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USF stretches out to explore yoga

In its infancy, the Center for Positive Health is already co-sponsor of an international conference on the health benefits of yoga and other alternatives.

By LINDA GIBSON

© St. Petersburg Times, published October 20, 2000


TAMPA -- Relax. Breathe deeply. Open your mind and visualize a place where doctors study meditation, where yoga is prescribed for asthma, and elderly patients practice tai chi to build bone density.

Ann DeBaldo imagined such a place. Along with collaborators from the Moffitt Cancer Center and the University of South Florida colleges of medicine, nursing and social work, DeBaldo has started the Center for Positive Health at USF.

So far, the center is little more than a state of mind. It has no building, no staff, no budget.

But already it is co-sponsor, along with Swami Vivekananda Yoga Research Foundation in Bangalore, India, of the 10th International Conference on Yoga for Positive Health. The December conference will bring about 400 people from around the world to the USF campus for lectures on the medical uses of yoga, meditation, chanting and breathing techniques.

It's an ambitious start for a center with a volunteer director who still has to hold a day job.

For lack of its own address, the center uses DeBaldo's office at the College of Public Health, where she is dean of the environmental and occupational health department. Her connections with yoga experts in India, developed over many years, helped land the International Yoga Conference.

Her work as an immunologist specializing in tropical diseases opened her eyes to traditional healing methods in India, Taiwan, Indonesia, China, Thailand, Nepal and Tibet.

Just back from a trip to Tibet, she saw how a local doctor in the Himalayas mixed up a concoction of herbs into hand-made pills for altitude sickness. They worked.

She also watched a Tibetan healer practice pulse diagnosis. Placing the tips of three fingers on the inside of a patient's wrist, the healer evaluated body functions and made a diagnosis.

Techniques widely used in other cultures but relatively unknown here will be studied by the Center for Positive Health. Those proved safe and effective will be considered for integration into mainstream medicine.

Americans spent about $30-billion on herbal supplements and alternative practitioners in 1997, according the National Institute of Health.

"People are using these practices," DeBaldo said, "and they need to be scrutinized."

Doctors at Moffitt, she said, want to research the use of guided imagery and meditation by cancer patients. Professors at the College of Nursing are interested in exploring reiki, which involves a practitioner using his hands to direct healing energy into a patient's body, and therapeutic touch.

Faculty members in the neurosciences department at the University of Florida's medical school also want to work with the center, DeBaldo said.

The Board of Regents approved the center in June, which means it can operate under the auspices of USF. It must raise its own money, however. DeBaldo estimates it will take $15,000 to get started. That money will come from various workshops offered to practitioners and the public, as well as the Yoga Conference, its biggest event of the year.

The center also is seeking a grant from the National Institutes of Health and will rely on grants won by faculty members doing research through the center.

Its home in the College of Public Health is a natural fit, said DeBaldo, since the center's emphasis is on maintaining health and preventing disease.

"It's more than the absence of disease," she said. "I'm interested in why people are healthy and how they stay healthy."

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