A Health Care System that Works

“The only thing that sells these days is yoga and yogurt.”  This is the newest saying in the real estate world.  While businesses struggle to stay afloat, yoga’s popularity has grown greater than ever.  In 2011, 20 million Americans practiced yoga, five times the number of people in 2001.

Why yoga?  The majority of people who do yoga go for stress reduction.  With the strain of the economy, stress levels are high: according to the American Psychology Association (APA), 75% of Americans report money as the most significant source of stress in their lives.  And 94% of Americans believe that stress can contribute to the development of major illnesses.  Is yoga a legitimate way to reduce stress…could it help treat diseases?  Could yoga be a viable alternative to modern medicine?

These questions led me to a yoga retreat  for the first time.  It was there, at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health, in the rolling hills of the Berkshires in western Massachusettes, that I met Gary Kraftow, who had answers to these questions.  Gary established the American Viniyoga Institute, which provides the only Masers program in the country for teachers of yoga therapy, using yoga to treat physical and mental illnesses, such as COPD, fibromyalgia, traumatic brain injury, and depression.

Gary is a bit of a guru in the yoga world, or in today’s yogic terms, a “yoga rockstar”.  Yet he is in no way a typical yogi, with that easy smile and open nature.  In the yoga therapy course I took with him, Gary commanded his students to get into postures with a no-nonsense authority; he even cursed.  But Gary was brilliant.  He knew all a man could know on the topics of anatomy, psychology, physiology, and, of course, yoga.

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Gary taught us breathing techniques, deemphasizing posture and flow.  He described the respiratory system as the only system in our body that we can consciously control.  Through breath, we can intervene and shift the Autonomic Nervous System, which triggers the Fight-Flight reaction that is central to mental illnesses like anxiety and depression.  Breath is the link between our conscious mind and the inner workings of our body.  By breathing, we can gain control over our mind and emotions.

J. Brown takes these ideas to another level.  A student of Mark Whitten, J. Brown, who owns a yoga studio in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, taught the second yoga course I took at Kripalu.  He believes that breath-centered yoga can be used for allpeople to deal with the stresses of modern life.  Contrary to the roughness of Gary Kraftow, “Jay”, as he asked us to call him, approached each student individually, asked us about our lives, and then opened up about his own life, describing how he changed from a power yoga instructor to a more personal, therapeutic yoga teacher.  He described how yoga, dating back to as early as 3000 BC, was originally centered on meditation; western society changed it into a form of exercise.  He also stresses an individualized practice where people do yoga at home and cultivate mindfulness.  Advanced yoga, according to Jay, isn’t doing head and shoulder stands, it’s having the mental strength to choose not to do a pose if it doesn’t feel right.

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The advancements made in western medicine have saved lives and are truly remarkable.  Gary Kraftow made it clear that yoga therapists serve as adjunct therapists to other practitioners.  But do we rely too much on medicine and doctors rather than trying to fix ourselves?  J. Brown read us an email from a student of his with lupus and crones disease, saying how she visited hospitals for years before finding something that worked for her: yoga.  In our pill popping society where a doctor’s word is never questioned, have we neglected to take our health into our own hands?

So next time you’re feeling stressed out about work, get into down dog.  If you’re feeling blue that the economy will never recover, pull out a mat and do some half spinal twists, or maybe you’re in the mood for frog.  Your mind racing at all the things you have to do?  Kick it in child’s pose for a while.  Feeling back pain?  Hold off on the Excedrin and do some cat-cow.  

Yoga: now there’s a health care system we can all follow.

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