They come to her with a wide range of ailments, from life-threatening conditions such as heart disease, cancer and diabetes to distressing disorders such as insomnia, headaches and back pain.
But nearly all of the patients who seek help from Ann Thomas, a yoga therapist at MedStar-Georgetown Medical Center in Washington, D.C., have something in common. "They're under stress and in pain," says Thomas, who creates individualized programs for clients incorporating elements of the 5,000-year-old Indian practice of yoga.
For example, she might teach someone with high blood pressure or a heart condition how to do yoga breathing techniques and meditation. Someone with a digestive disorder might learn "twisting" yoga poses designed to stimulate internal organs. A frail elderly person with arthritis might do yoga postures in a supported position--up against a wall, for example--to safely move the limbs through a full range of motion.
"Yoga is not a cure-all but is best viewed as adjunctive treatment," says Thomas, who notes that physician referrals have been increasing steadily since she joined Georgetown's staff in 1996. "And the philosophy is very different from the Western mind-set that looks to eradicate disease." Instead, she says, yoga seeks to create balance within the body--and among mind, body and spirit--which then allows natural healing processes to occur.
Part of the growing trend toward the use of complementary therapies in America, yoga is gaining increased acceptance in the medical community. Many hospitals now offer yoga therapy, and the practice is the subject of numerous research studies designed to test its therapeutic effects.
"Yoga is a form of complementary medicine that physicians can relate to," says Kathryn Arnold, editor-in-chief of the Berkeley-based magazine Yoga Journal.
Since yoga gets people physically active and "doesn't involve anything suspect, like herbs or devices," she says, even skeptics tend to conclude that--at the very least--it does no harm.
Brought to the United States in the early part of the 20th century, yoga was introduced to baby boomers when swami Satchidananda taught the crowd to chant "om" at the Woodstock Festival in 1969. Today the ancient art is experiencing a renaissance, with an estimated 12 million Americans now practicing yoga, double the number just five years ago. More doctors are practicing yoga, and more patients are asking their physicians about yoga's benefits.
"The defining moment when the medical community started taking notice of yoga occurred in 1990," says Arnold. That year, The Lancet, a medical science journal, published results of California physician Dean Ornish's research indicating that lifestyle changes--including yoga-based stress management--could reverse heart disease. A few Western studies published since then have suggested that yoga might be helpful in treating a variety of ailments, including carpal tunnel syndrome, asthma, obsessive-compulsive disorder and substance abuse.
One of the difficulties in studying yoga's effects, Arnold notes, is that there are at least 27 different types of yoga practiced in the United States, ranging from relaxing, meditative forms to sweat-producing, high-intensity approaches.
And despite yoga's booming popularity, there are still many misconceptions about this essentially spiritual discipline whose ultimate goal is to help mortals unite with the divine. For example, many people don't realize that the word "yoga" is commonly used in America to refer to hatha yoga, the branch of yoga that focuses on physical postures, breathing exercises and related techniques.
Hatha yoga was developed, in part, to create good health so that people could progress along a spiritual path, says John Schumacher, director of Unity Woods Yoga Center, which has four locations in the Washington area.
"People who are unfit and in pain are not going to have the mental and physical wherewithal to take a journey of deep, sustained introspection," says Schumacher, who notes that ancient yoga teachings consider disease a major obstacle to achieving enlightenment.
Yoga's therapeutic effects can extend "to just about any condition a person presents," he says. "Maybe not broken bones, but it can help the healing process once the bone has been set." The most common ailments that bring people to his center, he says, are back problems, respiratory disorders and autoimmune conditions such as lupus and fibromyalgia.
"To achieve the benefits of yoga, you must integrate it into your daily life," says Susana Galle, founder and director of the Body/Mind Center in the District of Columbia, where she often uses yoga techniques to help psychotherapy patients who are "stuck"--unable to progress with traditional talk therapy. "It's not a matter of just going once a week to class."