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Best of both worlds: Integrating the ancient practice of yoga and modern healthcare

A group yoga session

Inspired by the Vedas – spiritual texts originating in the Indian subcontinent – early yoga masters devoted their lives to discovering the path of human happiness and enlightenment. The goal of yoga, according to the Yoga Sutras, commonly referenced as the authoritative text on yoga, “is the stilling of the mind until it rests in a state of total and utter tranquility.”

Yoga, like most Eastern philosophies, views the mind and body as interconnected. Working with our body and breath affects our thoughts, and vice versa. How we move and think and our way of being in the world have a profound effect on our health and well-being. This does not mean we can “think” ourselves into being well. Rather, by incorporating practices that steady the mind, we support balance, ease and connection: the underlying conditions for good health.

“Yoga is a process of replacing old patterns with new and more appropriate patterns” ~ Sri T Krishnamacharya

How are yoga and healthcare coming together?

A growing body of evidence supports yoga as an effective integrative treatment for chronic physical and mental health conditions. A recent conference, the Montreal International Symposium on Therapeutic Yoga (MISTY), brought together a wide range of interprofessional presenters, including family doctors, social workers, psychologists and physiotherapists, who have years of experience integrating yoga into their clinical practices. The conference presented evidence-informed, holistic practices drawn from the rich tradition of yoga, and its role in health: from getting a good night’s sleep, managing persistent pain, improving balance and pelvic floor health to helping with trauma and mental health conditions.

A theme that emerged at the conference regarding the integration of yoga and healthcare is that yoga practices are powerful because they help us ‘be with’ difficulty. The habits we develop in an attempt to avoid or suppress pain and discomfort can cause great suffering. We cannot avoid pain in life, but we can learn to choose how we respond. Yoga practices, which include physical postures, breathing practices, mindfulness, meditation, mantras, and intention, help us identify and let go of habits and behaviours that no longer serve us and provide a path toward developing healthier habits.

“The success of Yoga does not lie in the ability to perform postures but in how it positively changes the way we live our life and our relationships.” ~ T.K.V. Desikachar 

How can patients and clinicians incorporate yoga into modern healthcare?

The idea here is that practitioners engage patients in their own care to optimize their health.

One example, is the Sunnybrook Academic Family Health Team’s Therapeutic Yoga for Seniors program. Participants are guided through a therapeutic yoga practice, which includes meditation and relaxation; participants also learn about yogic philosophy. This is coupled with education from an occupational therapist about falls prevention, home safety, energy conservation and advanced care planning. After seven weeks, most participants report an improvement to their balance; they also report feeling more motivated, calmer, stronger, satisfied and more aware of their bodies and their breath.

Last year, our family health team partnered with the Alzheimer’s Society of Toronto (AST) to pilot a yoga and nutrition program for people with dementia and their care partners. Participants were guided through gentle chair yoga and mindfulness practices and learned straightforward nutrition tips from a dietitian. Participants reported similar positive results and we’re now looking to offer therapeutic yoga classes for caregivers to help manage their stress.

Given the successes we’ve seen from these programs, we are now planning a pilot research project to measure the effect of therapeutic yoga on the balance, mobility and other quality of life indicators of older adults.

For those in the area interested in yoga and its potential health benefits, please contact Ingrid Wirsig for more information at 416-480-6942 or email ingrid.wirsig@sunnybrook.ca.

About the author

Ingrid Wirsig

Ingrid Wirsig is a certified yoga therapist (C-IAYT) and works at the Sunnybrook Academic Family Health Team. She has a master’s degree in integrative health, with a specialization in yoga therapy