Yoga for Healing: Yoga as Physical Therapy
When we think about the practice of “medicine,” our minds often go to the idea of surgery, pills, doctors and hospitals. But what about a yoga mat? Do we ever think of a yoga mat as a place where medical intervention occurs? If you teach yoga, you’ve most likely seen its impact medically. In my experience as a teacher, and especially in working with people one on one or in small groups, I’ve seen this first hand.
When we talk about intervening medically, we’re talking about healing. Healing occurs in different ways; just taking a few deep breaths can be a healing action. As we shift our mindset to envisioning medical care in a more holistic way, (some medical schools actually include yoga classes for doctors as part of their training now) we can start to expand our idea of what it means to heal ourselves.
I’ve worked as a Rehab Counselor, a Social Worker and also completed 2 years of the Physical Therapy Program at Boston University. I’ve worked in clinical settings and have seen the impact of rehab on patients. When I started teaching yoga, I realized it was a beautiful amalgam of my work in clinical settings, my academic and healthcare experience and my love of yoga. I love seeing how yoga shows up in a healing way. Here are some short stories from my own teaching and practice that illustrate the idea of Yoga as Medicine (*names have been changed):
I once worked with a man in his early 70’s who had lived with diabetes for many years. Bob’s neuropathy was at the point that he could no longer feel his feet. He got around by looking down and literally “willing” his feet to move. More often than not, he would bump into things. When he saw me for our first session, his hand was bandaged from walking into a parked car. He couldn’t transition from standing to the floor in a connected way; instead, we did standing postures first, balancing second, poses on the belly and then poses on the back. We worked close to the wall and used a chair in some cases. After one of our sessions, he declared he was ready to go to a group class. I’ll never forget the smile on his face when he walked into the studio and practiced in his own way, modifying and resting when he needed to rest. Bob was a beautiful example of a true yogi.
Mary had injured her shoulder with a slip on the ice and snow. She had experience with yoga but was concerned about how she’d manage with her injury. Mary was attending Physical Therapy and it was one of the instances where my work with a student was in conjunction with treatment. After our sessions, she’d visit the therapist and report back to me with the therapist’s feedback. Working with her was a true lesson in anatomy as we modified poses to increase accessibility, flexibility and strength and talked about muscles and key actions in the body (she was a nurse as well). Her mind held the memory of regular practice; her body held the muscle memory. This served her as we moved through each posture. We’d start each session with an overview of how she was doing functionally and end each session with meditation. After a few months of private sessions, Mary and her friend attended a special weekend workshop I was hosting. It was a true joy to see her practice in a group setting while honoring her individual needs.
Healing can also mean taking action in order to make our health a priority. We can all relate to the challenge of finding the time to practice. Susan’s babysitting coverage fell through right before our session. Determined to stick with her schedule to practice, she called and asked if she could bring Maddie. When they arrived, Maddie had her art supplies in hand. While mom practiced, the young girl busied herself drawing – my dog, Bailey Rose – at her side. At the end of the session, while mom was in savasana, Maddie came out and quietly lay beside her. Healing can sometimes mean taking the time to do the right thing for yourself and resting with those that you love.
Incorporating Yoga into your Healing Plan
Yoga Medicine means using yoga as a tool for healing. How it looks is up to you; how one finds healing is often a mixture of traditional eastern and western interventions. We know as practitioners and teachers that yoga can be an integral part of healing the body as well as the mind. We know that yoga’s look and feel will be different depending on the person. Our challenge as teachers is to help our students find their own way to experience yoga’s healing qualities on their mats and in their lives.
by Karen Fabian