Yoga as Medicine
Besides being an important tool for balance, harmony and physical fitness, yoga also can be an effective form of alternative medicine for everything from depression to back pain.
One of the first lessons we learn in our yoga practice is to connect the body and mind together to achieve inner calm and harmony. Then it is no wonder that, beyond just strengthening our bodies and our minds, yoga can be an important tool for healing.
Read on to discover the many advantages of using yoga as medicine. Benefits Plus is also a resource for step-by-step guides on caring for your students' many ailments and injuries, with a wealth of helpful downloads and videos available to members.
Yoga and Mental Health
As a teacher, you can use your yoga knowledge to understand your students’ needs, and help improve their mental health. Teach your student not just to perform the physical poses, but to connect the action of the pose with its effect on the mind.
Yoga for Depression
Yoga is being increasingly recognized as a useful tool for relieving symptoms of clinical depression. While doctors will often prescribe pharmaceuticals or recommend psychotherapy for patients, yoga can accomplish even deeper goals. Use yoga for depression by helping your students quiet their restless minds and connect them with an inner source of calm and joy.
Ideally, we as yoga teachers can use yoga therapy to guide our students towards a calm, balanced and mindful mental state (often referred to as sattva). Many students who are experiencing clinical depression may be characterized in one of two ways: lethargic or agitated. Wherever your students fall on the spectrum, helping them focus on both the mental and physical effects of their yoga practice can bring them closer to sattva, and find a more peaceful, balanced and joyful state.
Lethargy & apathy (tamas): Use energetic poses and breathing, and consider pushing these students to move deeper into their poses to break through their mental lethargy. Try vigorous asanas such as Sun Salutations or challenging arm balances.
Anxiety & agitation (rajas): Use calming practices such as mild backbends, and forward bends, while focusing closely on breathing.
Yoga for PTSD (Posttraumatic Stress Disorder)
New studies show that people suffering from posttraumatic stress disorder or emotional trauma can find real relief through yoga, by working with their body as well as their mind. For instance, yoga for PTSD has been gaining traction as a form of therapy for active-duty military.
Ways yoga can relieve symptoms of PTSD:
- Relaxation or breathing techniques can help patients calm themselves during a flashback or panic attack
- Providing an emphasis on self-acceptance for victims of trauma or sexual assault
- Improving sleep cycles
- Relieving feelings of depression or anxiety
Yoga for Medical Conditions
Yoga is widely known to increase strength, flexibility, and balance in practitioners. However, new research also shows that yoga can be used to lower blood sugar and cholesterol levels; enhance immune function; improve psychological well-being, and lower stress levels. Recent studies have even shown the effectiveness of yoga for serious medical conditions like back pain, insomnia, multiple sclerosis, cancer, heart disease, and tuberculosis, among many others.
When one of your students is afflicted with a medical condition, yoga therapy can be a useful tool for helping them overcome their pains or limitations. When creating a routine or modifying poses for a specific medical diagnosis, always take into account your student’s overall fitness and energy levels, and how they can personally obtain the most benefits from their practice.
Yoga for medical conditions:
- Assist with breathing issues by teaching your student slow, deep, and mindful breathing
- Lower stress levels and heart rate with quiet asanas, and breathing and meditation exercises
- Teach asanas to correct dysfunctional posture, problem with balance, or muscle tightness or weakness
- Use meditation and guided visualizations as part of a larger restorative practice
Yoga and Injuries:
Yoga can also be fantastic therapy for injuries, whether recent or chronic, mild or serious. Yoga for injuries does not just involve easing pain, but also helping students learn to prevent future injuries. When creating a practice or modifying yoga poses for your students, you should be mindful of the severity of their injuries. If their injury is acute, and the area is showing visible signs of inflammation or swelling, you may want to allow time for it to recover. During this time, you may want to focus on other parts of the body and allow the inflamed area to rest.
Yoga is most commonly used for lower back pain, knees, wrists, and shoulders.
Yoga therapy for common injuries:
- Knee pain: Avoid active asana practices, and any poses that involve placing too much pressure on the joint, including squats and one-legged poses. Students should step into poses, instead of jumping into them. Pay attention to poor alignment of the foot, ankle or hip, and correct any alignment issues. Use props, or even your own body weight to support your student in standing poses, to take the weight off of the knee.
- Back pain: Lower back pain and sciata will usually respond to gentle backbends, such as Cobra Pose. Some yoga injuries that involve overarching the lumbar spine may respond better to forward bends, but these poses are often not recommended for back injuries. The key to using yoga for back pain is to focus on gentle movements, and finding the poses in which the student feels the least pain.
- Wrist pain: Weigh-bearing poses such as handstands, Staff Pose or Downward-Facing Dog can cause strain to the wrist, and can even lead to Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. Teach students to focus their weight on their knuckles instead of the base of their palm when performing any poses with a bent wrist. In Downward-Facing Dog, students can take weight off of their wrists by lifting their upper inner thighs up and back.
- Shoulder pain: Shoulder pain is often due to injuries to the rotator cuff, and can cause pain with the hand is lifted over the head. Avoid poses which incorporate this movement, or modify poses such as Warrior I, to place the hands on the hips, instead of above the head or parallel to the floor. Keep in mind that repeated cycles of Sun Salutations or Chaturanga can be dangerous to the shoulder, as it may be hard to achieve the correct alignment without exacerbating the injury.
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