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Stretch toward healing

As a way to treat illness, yoga's role in U.S. medicine is growing.

August 09, 2004|Jeannine Stein | Times Staff Writer

Meeting Eric Small, shaking his hand and looking into his eyes, one would never know he was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis about 50 years ago. Photographs in his yoga studio show him in complex poses, the kind that take years of study to perfect.

Small's almost lifelong dedication to yoga has given him the stamina, strength and confidence, he says, to live medication-free. Now in his early 70s, he has symptoms of relapsing-remitting MS, including loss of vision, fatigue and occasional numbness. But he's also able to sustain a daily two-hour practice in addition to teaching -- most notably others with MS, even some who must use wheelchairs.

This yoga niche, called therapeutic yoga, is not limited to people with MS. Such therapy incorporates poses (asanas), breathing (pranayama) and meditation techniques to improve quality of life and manage symptoms of various diseases, chronic conditions and illnesses -- including asthma, back pain, fibromyalgia, depression and cancer.

Although conventional exercise -- walking, bicycling -- is recommended for many people with health problems, yoga goes a step further, say its proponents. The mind-body connection that yoga can create serves to heal the mind and spirit as well as the body, they say.

In India, the roots of therapeutic yoga go back thousands of years, but the mainstream medical community in the U.S. has been slow to embrace it, considering the practice little more than good exercise. Now researchers have studied its effects on carpal tunnel syndrome, asthma and heart disease, and health professionals have incorporated it into medical programs that offer other alternative therapies, such as acupuncture and massage therapy.

A study in 1998 showed that yoga, more than conventional treatment, helped reduce pain and improve hand strength for people with carpal tunnel syndrome. That same year, yoga was shown to be effective in improving the quality of life for people with asthma.

A study in the June issue of the journal Neurology showed that MS patients who practiced yoga for six months had significantly less fatigue than those who didn't practice it. Current studies are evaluating yoga's effectiveness in treating symptoms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, depression and breast cancer.

Most yoga therapists and some physicians believe yoga's strengths come from its ability to decrease stress, battle fatigue and increase flexibility and muscle strength, as well as improve one's quality of life. But some believers claim that therapeutic yoga, sometimes done in conjunction with other alternative therapies, can actually cure diseases and conditions.

Although Small needs no convincing of therapeutic yoga's positive effects, he stops short of seeing it as more. "It is a really good management tool for something that medical science doesn't know that much about," he says. "I don't ever proclaim that this is a cure." He urges students to confer with their doctors before deciding to stop medications.

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Overcoming fatigue

One of yoga's greatest benefits is an increase in stamina, often needed by patients recovering from surgery or dealing with chronic conditions.

Pam Bridger had a successful recovery after quadruple bypass surgery two years ago but a year later found herself with persistent fatigue. The 55-year-old medical transcriptionist from Richmond, Texas, walked regularly but showed no signs of making physical progress. Her doctor recommended the For Your Whole Life integrated medicine program at Memorial Hermann Hospital in Houston, which has a cardiac rehab program that includes aerobics, nutrition counseling and yoga.

"I think the one thing you learn," she says, "is body awareness. They showed us how to slow down and take the time to pay attention to the moves you're making -- what you feel when you do something. That was quite new for me." Bridger says yoga has made it easier to do things that most people take for granted, such as getting up from the floor. She also feels stronger and better equipped to deal with stress. "At this point," she adds, "I have more hope about my condition."

Soraya Vaghefi, a nurse who oversees the yoga program, says its philosophy "is to provide stress management, and that includes yoga and meditation. If they find ways to manage their stress better, they're not going to experience as many relapses."

Students are told yoga is an excellent stretching exercise, but "it also quiets your mind," says Vaghefi, "and patients learn to know themselves. When they come to us, they've had the quick fix with the surgery, but there are a lot of unanswered questions, such as, 'Why am I here? Why did this happen to me?' Through yoga, hopefully, people will experience a sense of harmony and calmness."

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