A note about this week’s post: A therapist new to using yoga in rehab recently asked me about my story – my journey in yoga through the lens of physical therapy practice. That’s when I realized I’d only ever told the full story in person, during lectures and whatnot, but I’d never actually written the story down.
My Journey in Yoga through Physical Therapy
People in chronic pain are often labeled, and the labels are not helpful or person-centered or even nice. Often deemed failures of the system, they get stereotyped, dehumanized by such labels as diagnosis seeker, prescription drug addict, wimpy complainer, or motor moron.
But I don’t see people in pain that way. To me, those people are not failures of the system. Rather, I believe the system has failed them. The system I speak of is, of course, the American healthcare system.
Please let me share my story with you, albeit the greatly abbreviated version.
Fifteen years ago I was scurrying along, working in an underserved and generally low income area in rural North Carolina. I was a full time therapist and the clinic’s director by day, and a part-time yoga teacher and music director in the evenings.
I was, as the cliche goes, “burning the candle at both ends,” but it worked for me at the time. I was childless but not by choice, so my patients became my children. I threw myself into my practice. I didn’t mind scheduling patients super-early, before daybreak even, in order to meet the special needs of these people who were traveling as far as 3 hours round trip to see me.
What did all of these patients have in common, and why were they coming to see me from such a distance?
They were all in chronic pain, and the overwhelming majority of them were not just women, but mothers. Read more on how America’s healthcare system fails mothers.
The secret to why they were coming from so far away to see me has everything to do with my “aha” Oprah moment.
One day I was in the middle of a treatment session with a patient when I looked up and realized two things:
1) Everyone on my schedule had a very complex history of chronic pain and yet,
2) I hadn’t deliberately set out to only see people in chronic pain.
What’s more is most of those people – were women. Not just women, but mothers. Mothers with histories of fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, depression, back pain, weight management issues, self-esteem problems, pelvic pain, and more…
So what was my “aha” moment?
It was realizing that yoga was the key ingredient in the success of my physical therapy practice. Physical therapy ALONE was not enough to help these people in pain. People needed the holistic, mindful approach of yoga combined with the science of physical therapy. Yoga as medicine was what I was offering my patients, and they were getting better.
The story doesn’t end there though. And it isn’t pretty.
It was years before I knew how much trouble yoga would get me into –
I knew yoga worked, but the reality was – my supervisors and colleagues were less than thrilled with my methods. They were deemed “high maintenance” because I needed to work 1-on-1 with a patient for a whole 45 minutes. I was told by superiors, “No one can work with your patients when you are gone…it’s just too difficult to see them and no one can recreate what you are doing. This yoga thing…is just too…too specialized.”
Long story short, I was pushed out of the practice and asked to leave. Point blank.
And so I did. I quit my job.
But I kept plugging away, happy to serve the patients that frankly, no one wanted to see. I just continued on in a more healthy, happy work environment. I opened my own integrative physical therapy practice and yoga studio. Yoga and physical therapy together were a match made in heaven. It was a happy, blended family.
That was in 2000.
From Bad to Worse
But wait, there was MORE stark reality. This new path of pursuing yoga as medicine was risky. I was the primary breadwinner at the time and in an instant – I no longer had my salary or benefits.
What’s more, I would go on to terminate my insurance contracts so that I could (finally) give patients in chronic pain what they needed, not what insurance mandated (or didn’t approve).
So I set out on my own. And yes, if you are wondering, I was scared. Thrilled to be free, I was also fearful of failing.
My experience did go from bad to worse. Personally, I realized more than just my workplace was abusive and damaging.
But I am happy to say that my practice, with some bumps and bruises along the way, grew steadily over the next 10 years.
From that experience of being pushed out, instead of leaving on my own, I learned a massive life lesson:
You cannot embrace the future if you are still clinging to the past. There was no way that I could receive any blessings that were to come my way if I was still hanging on to dusty old relics. This was true both professionally and personally. I had finally cultivated the courage not just to walk away, but to WALK TOWARD a better life.
And so, I let it go and walked away.
Why? Because I knew that yoga worked. I didn’t need any research to tell me, I had seen it with my own two eyes.
For years I “kept my head down and worked hard.” I didn’t complain about insurance limits or caps or the way I was treated at my old job – but on that “aha” day – I looked up.
And my world changed.
I saw that if health care was going to change, then I needed to, as Gandhi said, “be the change.” Change had to start somewhere, and if patients were driving as far as 3 hours, one way, to see me, then I must be doing something right.
Yes, I could be that change.
That moment I knew that stepping out of the safety of a conventional practice was not only optional, it was necessary. Insurance companies often prove unreliable for people, especially if they in suffering from chronic pain. An insurance company may deny patients needed treatment, and I knew it was up to me to figure out how to make using yoga affordable and accessible as a physical therapist.
My leaving conventional PT settings doesn’t mean all therapists should abandon conventional practices. The point is you should constantly assess whether or not your workplace is healthy and supportive of optimizing patient experience, satisfaction, and outcomes.
The Best Decision Ever
Taking that risk, which all its trials and triumphs, was the best career decision I have ever made. Taking that risk has allowed me to reach more people and be a more effective health care provider. Using yoga as medicine has transformed me in many ways:
- Yoga makes me a better woman, wife, and mother.
- Yoga helps me remain dedicated to self-care in myself and others.
- Yoga aided in curing my own long-standing chronic illness and pain.
- Yoga led me in founding the Professional Yoga Therapy Studies program, which provides health care professionals with a framework for using yoga in rehab, wellness, and in their own self-care.
In my humble opinion, yoga does work.
Yoga has massive implications for improving health care and its delivery in the US today. Especially given that health care has lost its moral compass, according to a recent poignant post by physician, Dr. Lissa Rankin, and that prominent physician Dr. Andrew Weil states in the documentary film Escape Fire, “We don’t have a health care system. We have a disease care system.”
Time is overdue for embracing a full circle return to conservative methods of caring for one’s health. Use of integrative medicine in health care, like yoga, is a prime example.