3 ways health care providers are using yoga therapy

This content is sponsored by Casey Health Institute

Most definitions of health commonly refer to a person being free from illness or injury, but they also include mental and spiritual components, meaning that health is a state of well-being of the whole person.

This wider understanding of the meaning of health has led to more medical approaches, including therapies that have been considered alternative, in an effort to treat the whole person. While acupuncture, chiropractic and nutrition counseling are some of the more common “complementary” therapies, one of the therapies that is gaining traction is yoga.

According to yogabasics.com, “What we commonly call yoga in the West is technically Hatha Yoga.” It aims to bring together the mind, body and spirit through the practice of asanas (postures), pranayama (breathing), mudra (gestures) and shatkarma (internal cleansing). What Westerners focus on is typically the postures and breathing.

Research is increasingly showing yoga can help with “back pain, anxiety, depression and insomnia,” and it can “help reduce risk factors for cardiovascular disease and hypertension,” according to Yoga Journal. It’s also been shown to help with the side effects of cancer treatment.

There are a number of ways health care providers are incorporating yoga therapy into their practices. Here are just a few examples.

Rehab settings

Hospitals and clinics that provide physical and occupational therapy may be the most common places to find yoga being incorporated into healing. Speaking broadly, physical therapists focus on movement. They are trained in anatomy and treatments that will help patients move better. Using the Iyengar style of yoga, for example, is a good way to help patients get into proper alignment.

As Julie Gudmestad, a yoga practitioner and physical therapist, told PT Magazine, “Some patients with inflamed tissues can exacerbate the problem by doing repetitive activities. (However,) many yoga poses are isometric — you get in a position and you hold. In Iyengar yoga, we get patients in a position of good alignment. Then the muscle has to just hold there, so we’re going to build strength, and we’re going to build alignment awareness without doing a lot of repetitive movements that could increase the inflammation.”

Cancer clinics

People who are battling cancer and who have survived a cancer diagnosis report better sleep, less stress and improved quality of life with the practice of yoga.

The MD Anderson Cancer Center has been incorporating yoga into its treatment of cancer patients for about 15 years. According to an article by ABC News, “A recent review of 10 studies … indicated that yoga might help to reduce anxiety, depression, fatigue and stress for some patients. Trials included in the review associated meditative yoga with improvements in sleep quality and a boost in patient mood and well-being.”

The center began recently to focus on pediatric patients as well as adult cancer patients, helping them deal with the “emotional side” of their illnesses.

Medical centers

Casey Health Institute in Gaithersburg, Maryland, is a pioneer in combining yoga and other complementary approaches with primary care. Doctors and other medical professionals work together as a team toward wellness for all who come to the center.

Mary Pappas-Sandonas is the clinical yoga specialist there. Doctors and other medical team members refer patients to her when they feel yoga would be a particularly effective treatment.

Patients can start with just a 15-minute session (15 for $15), which gives them a consult and “a yoga pose or two that begins to address what they’re coming in for,” Pappas-Sandonas said.

Or someone can use the “four for $200” program, which is four hourlong sessions. They work with Pappas-Sandonas one on one, and they develop a sequence that’s tailored to their needs.

She documents her work with the patient by putting it into the electronic health records. She even takes pictures of the patients in their poses, and the patients can go back and look at the photos so they can make sure they are doing them correctly and using props in the right orientation. The doctors also can see the photos and programs in the health records.

Doctor and yoga therapist will text and communicate through the record system, and then each week they, along with the wellness team, have collaboration meetings where they discuss patient cases.

As Pappas-Sandonas said of the process, “What you’re getting is this incredibly comprehensive, multidisciplinary approach.”

Casey Health began using this approach including yoga just a little over three years ago, Pappas-Sandonas said, and she’s been there full time since 2014. It’s a new approach that partners with the patient for overall health and well-being.

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