Shaolin monastery in Songshan, China, during his March 20 visit to the Osher Center to learn about its integrative medicine program.

The Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at UCSF recently hosted a group of Shaolin monks from China who were interested in learning how the center integrates traditional Chinese medicine (TCM) and meditation into modern medical practice. “Integrative medicine combines modern medicine with established practices from around the world,” said Susan Folkman, PhD, director of the Osher Center. “Through these combined practices, our practitioners help relieve suffering, reduce stress and maintain the well-being of their patients.” Nearly half the US population turns to integrative health care approaches to maintain or improve their health. The mission of the Osher Center is to conduct rigorous research on integrative approaches to health, to educate students, health professionals and the community, and to treat patients with compassionate care that addresses all aspects of health and wellness – physical, psychological, social and spiritual. Shì Yǒngxìn, principal abbot of the Shaolin monastery located in Songshan, China, inquired about the Osher Center’s approaches to healthy living and prevention, mind-body medicine, and integrative oncology. “We see Chinese medicine and meditation as part of science,” said Yongxin. “We are interested in learning more about how the Osher Center combines TCM with Western medicine.” Among those on hand to greet the delegation was Michael Mann, MD, chief of general thoracic surgery at the UCSF-affiliated San Francisco Veterans Affairs Medical Center. He surprised everyone by communicating with the group of monks in fluent Mandarin. “I’m a cardiologist, but what brings me here today is my personal connection,” Mann said. “For the past nine months, my son, who has some developmental challenges, has been living at the Shaolin monastery with the monks. The discipline and meditative practice of kung fu, in addition to the lifestyle, seem to have had a very positive impact on his growth. We just weren’t able to find this type of approach here.” One goal of the Osher Center is to provide a space where ideas and information, like those associated with Shaolin monks, can be shared with those in the San Francisco Bay Area. The discussion with the monks, which was open to the campus community, is one way in which the Osher Center is fostering the exchange of knowledge.

Mind and Body

The area of mindfulness is of special focus to Kevin Barrows, MD, interim director of clinical programs and director of mindfulness programs at the Osher Center. An ancient practice with more than 2,500 years of history and development, mindfulness is the process of establishing clear awareness of mental and physical experience in the present moment. Most major medical institutions today use mindfulness alongside established medical practices to advance overall health and healing for a variety of illnesses, including cancer, heart disease, arthritis, autoimmune disorders, chronic pain, depression, anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder.

Two monks meditate at UCSF during their recent visit to the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine.

According to researchers, significant results over the last two decades show that mindfulness affects health by reducing depression and anxiety, improving quality of life in those suffering from chronic pain, helping those undergoing cancer treatment or organ transplantation, and providing many other health benefits. “Many of us can find examples in our own lives where the mind and body influence each other,” said Barrows. “There is great potential in our capacity to transcend our outward physical circumstances, and the impact can be seen in our own healing process as well as with our patients. Mind and body are not separate; we should think of [them] as one unit.” During the meeting with the monks, Barrows described a patient with diabetes who benefited from the practice of mindfulness meditation. The story is not uncommon at the Osher Center, where practicing TCM and meditation helps individuals gain more control over their physical bodies. This is often particularly powerful for patients who, because of disease or illness, have lost their physical strength.

Whole-Person Healing

Joseph Acquah, LAc, OMD, who practices TCM at the Osher Center, collaborates with Barrows to use an integrative approach to care. “In many instances, those wanting a quick and easy answer to their condition will seek out modern medicine, which is good at bringing about acute changes,” said Acquah. “However, those individuals seeking a more lasting treatment, which often takes longer and requires more patient participation, tend to gravitate toward the traditional medicines from China and India — such as traditional Chinese medicine and Ayurveda.” Martial arts like kung fu are closely associated with the Shaolin monks, who view it as meditative. “The practice of meditation allows the individual to begin to look inward and ask — as well as answer — questions about themselves,” said Acquah. “Meditation can take many forms. Physical movements such as kung fu, tai chi and yoga are considered moving meditations.” A core belief of the Osher Center is that the healing power of integrative medicine lies in its whole-person approach. “Our team of health professionals works to address whole-person healing, not just treatment of isolated ailments,” said Folkman. “Our collaborative approach includes conventional and integrative practitioners working together and partnering with our patients, to truly provide the best quality of care.” The center conducts rigorous scientific research on treatments that address multiple aspects of patients’ health and wellness, such as the biological, psychological, social and spiritual. Center practitioners are studying the health effects of meditation, yoga and manual therapies such as massage. Other areas of research interest include acupuncture, botanicals, integrative psychiatry, integrative oncology and tai chi. “Our research aims to evaluate not only whether treatments work, but how they work,” said Folkman. “Through this research, the Osher Center aims to advance the evaluation of integrative medicine approaches and the inclusion of effective approaches in medical care.” Photos by Susan Merrell

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Osher Center for Integrative Medicine