Scientific research into what medical conditions yoga can heal and how it does its work is blossoming. Last year the National Institutes of Health funded 30 clinical trials covering everything from yoga for back pain to cognitive function, blood pressure, irritable bowel, and cardiovascular disease risk. Others in my community are also conducting or designing clinical trials like those I'm doing for scoliosis, bunion and osteoporosis.
Many patients come to see me with more than one complaint in more than one body part, and it's not difficult to find a way to use yoga to help almost everything. As a legitimate, mainstream modality for healing, yoga is a no-brainer. It's natural and nearly harmless. It has been proven to improve flexibility, balance, strength, coordination and mood. Expensive medications and surgeries -- even those I need to prescribe on occasion -- may sometimes have dreaded effects.
Yoga can be done at home, for free, with few if any negative side effects.
While there has been a lot of useful discussion about the possibility of hurting oneself while doing yoga, and shoulder stand and plow can be quite dangerous if done incorrectly, my own research has shown the greatest risk arises from trying too hard or being overly enthusiastic. I believe careful, conservative practice is quite safe, and I've been doing it myself every day for many years.
Obviously everyone is an individual with unique problems, but some common maladies hit us all from time to time. Here are eight for which yoga has been studied in clinical trials, or that I'm currently in the process of researching myself. Yoga from head to toes, starting at the top and working down:
Migraine: It's estimated that 28 million Americans suffer from migraine every year and yoga seems to be helpful. When a patient is willing to try yoga for migraine, I suggest forward bends or inverted poses such as headstand. (You don't have to stand on your head; the modified pose with your legs on a chair is fine.)
Neck Pain: A pain in the neck most commonly arises from stress, from poor posture or from arthritis. Almost miraculously one yoga pose -- The Rainbow (Urdhva Dhanurasana) -- is effective treatment for all three of these problems.
Shoulder Pain: A yoga-based maneuver has erased pain and disability for more than 800 of my patients who have rotator cuff difficulties, saving them from expensive, painful surgery and at least three months of physical therapy for recovery. The Triangular Forearm Support (TFS) is based on the headstand but you don't have to stand on your head to do it. It activates a muscle that takes over the function of the one that has been injured. Activating the muscle for a minute and then enthusiastically, fearlessing raising the arm on the bad side trains the subscapularis muscle to take over for the injured superspinadis. The injured muscle never has to work again. I have followed patients who have been cured by this maneuver -- painless full range of motion for 10 years.
Back Pain: A lot of work has already been done showing the efficacy of yoga.
Of course, different poses are healing for different causes of back pain. For spasm, one of the most common symptoms, I suggest forward bends.
Piriformis Syndrome: "Pain in the butt" accounts for as much or more pain than herniated disk. If you have it, relieve the pressure on your sciatic nerve by stretching the piriformis muscle with poses such as a modified Pigeon, (Kapetasana) or Twisted Triangle (Parvrtta Trikonasana).
Knee Osteoarthritis: As long ago as 2005 a pilot study suggested that yoga done in the BKS Iyengar style could help those who had osteoarthritis of the knee and who had never done any kind of yoga before, people who were obese or older than 50. My favorite poses for this widespread condition are Warrior I and II.
Plantar Fasciitis: A pad of fat in your heal covers the plantar fascia, a band of tissue that starts at your heel and goes along the bottom of your foot. Damage to the plantar fascia can be a cause of chronic, hard-to-cure heel pain. Stretching the calves, surprisingly, can add space that takes pressure off the tender heel. I recommend a forward bend, Janushirshasana -- Head to Knee pose.
Bunion: Surgery is the treatment of choice for the big, painful, deformed big toe joint, but surgery isn't always easy or successful. I have been working on my own right foot for a couple of years now, trying to prevent a bunion from forming, and although some believe bunions are genetically determined or develop through faulty walking patterns, I think there is some control. For a bunion trying to form I use yoga-based exercises to strengthen the abductor halluris, a foot muscle, and find that the growth of the bunion os sometimes reversed, usually stopped and almost always slowed.
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