Yoga Is Good for You. But Is It Medicine?

Lucy Pemoni/Reuters

By Christine Yu for Life by DailyBurn

We’ve all heard stories about someone who has relieved their debilitating back pain, or reduced the progression of conditions like rheumatoid arthritis — all through the practice of yoga. Take Dr. Tiffany Drape, for instance, who was diagnosed with scoliosis in middle school and would regularly strain her lower back muscles at least once a year. However, since starting yoga in 2009, the Virginia Tech Ph.D. and Senior Research Associate has only thrown out her back once. “Yoga has helped increase my range of motion and flexibility and has addressed my imbalances from the scoliosis,” says Dr. Drape. “It has made the muscle around my spine strong and more stable.”

There’s no doubt that yoga offers a number of health benefits, from physiological changes to how our body adapts to stress. And while many turn to yoga for fitness, there might be more to the practice than developing toned limbs and a calm mind. More people are open to the idea of incorporating yoga into their overall healthcare routine. But, is yoga medicine?

The Power of Yoga

If you ask Tiffany Cruikshank, the answer is yes. As an internationally-renowned yoga teacher and holistic health practitioner, Cruikshank has seen its wide ranging potential from treating over 25,000 patients, including world-class athletes when she was the Acupuncturist and Yoga Teacher at the Nike World Headquarters.

“When I first started seeing patients over a decade ago, I treated a lot of yoga [practitioners]. I loved it because they got better so much faster,” says Cruikshank. “That’s when the light went off – maybe I should teach yoga postures to other patients.” And it worked, she says.

Cruikshank often speaks about the potential of yoga to be therapeutic — even medicinal. In her practice, she melds both Eastern and Western medical perspectives. She evaluates and treats the whole person — their overall constitution, strengths, weaknesses — and not just the symptom. She also takes into consideration if they have been diagnosed for a condition or if their doctor has advised against doing certain movements or activities.

For example, if Cruikshank sees someone with lower back pain, she’s reluctant to recommend the same yoga postures she did for another patient — even if their symptoms are similar. Instead, the goal is to “evaluate them so you can understand what’s going on with that individual,” she says. “Is it something anatomical? Is it something mental or emotional?”

She gives patients yoga prescriptions, a series of simple and basic postures with very specific alignment directions that they can do every one to two days. “Regularity is more important than duration so that it integrates into the mind and body,” says Cruikshank.

Some may wonder — and worry — that Cruikshank is advocating for yoga teachers to start diagnosing their patients. But no, she’s not looking to replace doctors and healthcare professionals. She’s searching for a way to communicate and work together with them in a more synergistic way.

Call for a Higher Standard

The idea of ‘yoga as medicine’ has been an evolving concept for Cruikshank and others for quite some time. Increasingly, students ask yoga teachers how to manage pain or address particular health issues.

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The problem is, “Yoga therapeutics has become very cookie cutter,” says Cruikshank. It’s formulaic. “If you have back pain, do these postures,” she says, presuming there is a standard set of recommended yoga postures for each physical condition or ailment. But, this doesn’t take into consideration what’s going on from an individual standpoint.

“There’s a fine line because yoga teachers aren’t made to diagnose [their students], but as a yoga therapist, I’m looking at them to understand what’s causing the problem, and I’m going to have a theory about that,” she says.

That’s why she believes there should be a more advanced standard of training for yoga teachers to complement programs already in place. “Teachers can get a certification at 200-hour level. But there should be a higher platform to be able to understand the body in an Eastern and Western sense, and to be able to provide yoga in a way that’s effective in combination with doctors [and other healthcare practitioners],” says Cruikshank.

A Platform to Stand On

Cruikshank has set out to raise awareness of the therapeutic use of yoga and the potential the practice embodies. “You don’t have to be crippled or have a serious illness” to use yoga as medicine, she says.

Her brand Yoga Medicine is not a specific style of yoga but a strong commitment among teachers to understand the body and the yoga practice, and how it can be applied in a therapeutic way. Through trainings around the world, she educates teachers on how to treat the body from both an Eastern and Western perspective to help them work more effectively with doctors and other healthcare practitioners. She describes her training as the “yoga equivalent of medical school…It should be rigorous,” she says. And it is. She trains teachers up to the 1000-hour level.

Stephanie Wang, a New York City-based yoga teacher, says her teaching has changed as a result of training with Cruikshank. “My toolbox of knowledge and skills is so much more vast,” she says. “I can now step back and look at the bigger picture. Whether I’m looking at a student’s physical asana [yoga postures], breath, meditation practice or injury, I can see how things are connected.”

Since Cruikshank teaches all over the world, she is creating a global community of teachers who can serve as a resource for doctors, physical therapists, patients and others who are looking for well-trained instructors who can provide yoga in a more therapeutic way.

She also cautions that like any medicine, too much can be poisonous and not enough won’t help or heal. “Use the postures in that [medicinal] way and be OK with modifying. Be OK with not looking like the teachers or the book,” Cruikshank says. Instead, consider “how you can take what you need from this practice,” she adds.

“In holistic medicine there is never a point where we are perfect. In order to have optimal health, we need to constantly refine our health,” says Cruikshank.

Dr. Drape recognizes that she will always have to manage her scoliosis. Her back care regimen includes regular yoga practice, chiropractic care and massage. “My chiropractor actually suggested yoga and massage … to relieve some muscular issues necessary for optimal alignment, and to minimize pain between appointments,” she says. “Yoga and regular chiropractic care have been worth it to keep my spine happy.”