In a city brimming with luxury fitness studios offering classes at $30 a pop and sweaty, fast-paced, power yoga classes, something unusual is happening at Mount Sinai St. Luke’s Hospital.
For more than two years, I traveled to the hospital’s Institute for Advanced Medicine (IAM) in Morningside Heights, Manhattan every Wednesday afternoon. A small group of patients would join me for sixty minutes. Together, we moved in and out of various yoga poses and engaged in breathing exercises, meditation, and guided relaxation.
This probably sounds similar to what happens many times every day at the hundreds of yoga studios scattered around the city – and in some ways, it is.
In other ways, it’s quite different: the class is offered to all patients free of charge. It’s also tailored to a population dealing with a range of health issues and disabilities.
The mission of the IAM is to serve the underserved. “The Institute provides comprehensive health care to a diverse group of individuals, including men and women of color, the formerly incarcerated, the homeless, the working, the very young and very old,” says Vani Gandhi, MD, an infectious diseases physician and HIV specialist, as well as the Director of Integrative Medicine at the IAM. Many of her patients are living with HIV and/or other chronic medical conditions.
“We serve a population who otherwise would not be able to access yoga classes in the community,” says Dr. Gandhi. Inspired by her conviction that yoga would have a positive impact on her patients’ lives, she set out to find a way to bring yoga to them.
I first met Dr. Gandhi in January 2014, after responding to an ad she had placed on YogaActivist.org for yoga teachers. Soon after, I began to teach a class at the clinic once a week.
Under Dr. Gandhi’s guidance, that single weekly class has now developed into a full yoga program for both the patients and staff of the clinic, with multiple volunteer teachers and different styles of yoga. All classes, mats, props, and towel service are provided completely free of charge.
As she expected, the impact on Dr. Gandhi’s patients has been remarkable. “I have seen various changes in the health of the patients participating in the yoga class, including improved muscle strength, improved confidence, decreased blood pressure in patients with hypertension, improved mood, and overall sense of wellbeing,” she says. “I’ve seen patients walking taller and straighter and looking happier right after they complete a class.”
The patients can see these changes for themselves. “The immediate physical effects after taking the yoga class were very positive for me,” says Jay.* “My body felt relaxed and lighter. I tend to suffer from lower back pain and after each practice, I always felt better.”
Jay also notices the influence of yoga on his state of mind. “There always seemed a sense of clarity and empowerment after each class. I felt that I could deal with stressful situations a little more at ease,” he says.
Like Jay, Patrick experiences yoga’s effects on the body as well as the mind. “There is no doubt in my mind that I feel both mentally and physically better after every class that I attend,” he says.
Marcus practiced yoga regularly for many years, but had fallen away from it for nearly a decade before coming to his first class at the IAM. “I’ll be 70 at year's end,” he says. “Before taking classes [at the Institute], a friend noticed I was developing a hunch in my back, which affected my posture and caused other age-related issues.”
He began attending yoga classes at the clinic in May 2014, and has continued to come consistently. The effects have been significant. “I definitely feel stronger and even taller, and feel that my agility is returning,” he says. “It's as if my body 'remembers' what it felt like when I was younger.”
Thomas appreciates the sense of agency yoga has given him in supporting his own health. “Yoga has proven to be one of the most beneficial means of proactive participation in immune support, as well as general wellness and wellbeing,” he says.
Many yoga classes offered at studios and gyms throughout the city are athletic, vigorous, and assume some prior knowledge of yoga. They are geared towards the fit and healthy clientele that they serve.
Even when yoga teachers encourage kindness towards oneself and acceptance of the body’s boundaries, students in these classes often feel compelled to “keep up.” There is sometimes an undercurrent of competition. This kind of class can be intimidating to students who are older, disabled, or dealing with an illness or medical condition.
The patients notice a different atmosphere in the classes provided at the clinic. “There was always a feeling of oneness in the room,” says Jay. “There was never a moment that I felt any pressure or competitiveness.”
Patrick notices this as well, and is encouraged by the atmosphere of inclusivity. “I was never a particularly athletic type, the ‘last-kid-chosen-for-the-team’ type, so I have always been somewhat hesitant to engage with any new athletic activity,” he says.
Even so, he mustered up the courage to take his very first yoga class at the clinic…and kept coming back, week after week. “In very tangible ways, my life is changed because of it.”
Patrick, like many yoga students, understands now that the effects of the practice don’t start and end in the yoga studio. Rather, they grow, expand, and eventually spill over into daily life, impacting work, play, family life, friendships, and one’s overall perspective and mindset.
“[The class] has been certainly the catalyst that opened a new positive approach to my everyday life,” says Jay. “I continue to practice yoga, and I’ve been able to pursue other spiritual and mindfulness practices as well. The practice of yoga and all the wonderful things I've learned convince me that this is so necessary in living healthily and happily.”
Working with the patients at IAM has been rewarding, fulfilling and stimulating for me on so many levels. The issues that the patients brought into the room, from illnesses to physical disabilities to economic hardships to emotional trauma, continually challenged me to develop a practice that met each patient where he or she was. I explored new ways of expressing myself that would create an atmosphere of comfort and safety for each and every person in the room.
At first, I was taken aback by the outpouring of gratitude that I experienced after each and every class. The patients genuinely appreciated the yoga program and were not afraid to show it! That gratitude was reciprocal – I am so grateful to them for helping me to grow as a teacher and inspiring me to be a part of the movement to make yoga accessible to places and people it hasn’t yet reached.
Even though the program has already grown considerably, Dr. Gandhi continually envisions more opportunities for her patients to practice yoga. “I hope to offer yoga classes at various times and various other clinics at our center in the future,” she says.
Dr. Gandhi’s tireless work to expand the offerings of the yoga program and Mount Sinai’s continued support of the classes are encouraging signs that more and more patients will have the chance to experience the life-changing effects of a yoga practice.
*All patients’ names have been changed out of respect for their privacy.