On Untangle podcast, Alejandro Chaoul is Director of the Integrative Medicine Program at MD Anderson Cancer Center. He was the first to create their Connect with the Heart meditation program for cancer patients, has studied in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition and deeply believes in the healing power of the breath and sound. He conducts research on these mind-body techniques.
“Integrative medicine” promotes physical, mental and spiritual health by combining conventional medical treatments with nutritional guidance and traditional approaches, such as yoga, meditation, and acupuncture.
As Roswell Park expands its integrative medicine programs, we are excited to host Alejandro Chaoul, PhD, as the keynote speaker at “Chapter 2: A Cancer Survivor’s Workshop,” to be held Friday, June 16, through Saturday, June 17, at Roswell Park. Chaoul was a pioneer in introducing integrative medicine at The University of Texas M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. In the Q&A below, Dr. Chaoul shares how he got his start in mind-body practices and how integrative medicine can help cancer patients and survivors.
Tell us about your background.
I have a PhD in religious studies with a dissertation on Tibetan mind-body practice and its applications in cancer.
What made you want to study that topic and specifically how it relates to oncology?
I started studying the Tibetan mind/body practices for my own interest, both in terms of health and spiritual interest. I was fascinated by the Tibetan culture and their mind-body practices, and that’s what led me to want to study it academically as well. I started by taking my first trip to India in 1989, and I got interested in these practices, in meditation, and later in Tibetan yoga, so I started practicing it.
Years later, in the ’90s, while I was doing my PhD at Rice University in Houston, I realized that there was a large cancer center [including M.D. Anderson] nearby. Soon after, my father was diagnosed with prostate cancer, and after visiting M.D. Anderson, I asked my Tibetan teacher if it was okay to share some of the practices I had learned with him. With his approval, M.D. Anderson thought it would be great if I offered some meditation practices there.
Can you explain what integrative medicine means?
Before the term integrative medicine was used, there was alternative medicine, which means a treatment that’s used instead of conventional medicine. Complementary medicine would be more of a way of bringing both conventional and non-conventional treatments together, where usually the patient does something on their own, and maybe tells or does not tell their doctors.
Integrative medicine is really to “do it together.” It involves real communication about these therapies, between not only the patient and the doctor but also among doctors and other practitioners. For example, at M.D. Anderson, when the oncologist writes their notes, I can see them, and when I write my notes, the oncology team sees them. We’re all interconnected through the clinical history and the clinical records. Also, in our case, the patient can also see our notes. In that way, we’re all working together for the health and the well-being of the patient.
Would integrative medicine be considered part of palliative care?
Integrative medicine helps all through the cancer journey, so it really depends on how a particular hospital or academic institution decides to classify it. But, yes, there’s a connection to palliative care, particularly in the aspect of supportive care. When you think of palliative care not just at the end of life but really as soon as you’re diagnosed, you can benefit from all these practices and ways of caring that don’t necessarily have to be pharmacological [drug-based].
Do you think people often misunderstand and think that palliative care is just for patients who are approaching the end of life?
Yes, totally. I think there is a misperception that palliative care is provided at the end of life. Palliative care is believed to help with any aspect of pain or other symptoms. Palliative care can start as early on as supportive care. You don’t have to be at the end of life.
I am looking forward to visiting Roswell in June, and sharing these practices with cancer survivors.
Connect with other cancer survivors during a healing weekend featuring meditation, yoga, nutrition information, drumming and much more. Reserve your spot for Chapter 2: A Cancer Survivor’s Workshop today.
Alejandro will be attending First International Chöd-Zhije Conference at Tara Mandala during July 12-16, 2017.
This Historic First International Chöd-Zhije Conference will draw together leading scholars and practitioners researching and teaching this unique lineage in its various manifestations. Keynotes, panel discussions, and small group sessions will be held. They will explore the teachings of 11th century Tibetan yogini Machig Labdrön and her teacher, the renowned Indian yogi Padampa Sangye, the developments of the lineage over the last millennium, the role of women, as well as the application of these teachings to our modern world. Dharma teachings and performances of Chöd songs and dances will foster a rich and
engaged experience. Follow-up retreats will offer the opportunity to learn some of the different Chöd practices.
Never before have scholars and practitioners of this lineage gathered together for a conference. The conference represents a major step in understanding the depth of this tradition and current research. It is designed for those with scholarly interests as well as Dharma practitioners who wish to deepen their understanding of Machig Labdrön’s lineage, and anyone interested in bringing this ancient wisdom into our modern world.
For more details please visit the Tara Mandala website: www.chodhealing.org .
From Houston Chronicle Article by Columnist Lisa Falkenberg, June 2015, in Houston TX.
“I have a little advice: Sit down and be quiet.
No, I’m not channeling my inner Steve Bannon here. Or trying to quash dissent.
But before we can take on the world or the White House or what have you, we have to confront what’s swirling within. You know, the grocery list of responsibilities. The destructive voice of self-doubt. The ruminations stemming from insecurity or post-traumatic stress.
In the past few weeks, I’ve had several people talk to me about the importance of meditation in their lives.
I’m a skeptic about such things. And I’m terrible at relaxing. Either my mind is charging ahead in a caffeine-fueled, Tasmanian Devil tornado or I’m snoring. I’ve known peace, sure – taking Holy Communion, hiking the Santa Elena Canyon, turning in a column on time, a rare event.
But the idea of some mystical middle ground seems as fanciful as Oz.
Still, the testimonials were intriguing. So when I got an email pitch about a free event at the Rothko Chapel – offering a chance to learn how an ancient form of Buddhist meditation can be “medicine” for our mind-wandering and emotional entanglements – I decided to find out more.
The Rothko event – happening today at noon, if you’d like to drop in – will be taught by Alejandro Chaoul, an assistant professor and director of education at MD Anderson’s Integrative Medicine program. Among his responsibilities are conducting research using mind-body techniques with cancer patients and holding group and individual meditation classes.
I attended one of Chaoul’s classes last week at MD Anderson with more than a dozen others, mostly cancer patients and caregivers. We sat in a mirrored, sunlit room, several of us first-timers, while Chaoul explained different meditation styles for different symptoms: Breathing helps with stress. Movement improves sleep. Certain sounds can help with “chemo brain,” cognitive impairment that can follow chemotherapy.
Chaoul likes to mix it up in his class, sometimes incorporating tea or writing. Regardless of style, he recommends 10-15 minutes a day of quiet and focus. Research has shown meditation can lower the stress hormone called cortisol, decrease blood pressure, balance the immune system and even “modify gene expression” to decrease inflammation.
‘Get lost in the shuffle’
Logically, I’m sold. But could I do it?
I listened as the others explained why they’d come. A patient with a rare Stage 4 cancer said she was just there to “de-stress.” A woman brought her sister just to get her out of her hospital room. A wife caring for her husband said she needed to find balance, “because it’s easy to get lost in the shuffle when I’m trying to take care of things.”
On this day, we were supposed to focus on nature. We could find it in a large, framed photograph of blue hydrangea on the wall, or out the window, in the gray clouds or the small garden of branches laid bare by winter.
Chaoul, an Argentine native with his gray hair in a tight knot behind his head, uncrossed his legs in his chair and pressed his socked feet against the linoleum. Half the time, he said, our mind is not in sync with our body. We’re looking at our children, or our spouse, maybe even nodding our heads. But our minds are somewhere else.
“Can you actually be here? Fully here?” he challenged us.
He told us to quiet the chattering in our heads, the “monkey mind.” Breathe lower, he instructed. Relax the eyes, the jaw. Melt the stress.
I was trying, but the monkey kept swinging. I scribbled a question in my notebook that I needed to ask my 7-year-old about school.
Somebody coughed. A cellphone buzzed. The PET scan machine in another room vibrated.
Look at nature, the clouds, the tree, I told myself, indecisive. Apparently the monkey chose the tree, then ran off down a long branch: “The house is clean,” I thought. “I should cook dinner. Too much takeout. What would the little one like? Lately, she’s been eating vegetables. Caldo. She ate caldo the other day. Why does she like that and not my chicken soup? The potatoes. I’ll make something with potatoes.”
“If your mind gets distracted, bring it back with your breath,” Chaoul said.
I try again. Just in time for meditation to be over. He invited questions.
“How do you quiet your mind?” a hospital volunteer asked.
Chaoul described a process that to me seemed like a ballerina’s spotting technique.
She doesn’t get dizzy because each turn, she connects with one stationary point in the room.
The woman with Stage 4 cancer had looked at the photo of the blue hydrangea – her favorite flower, she said. Her mind had gone to the ocean near her home in Alabama, and the walking path that gives her peace.
Someone asked Chaoul if, after 16 years of meditation, he was able to remain in a constant state of focus.
“If you ask my wife?” he said, prompting laughs. He said he has improved through the years and has stopped having panic attacks, once spurred by darkness and fear of death, but he still loses focus and gets angry.
He encouraged us to practice mindfulness throughout the day, even in traffic: “Don’t get frustrated. Don’t grab the phone,” he said. “Say ‘thank you, red light – what a great opportunity to breathe in and out.’ ”
We chuckled. After class, I asked the cancer patient how she liked it.
“For me, I can get lost in it,” said Patti Harris, 70, a retired businesswoman. She said it’s a powerful tool she uses often, along with her faith in God, to try to will the cancer out and keep positive.
Chaoul had told us: “When the mind wanders, usually it wanders into negative things.”
Quieting the noise
Harris knows this. So she doesn’t let it go there: “My friends say: ‘You’re so calm. You’re so at peace.’ Yes, I am.”
I’m not there yet – nowhere near. But Chaoul’s class inspired me to try again at home, with YouTube guidance. Each time, the monkey seemed a little calmer.
Chaoul said he’s seen meditation do everything from relieve acute pain to help someone overcome addiction. He loves doing the Rothko event, because he loves the chapel – a settling, embracing place, he said – and because he can introduce more people to meditation.
On Wednesday, he plans to focus on community as a source of support. It’s a good topic these days. We need each other – even when we’re at each other’s throats. If we can’t find all the answers in the noise, maybe we’ll have better luck in the silence.”
Dr. Chaoul has extensive experience in the area of mind-body practices, both academically and in clinical practice. Since 1999, he has taught in the Medical Center, particularly at MD Anderson Cancer Center, conducting classes with cancer patients and their families as well as teaching at the Rothko Chapel, the Jung Center, and the Esalen Institute. Dr. Chaoul is the author/co-author of various articles and book chapters, focusing on the role of mind-body practices, as well as Tibetan meditation. Additionally, his research and publications focus on mind-body practices in integrative care, examining how these practices can reduce chronic stress, anxiety and sleep disorders and improve quality of life and cognitive function.
Dr. Alejandro Chaoul leads us through a guided sound meditation.
Brought to you by MasterWord Services’ Wellness Connection and Friends of Integrative Medicine.
In conjunction with Gunilla Klingberg’s installation “Wheel of Everyday Life” at Rice University Art Gallery, Alejandro Chaoul led gallery visitors through a session of Tibetan Yoga. Participants learned about the concept of the body as a mandala with the heart as center.
Alejandro Chaoul received his Ph.D from Rice University in religious studies with an emphasis in Indo-Tibetan Buddhism. He is an assistant professor at MD Anderson Cancer Center where he conducts research using mind-body techniques with cancer patients, and holds group and individual meditation classes at the Integrative Medicine Center. He is also an associate faculty member at The McGovern Center for Humanities and Ethics at University of Texas Medical School, where he teaches medical students in the areas of spirituality, complementary and integrative medicine, and end of life care. He teaches Tibetan Meditation and Tibetan yoga under the auspices of Ligmincha Institute in various parts of the USA, Latin America, and Europe.
“Please silence your phones, or as I like to say, please put them in meditation mode” is how Dr. Alejandro Chaoul began his presentation on February 4. This sentiment put the rapt—and packed—crowd at ease, as Dr. Chaoul went on to discuss his work at MD Anderson and elsewhere. Known in Houston and beyond as a strong proponent for mind-body healing, his work celebrates meditation as a vehicle for that healing. Over the course of the evening, Dr. Chaoul enlightened about the inherent benefits of being present, focusing on your breathing, and stress relief. To complement the discussion, guests were led on a brief guided meditation, followed by a light reception generously provided by MasterWord Services.