Doctor's Orders

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Memorial Sloan Kettering, Scripps Institute, and Stanford Medical Center are among the country's leading health care conglomerates that are integrating yoga into their programs for staff, patients, and their families.

The program at Scripps Center for Integrative Medicine in San Diego, California, targets cardiac care and stress management. "Every patient—whether they're here for primary prevention or as follow-up to bypass surgery—is taught yoga and meditation," says Medical Director Erminia Guarneri, M.D.

Scripps recently secured money to research whether yoga can help diabetics influence their own blood sugar levels. "We're attracted to this because if it proves out, the conventional medical community, those holding the purses, will have to pay attention," says Guarneri. "Right now, the only program covered by limited health insurance companies is our mindfulness-based stress-reduction class."

Hospital programs generally teach hatha yoga. Many incorporate the spiritual aspects, though not as a central feature. "We teach without asserting a particular mind-set or advocating a spiritual leader," says Wendy Miner, massage therapy manager at Sloan Kettering's Integrative Medicine Center in New York.

At Scripps, patients fill out a spirituality questionnaire "so we know where they're coming from," according to Guarneri.

For Michael Plasha, director of Yoga Programs and Services for the Saint Vincent Complementary Care Center in Erie, Pennsylvania, spiritual practice is central to his mission. Plasha teaches yoga for the heart, prenatal, and wheelchair yoga.

"I try to integrate all limbs of raja yoga, like the yamas and niyamas, into traditional hatha practices," says Plasha. "I am trying to teach spiritual yoga, flexing spiritual muscles, not just hamstrings."

Plasha works with a paraplegic who cannot do traditional asanas. Instead, she is learning breathing techniques to promote concentration and relaxation, healing visualizations, and gentle stretches for the neck and shoulders.

"She is really drawn to the meditation techniques and I can see her doing advanced techniques soon," says Plasha of his client's progress. "She doesn't have to be a 'pretzel person' to benefit from raja yoga."