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The yoga prescription: finding the right class for you

What doctors need to know is not just that yoga helps, but what “type” of yoga class or instructor is appropriate for their particular patients.
What doctors need to know is not just that yoga helps, but what “type” of yoga class or instructor is appropriate for their particular patients.
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Mary, a healthy 58-year old woman who has been active throughout her life, one day finds herself with lower back pain and a decision about whether to deal with her knee pain or have replacements.

While discussing the situation with her doctor, he suggests holding off on the knee replacements and trying some yoga – which, despite her active life and current gym membership, she has never tried.

After the doctor’s recommendation, Mary shows up at the next yoga class offered at her gym, hoping to find an answer to her problems – especially since there has been so much said about the benefits of yoga.

Throughout the class, Mary experiences difficulty in keeping up with the fast-paced flow of unfamiliar poses, along with a bit of a communication failure with the teacher. Mary had mentioned her knee and back issues, however each time she would hover in plank pose, the teacher consistently came up to her and pressed her knees to the mat on the hard floor and pulled her shoulders back to increase her backbend in cobra pose. By the end of the class, Mary not only had an exhausted body and frustrated mind, but some seriously hurt knees and throbbing lower back.

That was her last yoga class.

No doubt, many first-time yoga students have a similar experience – whether it’s a gym, yoga studio or wherever – the class did not benefit their needs, and made their problem worse.

Athletic or Therapeutic? Which is it?

The answer is “yes.” And, “it depends.”

Some styles like vinyasa flow or hot yoga tout the benefits of weight loss, muscles, and flexibility. Less “sexier” classes with names like gentle yoga, chair yoga or basic yoga are thought of as more styles to help relax and stretch the body in a non-invasive manner, and less helpful for the benefits touted by the "hot vinyasas."

So, which is better? Safer? More beneficial?

Again, it depends on the needs of the student: Weight loss? Arthritis pain? Hypertension? Beginner with mobility issues? Stress problems? Athlete with injuries? Sciatic nerve pain? They ALL need very different solutions.

The National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine (NCCAM) along with a number of medical journals and doctors have developed a greater awareness of the benefits of yoga for helping patients recover from injuries, or alleviate many types of pain – from arthritis to PTSD.

In 2007, Dr. Timothy McCall published, “Yoga as Medicine: The Yogic Prescription for Health and Healing,” which gave a number of medical scenarios that were helped or cured by including yoga as part of the healing process.

However, what all therapeutic yoga experts suggest is that people with health conditions should work with an experienced teacher who can help modify or avoid some yoga poses to prevent injuring side effects. This is one fact that some doctors may not realize.

Medical Education

Many well-trained yoga instructors have hundreds of hours of training in physiology, physical therapy, psychology, and other knowledge based on how the mind and body work together to maintain health. This helps yoga teachers understand the needs of their students.

The crossover from medical practitioner to understand yoga is not so easy – especially when trying to scientifically demonstrate how just the breath and meditation could be in helping many medical issues. And prana? Not so easy to describe scientifically either.

There are groups out there, such as the nonprofit Life in Yoga based out of Silver Spring, Maryland, that are making the effort to train medical professionals about the real benefits of yoga practice.

According to Rajan Narayanan, one of the teachers at Life in Yoga that teaches the value of yoga to medical doctors, “The ability to hone in on a specific disease and have evidence of a proven outcome is the crux of his work with health care providers. He said psychiatrists often see the most powerful results of the practice — sometimes replacing drugs with breathing exercises.”

Keeping it safe

Yoga is without a doubt a great way to complement any healing method. As doctors become more aware of its benefits, they have been prescribing or encouraging their patients to start a yoga practice.

While this is great news for the yoga industry –and the patients who are able to find a great teacher to help with recovery – there is a downside: many doctors fail to understand the differences in styles, teachers and the background required to help individuals with specific needs.

The key is finding the right type of yoga class, location and trained instructor that has knowledge of how to teach students with physical issues, give modifications or props to use to keep the student safe.

Choose a class that is right for YOU.

Not every yoga teacher, or yoga class can benefit every body. That is a fact.

What doctors need to know is not just that yoga helps, but what “type” of yoga class or instructor is appropriate for their particular patients.

An internal medicine wouldn’t send someone to get a colonoscopy from a rheumatologist, would they? Exactly.

Likewise, a well-trained yoga teacher wouldn’t send someone with a serious heart condition to a Hot Vinyasa Yoga class.

Students like Mary, suffering from knee problems and lower back pain, could probably benefit from a beginner or gentle yoga class taught by a trained teacher who understands effective modifications for these types of contraindications. Her doctor needs to know that too.

How DO you find the right class?

Visit a studio and talk about your issues and concerns. Find programs that teach teachers to help your issue and find their trained teachers. Many teachers can recommend others that have specialties from PTSD recovery, to back injuries, cancer and more.