By Mariko Thompson
Even doctors need medical help once in a while, and that’s how Dr. Richard Usatine discovered yoga. The former UCLA medical school professor suffered a back injury in a car accident. After a year of failed attempts to get rid of the pain, Usatine was willing to try anything.
He went to see a friend and colleague who specialized in physical medicine. The prescription came as a surprise. Try yoga, the friend said.
Yoga worked so well that Usatine now recommends the ancient practice to patients who complain about stress-related conditions. He also researched yoga and its potential benefits for 20 health conditions in a book called “Yoga Rx.’ The book, which recommends yoga for a range of problems from asthma to back pain to irritable bowel syndrome, was published last year with yoga therapist Larry Payne.
“I’m a believer,’ says Usatine, now a professor of family and community medicine at the University of Texas Health Science Center in San Antonio. “I’m in favor of more studies on yoga, but I don’t need them to prescribe it. What’s most important is that yoga is exercise and relaxation therapy.’
Usatine is among the growing ranks of medical doctors intrigued by yoga and its combination of deep breathing, stretching and strength-building. In the early 1990s, best-selling author Dr. Dean Ornish included yoga as part of his nutrition and exercise recommendations for heart health. Today it’s not unusual for doctors in pain management, heart health and other specialties to suggest yoga and for hospitals to offer classes to their patients.
This openness to yoga as therapy in part reflects an acceptance of the mind-body connection, doctors say. Only a few randomized controlled clinical trials, the gold standard of medical research, have been conducted on yoga. But doctors who are yoga enthusiasts say it’s easy to extrapolate from studies that have documented the ill effects of chronic stress on the immune system and the benefits of exercise and relaxation.
“There is good data showing stress reduction has health benefits,’ says Julienne Bower, a UCLA Jonsson Cancer Center researcher. “That makes yoga more palatable to the medical system.’
Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles has been a proponent of therapeutic yoga for 10 years. The center’s research into heart disease prevention found yoga improved blood pressure and blood sugar control. Those findings, along with Ornish’s research, prompted the hospital to launch a yoga class for cardiac rehabilitation patients, says Dr. Noel Bairey Merz, director of the Preventive and Rehabilitative Cardiac Center. The gentle one-hour class was designed for heart patients by instructor Nirmala Heriza.
“Most of them, when they come in, are new to yoga, and a lot of them are skeptical,’ Heriza says. “They quickly find there’s nothing unusual or strange. It’s very easy to do. It’s not strenuous.’
No formal study has been done at Cedars-Sinai on whether the yoga class prevents a second heart attack, Merz says. But participants who attend the hospital’s program twice a week believe yoga keeps them healthy. Gary Bart says the class taught him how to relax. The 57-year- old film producer was diagnosed with an enlarged heart three years ago. His doctors told him to avoid stress and learn how to better cope with tension.
“Yoga brings peace and calm to my life,’ Bart says. “My friends call me ‘Mr. Mellow.’ I used to be Type-A personality from New York.’
Stress reduction is just one element of yoga that’s under the microscope. When yoga instructors talk about the effect on the body, they speak in terms of the body’s chakras, or energy centers. As a medical researcher, Bower doesn’t speak the lingo, but she does want to know about yoga’s effect on energy.
An assistant professor at the UCLA Cousins Center for Psychoneuroimmunology, Bower has been investigating the causes of fatigue in breast cancer survivors. Thirty-seven percent report persistent fatigue after treatments have finished. Based on anecdotal reports, Bower decided to conduct a pilot study on yoga and cancer fatigue.
She is now recruiting breast cancer survivors who will take yoga twice a week for three months. The women will be assessed for energy and mood. Researchers also will take blood samples to look for any changes in biological immune measures that correlate with fatigue.
“We’d like to know if it works, but also how it works,’ Bower says.
Another UCLA pilot study recently examined the effects of yoga on posture. Dr. Gail Greendale, professor of medicine and geriatrics, had a yoga class designed for elderly women with hyperkyphosis, a curvature of the spine also known as dowager’s hump. The rounding is thought to be caused by osteoporosis or as the result of aging and lack of physical activity.
“It’s very common,’ Greendale said. “We did not believe it was fait accompli, that it would be possible to straighten people out.’
The movements focused on posture and alignment. Using a rigorous method of measuring height, the researchers found that the women stood taller and straighter by the end of the study.
Yoga had two other benefits as well. The participants showed increased leg strength and better balance, both important factors in reducing falls in the elderly, said Greendale, who hopes to conduct a larger study later this year.
No matter what the outcome of the scientific inquiries, the yoga faithful will show up to their classes, the same as before. Still, Brenda Strong, co-owner of Yoga Villa in North Hollywood, feels yoga can only benefit from the surging interest by doctors and researchers. Strong’s studio offers specialized yoga classes, one designed to promote female fertility, another for people recovering from injuries or suffering from chronic conditions.
“In this day and age of technology, it’s important that this esoteric teaching have a foundation in science,’ Strong says. “There’s this beautiful bridging going on right now between Western medicine and Eastern knowledge.’
Even if more people turn to yoga to ease their ailments, pharmaceutical companies have little to fear. All of the studies in the world won’t necessarily get sedentary Americans off the couch, Greendale says.
Even among the patients who are willing to try yoga, not all will develop a lasting interest or feel that they derive any benefit. And that’s OK, Usatine says. They haven’t lost anything by trying.
“We’re not calling yoga a cure-all,’ Usatine says. “At the same time, there’s no real harm in yoga, and that’s what’s great.”