Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Yoga - a magic bullet?

I have never doubted yoga's ability to improve your overall health, but it is nice to see science (finally) backing up my intuition that it also nurtures heart health. A recent study finds that yoga can carry equal to or more benefits for cardiovascular health than even aerobics. Read the full article.

This is great news - especially for my patients and millions of other people who are confused about how much of which type of exercise is best for your health. I have always educated my students and patients that their fitness program should be efficient (and fun). In other words - you do not necessarily need separate weight training, flexibility training, and cardiovascular training - which could keep you in a gym or working out for more than an hour at a time everyday. Who has time for that?

Fitness need not be confusing. However, some fitness experts would like you to believe that fitness is complex and requires a "secret" mixture of "this and that" - that only they can deliver in expensive doses and with special equipment.

Telling My Story
For almost 2 decades now, I have educated my patients and students that fitness can be both fun AND efficient. It does not take much time to have mind and body health (no, really!).

During that time, I have been my own "guinea pig." In other words, I teach and live by example. The methods I use with my patients - I have used with success on myself first. For example, I have used my methods to rid myself of chronic low back pain, neck pain, and to recuperate after childbirth. And - my methods don't require fancy gadgets, fitness toys, or expensive supplements.

What is my method? I use medical therapeutic yoga, the Professional Yoga Therapy method. It takes grounded medical research and apply it to yoga - so yoga can be brought into the 21st century.

I gave up my running regimen over 6 years ago. I realized I was spending twice as long practicing yoga to unwind the knots, aches, and pains in my body caused by running. After I quit running, my body (and mind) exhaled. Adrenal burnout subsided. And, I now spend 50% less time working out - and am in much better shape. Every person is different, however, so quitting running is not my message. Some bodies are made for running. My message is - make your fitness routine efficient and more effective for you - through adding yoga.

Yoga is touted to improve one's strength, flexibility - both physically and mentally - and it is something you never have to quit. From the 9 months spent in the womb to your 90th birthday - yoga can offers lifelong benefits. But enthusiasts often doubt its ability to improve heart health. Now some research is supporting that all you need is yoga. I say amen to that. But - I must caution you. Though yoga CAN be a bit of a "magic pill, cure-all, fountain of youth" - you don't need just any yoga. You need medically grounded, safely taught yoga.

Buyer beware...not all yoga is created equal.
People teach many strange and very dangerous things in the name of yoga. Even this great research article which touts yoga as a "one size fits all" fitness routine for comprehensive health fails to mention two important points:
  1. To get the total body fitness benefits (including cardiovascular benefits) from yoga - you must be practicing safely and at an intermediate to advanced (not beginner) level.
  2. There is no legal licensing or regulation of yoga teachers in the US. Although the article recommends you go to Yoga Alliance (YA) to find a teacher, YA is not a licensing board or even an entity which oversees the quality of education that a yoga student gets. The YA is only a voluntary registry. The widely used RYT designations that YA trademarked - are only minimum voluntary suggestions for someone to say they are a yoga teacher. This means anyone can say they are a yoga teacher and anyone can teach yoga regardless of whether or not they register with YA.
Yoga is both a complex art and science. Not just anyone can, should, or is qualified to teach it. Yoga is a powerful tool with a plethora of life improving benefits. However, its plethora of benefits are exactly what makes it a dangerous weapon - if put in the hands of someone unqualified to teach it.

Before you jump into the nearest yoga class - find out what type and how much training your teacher has had. For example, in my last blog I caution mothers and women not to just follow the rules of a "yoga guru." Some teachers teach what they have memorized or have been taught or told to do by their mentor or guru. They do not know the rationale or medical science (if any) behind what they are doing. Yoga, if it is going to be respected as a safe therapy for millions of people - needs to open itself up to the process of testing its teachers to make sure they are qualified to handle the medical (and otherwise) complexity of 21st century Americans.

If you do choose to search Yoga Alliance to find a teacher, I strongly caution you to do more than just go to YA and blindly pick a teacher. You need to personally interview your (potential) yoga teacher about their experience and formal studies. Completing or possessing an RYT is not necessarily proof of completion of formal studies or mastery of minimal knowledge about yoga.

How do you know if you have a good yoga teacher or therapist?
  • They need to be bilingual. A good teacher or therapist should have training in both eastern and western medicine and sciences. They need to be able to speak the language of yoga and medicine. The ideal background would be a teacher or therapist who has both University level western medicine training and completion of studies in yogic science and philosophy.
  • They need to know why they are teaching a breath or pose. A teacher or therapist should be able to back up what they are teaching with a sound medical explanation. If they cannot, be wary of its legitimacy, effectiveness, and safety. I have spent many hours treating injuries of yoga students and (veteran and new) yoga teachers because they did "what their teacher or guru told them to" without questioning why. Later, they learned there was no science or even good reason behind what the teacher said. They simply did what they were told. As both a teacher and a student - you must ask questions.
  • They need to know their limits. A good teacher or therapist will recognize when an issue or problem is past their education or ability. There is no current regulation of yoga or yoga therapy in the US, nor any mandatory test or educational standards which ensure a teacher is qualified to teach. A teacher should have a strong relationship with medical providers in the area - so they can ask questions and/or refer their students out when a problem is past their knowledge base.
What You Can Do To Practice Safe & Effective Yoga

  • You need to know and respect your own body and its limitations. If a teacher or therapist asks you to do something that doesn't feel right, don't do it. Listen to your body is telling you. Ask your teacher, and if he/she doesn't know the answer - they should be able to refer you to a medical professional who does know the answer. Ultimately - you are in charge of your body and your health. Don't just take anyone's answer to be "the last word" or "truth" - like the old cliche goes - "question authority."
  • Stay up on current events in yoga. Yoga use is much more widespread and sophisticated now. It is used in medical facilities, physical therapy practices, and hospitals and in use with cancer patients, spine programs, and more. Yoga is not found just in small studios and "big box/franchised" gyms anymore. Visit the only program in the US which currently trains licensed medical professionals to teach yoga as medicine. Doctors of medicine, physician assistants, physical therapists, and other similar medical and mental health care professionals are legally bound to their patients, taking an oath to "first do no harm." The graduates from this program are medically licensed and have studied yoga at a post-graduate level - which makes them ideal practitioners to both use and teach yoga, but also to oversee integrative rehabilitation and medicine programs which employ yoga teachers. Professional Yoga Therapy is not the only program which graduates qualified yoga teachers and therapists; however it is the only one which graduates clinicians who are licensed in western medicine AND have completed post-graduate medical studies in yoga and therapeutic yoga application. You can find yoga teachers through this program here.
No culture's medicine has the corner on Healing Truth. I believe a cross cultural approach to healing must be embraced - and urgently. Yes, yoga can be a magic bullet - to use the term lightly and nonviolently - it can provide a wealth of benefits for every system of the body and the mind - but it must be shaped to fit our 21st century needs. We need a system of healing in this country that:
  • is not disease driven but prevention driven
  • is person centered not patient centered
  • embraces multiple cultural systems of healing - not just "western" and not just "eastern"
  • unifies all forms of healing into a tolerant new paradigm for health care - one that uses Yoga, Ayurveda, Western Medicine, Native American Medicine, Traditional Chinese Medicine, and other approaches.

*photo taken by Paul Church 2009, during a press interview in central NC

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