Tag Archives: yoga therapy

Yoga as medicine gets a bad review

Brian Palmer is Slate‘s chief explainer and tackles the claims that yoga is medicine for many medical conditions.

Slate Does therapeutic yoga work? The best studies say no, but they don’t get much press..
Doctors eventually realized—most of them, at least—that prayer didn’t fit well into a clinical trial. Yoga doesn’t, either. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do yoga. By all means, do yoga, pray, and eat lemons, if those things bring you contentment. Do yoga especially if it’s your preferred form of exercise—exercise is a health intervention supported by thousands of clinical trials. But recognize the “yoga as medicine” craze for what it is: an indicator of the zeitgeist, not a scientific discovery.

I’ve commented on the trend towards prescribing yoga for all kinds of ills and flaws. Much of it goes back to the inception of modern yoga in India when its early advocates wanted to validate yoga within a Western, medicalized framework. In the States, the application of yoga as a therapeutic tool has also help it makes inroads into mainstream culture. There’s been a lot of bad science done around yoga therapy, which has compounded the problem. It’s hard to run standardized, double-blind studies on a massive scale on a practice that should be tailored to individual bodies.

But I also think that all this talk about yoga addressing medical conditions is wrongheaded. The practice of yoga is aimed at wellness, the holistic utilization regulation and balancing of bodily systemic functions (myofascial, neurological, circulatory, lymphatic, and others). You could focus a session exclusively on lower back pain, but the asanas and vinyasas would not affect just the lower back, but the whole body. The effects would be accumulative over time, not something like a round of antibiotics. In addition, yoga addresses mental states that Western-style exercise ignores and have a huge impact on well-being.

This article is the latest wave of skepticism about yoga, mindfulness and other things vaguely New Agish. You should also check out The Mindfulness Racket: The evangelists of unplugging might just have another agenda by Evgeny Morozov, a senior editor at The New Republic. He’s actually talking about another trend, the recommendation that people should unplug from their stress-inducing devices because Western society is too hyper-wired and needs to stop multitasking. The mindfulness thing gets lumped in because unplug advocates frequently cite that mind state as the counterweight to multitasking.

Sexual Predators in the Yoga World

A link to this blog came through my Inbox this morning so I decided to pass it on since several of my YTT buddies have interest in  treatment of veterans for post-traumatic stress disorder and trauma, as well as the power issues in the yoga classroom. The site has been around for 30 months so there is plenty to chew on.

Sexual Predators in the Yoga World | WarRetreat.
Jillian and I feel obliged to mention this problem to veterans. Especially men and women who have suffered sexual trauma while in the military. We wonder if rape and sexual harassment go underreported in the yoga world. We wish someone would start keeping track. We understand, given the “celestial fog” many yoga teachers bask in, that reporting a popular person for inappropriate and abusive acts is beyond difficult. The last thing we want –is to ignore the issue, and send anyone blindly into a studio. Remember, you are your own guru.


Yoga and its application in health and wellness

Photo: ornamental shrine in bronze, India
Siddha Pratima Yantra, Western India, dated 1333 (Samvat 1390) Bronze, 21.9 x 13.1 x 8.9 cm Freer Gallery of Art, F1997.33

The next major event of the Yoga: The Art of Transformation exhibit is the Medical Yoga Symposium to take place on the weekend of January 11-12, 2014. The first day with the theme of “Discovery and Didactics: Professional Perspectives and Personal Stories” will be in the Meyer Auditorium at the Freer-Sackler Gallery while the second day (Master Classes, Experiential Workshops,  3-hour intensives and Discussions ) will take place at the Marvin Center of the George Washington University. Participants should be prepared to get down on the mat.

The event will be led by a lot of heavy hitters in the American yoga scene, especially those devoted to yoga therapy and related applications, as well as medical researchers, doctors and psychiatrists—more than 20—too many to list here so you can consult the flyer or the website for more details. It is shaping up to be as thought-provoking and body-shifting as the yoga symposium in November.

The event is being organized by the Gallery, the Center for Integrative Medicine at George Washington University Medical Center and Therapeutic Yoga of Washington, DC. Because the two-day event is not only an exposition, but a teaching event (attendees are eligible for continuing education credits), it comes with a cost: $180 the first day, $100 the second day. Student and group pricing is available.

Topics include:

  • Evidence-based Integrative Health Practices
  • Yoga Practice in Modern Society
  • Yoga as a Therapeutic Intervention
  • Transformations in Modern Medicine
  • Scientific Research on Yoga and Yoga Therapy

“Yoga: The Art of Transformation” exhibit will remain at the Freer-Sackler Gallery until January 26, when it will go on a road show to San Francisco and Cleveland. Several special events are planned for the final week.

Local school to give an advanced degree in yoga therapy

We have a new wrinkle in yoga training in the DC area.

Maryland University of Integrative Health (MUIH, formerly the Tai Sophia Institute in Laurel, MD) will offer a Master of Science in Yoga Therapy, starting in September. It calls for 39 credits. Classes will take place on weekends and stretch over two years, three terms per year. To qualify for admission, you must have a bachelor’s degree, a 200-hour yoga teacher certificate, and a year’s teaching experience. The degree will cost $25,000 (about what I paid for my MS in Information Technology). That price makes a 200-hour or 500-hour teaching certification seem like a bargain.

Doug Keller, a well-known and respected yoga teacher, is the advisory director and  Mary Partlow Lauttamus is Program Director. The website does not mention other teachers to be involved in the program.

The Tai Sophia Institute used to be focused on Chinese acupuncture and herbal medicine, health and wellness promotion since 1974, and began offering a masters of acupuncture in 1985. It changed its name in March. I noticed the news when I spotted an ad in Yoga Journal.

I think it’s going to be a hard sell because MUIH has not previously worked with yoga, so why should you pick that school. It does have the pedagogical and administrative infrastructure to flesh out a graduate program. Elsewhere, the Loyola Marymount University at its Los Angeles Extension has a yoga studies program and offers a Master of Arts in Yoga Studies. It has a Graduate Program on Yoga Studies (36 credits). The Yoga Therapy Rx program, led by Larry Payne, has a faculty of 25 teachers. Many of its course offerings are similar to standard teacher training programs. LMU is a Catholic university in the Jesuit tradition.

Tools and techniques for dealing with pain

For the past three months, I’ve incorporated a set of tools and techniques into maintaining the subtle balance of my body, and it all started with an unexpected message.

Photo: two yellow balls for yoga therapy
A deceptively useful instrument for dealing with tension

When, I first published the news about my condition of peripheral neuropathy, Jill Miller reached out to me to tell me about her own therapy work with someone who was suffering from a severe case of peripheral neuropathy. I had actually read her two- part interview in The Magazine of Yoga when she was declared “Teacher of 2011”, but it was before I knew that neuropathy would take such a predominate place in my own existence. Actually, there were so many interesting segments in the interview, it was easy to overlook the part in which she discussed the case of Eric who has Charcot Marie Tooth disease, the most common genetic neuropathy. He was severely handicapped, even crippled by the disease. Miller set up a therapy program to reawaken his nervous system. Miller also pointed me to a PowerPoint presentation that she made at the Symposium on Yoga Therapy and Research in September 2011, sponsored by the International Association of Yoga Therapist (IAYT). My condition was far less severe than Eric’s; he was using high doses of multiple pain medications (including cannibis). After treatment, he reduced his use of pain meds by 70%.

I was intrigued. I was looking for something that would allow me to get from session to session of my massage therapy. I immediately incorporated a couple of routines of yoga poses into my evening restorative routine: bridge pose, dolphin pose (actually I skip them in the evening if I did a class that included them) and leg stretches. Miller’s reclined routines required me to prop up my hips on a yoga block and anchor my feet on a wall. As I’ve employed these routines, I’ve come to appreciate how they opened up my hips, widening and stretching the area between my sit bones.

I then placed an order for self-massage therapy audio CDs for full body and Yoga Tune Up® Balls, which had also been used in Eric’s treatment program. I’ve mainly stuck with the upper body routines and the exercises for the feet and calves. It takes a good slice of time (20-30 minutes) to work through the upper body series and I also needed to do other routines to prepare me for sleep.

Putting the balls to good use

I took the balls and audio recordings with me on my Christmas trip to Florida. I found that they really helped relieve the stress of driving around the Tampa Bay area between family gatherings, beaches and our living quarters. I got home late and was unable to turn off my hyper-alert mind and release the tension that built up between my shoulder blades. I did my Yoga Tune Up® routines and was able to rest.

Even more importantly, the routines have contributed to lessening the low-grade pain and numbness in my feet. On the downside, it’s obvious that Jill M mainly works with women because the balls (made out of a resilient rubber material) are showing signs of wear from bearing my heavier weight. I will have to order a new set of balls soon. I think she should consider making several sets of balls that take into account the user’s weight.

Going back to the extended interview, it helped me appreciate that Jill Miller is firmly grounded in yoga tradition and the new frontiers that are being opened up by practitioners who are not afraid to listen to their bodies. She’s not selling a gimmick or an angle that’s meant to differentiate her products and services in the market place.

Better than the cure

The New York Times is on another yoga binge, putting out stories on Ana Forrest’s niche appeal and former Cornell basketball players doing yoga during off-season, to mention the most recent ones. Jane Brody has a column about Ancient Moves for Orthopedic Problems mentioning the work of Loren Fishman, a physiatrist — a specialist in physical and rehabilitative medicine affiliated with NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia hospital. I’ve already used the modified triangle headstand posture to get my shoulders aligned. His longer referenced article is available (PDF, 1.76 mb) from a special issue of Topics of Geriatric Rehabilitation (April/June 2011 – Volume 27 – Issue 2, pp. 93-166) on yoga as therapy.

I was even more struck by what Fishman writes in the Foreword of the special issue:

There are few therapies that boast about their side effects. Both medicine and surgery are undertaken because there is a favorable cost-benefit or risk-benefit ratio. The 2 (sic) are placed on opposite sides of the balance of good judgment. In yoga, the side-effects, irrelevant to the actual reasons for its initial adoption, may turn out to be more to the practitioner’s advantage than the primary therapeutic effect! Almost any style of yoga brings with it reduced blood pressure, less obesity, and less back pain, improved range of motion, safe strengthening, reduced asthma and reduced anxiety, better recovery after surgery and chemotherapy and almost stunningly low cost.

Fishman is no stranger to yoga: he practiced in India for three years before going to medical school and has co-authored books on Yoga Therapy. He has a website on sciatica and has several audios of conversations and courses on YogaU.com.

Grieving mindfully

Grieving has been on my mind the past few weeks, so I naturally noticed the e-mail that came through my Inbox. Operating out of Frederick, Heather Whittington provides yoga therapy for grief. Her site Mindful Grief provides information on her workshops and groups that help deal with grief and other human suffering. She also offers private sessions. I will be spending more time with her online materials over the coming weeks.

Yoga Spirit is back

About 18 months ago, the site Yoga Spirit, now Yoga U Online seemed to disappear from the Web when I was hoping to get one of its online yoga therapy courses. Today, via Amy Weintraub, I found Yoga Spirit, now using the domain of Yoga U Onlne. If you look on the teachers directory, you see a listing of big names in yoga: Judith Hanson Lasater, Richard Miller, Nischala Joy Devi and Weintraub, as well as Thomas Myers, one of the most original voices in bodywork (see Anatomy Trains). In addition to the downloads, the site has other resources for yoga therapy.

Yoga for Pain Relief — what I read during the snow storm

Cover art of McGonigal's bookKelly McGonigal sent me a copy of her book Yoga for Pain Relief: Simple Practices to Calm Your Mind & Heal Your Chronic Pain (New Harbinger Publications, 2009) and I’ve been sitting on it for nearly two months.

Kelly does not need another review of her book. Eighteen endorsements from yoga experts, health advocates, pain relief specialists, and scientific researchers are spread over four pages. Timothy McCall, the medical editor of Yoga Journal and author of Yoga as Medicine, wrote her foreword. She got a review from Yoga Journal in the March issue and also publishes an article on Surya Namaskar (Sun Salulation) in the same issue.

She has a blog, The Science of Will Power, on Psychology Today (looks like it comes out twice a month), as well as her personal blog, Science and Sutras. Also check out her Facebook page.

She’s giving seminars at the Omega Institute (New York). She’s quoted in Time magazine, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. She’s starting to make appearances on TV.

As a psychologist at Stanford University, she’s uniquely positioned to see where yoga is interfacing with Western scientific investigation and medical practice, both in terms of theory and practice, at a time when neuroscience is redefining and re-dimensioning our understanding of the human mind. She’s also an accomplished yoga instructor and teacher of instructors, as well as the editor for the International Journal of Yoga Therapy.

Do we see a pattern developing here?

She definitely does not need another book review or endorsement from a blogger.

New Harbinger has produced an understated book format, looking similar to the scores of other “Yoga for …. [name your disease, symptom or preferred body part].” Clean design, large font size, gray scale photos. So what sets this book apart from all the stock in the self-help section?

Photo: deepening the twistOnce I started reading her book, it impressed me as an important blueprint for yoga in the United States. It’s a book that I would recommended to anyone who wants to understand what you can get from yoga/meditation. The book hits a kind of “sweat spot:” this is yoga’s entry point with the minimal initial physical investment, the lowest opportunity cost and the biggest pay-off. You don’t have to get in shape, build up your aerobic capacity, muscular strength and flexibility before seeing results. You don’t even need to know what’s wrong with you for yoga to do you some good.

The book is extraordinarily accessible: No jargon, either from the Sanskrit or from the academic/scientific lingua franca, no intellectual arrogance, no magical incantation, no gateway to esoteric wisdom, no complicated sequences of poses. Within the first 25 pages (out of 183 pp), she’s giving you easy routines to start using what’s she teaching, in this case, observing your breath.

One of the things that Kelly said five years ago has stayed with me and she repeats it in the book: people seek out yoga because they are suffering, either physically, psychologically or spiritually. Human suffering is a great motivator and a constant of human existence. The book’s virtue is simplifying yoga down to a concise, clear message: Relieve your suffering; start with these easy steps. If Patanjali had written like Kelly, yoga would have taken over the world (kidding — a little).

Kelly also understands the value of personal narrative alongside the findings of randomized, blind control experiments, and she has included compelling stories of people impacted by yoga throughout the book.

I also appreciate her thoughtful listing of resources: meditation and yoga instruction books, audio/DVD, music for movement, meditation and relaxation, books for people with pain, non-profit organizations supporting people with pain, and organizations supporting research, education, and professional training in yoga and meditation. In addition, she has 50-item bibliography. If you poke around her blogs, personal website or her book site, you’ll find lots of pointers to central reference texts, scientific studies, resource centers and specialized knowledge hubs — stuff that she did not include in the book because they would have gotten in the way.

New yoga book comes highly recommended

Cover art of Kelly McGonigal's book— and I haven’t even read it yet. Kelly McGonigal has written a book Yoga for Pain Relief: Simple Practices to Calm Your Mind & Heal Your Chronic Pain (New Harbinger Publications, 2009). Kelly is a health psychologist at Stanford University (and got the PhD to prove it) and teaches multiple classes on campus and in the San Francisco area, as well as workshops and teacher training. She is also the editor of the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, a peer-reviewed journal of research on yoga and meditation.

Why am I so sure that Kelly’s book would be worth reading? Because I took an online course on the question of “Can Yoga Really Change Your Life?” and I followed her career over the past six year. She was instrumental in steering me through the first year (maybe, more) of my yoga immersion. She came to yoga because of her own pain, helped others by becoming a teacher, applied the rigors of Western scientific methodology to yoga and finally shared her knowledge, skills and gifts by writing about yoga and editing others’ articles.

I’ll tell you more once I get my hands on the book.

Postscript: Kelly has contacted me and offered to send me the book.