The Leading Edge of Mind-Body Medicine
Chopra Center physician and master educator Dr. Valencia Porter is a mind-body healing expert who has studied and worked with some of the world’s renowned pioneers in integrative medicine, including Drs. Deepak Chopra, David Simon, and Andrew Weil.
In this month’s Healing Wisdom interview,Dr. Porter shares her perspectives on health and healing as well as discussing what it was like to study with Dr. Weil at the Arizona Center for Integrative Medicine. From an out-of-body, laughing-induced experience to bonding and sharing knowledge with practitioners from across the globe, Dr. Porter treasures her time at the University of Arizona’s Integrative Medicine program that has highly influenced her career at the Chopra Center today.
In 2006 you received the prestigious Bravewell scholarship to attend the University of Arizona (UofA) Fellowship in Integrative Medicine – the program established by Dr. Andrew Weil. Could you tell us about Bravewell and what led you to enter the UofA program?
Dr. Porter: The Bravewell scholarship has been awarded since 2005 by the Bravewell Collaborative, a philanthropic organization that has been committed to transforming the healthcare system and improving the health of the American public through the advancement of integrative medicine.
When I applied for the Fellowship in Integrative Medicine, I had already been studying in many areas of holistic medicine (acupuncture, herbs, Ayurveda, yoga, meditation, food as medicine) and had considered attending the program at the U of A for a couple of years.
During residency in General Preventive Medicine at U.C. San Diego, I had the opportunity to work at Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine (SCIM,) and my mentor there, Dr. Mimi Guarneri, suggested that I apply. I was awarded the fellowship in part due to my work in underserved communities – I had been a practicing pediatrician at Vista Community Clinic in San Diego’s North County.
How did your experience during the Integrative Medicine Fellowship shape your current approach to medicine?
Dr. Porter:While I was already knowledgeable in many of the areas of holistic medicine separately, the way that these many healing modalities were presented in an integrated manner by a most phenomenal faculty really put it all together for me.
I went back to my roots of truly listening to the patient's story and have been blessed to work in places such as SCIM and the Chopra Center, where I have the luxury of time to be able to do so. I recognized that I am not a healer, but rather a facilitator or guide to help a person heal him or herself. I became a partner with my patients to help them take charge of their own health care and their own health. I simplified my approach – recognizing that there are so many different ways to handle a situation and many would be appropriate, but you usually cannot and should not do them all.
What is your involvement with the program since completing the fellowship?
Dr. Porter:Not only did we have great teachers at U of A, but wonderful colleagues as well. I am still in touch with many of my fellow colleagues, and since they come from various areas of expertise, it is great to know that there is someone that I can trust if I have a question. As I see patients from all over the world, it is also helpful when I can connect them with a like-minded practitioner back at their home.
I feel particularly close to the other Fellows who also received a Bravewell scholarship as we had some additional opportunities to work with one another as a smaller group. They were all highly motivated, skilled, and empathetic individuals whom I consider not only to be great clinicians and researchers but also great friends. I have had the pleasure of returning as an Adjunct Faculty member for several years − going back and interacting with the current fellows at the U of A. Helping to train health practitioners to practice integrative medicine is a passion for me and always something that I look forward to.
A number of educational institutions now offer fellowship programs in Integrative Medicine, but the leader in Integrative Medicine fellowship training continues to be the University of Arizona’s Program in Integrative Medicine. What was most valuable to you about the experience and your studies?
Dr. Porter:The depth and breadth of the faculty really made the experience for me. The U of A program strives not just to touch on all of these different modalities, but to gather information from the most knowledgeable practitioners and present it in a way that will be useful and useable to clinicians seeking to truly practice integrative medicine.
As Western practitioners used to an evidence-based paradigm, we were also shown where the evidence was for the use of these modalities versus conventional medical therapies and raised the question of what and how much evidence is really needed. I am continually evaluating what is the best way to approach each patient − not just deciding what protocol to follow for a given disease process or complex of symptoms, but looking at each person as an individual, multidimensional being living in a dynamic environment.
What was it like interacting and learning from Dr. Andrew Weil?
Dr. Porter:He is an amazingly intelligent man who is also down to earth. I was, of course, impressed with his knowledge base, but also by his passion for the broader reform of the way health care is administered and taught in this country.
How did he inspire you?
Dr. Porter:By his commitment to transforming health care by training doctors in all specialties to practice integrative medicine. This is changing the way we are taught to be medical doctors and helping to shift the paradigm from disease management to health promotion. Integrative medicine means widening the focus of our lens from the micro-specialty back out to the whole being and also acknowledging the interaction with other beings and our local and global environment.
How do Dr. Weil’s philosophies and teachings intertwine with those at the Chopra Center?
Dr. Porter: There is a lot of alignment in the desire to treat the whole person in a way that is harmonious with nature. Many of the approaches are similar: the principle that food IS medicine, utilizing breath work (pranayama) to calm the mind and positively affect our physiology, the recognition that our emotional wellbeing is an important aspect of our overall wellbeing, the use of natural supplements in a well-informed way to enhance healing and not as a natural pharmaceutical substitute . . . and on and on. I find more similarities than differences.
How are you integrating what you learned on the fellowship into your work at the Chopra Center?
Dr. Porter: At the Chopra Center we are Western medical physicians who follow Ayurvedic principles to help people achieve balance and improve their health and wellbeing. Although Ayurveda is a traditional form of medicine from India, I am able to bring in many other modalities to support healing as well.
When I first started working at the Center, I asked Dr. David Simon (the co-founder) what I could or could not do. He was very supportive in allowing me to utilize whatever tools would best serve the patient, from acupuncture and healing touch to guided imagery and nutritional supplements. My approach is integrative and includes Ayurveda as well as other healing approaches that are helpful for that individual.
What is most interesting or cutting-edge these days in Dr. Weil’s world and his approach to integrative medicine?
Dr. Porter: He has been and continues to transform the practice of medicine. In part due to the work of Dr. Weil and the U of A program, there will soon be a board certification in Integrative Medicine that is officially recognized by the American Board of Physician Specialties. Currently, there is a board certification; however, it is not officially recognized. I think this will do a lot to help patients find practitioners who are well-versed and have a certain level of training in this area as well as help other practitioners understand what integrative medicine entails.
Another thing that I am personally excited about because of my passion for eating well is the launch of Dr. Weil's restaurants – the True Food Kitchen. Eating out can be healthy, healing, environmentally conscious, and yummy!
Where can we find True Food Kitchen?
Dr. Porter: The first True Food Kitchen opened in Phoenix in 2008 when Dr. Weil partnered with restaurateur Sam Fox. Now they have locations in Scottsdale, Newport Beach, Santa Monica, and San Diego.
Do you have any interesting stories about your experience attending Dr. Weil’s program?
Dr. Porter: Well, this was a bit odd, but during one of the residential training weeks we had an experiential session in what is known as “Laughter Yoga.” During that session I laughed and laughed and laughed, and then suddenly felt very strange and a little disconnected.
By chance, one of the experts in energy medicine happened to be in the room so I went over to her and I said “Something just happened.” She looked me up and down and then her gaze was drawn right over my head as she said, “You laughed yourself right out of your body.”
I said, “Okay, well, can you put me back in?” She had me sit down so she could perform some energetic techniques on me, and then I felt better and grounded again.
In March the Chopra Center is offering the Journey into Healing mind-body workshop, led by Deepak and featuring Dr. Weil as a keynote speaker. Journey into Healing has been one of the Chopra Center’s most popular courses for more than a decade. Why do you think it continues to be so well attended by participants from around the world?
Dr. Porter: Journey into Healing is a great way to explore the principles and practices of Ayurveda and mind-body medicine, which is the basis of what we do at the Chopra Center. By following Ayurvedic principles to bring the mind, body, and spirit back into balance, we are able to promote healing and prevent disease.
Because the course is led by physicians who are trained in the Western medical approach as well as in a variety of healing traditions, we are able to address how we can apply the wisdom of these healing modalities in conjunction with conventional medicine and temper traditional lore with common sense.
Are you finding that there is more scientific research supporting mind-body medicine more these days?
Dr. Porter: This is a very exciting time because the technology has become advanced to the level that we are able to investigate and see that these tools of mind-body medicine (such as yoga, meditation, nutrition) can make very real impacts on specific markers of health and wellbeing.
For instance, in the last several years, there has been an explosion of research on the effects of meditation on brain function and structure. And we have seen studies linking lifestyle changes to changes in gene expression and ameliorating the effects of aging. The Chopra Center is currently partnering with researchers at UCSD, UCSF, and Harvard to evaluate the effects of meditation on some of these biomarkers with select participants at this October’s Seduction of Spirit meditation retreat.
How does Journey into Healing benefit health care practitioners as well as individuals seeking to create greater health and wellbeing in their lives?
Dr. Porter: Most Western health care practitioners have not learned about Ayurveda, so having knowledge of these concepts can help in many ways, from opening your perspective on how you view patients and their illnesses to approaches to helping them with their health and wellbeing. You don’t need to become an Ayurvedic practitioner to utilize some very simple Ayurvedic concepts to help people. Participants will gain a practical framework and tools for healthy lifestyle change, which is one of the most powerful things we can do to prevent and even reverse many of the chronic diseases that are so prevalent today.
For those interested in their own health and wellbeing (which hopefully also includes healthcare practitioners), Journey into Healing teaches how to institute those lifestyle changes for yourself – how to meditate and practice yoga, how to eat healthy without feeling restricted, how to manage stress and enhance your body’s own innate capacity to heal.
Are you finding that your medical colleagues are adapting more mind-body practices and integrative medicine into their own practices?
Dr. Porter: Meditation, yoga, and supplement use are so commonplace now, which is great. I find that more of my colleagues are open to collaborating with practitioners who can help move the patient in the direction of healing rather than being fearful of what is unknown and saying “don’t do that.”
What do you like most about working at the Chopra Center?
Dr. Porter: I am so blessed to be practicing in an environment that allows me to do what I feel is best to support the patient, not to be constricted by ten-minute visits or what the insurance company will approve. I love the people that I work with – they are here because they believe in and love what they do and that positive energy is very tangible.
Why should we look forward to Dr. Andrew Weil coming to the Journey in Healing workshop in March 2013?
Dr. Porter: To me, Deepak Chopra and Andrew Weil are two powerhouses of integrative medicine. If you want the best information on health and healing on a personal or professional level, or if you are interested in ways that our healthcare system and the wellbeing of the world can be improved, it couldn’t get any better than to have both of them.