Will Yoga and Medicine Unite?

By Veronica Zador, B.Sc., E-RYT 500

Jan. 31, 2014

In her welcoming statement at the Medical Yoga Symposium, meeting director Linda Lang emphasized that, “…we are here for much more than the art and science of yoga….we have come to see and hear some of [the] most prominent visionaries and pioneers of therapeutic yoga and integrative medicine.” 

She wasn’t kidding. 

Yoga educators and medical professionals assembled from January 11-12, 2014 in Washington, D.C. to absorb ideas and research surrounding a simple premise: yoga and medicine will ultimately unite.  

The sold out crowd of 460 attendees consisted of yoga teachers, nurse practitioners and physicians, and leaders of two major yoga organizations: Yoga Alliance (YA) President and CEO Richard Karpel and Executive Director of the International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT) John Kepner.

A key message from the meeting was observed by participant Gail Parker, PhD, E-RYT 200, RYT 500,  “The visionaries and pioneers of therapeutic yoga -- while coming from various healing professions -- each applied the science of yoga in unique ways stressing that yoga heals."

Evidence, integration and sustainability

Evidence, integration and sustainability emerged as leading themes of the meeting. Presenters highlighted characteristics of these themes reflected in their own empirical and clinical works as well as visions and directions for reimbursement by the health care insurance industry.


Dean Ornish, MD, founder and president of the Preventive Medicine Research Institute and Clinical Professor of Medicine at University of California, San Francisco, referred to growing scientific outcomes supporting of the application of yoga in clinical environments. For Ornish, “Part of the value of science is that we find we have more choices.” These choices include the ability to provide yoga at a growing number of healing institutions, and the option for medical students to learn about the application of yoga in school. Presenters were able to show how yoga is beginning to be accepted as part of pre- and post-surgical protocols as well as a key component in rehabilitative programs promoting lifestyle changes.

When asked for his overall thoughts regarding yoga and medicine, Kepner noted that the body of evidence for yoga’s power to heal is quite small. He believes that the personal experience of physicians will have an enormous impact, encouraging more physicians to recommend yoga, regardless of the body of evidence.

Meanwhile, a number of prominent experts are conducting evidence-based studies, several of whom presented their work at the symposium.

Richard Miller, PhD, E-RYT 500 shared a study completed by the Brooke Army Medical Center on “Compassion Fatigue”, in which healthcare workers used the Integrative Restoration (iRest®) technique to ease stress, insomnia, burnout and “loss of joy.” 


Uniting yoga and medicine requires an interesting blend of evidence through research and the experiential, out-of-pocket conviction of patients. Both must work in tandem to help promote the integration of yoga into mainstream healing modalities. Speaking to the integrative aspects of the field, Ornish noted that the allopathic world is being steadily presented with evidence that supports the union of yoga and medicine. 

There are a variety of approaches for integrating yoga into health care settings, according to Kepner. He held that, “While I know some leading hospitals are starting to hold yoga therapy classes; my hope is that hospitals will also be open to collaboration with select yoga studios for therapy, lifestyle and wellness programs. There is something special about the healing power of yoga studios and the sangha that can develop there.”


According to Ornish, the Affordable Care Act helps provide more opportunity for yoga in medicine because it offers preventive aspects that help offset or even defer much more costly surgical procedures. He went on to add that medical education itself, so often described as “widget healing”, i.e.; healing by fixing the parts, has the opportunity to invert staid (and expensive) concepts of medicine through integrative processes. 

Sustainability of yoga practices within the health care system requires responsible oversight, as Kepner notes, “…over-reliance on the conventional evidence base and over-reliance on conventional third party financing of yoga therapy can be a trap and limit the healing potential of yoga and the healing power of relationships, just like they have with so many other healing disciplines.”

With continued research to demonstrate the effects of yoga on health care costs, Miller believes that insurance companies will recognize the cost benefits of yoga and yoga therapy and offer reimbursement for yoga interventions. He states, “It's only a matter of time and the patience, persistence, and perseverance of yoga practitioners and organizations in bringing this to fruition.” 

Amrita (Sandra) McLanahan, MD was received with resounding applause as she envisioned, “there will be a yoga teacher at the bedside of every patient in every hospital”. McLanahan’s statement is one that will be taken to heart and is bound to provide serious and scholarly efforts as we observe, manage and contribute to the next iteration of yoga as an acknowledged form of health maintenance, care and recovery.

According to Lang, the meeting encouraged conversations, motivated opportunities and delivered evidence that, “…there is a growing number of highly experienced, professional therapeutic yoga teachers poised to stand beside medical professionals in clinical, community and research settings as full partners.”

Hat’s off

Kepner added that, “This was a remarkable conference, a landmark event for the field, one of several complementary ‘coming of age’ events that are happening in the U.S. and around the world in these times, such as IAYT’s own Symposium on Yoga Therapy and Research (SYTAR).”

Karpel remarked that he, "...was amazed at how many people attended the event. It shows what one person can do when they believe in something and have the passion and the organizational chops to make it happen. Hat's off to Linda!"

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Veronica Zador, B.Sc., E-RYT 500, is passionate promoter of yoga’s application in medicine. She is president emeritus of the International Association of Yoga Therapists, vice-president emeritus of Yoga Alliance and the Standards Committee of Yoga Alliance. She is a member of the Values task force of the National Education Dialogue to Advance Integrated Health Care (NED), serves on the editorial board of the Academic Consortium for Complementary and Alternative Health Care (ACCAHC), and coordinated the first three IAYT Symposiums on Yoga Therapy and Research (SYTAR). As president and school director of Yoga Developments, RYS 200/500, Veronica helped initiate and launch the Wayne State University School of Medicine Co-Curricular Program in Yoga Therapy. 

Copyright 2014 by Yoga Alliance