Deep in the medical trenches of hospitals, doctors' offices, and clinics, visionary yoga teachers are working hard to bring a more balanced mind-body component to the nation's health care. Their success is clearing the way for yoga—and yoga teachers—to play an increasingly active role in the health arena.
"There is a lot of hope. The old paradigm is breaking down. The window is open," says Rodney Yee, co-director of the Integrative Yoga Therapy program at Donna Karan's Urban Zen Initiative in New York. Yoga teachers are among the 80 Urban Zen Integrative Therapists who have been wrapping up a year's training at Beth Israel Medical Center, which included instruction in yoga, meditation, relaxation, Reiki, and essential oil therapy, as well as doing 100 hours of a clinical rotation and 15 hours of community service. In addition, UZIT trainees assist in ambulatory surgery and the dialysis center at Southampton Hospital.
There is no shortage of inspiration across the nation: In Santa Barbara, California, therapeutic yoga teacher Cheri Clampett holds six yoga classes a week at the Santa Barbara Cancer Center. Elsewhere in New York City, therapeutic yoga teacher and registered nurse Deborah Matza works bedside with Mt. Sinai Hospital's patients, who learn relaxation techniques to reduce pain and other symptoms of serious illness.
"The time is right for yoga teachers to see themselves as part of the health care system," says Dr. James S. Gordon, dean of Saybrook University's Graduate College of Mind-Body Medicine and founder of the Center for Mind-Body Medicine in Washington, D.C., which has yoga teachers on staff.
As yoga becomes even more widely accepted as an aid in both preventing illness and helping patients manage symptoms of disease, there will be greater opportunities for yoga teachers to work in the health arena. Here are some tips on how you can get involved:
Although your yoga training may be completely adequate to work with students of all levels, working with people in health care settings presents different challenges. Patients may be dealing with moderate to severe physical limitations, so learning how to modify poses and meet students wherever they are is paramount.
For example, in my work at Manhattan's Bellevue Hospital World Trade Center Clinic, I have found that patients with chronic illness, pain, and breathing challenges are limited in what they can do. Nonetheless, they experience immense relief when taught gentle and restorative poses and Yoga Nidra techniques.
Health care focused yoga training also teaches you the language of health care, which is clinical by necessity and deals with treatment protocols and outcome measures, as well as legal issues around patients' rights.
Some of the most well-established yoga/health care training and certification programs include Gordon's Center for Mind-Body Medicine, Clampett's Therapeutic Yoga Training, Urban Zen's Integrative Therapist training, Jon Kabat-Zinn's Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction certification, Integral Yoga's School of Therapeutic Yoga at Satchidananda Ashram-Yogaville in Virginia, the Yoga Therapy Training Program at the American Viniyoga Institute's Yoga Therapy Training program, and Larry Payne's Yoga Therapy Rx certificate programs through Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. The International Association of Yoga Therapists (iayt.org) also has resources and information for yoga teachers wanting to work in health care settings.
Once you have the training to work in a health care setting, you'll need to get your name out there. "The first step," advises Clampett, "is to contact a hospital or health center."
Look at where the greatest needs lie in your community. For example, Iyengar Yoga practitioner Ellen-Marie Whelan, a health care advisor for the Center for American Progress, foresees great opportunities for yoga teachers to work with the chronically ill.
Another angle is aging. The fact that people are living longer means there are more and more opportunities to teach yoga to an aging population to help maintain mobility and quality of life and to manage conditions such as arthritis.
As you approach health care institutions, consider packaging your classes into modules that will appeal to both health providers and patients. Examples include yoga for wellness, for better sleep, or for stress reduction. You may even consider applying for a grant. "You offer a six-week course; it can turn into a yearlong program," says Clampett. "Once it gets going, if it's truly meeting the needs of the patients, it will grow."
Volunteering is another way to get started. And if you're looking for a ready group of students, remember health care workers! They love yoga and can help create grassroots demand.
Be an Educator
Sometimes the first step to opening the door is telling people why they need you. "If we can continue to show that yoga in and of itself is helpful for patient outcomes, yoga teachers could be incorporated into medical practices," says Whelan.
There is a rich and growing body of research evidence available about the myriad benefits yoga offers to people dealing with chronic illness, physical limitations, and more. As you consider areas in your community where you think yoga can make a difference, prepare documentation to help make your case. The IAYT and the Yoga Journal website are good resources from which you can compile articles about yoga's effectiveness to share with decision makers.
Changes in health care structure "can and will" include yoga, says Katherine Capps, president of Health2Resources, a D.C.-based consulting firm that represents health institutions and organizations.
Seek out practitioners focused on "patient-centered care." This relatively new term represents a sea change toward a holistic approach that emphasizes listening, partnering with patients and families, and providing effective resources and support so patients feel empowered to participate in their own heath care.
Research offers another avenue for collaboration. If you teach yoga for heath and wellness, consider working with a research partner, such as a doctoral student in social work or public health. Gathering statistics about yoga's effectiveness can help justify continued funding or expansion of yoga health programs and help add to the body of evidence on yoga's effectiveness.
Trust the Basics
The yoga tradition is rich with techniques that are exactly what people in health care settings need, and they don't always involve asana. Pranayama, meditation, visualization, and even mantra (in the nonthreatening form of affirmations) are valuable tools that help patients reduce stress and anxiety and learn to participate in their own healing.
Maureen Davis discovered the power of these yoga basics for patients two years ago when she went from working 40 hours a week as an in-house yoga therapist for a Manhattan Beach, California, chiropractor to having spinal surgery because of a collapsed disc. Her recovery required weeks of near stillness. "I did lots of deep relaxation, lots of meditation and breathing," she says. "It gave me a sense of control over my body, a sense of power that I was participating in healing my own body."
That empowerment is exactly what patients need—and why yoga teachers belong in health care. So what are you waiting for?
Nancy O'Brien (nancyobrienyoga.com) is a journalist and yoga teacher who works with people suffering from Parkinson's disease and arthritis. She also teaches yoga to elders.