Yoga for Medical Conditions: Our Basic Approach

by Nina
Clear Water by Heidi Santschi of Heidi Santschi Garden Design
Lately some of you enthusiastic readers have been requesting that we write a second Yoga for Healthy Aging book on yoga for medical conditions. And we understand why you’d like to have such a book. Yes, wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could look up any medical condition in a book and find a yoga “prescription” there? But to be honest there are three reasons why this isn’t feasible or even a good idea: 

1. Yoga has the potential to help with a huge variety of medical conditions. If we were to write a book with solutions for every medical condition or even the most common ones, it would be a multi-volume encyclopedia. 

2. There are many different types of yoga and approaches to helping the various conditions. Trying to cover all the different ways you could approach a particular medical condition, say, arthritis or multiple sclerosis, would in itself take up a whole book just on one topic (and indeed, there are books on topics like that, though even they don’t usually represent more than one style of yoga). 

3. Using yoga to help people with medical conditions should entail an individualized approach. Because everyone is not the same, a yoga program for everyone should be customized. One person might have a mild form of the condition and another a more serious one. One person might be young and another old. One person might have be an experienced yoga practitioner and another might be an absolute beginner. One person might be stiff and another might be flexible. One person might like certain poses that another one dislikes. And on and on and on. So, trying to give a yoga “prescription” for a medical condition in a book not only isn’t realistic, it’s basically irresponsible. 

But in thinking about this problem, Baxter and I realized some time ago that we could develop a generalized approach to using yoga for medical conditions that would allow you all to learn something about how you might use your own practice to help yourself heal or just become more comfortable physically and/or emotionally, and that might inspire teachers to think it a more generalized way about what is possible and what is not. My epiphany about this had to do with the fact that while there is a very long list of medical conditions, the things you can do with yoga actually is quite short (see 6 Strategies for Using Yoga to Help Medical Conditions). 

So, in this new series (which will include some older posts), I will point you to some basic approaches and strategies that will give you a better understanding of how yoga can be used to help with medical conditions. However, it’s critical for you to begin with realistic expectations about what yoga can do and what it cannot do. After all, there are some dangerous false claims out there in Yogaland about what yoga can do, such as that yoga can “heal” diabetes (see False Claims Harm Yoga). So, I’m going to start this discussion on using yoga for medical conditions with an overview of what yoga actually has the power to do—or not—for different types of conditions. Let’s start by looking at three different real-life stories.

Maria, a student of Baxter’s with osteoporosis, told him about her latest checkup with her doctor. For two years, she has been practicing yoga several times a week at home and once a week in class. Now her most recent DEXA scan—the tool to diagnose and track osteoporosis—came back with evidence of improvement in her bone density, which is considered a reflection of bone strength, with readings almost back to normal. 

Carol started practicing yoga after treatment for breast cancer. She started by attending restorative yoga classes, where breathing awareness and relaxation were the beginning of her recovery. She says, “I learned a new way in which to move my body and breathe through the grief that I felt over losing my good health.” From there, she moved into regular asana classes. “My yoga practice not only gave me the tools with which to heal my body,” she says, “but it also gave me the emotional strength I needed to cope with recovery.” 

Melitta started practicing yoga six months before her first symptoms of Type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune disease that can occur at any age and that requires exogenous insulin for survival. She says, “When I was newly diagnosed, I was in extreme despair—I thought my life was ruined. But yoga saved my life then by allowing me some space and freedom from constant thoughts about my disease. And yoga continues to save my life today by helping me stay calm and focused despite the daily grind of self-care that those of us with Type 1 diabetes must do.” 

As you see from these examples, the type of medical condition you have will influence the way you use yoga to address it. In the first story, Maria used her asana practice to strengthen her weak bones, helping to reverse the condition. In the second story, Carol used her practice to support her healing and to stay emotionally strong during the recovery. In the third story, Melitta used yoga to help her with the stress of having a serious, chronic disease for which there is no cure. 

Let’s be frank, shall we? Although yoga can be powerful tool for helping with medical conditions, there are very few conditions that it can completely “cure” on its own. However, we think that the range of things that yoga can do to help with medical conditions is actually very impressive! We’ve identified three basic ways yoga can help with medical conditions. As we’ve written about these three basic approaches in the past, I’ll provide a brief overview of the three of them and provide links to the detailed posts. 

Prevention: This form of treatment means preventing diseases or conditions from developing as well as preventing a disease or condition that you already have from getting worse. For example, a well-rounded yoga can help prevent problems related to being sedentary, including osteoporosis, sarcopenia, balance problems, and falls. And yoga’s stress management practices are good preventative medicine for fostering good emotional and mental health, at the same time they help foster physical health. See How Yoga Helps with Medical Conditions: Prevention.

Symptom Improvement: This form of treatment means relieving symptoms caused by a medical condition without curing it. In this case you’re using yoga to achieve temporary or long-term improvement of symptoms. For example, someone with chronic low back pain from a ruptured disc can use yoga very effectively to reduce or relieve pain. And, for a limited number of conditions, such as stress headaches, you can actually both relieve symptoms and cure the underlying condition. See How Yoga Helps Medical Conditions: Symptom Improvement

Adjunct to Western Medicine: This form of treatment means combining yoga with other forms of treatment. Yoga is especially effective as an adjunct for prevention, to support ongoing treatment of different kinds, to support rehabilitation from illness and injury, and to help provide relief and comfort care for conditions for which there is no cure. See How Yoga Helps Medical Conditions: Adjunct to Western Medicine

P.S. A while back, we had some different categories (see 5 Ways Yoga Can Affect Your Health). After some thought, we decided to streamline the categories. (I love streamlining!) But as this is a different way of framing the same material, so you might want to read it, too. 

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