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By Duncan Hulin

This article first appeared in the April 2012 issue of the 'Yoga & Health' magazine.

All responsible yoga teachers start their classes by asking students if they have any injuries or medical conditions that may affect their practice.  More often than not, the teacher then goes on to explain to the students what they shouldn't do or should approach with caution in order not to make things worse. I know from conversations with countless teachers that this is a frustration. We all have experience of healing that has occurred during the years of our personal practice. Yet in a group class this is almost impossible to pass on in any meaningful way.

This is why I find more and more teachers are looking at the study of yoga as a therapy, to be taught on a one to one basis, in which they can give a student suggestions for what he or she CAN do and indeed should do to encourage the body’s natural desire to heal.

My own route in to yoga was initially as a healing practice. I was an 18 year old who could run around a football pitch but whose life was being hampered by chronic eczema and asthma that no allopathic treatment seemed to be able to cure, only very temporariliy alleviate. A friend suggested that I try yoga – and that was my route in to finding a class and starting practicing. It started on a totally practical physical level and within six months I discovered I had enough control to be able to manage my condition myself with some very simple breathing practices. This was a revelation. No longer did I have to hand the power over to a doctor. And since that time in the early 1980s, I’ve never again seen a doctor for my conditions.

But as well as the physical exercises, something started to shift in my mind. Through ‘svadyaya’, self study, I came to understand that I have a weakness. That I have to be wary of over exercising on a winter’s evening, to steer clear of cats and horses and house dust. But that, crucially, it was in my gift to manage it. And that is true to the word yoga. I achieved a unity between my mind and my body. I got to know myself.

I think most people still view and practice yoga as a preventative. But its roots as a specific healing practice run deep. Yoga, of course, means union, a joining together with the self and the universe. And while yoga developed initially as a spiritual practice and discipline for stilling the fluctuations of the mind, undoubtedly its devoted practitioners soon realised that a body suffering from pain or ill health was a clear block along this path. Asana, originally developed to stretch the body in order to make it loose and comfortable for seated meditation, soon developed into a method for healing all manner of physical problems that would have been a direct distraction to achieving a blissful calm mind.

If we look back to yoga’s most ancient roots, we find that Patanjali put together the yoga sutras  at a crucial period in time. The era, around 500 BCE, saw the flowering of thought amongst great teachers ranging from Buddha in India to Lao Tzu and Confucius in China. Thousands of years of knowledge were being pulled together into highly evolved civilizations across Asia. Patanjali famously only gives one instruction for physical postures: sthira sukham asanam – to assume a strong comfortable seat.

Jumping forward in time and we can see how great thinkers have taken this sutra, this thread, and expanded it into the great era of tantra. First came the karma sutra and then by 1350 CE comes the hatha yoga pradipika which gives far more detailed guidance on asana – therapeutic practices evolving with the development of what we now know as hatha yoga.

Other texts of the era similarly give refernces to the healing power of asana, including the Vashista and the Shiva Samhita. For our eyes, the instruction is fairly broad and sometimes a little hard to believe. The Pradipika tells us that practicing savangasana cures all diseases. We know, with the benefit of our western understanding of physiology, that it’s not quite that straightforward and that people with neck problems should approach with caution. But we know it reverses the pressures on the circulatory systems of the body, stimulates the thyroid gland and tones the nervous system, can have an affect on blood pressure and lengthens the spine. In other words, the healing potential is there.

Teachers in our more recent era from various lineages have developed this thread. Iyengar in particularly has written a number of detailed studies on the physical and mental healing potentials of individual asanas and sequences. And Krishnamacharya famously presented Pattabhi Jois with a sick person to heal as his final ‘exam’.

I set up our Yoga Therapy Post-Graduate course at the Devon School of Yoga to try and harness some of this thinking and because I simply saw a gap in the market. Those teachers who wanted to dive deeper into the ‘do’ rather than the ‘don’t’ needed the space to learn and explore these ideas.

I also strongly felt that the crisis in our health as a planet means there has never been a better time. We are seeing an epidemic of unhealthy bodies and minds, prompted by wrong diet, computers, lifestyles and who knows what else. But that’s not to say allopathic medicine isn’t doing a good job. Our NHS does brilliant work for accidents, baceterial infections, diseases that can be conquered by vaccinations and a whole host of other conditions. But the rise in illnesses such as diabetes, heart disease, asthma, backpain, depression…..well, it’s a huge list and to my thinking has to be directly linked to modern diets and stresses.

I also see a backlash happening against handing one’s power over to a doctor and abdicating that responsibility. We have realised they are clever – but not that clever. We want our bodies back.

More and more people are coming to yoga therapy as an alternative. And a good therapist will not only ‘prescribe’ specific breathing practices, asana and cleansing practices or ‘kriyas’ but who will tune in to that person and be able to give them the self-confidence, discipline (tapas) and self study (svadyaya) to examine their diet, stress levels, environment and lifestyle and make crucial changes. Modern psychological knowledge has underlined what the ancient yogis always knew – if you can help somoene’s thinking and attitude towards their condition, you can help to change it.

Of course all of this makes it quite a challenge to train people in yoga therapy! There is no set prescription – each ‘patient’ will be vastly different. Lower backpain could be through over activity and stress in one highly tense person, and through lack of movement and depression in another.

We would also never presume to diagnose, although yoga therapists routinely pick up clues to conditions and send people off to their doctors for diagnosis. But we are not trained deeply enough in anatomy and medicine to be able to do this. We can work with what we are told, what we see and what we sense, and bring a toolkit of practices to help, picking up any red flags along the way. Breath and relaxation, asana, pranayama and kriyas are our most powerful tools. But I know therapists that use bodywork, Chinese medicine techniques, chanting, recommend books. It’s a broad field. And it usually comes back to breathing – if you are seriously ill or very stiff you can still breathe, and that’s a good starting point for any healing.

My guru in India, Dr Pillai, was a yoga therapist. People would arrive from all over the country to his home in Kerala where his son has now built a brand new centre and carries on his work. All of them without exception had come to him as a last resort. And he focused very much on kriyas, breathing, and ayervedic massage with some asana. His belief was that a high percentage of ill health was caused by accumulations of toxins in the body. Our bodies want to heal, it’s just up to us to access our innate intelligence to let them do so.

My dream is to establish my own residential yoga therapy centre in the UK – and that’s part of the reason for setting up the course. I will need yoga therapists to work there! There used to be a centre at Ikwell Berry but that closed after 20 years. I think the time is right now for a new one.

I’ve seen so many good results with clients who have suffered from a range of conditions. But there are some that seem particularly well suited to yoga therapy. Asthma for example. My own healing process began when I learnt a shallow calm breath. This has been a revelation to most clients who are trying to breath deeply and gasping for air. Type 2 diabetes also responds well. Yoga therapy stimulates the internal organs to wake up and the circulation to get going, and gives people the confidence to make changes to their diet and lifestyle, and take charge of their condition.

And of course backpain. I’ve had two major accidents in my life that left me with low back pain and sciatica, and had to patiently find my way through these conditions. It is fair to say there is no quick fix, but I learnt to pick up the messages and recognize when I am tired, stressed and have lost personal balance, and to work with gentle stretches and breathing.

When we bought Dr Pillai to England in 1985 we saw countless encouraging cases with people who came for treatment at the centre we established for a month at Girton College in Cambridge. The results were documented and published here in Yoga and Health magazine. The most memorable one for me was a woman who turned up in a wheelchair suffering from rheumatoid arthritis. She ran a holiday caravan park and I went there years later and was delighted that she was up and about and working.

I hope, and trust, that there will be many more success stories to come. And it’s good to be ahead of the game. Doctors will always play a vitally important role – thank goodness they are there. But I strongly believe that yoga has a great future as a therapy. We’ve just taken a few thousand years to realise it.

For more information about the school's Post Graduate Teacher Training and Yoga Therapy Course, click here.

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