Can Yoga Be Used as Medicine?
The short answer is yes.
The reality is yoga is not usually used as medicine. Using yoga as medicine can be tedious and laborious (trust me), requiring constant review of the scientific literature in order to make it safe and effective. More often than not yoga is seen as a way to lose weight, compete for the trimmest bum or the buffest handstand, claim exalted enlightened status, or as is common in America with yoga teachers – to compete for yoga celebrity status and fame.
The reality also is, there are hundreds, maybe even thousands of yoga teachers who are earnestly doing their best and in the spirit of utmost integrity – teaching in their local community, giving away free classes and sessions, making a difference in their world – and they aren’t concerned about their pant or chest size or whether or not they become a famous teacher.
However in both groups – Yoga Injuries are on the Rise.
Because as much as the term “Integrative Medicine” is tossed around, we still aren’t, in the medical profession OR in the yoga community, aware of what each other does as a profession, nor are we privy to the dangers of improperly aligned yoga postures.
For example, when is the last time your ob/gyn knew that there is a subspecialty of physical therapy that treats women’s health issues like incontinence, pelvic pain, and post-surgical complications? How about prenatal pubic symphysis or sacroiliac disorder?
For example, when was the last time your family doctor mentioned that yoga, when combined with physical therapy (aka Integrative Physical Therapy), can be beneficial for treating combinations of problems like depressive symptoms/anxiety issues plus sports injuries (since the two often go together) like rotator cuff syndrome or hip intra/extra-articular injury? How about common systemic problems like heart disease or asthma (which are commonly treated in cardiopulmonary physical therapy or respiratory physical therapy)?
Chances are, your doctor may not clearly know what physical therapy does, much less what yoga is capable of doing when combined with physical therapy or nursing or occupational therapy or medicine. The fact is, yoga when combined with evidence based medicine and rehabilitation, is not the yoga of ancient days. Yoga for the 21st century can be modern, fresh, and new – because it must be made safer. Only then can it be most effective at improving health and well-being.
Why mention yoga injuries and unsafe yoga being taught in America?
As a consumer of yoga, just as a consumer of health care, you deserve safety. You deserve to know you are being taught postures that in the very least, create physical health and not harm.
Yoga is of course not just about the physical postures (asana). However since the postures are most frequently used as the gateway to health and self-awareness we cannot ignore the paramount mantra of medicine in teaching the yoga postures – “first do no harm.”
Safe Yoga = Effective Yoga
The most common yoga injuries being seen in radiology offices (Corroller 2012) today are tendinous lesions and fibrocartilaginous tears. The most common areas of injury include the rotator cuff of the shoulder, the Achilles tendon of the foot, and the labrums of the hip and shoulder (just for starters).
If yoga postures are unsafe then they cannot be effective. These common postures can be considered high risk postures for many populations. A person with any pre-existing conditions or injuries should see their physician and/or physical therapist so treatment (which can include yoga) can be prescribed specifically for their condition(s). Yoga must be taught correctly and according to each person’s specific needs and deficits. Here are some examples of how the above injuries are happening in yoga today:
Some high risk postures in yoga can include:
- Child’s pose – a pose which can cause cervical spine shearing and adverse discal pressure
- Downward facing dog – typically causes hyperflexion of the shoulder and reversal of spine curves that puts pressure in the direction of lumbar disc herniation
- Warrior series – a series of three postures which can easily cause low back pain, sacroiliac joint dysfunction, or excessive range of motion in the hips leading to fibrocartilaginous injury
- Crescent post (deep lunge) where the elbows are placed on the floor requiring extreme hip flexion combined with weight bearing torque/twisting and rotation in the hip joint
- Plow pose where the feet touch the floor above the head
- Triangle – a high risk pose for hip and spine injuries
- Wheel and all forms of extreme backbending/spinal extension
- Weightbearing headstands
- Weightbearing shoulderstands where the chin is against the chest and the cervical curves are reversed
- “Chataranga” – a pose that resembles a full push up from the toes and is rarely performed correctly
Yoga Can Save Your Life.
But don’t get me wrong. Yoga is valuable. Very valuable.
Yoga has saved my life multiple times over. It has helped me recover from pregnancy and childbirth (three times), traumatic injuries like multiple cervical spine disc bulges, sacroiliac joint dysfunction, a postpartum rotator cuff tear, a hip labral tear, and numerous psycho-emotional stressors.
However the same poses that heal my injuries, when not aligned properly, can cause the same injuries. Achieving longevity and high quality of life can be accomplished with yoga, but one must proceed with caution in what yoga you ultimately “buy into.” Not all yoga is created equal, or even safe.
In my next post, Part Two, I will discuss how to talk with your orthopedist or physical therapist about yoga and how it can work for you.