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Restoring Health with Medical Yoga

Wellness   |   June 4, 2017

What is Medical Yoga?

The Medical Yoga program is a holistically-based health education program that focuses on bringing the body, mind, and spirit into a higher state of health and alignment. This program helps an individual in the management of stress and in choosing a healthy lifestyle in order to promote and sustain health and vitality in the body and mind. Whether you need assistance in rehabilitating your body from a medical condition or whether you are interested in the prevention of disease (such as high blood pressure or heart disease), this program can assist you in both areas.

I use the acronym BREAD© to describe the various components of the Medical Yoga program. BREAD stands for breathing, relaxation, exercise/Yoga, attitude and diet.

Since bread is considered the staff of life, it seems quite appropriate to use this acronym in defining Medical Yoga.  These five areas (breathing, relaxation, exercise/Yoga, attitude and diet) are the tools that are used to bring the body and mind to a higher state of health and wellness. In succeeding chapters you will be guided through various practices in each of these areas so that your practice of Medical Yoga will be thorough and comprehensive.  Soon after you start your practice you will be able to feel and experience the wonderful health benefits that Yoga has to offer.

Self-Responsibility in Health

Self-responsibility and self-empowerment are important concepts in the Medical Yoga model. The idea that we can contribute to the recovery of our health and vitality is both empowering and possible with these Yoga practices. There are many things we can learn to do to recover and maintain the health of our body. Although it is important to follow the medical guidelines given by your doctor and other healthcare providers, it is equally important that you assume some responsibility for assisting in the health of your body and mind. For example, using common sense and moderation in your eating and alcohol intake is one area that will promote a higher state of health.  Equally so, movement exercises, relaxation, and getting enough rest are also very important. Assuming responsibility and being proactive in your lifestyle choices helps in the final outcome of your health status.

What we are aiming for in the practice of Medical Yoga is to assist in activating the innate self-healing capability that is part of our biology. The human body has an incredible ability to repair and heal itself.  There are times, however, when we push the body too far in one direction or another and it starts to break down and respond in a dis-eased manner. A good analogy of pushing the body too far is to think about salt-water taffy.  If you pull taffy apart, nothing happens for a short period of time. However, as you continue to pull, the taffy becomes more and more thin and less resistant and strong. Eventually the taffy will snap.  The body acts the same way.  It will accommodate our stress levels, lack of sleep,  poor diet, etc. for a period of time, but then it, too, will start to eventually breakdown and tear. This is the point at which disease can begin to manifest in the body. It is also at this point that we shouldn’t rely only on the doctor’s intervention in terms of surgery and medications for healing.  We can also assist and contribute to our health status by using the tools of Medical Yoga. Making healthy lifestyle changes, utilizing relaxation strategies, and managing our stress will give our body a chance at recovering and healing.

The Body’s Fuel

The body is similar to an automobile in terms of the care and maintenance it needs.  When we fuel our car we don’t put watered-down gasoline or a mixture of sugar and gas in the gas tank.  This obviously will affect how the car runs.  Similarly if we chronically feed our body foods high in saturated fat, white flour, or sugar or have chronically high stress, our body will not run efficiently and will eventually start to breakdown.

Our body fuels and rejuvenates itself through several mechanisms, some of which include sleeping, breathing, and eating. We need all three of these types of fuel in order to keep the body and mind well-maintained and functioning.  If we aren’t feeding it the proper fuel, i.e., healthy foods, water, and air, the body won’t run efficiently. Equally so, if we don’t reduce stress and get enough rest and exercise, hormones continue to flood the body with a stress response that causes various problems and invites dis-ease to manifest. Similarly, if our breathing is constantly agitated or short and jerky we aren’t providing the body with proper amounts of fuel (oxygen) to be able to function well.

As you can see, the proper care and functioning of the body and mind may require some thinking about what kind of fuel you need to give yourself to bring your body and mind back to a state of ease, health, and vitality. We sometimes fall into old habits that really don’t serve us very well. We may be choosing foods or stress levels that are contributing to fatigue, depression, anxiety, lack of vitality, or other problems that eventually lead to higher and higher levels of dis-ease (and eventually disease) in the system. The Medical Yoga program aims to bring about a balance in your physiology and psychology. The practices of Yoga help to promote a sense of peace, calmness, vitality and health in the entire system.

What Caused the Symptoms?

In order to better understand the idea of introducing health back into the system, it is important to also understand that the removal of symptoms is only half the answer to health.  We must also recognize what caused the symptoms to appear in the first place. If we just remove the symptoms of dis-ease or disease and haven’t removed the cause of the symptoms, we are placing ourselves at risk for the symptoms to reappear. This is similar to having someone vigorously mop up the floor when the sink is overflowing with water, yet failing to pull the plug to let the water drain out of the sink. Mopping up the floor is only one part of the solution.  We also have to determine what caused the water to overflow in the first place. Not pulling the plug out when the water is continuously running would obviously cause problems. Therefore, the other part of the solution is to unplug the sink so it doesn’t run over anymore. Just mopping up the floor (removing the symptoms) won’t stop the problem from reoccurring.

In order to really heal the body and mind, we need to go back far enough in the causal chain of events to determine the origin and causes of the problem and not just remove the symptoms. In order to effectively do this, we have to be willing to examine our lifestyle choices, our thoughts, attitudes, and our emotional blueprints to see which of these areas might be impacting negatively on our health and where we might need to revise our choices. Not all disease manifestation is due to lifestyle choices, but we have to be willing to honestly examine this area and make changes where needed so that we can empower ourselves and impact positively on our health. We have to be willing to take responsibility and change the places in our lives that are causing problems. Assisting in our health and contributing to our recovery can be interesting, fun, and definitely empowering.

Healing vs. Curing

As we move toward higher levels of health and vitality in the body and mind, it is important to understand the difference between healing and curing. In the field of Yoga and mind-body medicine, healing is seen as a process of recovery that takes place on the physical, emotional, mental and spiritual levels and results in a person having a sense of balance, completeness, and harmony in the self and in the environment. Curing, on the other hand, is viewed as an externally applied medical intervention that removes all evidence of a diagnosed disease.  Although both of these concepts are important, there may be times when a cure has occurred but that healing has not necessarily taken place.  Conversely, healing may be evident in the person and the system, but a cure may not be possible. Both healing and curing are important concepts to embrace and, ideally, having both occur in the system would be the best outcome.

In summary, the Medical Yoga model embraces the following ideas:

  1. Choosing a healthy lifestyle can assist our body in healing and recovery.
  2. Contributing to our healing means creating a healthy balance in our life for the optimal functioning of the mind, body, and spirit.
  3. Removing the symptoms of a medical problem does not go far enough for total healing.  We must also review and assess what caused the symptoms to appear and then impact on the causes where possible.
  4. Our bodies have an innate intelligence that includes the ability for self-healing. Living a healthy lifestyle can positively impact our self-healing capabilities.
  5. Healing and curing are two concepts that you would want to ideally work together to create health in the system.

Want to learn more?

This article is an excerpt from Mala’s book, Medical Yoga: A Gentle and Modified Practice of Yoga for Assistance in Healing and Cardiac Yoga

Join Mala for Yoga, Mindfulness, and Neuroscience Workshop: Tools for Healing on July 14–16, or stay longer for the 5-Day Retreat on July 14–18 to learn how Yoga works for healing your emotions, body, and mind.

Explore the field of mind-body medicine and medical Yoga with Dr. Mala Cunningham, Dr. Amrita McLanahan, and Dr. Dilip Sarkar at Therapeutic Medical Yoga: Learn and Restore on October 13–15.

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