Just Say Om: Yoga Therapy Meets Mainstream Medicine

As the health benefits of yoga become more widely recognized, more and more doctors and medical professionals recommend yoga as a complementary and alternative therapy to their patients. In addition, increasingly doctors and nurses are enrolling in yoga continuing ed classes to learn how the ancient art can complement conventional medical treatment.

A recent article in NPR chronicles one such journey. Doctors and nurses at Howard University’s College of Medicine/Hospital in Washington D.C. spend four-day weekends at a Maryland retreat center to study yoga. There they learn breathing techniques, Chakra meditation and yoga practices to address everything from digestion to insomnia.

The yoga immersion weekends are part of the hospital’s CME (continuing medical education) course, “Intro to Yoga Therapy for Medical Professionals.” The continued education courses are held in collaboration with the Life in Yoga Foundation/Institute, a non-profit organization directed at integrating yoga therapy in mainstream healthcare. 

Since starting the program in 2010, Life in Yoga has trained 145 doctors, and its programs are recognized by the Accreditation Council for Continuing Medical Education. That means doctors can earn credits to keep their licenses current by learning about yoga.

In an interview with Yoga U Online, Rajan Narayanan, founder of Life in Yoga, said that he hopes that medical professionals may be more willing to recommend yoga techniques to their patients after gaining first hand experience. He hopes that physicians looking for alternative treatments for their patients might consider yoga as an adjunctive therapy for everything from musculoskeletal system disorders to back pain.

Learning about Yoga Vs. Teaching Yoga

Although yoga experts applaud the idea of integrating yoga therapy into healthcare, it is a challenging topic for the yoga therapy community who question whether a weekend immersion is sufficient training for physicians and their teams.

“While on the one hand it’s wonderful that mainstream medicine is recognizing the benefits of yoga for various conditions, it’s also a little frightening to think of doctors with no more than a few hours of yoga training going out and teaching yoga to their patients,” says Robin Rothenberg.  Rothenberg is a member of the International Association of Yoga Therapist’s accreditation committee, and the founder of Essential Yoga Therapy.

Yoga instructors must complete a 200-hour yoga teacher training program in order to even be able to enroll in a yoga therapy training program, Rothenberg adds. While introducing nurses and doctors to yoga is a good first step, she believes that the next step would be for medical professionals to pursue in depth yoga therapy training and/or to refer patients to skilled yoga therapists in their area.

“Only education can bridge the gap in understanding between Western and Eastern perspectives on health so we can work collaboratively with one another for the benefit of our patients,” Rothernberg states.

Narayanan agrees. He says the weekend immersion program is intended to get medical professionals to begin thinking of yoga as a complement to traditional medicine. He would like to see doctors and nurses continue on to receive formal yoga therapy training. For now, the yoga education that they receive is considered “introductory,” he says. He has observed some doctors discussing specific uses for yoga with their patients for conditions like hypertension, however.

“The doctors who come to our training are those that want to explore other ways to help their patients beyond the traditional treatments,” says Narayanan. “We’re not training them to start teaching yoga in their examining rooms, but want them to experience it themselves so that they can see it can be healing for their patients.”

Yoga is a relatively new addition to the list of accredited courses, but one that has proved helpful to physicians, Dr. Murray Kopelow states in the NPR article.  Kopelow is the President and CEO of the Accreditation Council for Continuing Medical Education.

“These are things our professionals need to know,” Kopelow said. Dr. Harminder Kaur, an internist in Clarksburg, Maryland, agrees. Kaur, who also practices yoga in her personal life, said the Life in Yoga curriculum has helped her patients with illnesses such as sleep apnea and arthritis.

“It takes one case to be successfully treated, then your mind is open to it,” she said.

For Narayanan, the ability to hone in on a specific disease and have evidence of a proven outcome is the crux of his work with healthcare providers. He said psychiatrists often see the most powerful results of the practice — sometimes replacing drugs with breathing exercises.

But to make an impact on the health care system, Narayanan wants to dispel the popular image of yoga as just an exercise or good stretch and focus on its scientific side. He and his partners forgo any salary or compensation to make sure that happens.

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