The Minimalist Physical Therapist: Using Yoga as Medicine?
A minimalist pares away all unnecessary things “in order to expose the essence or identity of a subject.”
Twelve years ago I decided to try that path. I had been raised with a “Depression Era” ethic, that is, collect and keep everything you can, because you “just never know what may happen.”
Instead of clinging to things (which we can’t keep anyway) – I decided to opt-out.
What started as a personal transformation quickly led to a professional one. I got rid of all the things I didn’t need: unhealthy, processed, antibiotic and chemically spiked food, junk TV, a dead-end job, and plenty of material possessions I had accumulated over the years.
Once I did that, I realized that my life had long been hurt by more than just “things”: but also people. Ouch.
Clearing your life of destructive relationships isn’t easy, because sometimes those harmful people – are in your own family.
My journey to become a minimalist happened in slow, often painful, stages.
Being a minimalist demanded a new way of thinking. I wanted health. I thought I’d “been healthy” throughout my 20’s, but in retrospect, I realized how poor my health and well-being had been. First, I had to believe in myself and my abilities. That was difficult, especially in a culture where women still make $.77 cents (at most) to every man’s $1.00. Second, I had to make hard decisions about destructive relationships.
Ultimately though, I went from being a passive victim of abuse to an emboldened woman who stood her ground.
I am not saying simplifying your life is easy. Despite my progress it still isn’t easy for me, especially operating as a mother-of-three-CEO-physical-therapist-educator in an outdated patriarchal economic model.
But the health and happiness transformation brings, is worth the effort. YOU are worth it.
This is where my journey in helping others begins. Once I realized I was strong enough, I wanted to help others realize they were strong enough too…through the medicine of yoga.
Advocating for Better Medicine
The concept is simple. I am a physical therapist. In 1998 I was a new physical therapist but had already spent years studying yoga and working in the athletic training and sports medicine professions.
I frequently used yoga in physical therapy and sports medicine for people in the greatest need – those with chronic pain. And gradually, I ended up with all the “difficult” chronic pain patients on my caseload.
The overwhelming majority of these people were women, but next in line, were those who had served or were currently in the military. The bottom line is – yoga was helping these patients MORE than just physical therapy alone.
I am a better therapist when I use yoga as athletic training, with manual therapy, and with physical therapy. But also – yoga works better when it is combined with western therapies and medicine.
Medicine AND yoga can both be better, if they would embrace each other. If the two join hands, health care can improve in America – because medical providers would be advocating for their patients to receive holistic, compassionate care – a tenet of using yoga as medicine.
Does Yoga Work?
Let me share my story with you, albeit the very brief version.
One day over 10 years ago I looked up, literally, in the middle of a treatment session with a patient and said to myself,
“I am doing yoga – with the most complicated patients – as physical therapy – and it is working BETTER than physical therapy alone. This is a gift, this yoga as medicine. I must share its healing power with everyone.”
It wasn’t very long after that “aha” moment that I quit my job. Yes, quit. But not physical therapy altogether; instead, I walked away from my “safe” position in conventional medicine.
This new path of pursuing yoga as medicine was and is still, risky. I was the primary breadwinner in my home at the time and now I no longer had my salary or benefits. What’s more, I also terminated my insurance contracts so that I could give patients what they needed, not what insurance mandated.
Then, I set out on my own. Yes, it was risky and yes, I was scared.
However, I have learned that you cannot embrace the future if you are still clinging to the past. There was no way that I could take hold of any blessings that were to come my way – if I was still hanging onto dusty old relics.
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 so (although there is plenty to support yoga); 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 – but on that “aha” day – I looked up.
And my world changed.
I saw that if health care was going to change in this country, then I needed to, as Gandhi said, “be that 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. It doesn’t mean that all therapists should abandon conventional practices though, it just means that for my type of practice, it was the better move.
One of the Best Decisions
The good news is taking that risk turned out to be one of the best decisions I ever made. Taking the risk of being an “integrative physical therapist,” or as I like to call it, a “minimalist physical therapist,” has allowed me to reach more people and be a more effective physical therapist.
Taking that risk also inspired me to start the first post-graduate program in using yoga as medicine in America, to try and give health care professionals a template for using yoga successfully in their practice and life.
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,” I would say the time is long overdue for embracing conservative methods of caring for one’s health. Use of integrative medicine in health care, like yoga, is a prime example.
In Part Two, I will visit how yoga works in and as medicine, and how that affects your life and health.