I gasped in horror when I heard that my friend with high blood pressure went to a 105-degree room to do power yoga.
Or that my client who is healing from an adductor tear ended up with a hands-on teacher “adjusting her” in a yoga class.
Both of these people were sent to yoga by their well-meaning doctors. And I get it. There is a growing amount of scientific studies and press on the usefulness of yoga for chronic pain, weight loss, and mental disorders—and for good reason.
However, as yogis know, yoga isn’t just one thing. There are so many versions of it. The same can be said of yoga teacher training. And most importantly, yoga teachers are not yoga therapists.
Yoga therapists are trained to work with medical conditions—to help people achieve their health goals using yoga techniques. Yoga therapists spend years getting trained in assessment skills, contraindications, and applying movement, breath work, philosophy, and meditation techniques to move people toward well-being. They are committed to providing individualized yoga education to improve outcomes, with consideration for Western medical interventions.
Alternatively, yoga teachers are trained to teach their system of yoga. Ideally, they are skilled at this, but it in no way prepares them to assess the appropriate practices for those who have specific challenges. Yoga teachers make suggestions all the time that are inappropriate for some of their students, and it’s not their fault. They might not have the training and usually don’t have the information and skills for properly assessing each student in front of them.
How did we get here? How did all of these well-intentioned doctors start accidentally putting people into dangerous yoga-based situations?
Maybe it’s just a lack of education on what yoga is and isn’t. Maybe it’s a lack of widespread knowledge of the field of yoga therapy. Or maybe it’s the byproduct of the magical medical thinking that has enveloped the yoga world.
Some of the claims about the benefits of moving on a yoga mat are downright bizarre. Yoga is a beautiful and powerful tradition that has so much to offer. But it is also a path that requires specificity to help those in need of healing. It’s as if the promotion of yoga class as a one-size-fits-all curative machine has made its way into the medical profession.
So it’s time to get educated. Here’s how we can start:
Yoga students and medical patients: Ask yourself if your doctor knows anything about yoga therapy. Then ask them. Can they give you a specific referral? Keep in mind that when doctors refer patients to a surgeon, they don’t just say, “Go see a surgeon.” They provide names.
Yoga teachers: Keep your students safe. If you are not qualified to assess a particular student and give specific advice, tell them so. No one will ever fault you for not knowing something. In fact, it only adds to your credibility as a yoga teacher.
Doctors: Do a little homework before you decide which patient to refer to yoga and why. If you decide that yoga is a good idea for a patient, send them to a yoga therapist—even if it’s simply to help them choose an appropriate yoga class to attend.
With a little work, Western medicine and yoga communities can learn to come together and improve outcomes.
Author: Brandt Passalacqua
Image: Olenka Kotyk/Unsplash
Editor: Nicole Cameron