Month: June 2018

Is Yoga Medicine? Part 1 of 2

As part of our 500-hour training, I co-teach a course that I called Yoga and Mind Body Medicine. It’s a course I spent years dreaming up. My vision for it was to offer a Western science-based perspective on understanding the gross and subtle benefits of yoga on our body-mind physiology. I enlisted a colleague Dr. Lawrence Cheng—a Harvard trained integrative medicine doctor and yogi who teaches Mind-Body Medicine in medical communities—to present with me. I knew this was going to be groundbreaking.

However, when we listed this course under our Blissology Yoga school’s 500-hr training program on the Yoga Alliance website, we immediately received an email, telling us not to use the words “Medicine” or “Healing” in conjunction with Yoga.

Why is this an issue? Yoga Alliance explains that “the risk comes from suggesting that a yoga teacher or school is diagnosing and/or treating a mental or physical health condition. The words ‘heal’ or ‘healing’ imply this. These claims are within the scope of the practice of medicine and/or licensed health care professions.”

As an alternative to the word healing the phrases “improving health” and “increasing well-being” are  suggested.

This meant we had to get creative with what we called the course on Yoga Alliance’s website. Eventually, we settled on “Yoga and Western Science.

I understand that the medical community does not want people who have graduated from a 200-hour yoga training to describe themselves as healers, or treat someone with a sore back or cancer without the proper medical training nor does anyone want to be legally liable for endorsing someone as capable of healing issues for which they are not qualified.

This graph indicates the increasing amount of scientific research of yoga and meditation in the last decade

Yet, the data about the evidence-based healing benefits of yoga and meditation is increasing with each year. The benefits are so real that it is getting harder to dismiss all yoga as a “quack science.” I would love to see a day in the future when well qualified yogis (and doctors) will be able to claim that yoga is both “healing” and “medicine.”

Will this ever happen? Skeptics do not think so and go to long lengths to tell us why yoga is not healing, or medicine. In his article titled “Yoga Woo“, Stephen Novella, a clinical neurologist at the Yale School of medicine writes, “Yoga is simply exercise plus a lot of ‘Woo.'”

“Yoga, if practiced responsibly, seems to be a reasonably effective form of stretching and exercise. There is insufficient evidence, however, to conclude that it is any superior to any other form of exercise of the same duration and intensity. There are concerns about the safety of yoga, as it often involves extreme stretching or poses that the average person might find not only difficult but physically harmful.”

I’ll share more of my thoughts on this topic in Part 2 of this blog. In the meantime, I’d love to hear from you, what is your opinion? Is Yoga Medicine or not? Should the word healing be used by some practitioners of yoga?

What is advanced Yoga?

In my past two decades of teaching yoga, I’ve seen a lot of evolution in the yoga world. I’ve loved watching new poses come into the mix, some borrowed from creative minds and some from other disciplines such as circus school. I never thought I would be interested in a one arm hand stand for example. I thought, “this is just flashy,” but then I realized the challenge kept me fresh and gave me something to progress towards. I am no longer a naysayer and practice this and other “new school” yoga moves almost every day.

That said, having just taught one month of intensive Blissology Yoga Teacher Training course focusing on the ins an outs of yoga alignment, I am recommitted to making people realize my stance on yoga progression. I strongly believe that advanced yoga needs to be viewed not just as flashy, challenging poses, preferably done on the edges of cliffs or waterfalls; nay, advanced yoga lies also in being able to do so called “basic” poses with precision, breath and presence. This needs to remain the foundation of yoga.

One afternoon during the YTT, I wanted to run our Yoga Foundations course so the students could see how to explain so called “simple poses” like upward dog or chaturanga to beginners.  It become clear that this work was not just for beginners. Even people who had been practicing yoga for decades loved going back to basics and learning how to do them well.   It was a joy to spend whole afternoons looking at what muscles need to turn on to make these poses feel light yet stable to explore what the feet, pelvis and hands do in the pose with a fine brush instead of in broad brush strokes.  There is a whole world of detail that isn’t boring but outright exciting in this work.  There needs to be a resurgence of this type of study in modern yoga.

Over the years, as thousands of more yoga teachers pour into the incredibly competitive global yoga market, there is more and more emphasis to find something fresh and exciting in the practice. This means that teachers will step up their sequencing game, make killer playlists, and throw lots of challenging poses into the mix.

To really do yoga with precision, you need to make people aware of what they are doing by plugging into their bodily feedback loops and slowing the tempo down. In way too many yoga classes I’ve observed, the tempo seems to be speeding up as this is what creates sweat which is an easy sell in our body conscious culture.

Imagine trying to play jazz before mastering the scales. This is an analogy for what I see in the modern yoga culture.

I believe that we need to spend more time ingraining a solid alignment foundation in yogis; and as experienced yoga teachers it is our responsibility to the next generation (of yogis) that we do so.

I always remind our graduating teachers that every yoga instructor is trying to strike a balance between detail and flow—and it’s a tricky balance. If you concentrate on the details of the poses, often the classes loses flow and become a clinic or workshop.

Yet, there is a third option. When we slow the pace down just a little and create an experience of harmony between mind, body and breath, concentrating on precise yoga can lead to the state of mind we all love called “flow.”

This means we need to let people know why they are doing the poses, what the benefits are, how they should feel in the pose and let their internal experience guide the poses.

It’s the opposite to being guided from the “outside in” and feeling like every pose needs to fit a perfect photo. This is where we progress to in our month long YTT.

There is a lot of room still for inspiring playlists, creative sequencing, philosophical themes and even options for advanced poses for those who want to go there in the class. Let’s walk before we run though. Alignment is and should be the foundation for all yoga, beginner or advanced. After all, cultivating a strong practice of alignment will help our bodies to continue to practice our yoga as we age, with more freedom and no injuries.