Yoga Prescription: When Your Doctor Recommends Yoga
The benefits of yoga are starting to overwhelm the Western medical community in such a way that more and more doctors are prescribing yoga. Studies are emerging with positive and beneficial results from a regular yoga practice. Not only for physical health but also mental health.
A study by the Yoga Journal found that “the health care world’s increased acceptance of yoga therapy is partly due to a significant body of clinical research. This research documents yoga’s proven benefits for a range of health conditions, including back pain, anxiety, depression, and insomnia…” 
While there are many reasons why yoga is gaining traction, a key oversight that seems to be unaddressed is what actually constitutes “yoga” as it encompasses numerous interpretations, especially for those who have never practiced or are new to a yoga practice. As a yoga teacher, I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard misconceptions such as, “yoga is just stretching” or “yoga is great for relaxing”. While both of these statements contain some validity, there are many realms to yoga, including power yoga, inversions, strength-focused and flow-focused practices. Because of this, doctors are prescribing yoga almost blindly, and unfortunately, if the patient is unaware of different styles of yoga, this prescription could have the potential to be more detrimental than beneficial.
Let’s talk about how you can ensure that a yoga prescription will produce a positive result.
1. Do your research.
As I stated earlier, there are many different forms of yoga. Here are some prevalent styles of yoga to help you decide what would be the best option for you in your studio research.
Hatha is the physical practice of yoga, also called asana. Its postures are meant to create alignment and balance within the body. There can be beginner and advanced Hatha classes.
Vinyasa is a set of movements initiated by the breath and created to help flow from one sequence to another. It can be found in all levels of classes and can be non-heated or heated. (Shoulder injuries should be cautious with this type of practice, and most likely, avoid.)
Ashtanga incorporates vinyasa in a physically demanding practice that merges the breath and body. It can vary from beginner to advanced. (Shoulder injuries should be cautious with this type of practice, and most likely, avoid.)
Bikram is a form of Hatha and consists of a set of 26 postures done twice each in a heated room that can get up to 108 degrees, plus humidity.
Power yoga has stormed across the yoga world. It often involves ashtanga and/or vinyasa and can often be heated. Many relate to this style as showing up for a hot, sweaty, high-energy, strength and conditioning class that also contains some aspects of stretching and cool-down. This type of class is not recommended if you’re dealing with an injury. This style is more geared towards the students who is wanting to get in shape, build muscle, and advance in the postures.
Yin yoga is a gentle form of yoga that involves holding stretches for a longer amount of time. This can be highly beneficial for those dealing with injuries, however, make sure you find a teacher who knows how to offer pose modifications if you are new or injured.
The teacher will instruct you into a gentle pose that usually requires no muscle activation and very little stretch. This type of yoga can often be very healing for someone dealing with an injury or stress as it allows the body to slow down and recover.
I highly recommend this style for those who are new to yoga, especially if you’re dealing with an injury. These classes allow you the chance to learn the poses correctly, more gently, and in a space with other beginners. It’s often less intimidating.
Side note: If you see “Level 1” and “Level 2/3” class descriptions, Level 1 can be beginner or can be more of an intermediate flow. It will depend on that particular studio. Level 2/3 is typically an advanced class for those looking to grow their practice into an advanced state.
2. Look for teachers who are qualified.
When I look back at my first couple years of teaching, I almost feel embarrassed from some of the cues I gave and the way I instructed students into poses. Teachers grow not only through actual teaching experience, but also through advanced trainings that focus on specific injuries and anatomy within the yoga practice.
Look up your instructor before you take their class. Often, there will be a quick bio on the website of the studio. Some instructors may also have their own websites and social media profiles. Make sure to check for these factors:
Certification: A 200-hour certification is the standard certification for instructors. A 500-hour is more advanced and requires much more training and hopefully, instructing experience.
Experience: How many years have they been teaching? What classes do they normally teach? Do they have any specialties?
Contact: If you are still unsure if a teacher is the right fit for you, feel free to contact either the teacher directly or the studio. If you feel comfortable with the initial contact, you’ll most likely feel more comfortable in person.
3. Practice in a studio.
Don’t get me wrong, the access to online yoga is wonderful and makes establishing a consistent practice more financially accessible. However, if you’re dealing with a specific injury or an area in need of help, or if you’re a beginner or you need to focus specifically on proper alignment, I would highly recommend going into a studio. Using the above information, it would be helpful to find a teacher with experience and knowledge in the specific area you’re dealing with, and practice under the guidance of that instructor. This can help ensure safety within your practice and your body. If you don’t feel comfortable practicing in a group setting, most instructors offer private sessions. While that can be a little harder on the wallet, it allows for an invaluable one-on-one experience.
4. Practice with the mindset of non-judgment.
“Mindfulness is defined as the nonjudgmental focus of one’s attention on the experience that occurs in the present moment,” says a recent study done on the benefits of practicing mindfulness and non-judgement within athletics and performance of the athletes. 2 This study found that that “mindful-ness and acceptance approaches may be particularly effective for performance enhancement” and that this awareness actually helped the athletes “manage their activation state more efficiently”. I can only imagine and believe that this would be true within a yoga practice as well. Yoga is centered around the idea of mindfulness. Can you imagine coming to your yoga practice with a mindset of non-judgement? The healing benefits both physically and mentally could be extremely effective.
I may be slightly biased, but I truly believe yoga is for everyone and you will experience physical and mental benefits when you find the right style, teacher, and mindset. Above all, listen to your doctor’s advice, but do your research as well in order to assure that you receive healthy instruction and the proper class for YOU.
Here’s to getting healthy through yoga and continuing to merge yoga and medicine.
1. Enfield, Susan. Why More Western Doctors are Now Prescribing Yoga. Yoga Journal, 2016.
2. Marjorie Bernier, Emilie Thienot, Romain Codron, Jean F. Fournier. Mindfulness and Acceptance Approaches in Sport Performance. Journal of Clinical Sports Psychology, Human Kinetics, 2009, 320, 329.