Spirituality, Yoga, & Conscious Living

The Growing Acceptance Of Yoga Therapy In Western Medicine

The Growing Acceptance Of Yoga Therapy In Western Medicine


Until recently, the integration of yoga therapy into the various healthcare systems throughout the world has had its challenges. Over recent years, however, there have been encouraging signs that yoga therapy is not only entering the public consciousness but is being prescribed by an increasing number of western doctors.

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What is Yoga Therapy?

The modern term ‘Yoga therapy’ was first introduced by Swami Kuvalyananda in the 1920s. The simple premise was that specific yoga practices could be used to help alleviate or improve a variety of mental and physical ailments.

It differs from the yoga that many of us have become accustomed to, by firstly providing a safer, gentler form of treatment. It’s suitable for people of all ages, and for a variety of conditions. For example there are specific postures for lower back pain, gentle techniques for regulating the nervous system of those suffering from PTSD, and strengthening exercises for herniated discs.

Secondly, just as each person is unique, Yoga therapy considers the specific health needs of the patient, using a combination of yoga practices and medical science to find the best form of preventative or curative treatment. This could be to address physical conditions, or to improve the mental health of those living with depression, anxiety or stress related conditions.

While the health benefits of yoga have been known to many for years, here in the West, yoga has only recently become a component of medical care, a combination of education and scientific research being used to help bridge the gap between eastern and western philosophies.  

East vs. West

Traditional western medicine, for all its great achievements, has historically focused on treating conditions through the prescription of pharmaceuticals or surgery. A patient, for example, with stomach pains could be asked a series of questions in order to determine the nature and source of the pain, and could then be prescribed a series of drugs to help treat the problem.

Ultimately, there’s nothing unique that distinguishes the patient from anyone else suffering from the same medical complaint. Eastern medicine, by contrast, looks at the patient as an individual, attempting to discover as many sources for the pain as possible by understanding the physiological circumstances surrounding it.

Does it get worse with cold? Is the pain relieved with heat? What are the dietary habits of the patient etc.? The important distinction is that all this information is used to make a diagnosis that’s unique to the individual. These differences have prompted many to debate which approach is best. But both are equally important, and both have their place in modern medicine.

The Integration of Yoga Therapy

In 1955, the first communist leader of China, Chairman Mao Zedong, proposed that eastern medicine should be combined with western techniques, recognizing that both had their various virtues. Over time, university courses were amended to include the teachings from both cultures, traditional medicinal herbs were synthesized using western techniques, and the prevalence of western culture throughout China, for example, helped to ease the path for new, western ideas.

With the various results of this dual approach published in scientific journals, the integration of western practices had both credibility and provided tangible results.

Going the other way, things were a little more difficult. Firstly, eastern cultures haven’t historically been as integrated into western society as those of west into east, making the acceptance of any new ideas more challenging. The second was a general lack of scientific research on the effectiveness of eastern medicine that was either translated, or accepted as credible data.

Historically, the overwhelming majority of the scientific research into yoga took place in India. Most of this research was difficult or impossible to get a hold of in the west, which is part of the reason why most Western physicians had never heard of yoga therapy. However it’s in this area that has seen significant development, and there has been a wealth of scientific research over recent years that have helped, in part, to shape the opinions and techniques used by western doctors.

Changing Attitudes

Prior to the discovery of antibiotics, the biggest threat to human health was infectious diseases. Today, however, many of the diseases we face can be attributed to poor lifestyle habits. Being connected 24/7, demands from work, childcare, mortgages, pensions, smoking, alcohol and everything in between is having a devastating effect on our physical and mental health.

From depression to anxiety, gastrointestinal problems, cardiovascular health, asthma, and insomnia; the list is almost endless. Faced with these challenges, and often combined with budget cuts, challenges in recruitment and caring for an ageing population, the effectiveness of yoga has become an attractive proposition for western doctors, both economically and for improving the health and well-being of patients.

As a non-invasive, cost-effective, easy to use solution, yoga therapy is now viewed as a clinically viable treatment that can help address these important issues.

As a result:

  • Health services that include the NHS in the UK and the NIH in the US already recommend yoga for various health conditions.
  • In Sweden, Yoga has been part of the health services since 2010, and more than 150 hospitals, primary care and specialist clinics use yoga programs to treat a wide range of diagnoses.
  • A large study at Harvard that followed 17,000 people over a year found that those who practiced disciplines like yoga decreased healthcare costs by as much as $2434 per person per annum.
  • Boston Medical Center has been successful in getting health insurance to cover the cost of yoga for those suffering with chronic conditions.
  • In 2015, the Canadian Agency for Drugs ad Technologies in Health conducted a review advocating the use of yoga to help treat PTSD, anxiety and addiction.

With epidemic levels of stress, anxiety and depression placing an ever-increasing strain on health services, western doctors and health care practitioners are increasingly using yoga as an effective form of treatment. But importantly, it’s also giving patients the knowledge and tools to promote their own self-care, a step towards encouraging and empowering people to promote their own health and well-being. This post was written by The Minded Institute, a world leader in the development and implementation of yoga therapy and mindfulness programs for those with mental health and chronic physical health problems.

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Heather Mason

Heather Mason

Heather Mason is the founder of The Minded Institute, a world leader in the development and implementation of yoga therapy and mindfulness programs for those with mental health and chronic physical health problems.
Heather Mason

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