about Yoga RxBy Kathryn Boland

Yoga Rx: What does it mean and where is it going? Have you noticed that yoga is coming more into our Western culture’s medical “mainstream”? Do you wonder where you might factor in, as a yoga instructor, in this trend? My father practiced for several decades as an orthopedic surgeon specializing in hands and shoulders. While in my 200 hour CYT training, I forwarded him an article about keeping the wrists safe in weight-bearing yoga postures. The article also explained how the same postures, in an overall balanced asana practice, can help to alleviate many hand and arm medical complications. In his response e-mail, he enthusiastically replied “Thanks, now I will specifically recommend yoga as an option for my patients with wrist pain!”

That’s one isolated example, and my father might be more open-minded to so-called “alternative” therapies than other medical professionals. On the other hand, evidenced-based research is increasingly demonstrating that yoga can offer many clinical benefits (when combined with traditional treatments, for the most part). More and more, clinicians are listening to what that research has to say – and their treatment recommendations, referrals, and other care aspects are following suit.

How to objectively, empirically discover if that claim is accurate? In a true evidenced-based framework, researcher Marcy McCall investigated the prevalence of yoga in medical journals from 1950-2007. She found that there was limited discussion on yoga until 2000, then a further increase from 2007 onwards (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4097914/). What could account for such an increase? With the new millennium came new energy, yet also new challenges, in several areas of life.

Along with that, some individuals felt the need for a new wellness paradigm. Burnout and stress can wreak havoc on our bodies and minds, and conventional medicine has sometimes failed to offer us satisfying solutions. Concurrent with these trends were shifts in fitness and psychotherapy, and cultural movements that followed those. More and more people were taking up yoga because of all of those trends, experiencing its benefits, and telling their family and friends. More and more mats were slung over shoulders and in car back-seats, commuters ready for classes before or after work. Those practitioners would tell their doctors how good yoga made them feel.

Evolution of Methods

Before too long, medical professionals were ready to accept that yoga could offer clinical benefits – but they needed to see the “data”, the cold and hard numbers, before they would be willing to incorporate it into their practices. Grants were offered, and the studies began. That’s a largely loose and anecdotal description, without the type of data to support it that McCall can offer. The general trend rings true, however. It’s up to researchers to solidify understanding of any growth in connection between the yoga and modern medical worlds in the future.
In any case, a more recent study has shown that yoga could reduce the use of the healthcare industry itself. Researchers at Massachusetts General Hospital’s Henry Benson Institute for Mind Body Medicine found that Relaxation Response Training – a unique blend of yoga asana practice, meditation, and prayer – led participants to use medical services 43% less (https://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/health-and-fitness/health/practising-yoga-meditation-can-result-in-fewer-doctor-visits/article26869546/).

In that way such body-mind practices can be preventive rather than curative. On the one hand, this could cause economic stress on the healthcare industry. On the other, numerous sources attest that the United States spends far more on healthcare than any other Western nation, without significantly better outcomes. With shifts in healthcare resulting from the Affordable Care Act, preventive medicine has been more seriously considered, then promoted – and thus economically incentivized. It appears that a paradigm shift to such care is occurring. What is needed to keep healthcare providers gainfully employed and skilled in any changing methods is support (economic and otherwise) for continuing education, collaboration, and dialogue about needs and desires.

In addition, I can loosely claim that Western medicine is also heading more towards a model of holism – addressing medical complications through a whole-person approach (physical, mental, social, spiritual et cetera). This differs from isolating issues as independent clinical problems. For instance, a conventional Western medical approach to addressing stomach pains would be medication and/or elimination diets (to rule out conditions such as lactic and gluten sensitivities). A holistic approach, on the other hand, would include investigating not only the patient’s diet, but things such as sleep hygiene, social life, and work/life balance.

Yoga Rx and Clinical Benefits

If stress might be the true culprit for the stomach complications in a particular case, medication might temporarily alleviate them. An elimination diet wouldn’t address the cause. A holistic approach, however, would pinpoint the true source of the problem and help the patient carry out a plan for reducing it (if not eliminating it). Furthermore, the patient’s overall quality of life could improve! The reality of Western society, however, is that conventional approaches have the evidenced-based research to support them. Insurance companies will only pay for treatments that have such support. The practitioners who carry them out are also licensed by the state they practice in, also often another insurance requirement. For many individuals, care without that financial support (high premiums and all-too low premiums aside) simply isn’t feasible.

The body of evidence-based research that attests to yoga’s clinical benefits is growing, however (as described). Cultural shifts align with that – in both wider culture and the cultures within healthcare professionals. As yoga methodology and philosophy have always put forth, we are complex organisms with many inner collaborating systems. It is wiser to prevent problems, by working with how those systems inter-relate, than to address problems once they have become problems. This shift in understanding and operating is steadily occurring, but it won’t keep moving by itself. It needs continued research, advocacy, and inter-disciplinary collaboration to continue and grow. As yoga instructors, practitioners, and simply citizens, let’s do all that we can to insure yoga can offer what it has the potential to for those in medical treatment.

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