healing yoga

Strong Medicine

More and more I find myself referring to yoga as medicine.  As science.

Of course, I say in class, yoga has elements of a spiritual path.  It has elements of fitness and diet.  But it is not a religion and it is not a fitness program.

Yoga is a science.  Yoga is strong, strong medicine.

In a world of many illnesses, a country of unprecedented stress, anxiety, mental illness, obesity and cardio vascular diseases, you would think this would be embraced.

It is not.  Western Medicine itself will only refer to yoga as a useful tool for 'stress reduction', in spite of a growing body of evidence that it can reverse heart disease, treat 'treatment resistant depression', and ease carpal tunnel syndrome, to pick out of a grab bag.  Even within the world of 'alternative medicine', mention of yoga is dismissive and scant - perhaps because nothing is ingested or inserted or removed from our bodies and we can't fathom medicine, otherwise.

And even in the world of yoga, it's teachers, authors, and serious practitioners, yoga is called a 'discipline', a 'practice', or a personal path.  I don't mean to suggest it isn't those things.  But I believe it is more.  I believe it is science and ought to be treated as such.

We know it builds strength and confidence, if not character.  We know it improves flexibility and stability, that it fosters serenity and poise.  Beyond its attributes as preventative medicine, we know that it heals - not cures, necessarily, but heals in quantifiable ways - low back strain, chronic pain, MS.

One of the difficulties is financial: studies cost.  More deeply, it is that cultural assumption that healing involves ingesting something, inserting something, or removing something from the body.  The cultural assumption focuses on disease rather than health and has no real way to discuss, let alone understand, yogic well being.

This raises a question.  Call it philosophical if you like.  Wonder about your own, or your best friend's, particular body if you want to be more poignant.

When you have an intervention which appears safe and effective, when it has no negative side effects, when it in fact has positive side effects, should one wait for proof before trying it?

I say no.  I say yoga will help in ways you wouldn't think possible.  I say it will change your ideas about health and wellness.  I say it will heal you, though the healing may not be what you expected.

I am not a doctor.  I will never encourage someone to go against a doctor's advice.  I will and frequently do insist a student talk with a doctor before beginning, changing, or returning to a yoga practice.  But I do believe a yoga practice can compliment traditional medicine, and make us more well.

And I believe yoga's potency, what makes it strong medicine, is largely it's ability to return you to control and autonomy: it will immediately teach you things you can do to relieve symptoms and influence your health, whereas so many of us feel we have no choice, no influence, no way to navigate the body mind other than to 'suffer' it or 'deal with it'.  How powerful it is for the fibromylagia patient, who has been told there are no cures and that she must learn to live with her pain, to realize there are, actually, things she can do for herself.

This is fierce medicine, indeed.

Stability. Balance. Grace.

A recent study of Parkinson's disease showed a gentle yoga practice, once a week, returned people's ability to balance.  To stand, on their own.  To walk.  To hold the hand steady. Parkinson's is a withering disease, a slow erosion of the neural pathways.  The body slowly loses its capacity and the mind, I imagine, begins to close in upon itself, moving in smaller and smaller cages.  The mind forgets how to relate to the body.

Painful.  Frightening.

Yet I don't think it's terribly far from what most of us are living, most of the time.   I think we have forgotten (mistrusted, misused, tried to hide or control or shrink) the body to the point we can no longer feel it.  We have become trapped, disembodied.  We have, in very real ways, forgotten how to feel and what it means to be embodied.  To be alive.

It's a common experience in yoga classes to feel we're going to fall on our faces, that we're on the verge of toppling.  We feel the anti-thesis of grace and beauty.  When I teach, I watch this happening; feel your feet on the ground, I'll say, or notice your breath in your belly, and half the people in the room look up to the ceiling as if the answers and the sensation were up there somewhere.  They crane their necks around to see what the teacher or the experienced students are doing.  If I say feel your hand, from the inside, I get looks of skepticism.  There's yoga teacher talking crazy again, the look says.

I am not speaking of advanced poses of gyration and balancing on one foot.

I am talking about tadasana, mountain pose.  Or sitting up tall.

This is very, very hard for most of us to do.


We cower, instead.  We hunch.  We try to make ourselves small, or have a chronically puffed up chest.  Old injuries, our childhoods, our belief and self esteem all cow the body into misalignment and unbalance.  This isn't metaphorical, either: if you think of how a depressed or grief stricken person stands, how they breath, you can imagine the postural changes.  Four or five minutes of this posture has a ripple effect on our mood and our chemistry.  Ten or twenty years, and the mood and the chemistry have re-formed the body and made it hard.

Feeling violated or insecure causes some bodies to protect themselves with added weight.  Anxiety and constricts the muscles around the heart, freezes the shoulders and the back into a hard shell.  People who have been told to be quiet, to not draw attention to themselves, who have learned to focus all their attention outside (on alcoholic parents, an abusive partner, an unstable environment) hold a very small stance and seem to shrink in space.  Even assertive, confidant, or aggressive persons have an overdeveloped strength in the neck, chest, and arms but stand on cocked legs, bowed legs, hurt their knees and their ankles over and over again.

Some of this is malicious feeling, as though we have to 'deal' with all our unresolved issues in the past.  It needn't be.  Similar structural changes happen simply because we over use our dominant hand, fell off a horse when we were twelve, or were rear ended five years ago.

These are only questions we can start asking ourselves, directions in which to move.

What happens inside when someone cues you to stand tall?  How does it feel to occupy as much space as you can, to stretch your arms wide, to kick hard?

Do you hands shake?  Why?


The Parkinson's study suggests yogic movement retrains the brain and neural pathways, establishes new pathways, reconnects brain and intention and nerves.

Even if parts of our brain have died and eroded, we can learn how to stand again.


I feel I'm going to fall over, a student said in virabadrasana 2. If the slightest wind blew, I would fall.

How, then, do we learn to feel balanced, to feel strong and stable?  What does a yoga pose have to do with our mind, our self?  Where do you start?

I asked him to pay attention to his feet.  In an effort to stay stable, he was unconsciously taking small steps, keeping the movements and the poses conservative.

Yoga poses begin with foundations, with the way our body comes in contact with the floor.  A strong, balanced pose means the joints are stabilized, which means the muscles and connective tissue are engaged (which means tightening joints up, not flexibility).

Personal trainers and physical therapists often teach movements with a ball or a wobble board.  The point is teaching the body to stabilize itself.  The body does this by contracting muscles in co-ordination, creating foundation.

Yoga uses the body itself to teach stability and poise.  If it is true that fear, anxiety, depression, or a car wreck fifteen years ago changes our body, than it is also true that consciously training our body to stand confidently will change our minds and our moods.  It offers a way to confidence, stability, and grace that is altogether different than psychotherapy or positive affirmations.  It asks us not to worry about the thoughts and feelings that happen over, and over, and over again but to pause for a moment and consider the skin of our toes and the structure of the ankles.

But to get there, we have to feel our feet on the ground.  We have to know our relationship to the floor.

We have to start getting out of our heads, and into the body.


There is an illustration floating around the internet, that say's "When you fall, I'll be there for you" and is signed, affectionately, The Floor.

Some yogis have altered the illustration and crossed out 'floor' to read 'mat'.

This is the point I love, in yoga.  The point where the idea, the philosophy, the meaning, is ripped right out of the abstract and into the real.  yoga is the practice of reality.

On the one hand, this idea of the floor catching you is humiliating.  It culls up images of awkwardness, embarrassment, all that learning how to walk and ride a bicycle. Let alone dancing, which most of us can not, in any impressive way, do.

On the other hand, there is a honest comfort here.  Reality is the only solid ground there is.  Our plans, our expectations, our heads have proven us to be silly, more often than not.  They are houses of mirrors and will lead directly to suffering and disappointment, if not just a chronic sense of being numb and stuck.

Reality, though, touching our hands or our feet to the floor and learning how to build stability, has an element of power to it.  I have friends who swear by the grounding effect of gardening, others who will mutter something about needing to use their hands when they start to feel overwhelmed or have to work something through.  Most of us, I think, can remember a time when an emotion swelled so powerfully we had to go for a walk, had to wash the dishes or clean a closet or sweep the floor.  Most of us can acknowledge the fact that a difficult to solve problem often needs us to stop ruminating and spend time doing: tinkering on a car, walking the dog, playing with a child, cooking a meal.

It isn't that there is anything wrong with thinking.  Only that thinking, to be inspired and fully formed, to be genius, needs to have its feet on the ground.  It needs time, ground, experience.

We will never, I mean, think our way into feeling better or more alive.  We can never burn by thought alone to an answer to life's questions.  We can never work through the issues of our past or our unfulfilled dreams or our nagging anxieties unless and until we experience our selves as strong, fast, stable, and breathy.


This is a gift.  This is a promise.  This is why yoga is so powerful for those of us who might feel anxious, vulnerable, or afraid.

At moments of heartbreak, overwhelm, or panic, it is possible to find our feet.

Yogic movement retrains the mind, reconnects attention and nerves, gives us the floor.

This is why yogic practice is hard, and the hardness has very little to do with physical limitations.  The hardness is in our minds, in finding a willingness to let go of our thinking habits and just show up, instead.  Most of us resist.  Our mind insists we aren't any good at this stuff, that other people are strong and flexible and athletic but not us.  The mind wants to stay afraid, says things like I'm always alone, this situation is unfair, why me, why can't I.  It is packed with 'always', 'never', and doubt.  It is ruthless in it's perfectionism, procrastination, blame, and fear.  It becomes rapt with it's own preconceptions, prejudices, and self-preservation to the point it loses connection with reality.

Yet emotional balance, emotional intelligence, and healing are reality bound.

Remember, for a moment, those times when you were so emotionally charged you needed to move.  Or how physical reality (song, walking, washing the dishes, touching something alive) has helped you work through a problem.

Now know, for a moment, that the quickest and surest route to getting out of your own fear and suffering is to consider someone else's.  Wisdom practices throughout time have taught that the surest way to solve your own problems is to help someone else through theirs.  The point is not altruism, per say.  The point is reality.  If we can, for even a moment, crawl out of the mind and into the world we come back in contact with reality and perspective.

We remember time.  We know relativity.  We realize we can, actually, stand up.  However big our fear or panic, we'll know that there is more to life than it.

There is more to us than it.

The mind closes in on itself, moving into smaller and smaller cages.  It forgets how to relate to the body.

Eventually, we learn how to feel panic or fear or uncertainty full on, but still stand.  We'll know they are not constant, not solid, and that we do not actually become overwhelmed.  We'll learn emotional balance, intellectual gravity, skill in life.

We experience ourselves standing tall.