Newton’s third law of motion is that for each action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Just so, as the world seems increasingly to be coming apart at its seams, US adults are turning to centering practices such as meditation and yoga. Such are the findings of a new report from the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) and the CDC. From 2012-2017, meditation use jumped from 4% to 14% and yoga from 9.5% to 14%. Similar significant increases were found in children. What the researchers did not yet report are deeper data the CDC survey gleaned that will cast light on the meaning of such practices.
The data released in NCHS Data Brief 325 (November 2018) do not, unfortunately describe the breadth of use in past surveys. The NCCIH merely offers this quizzical note, since yoga and chiropractic, at least, are central to this report: “Previous surveys were broader and included substantially more questions while the 2017 survey focused on the use complementary practices not included in other large national surveys, such as massage, yoga, and chiropractic.” Chiropractic showed a bump from 9% to 10%. There is nothing on acupuncture or massage, for instance.
This initial report has its additional frustrations. The study, led by the CDC’s Tainya Clarke, PhD, MPH and anchored by NCCIH’s lead epidemiologist Richard Nahin, PhD, MPH, doesn’t give a gross percent of US adults who used any type or practitioner, or practice. We don’t have a present comparator with the 42% using CAM figure that the 2012 publication reported.
To understand what may yet be coming, I opened the file of the CDC’s entire National Health Information Survey. Pages 222-230 are devoted to the “CAM” questions with which NCCIH was involved. They give a taste of what is yet to come.
The survey also asked questions relative to use of naturopathy, chelation, homeopathy, progressive relaxation, guided imagery, spiritual meditation, centering meditation, mindfulness meditation, Qi gong, and traditional medicine use. We’ll have to wait for these.
Two directions in these questions create real anticipation. One is a look at the number of respondents who will report using traditional medical practitioners such as Shaman, Curandero, Yerbero, Hierbista, Sobador, Native American Healer, and Medicine Man. While one would expect the numbers to be low – especially from a population likely difficult to encounter in the survey – the data will begin to be corrective. The integrative dialogue in the US is remarkable for its lack of connection to indigenous US practices. (The Integrator has been party to that.)
The other intriguing area is a repeated question sequence relating to Tai-Chji, Qi Gong and Yoga. Respondents are explicitly asked if the physical practice involved with each was connected to first, breathing exercises, and second, meditation. In short, were these whole person health practices or merely stretching?
Unfortunately, the questions fail to address a deficiency in the NCCIH perspective that emerged two surveys ago. The questions ask, for instance, “did you practice Qi Gong (chee-GONG) for yourself?” I add the italics. In the focus on self-care – a good trend- they obscure the perhaps important role of the yoga instructor, the credentialed yoga therapist, or the Tai-Chi or Qi-Gong master. Regardless of intention, this perspective supports an unfortunate trait in US integration in which the mainstream often treats “CAM” as a thing – a modality or therapy. This diminishes the important role of the human being, whether practitioner, instructor, master or licensed clinician.
These first data from Clarke, Nahin and their team – whetting the appetite for more! – also include the following mostly unsurprising findings:
Perhaps the other reason for the gripe in the NCCIH focusing on yoga/meditation/Tai-Chi/Qi Gong as self care is that this misses not only the practitioner but also the community, group-delivered services component, and the ritual of attending classes.
For a people who rarely gather with others in institutional churches, these breathing plus meditation plus movement plus community practices may be providing some of the connective tissue for creating a new sort of relational fabric. Not surprisingly, the NCCIH-CDC research team did not opine on whether there is any evidence here that the world itself is somehow knitting itself together through these re-constitutive practices.