According to the IAYT, “Yoga therapy is the process of empowering individuals to progress toward improved health and wellbeing through the application of the teachings and practices of yoga.”
These standards, and the new occupation that they represent, stem from the work of many teachers including Dean Ornish, M.D., and his pioneering studies using Yoga and lifestyle changes to reverse heart disease. In the late 90’s, I had the privilege of teaching Yoga for the Dean Ornish program on his week-long Bay Area retreats and at his UCSF program site. Dean Ornish summarizes his studies here:
In a series of randomized controlled clinical trials, my colleagues and I, used high-tech state-of-the-art technology to assess the power of ancient, low-tech, and low-cost interventions. We found that even severe heart disease often can begin healing in a few weeks, without drugs or surgery. Using tests such as thallium scans, radionuclide ventriculograms, and cardiac PET scans, we measured overall improvement in blood flow in the heart and in the ability of the heart to pump blood; using computer-analyzed quantitative coronary arteriograms, we found that even severely blocked coronary arteries became measurably less blocked. (Ornish, Dean, MD; Love & Survival: The Scientific Basis for the Healing Power of Intimacy)
Dean Ornish’s work, as many people now know, focused on a five part program for reversing heart disease:
1. Exercise: approximately 30 minutes of walking per day
2. Stress Management: Yoga and meditation
3. Diet: a vegetarian (yogic) diet with no added fat
4. Group Support: positive group therapy
5. Smoking cessation
These five elements were all essential in reversing heart disease, but the studies showed that the most important elements were the Stress Management and Group Support. In fact, the more of those two elements that people practiced the healthier they got.
It was inspiring to be part of the first wave of integration of Yoga with the Western healthcare system. As a part of the Ornish program, we would have team meetings with doctors, rehabilitation specialists, therapists, and nutritionists; all tasked with addressing the needs of the individual participants. It was an honor to represent the spiritual needs of the participants in these group discussions and talk about supporting them with particular Yoga practices on and off the mat. It was also incredible to see Yoga/stress management a place at the table, and to consider how Yoga can integrate beautifully within our sometimes limited Western medical model.
Dean has always graciously acknowledged the training and mentoring he received from Swami Satchidananda, and looking back, we can now see the impact Swami Satchidananda’s teachings have had on the Western medical system.
As Yoga Therapy becomes more recognized and accepted within healthcare, Yoga teachers will be given more and more opportunities to participate in a new healing tradition that we are creating in the West, where we take the best of Western and Eastern practices to bring the most benefit to the patient.