Holistic Healthcare: Becoming a Yoga Medicine Practitioner

 for Yoga Medicine® shares her experience with combining healthcare and yoga to create a holistic healthcare approach for her clients. She shares some advice for new Yoga Medicine practitioners, or those looking to move into the medical sphere.

Holistic Healthcare: Becoming a Yoga Medicine Practitioner

Have you ever been in one of those situations where a dream opportunity becomes available to you, but you’re tempted to run in the opposite direction? As a recovering perfectionist, I’ve had a couple of these situations over the past few years. I was about to teach my first ever public Yoga class.  Every cell in my body was screaming “you’re not ready for this, get out while you still can!”

I’ve learned to negotiate with the voice inside my head and show up to opportunities that would challenge me. But, I found myself revisiting my old perfectionist self just over a year ago. I was contacted by the largest private hospital in my country and asked to introduce Yoga sessions as an alternative modality to patients.

Yoga as an Alternative Modality

The idea was intimidating, to put it very mildly. How could I, a teacher with only two years of teaching experience and a few hundred hours of anatomy training, be expected to work with hospital patients who were dealing with all sorts of health conditions that I can’t possibly understand entirely well?

I had my trepidations. But after an inspiring conversation with the hospital’s open-minded vice chairman, I decided to go for it. I’ve since had the opportunity to work with patients with a variety of health concerns including herniated discs, osteoporosis, anxiety, depression, digestive issues, shoulder neck and back pain, sleep issues, and scoliosis.

The results have been really rewarding and exciting so far. While my collaboration with the hospital is still in its infancy, it feels like an absolute dream to be a part of this groundbreaking movement towards holistic healthcare. I believe that a lot of us are attracted to teaching Yoga – and to Yoga Medicine® trainings in particular – because of a desire to help people work through pain (physical, emotional, mental, spiritual). My hope is that this kind of collaboration becomes a regular part of healthcare systems all over the world.

Looking back on the experience so far, I have a few pieces of advice:

1)   Start simple.

Never underestimate the power of breath, mindfulness and postural awareness. It’s easy to be intimidated by fancy medical terms and a seemingly severe diagnosis. It helps to remember that you can’t hurt anyone by teaching about breath and mindfulness. Remembering to move from a place of ahimsa (non- violence, or do no harm). Start with the most basic things and take it one step at a time from there. Also, make sure you ask your students a lot of questions about their experience and don’t make assumptions.

I thought I knew how powerful the breath was until I started working therapeutically with hospital patients. Literally, everything from anxiety to abdominal pain and disc herniation seemed to improve with just a few moments of mindful breathing. No fancy pranayama techniques or anything complicated, just an awareness of our built-in elixir of life and its representation of our tissues’ capacity to transform and regenerate.

2)   Reach out to the doctors and medical staff.

Most people in the medical community know little about Yoga beyond the fact that it’s a “relaxing” practice. It’s our role as teachers to communicate what we do and the many facets that fall under the term Yoga. Moreover, as Yoga Medicine® teachers, it becomes even more valuable for us to have in-depth conversations with medical providers. This allows them to understand our level of knowledge and refer patients to us accordingly.

A few months into my work with the hospital, I was given the opportunity to share a presentation with the staff during a morning assembly. The focus was on Yoga’s potency as an adjunct to medical care. I focused on its powerful capacity to increase parasympathetic tone and increase body awareness, thereby mitigating the need for excessive medication and also helping doctors work more effectively with patients who are calmer and more body aware.

Several doctors seemed excited by the preventative and rehabilitative potential of a Yoga practice. But it’s worth noting that some were fixated on numbers and figures. You might want to have some statistics on hand when having such discussions with medical providers. It’s also helpful to stay in touch with a couple of doctors who seem to believe in Yoga or be willing to explore its potential. They become an excellent point for patient referrals, but also great collaborators with whom you can discuss patient progress and potential ways to move forward.

3)   Remember (and remind patients) that you are not their doctor.

As tempting as it can be to assess a person’s situation from a holistic Eastern perspective and draw conclusions that could be missed by the more rigid approach of Western medicine, it is important for us as teachers to stay humble and remember that there is a lot we don’t know. We are not here to diagnose or override the doctors. Although when all patients with back pain receive the same ‘exercise leaflet,’ I’ll admit it can be tempting to challenge what has been given to them. But we must establish an individualized approach without belittling their doctor.

4)   Create a system that keeps you organized and protected.

Remember to keep records of your work with patients. This lets you can track their progress and continue to gather information that adds to the big picture. Also, it is important to write up waiver forms that protect you from any liability. Ensure the patient’s understanding that they are responsible for their own wellbeing. Establish with the patient that they should speak up if something doesn’t feel right.

5)   The thing students will appreciate the most is that you care.

Before you get too in your head about whether or not you know everything about the person’s condition, remember that a huge component of their healing process is to have someone who asks them questions and actually listens. Often, doctors don’t ask patients about their emotional wellbeing, or if their condition was aggravated by an emotional time. This is where we, as Yoga teachers, can hold space for them to feel heard. We have to remember that we are not therapists and that there have to be healthy boundaries, but they will appreciate our dedication to helping them learn to cope with stress.

Our power as Yoga teachers also lies in the fact that unlike many doctors who inform patients of a diagnosis and potential cures, we are guides who accompany them on a journey of introspection where they get to feel what’s going on inside of them and intuitively explore what helps them move forward. This approach empowers them to take charge of their own wellbeing.

6)   You are more capable and knowledgeable than you think.

Somewhere along the journey of being modest and unpretentious, we sometimes lose sight of the innate wisdom within us. As Tiffany reminds us at the end of every training, trust that you have everything you need inside of you. The knowledge and insight you need is already within you. You just have to trust that it’s there to access it. As I’m sure you’ve experienced before, once you get out of your own way, you’ll be blown away by what you find.

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