Why should yoga be part of the international healthcare system?
Prior to the discovery of antibiotics and advances in modern medicine, the biggest threat to human health was infectious diseases. But as medical technology and pharmacology continue to progress rapidly, a new danger has emerged: diseases derived from lifestyle habits.
Regardless of region, ethnicity or social class, chronic health conditions (otherwise known as non-communicable diseases) face an unprecedented rise. The abundance of processed food packed with sugar, salt and preservatives, the work pressures eating into our relaxation time, an absence of sleep and elevated stress are all too common, and erode both our physical health and general sense of wellbeing. In many countries, the healthcare infrastructure set up to cure traditional ailments has failed to keep pace with the needs of the modern populace.
As the World Health Organisation and United Nations seek a solution to the crisis, yoga has come to the fore. Yoga is inexpensive, is correlated with positive lifestyle habits, improves wellbeing, and can be done by all ages and stages of health. Those who practice yoga regularly are less likely to exhibit chronic mental and physical health problems, making it highly attractive as a means to promote global wellbeing, while reducing healthcare costs and affording individuals greater autonomy over their health.What are some of the most notable the benefits of yoga?
- Decreases stress, anxiety, and depression
- Has potential to improve cardiovascular health
- Reduces resting glucose (important for people with diabetes)
- Reduces inflammation (relevant to numerous conditions)
- Associated with better overall physical fitness
- Reduces lower back pain
- Improves sleep
- Associated with improved eating habits and lifestyle
- Improves balance and cognition in the elderly
- Stimulates concentration and calm in the young
- Enhances a sense of connectedness and social support (consistently found to improve healing rates and promote overall health)
Recognising yoga’s potential to address mental global health crises and encourage a world-view of peace, sustainability and responsibility, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi proposed an international day of yoga to the General Assembly of the United Nations. 175 UN member states supported his resolution in record time, with Secretary General Ban Ki-moon publically praising its promotion of “development and peace”. Ban Ki-Moon also cited yoga’s role in helping the world research its 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, for health and wellbeing around the world.
The International Influence of Yoga
Scholars believe that the seeds of yoga emerged over 5000 years ago with the Harappan civilization of the Indus Valley. From yoga’s very beginnings it was shared with other civilizations and transport across Asian nations adapting to various ways of life. Yoga is an ever-changing spiritual discipline that continually evolves in order to meet the cultural needs and belief systems of both the country and era it finds itself within. It is believed that Alexander the Great took the wisdom of yoga through the Middle East and beyond disseminating its message far and wide. Since the late 19th century the international interest in yoga has been growing, gaining greater and greater momentum. In our age of instant and global communication and with the need for healthy and relaxing practices ever growing; the practice of yoga is being spread more widely than ever, and as this process reaches a critical mass the nations of the world are stopping to take notice and inquire how yoga can help improve the health and well-being of their societies.
The UK’s National Health Service (NHS) has made positive steps to towards yoga’s inclusion in healthcare provide its workers with access to yoga classes, in a bid to stave off rising absences from sickness and the stress of long hours. Reports indicate that 73% of NHS staff work unpaid overtime, while 9 in 10 still go to work when they are ill because they feel obligated to. As a result of the intense workload, mental health and musculoskeletal problems are currently the two leading causes of absence among NHS staff. The annual cost of this absenteeism and sickness is estimated at £2.4bn, not to mention untold damage to the quality of care.
While there has not yet been a move to standardise the prescription of yoga for patients, both doctors and activists are taking up the cause. One GP’s open letter to the NHS garnered tens of thousands of shares on social media, while a June 2016 Early Day Motion (EDM) in Parliament demonstrated support for International Yoga Day, and recommended the use of yoga in the NHS and school system. Written and supported by Heather Mason, the motion has currently been signed by 29 MPs – already a significant increase on a similar motion the previous year – and prompted letters to 10% of all MPs by their constituents. This was soon followed by a major meeting in the House of Commons, which was attended by key ministers and thought leaders, and received written support from Queen Elizabeth II and the Indian Ministry of Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha, and Homeopathy (AYUSH).
Having begun practicing yoga in 1993, Göran Boll developed MediYoga, a therapeutic form of yoga involving gentle movements and breathing exercises based on the Kundalini tradition.
His breakthrough arrived in 1998 when he partnered with Stockholm’s Karolinska Institute, one of the world’s most prestigious medical universities and home to the Nobel Assembly, which awards the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine. With their weight behind him and studies underway, MediYoga began to gain traction across the country. Boll went on to start a two-year, part-time training program for healthcare workers in 2004, which graduated 1,700 instructors in the next three years.
MediYoga Instructor training programs for health service personnel are now available in 20 locations all over Scandinavia. Boll undertook the country’s first ever scientific yoga research project in 1998, and has participated in more than 90% of all Swedish research on yoga since. Yoga has been part of Sweden’s health services since 2010, when the first hospital opted to offer yoga treatments to its patients. Today more than 150 hospitals, primary care and specialist clinics use his series of MediYoga programs to treat a wide range of diagnoses.
Studies by the institute have shown that MediYoga had the following positive outcomes
- Significantly reduced levels of stress and anxiety
- Lowered blood pressure and heart rate in subjects with paroxysmal atrial fibrillation
- Lowered blood pressure in subjects with myocardial infarction
- Improved reported sleep patterns and back pain
The home of yoga chose to integrate the practice into national government in 1995 with the formation of the Department of Indian Systems of Medicine and Homeopathy. In 2003 it was renamed the Department of Ayurveda, Yoga and Naturopathy, Unani, Siddha and Homoeopathy (AYUSH), with a renewed focus on improving educational standards and bolstering research institutions. In 2014 the department of AYUSH became a fully-fledged Ministry, and now conducts research into the benefits of yoga and other traditional practices. Its aim is to lay out the best strategy for integrating them into public life, in order to maintain a healthy and happy populace.
It was Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi who proposed the idea of an International Yoga Day in a 2014 speech to the UN, where it was quickly drafted as a resolution. The proposal passed with a record 177 nations co-sponsoring the text, and was adopted on the 21st of June, otherwise known as the summer solstice and longest day of the year. The Ministry of AYUSH also wrote to support the June 2016 meeting on yoga in the UK House of Commons, as did India’s High Commissioner to the UK and Prime Minister Modi’s personal guru, Dr, Nagendra.
The United States of America
Yoga has gained significant popularity with people across America. A 2012 US Government/CDC survey reported that an estimated 30% of the population used some form of complementary medicine, and that 9.5% specifically practised yoga as complimentary healthcare. A January 2016 study conducted by the Yoga Journal found that 36m people in total practiced yoga, up by an astonishing 16m from a previous survey in 2012. With the healthcare system still in flux after recent reforms, yoga could have a transformative effect on people’s health and their wallets. A large study at Harvard that followed 17,000 people over a year found that practise of disciples like yoga decreased healthcare costs by as much as $2434 per person per annum.
Medicare already covers a yogic-based program developed by Dr. Dean Ornish for those with or at risk of cardiovascular disease. Following landmark research that revealed the Ornish yoga program could actually reverse heart disease and reduce the need for surgery, Medicare began covering this groundbreaking program. Additionally, Boston Medical Center, which assists underserved populations, has been successful in getting health insurance to cover the cost of yoga for those with chronic conditions.
Following a host of trials supporting yoga’s positive role in wellbeing, medical institutions and research centers are increasingly looking at yoga as a means to support existing treatments for a wide range of ailments. In 2013 the NIH Cancer Institute began funding a $4.5m study at MD hospital in Texas (one of the USA’s premiere cancer hospitals), under the direction of Dr. Lorenzo Cohen, into the efficacy of yoga as a component of breast cancer treatment. Research has already concluded that yoga has a significant positive effect, on improving quality of life, reducing stress, and reducing fatigue in patients receiving treatment. According to one assistant professor at the Harvard Medical School, it is now hard to find a US cancer center that doesn’t offer yoga classes.
Research from conducted Dr. Nerukar in 2013 found that between 2006-2009, of the 3% of doctors in the USA who counselled patients on stress management, many of them suggested yoga. It is believed that these figures are currently much higher, indicating a growing trend for physicians in the USA and beyond to recommend yoga to patients. With editorials written by doctors in leading medical journals like JAMA and BMJ, requesting further information regarding yoga’s benefits; it is clear that the medical community is increasing intrigued with what yoga can bring to their patients.
Yoga has been the source of much fevered discussion in Canada, after a picture circulated of popular Prime Minister Justin Trudeau achieving the Mayurasana, or peacock pose, in a full suit. Indeed the Canadian First Lady is a former yoga instructor, and a similar picture exists of Trudeau’s late father and former Prime Minister Pierre. It’s a sign of just how accepting Canada has been of complementary medicine with an estimated 9% of the adult population practicing yoga in 2015, up from 5.5% in 2005.
The previous conservative government under Stephen Harper included yoga as part of a program to help victims of domestic violence, and the current government has introduced yoga to the national Medicare health service. Further, the Canadian Network for Mood and Anxiety Treatments (CANMAT) recently revised its 2009 guidelines to include the use of yoga as a first or second-line treatment for major depressive disorder in adults, based on an expansive review of existing research. And in 2015, the Canadian Agency for Drugs ad Technologies in Health conducted a similar review advocating the use of yoga to help treat PTSD, anxiety and addiction.
Australia has taken a particularly forward thinking approach to yoga. Private health insurance companies widely cover yoga and other ‘alternative medicines’, fully reimbursing registered and accredited teachers. Moreover, many offer a special ‘yoga discount’ subject to proof that you have regularly attended yoga classes.
For those relying on universal healthcare or without insurance cover, the Living Well program allows you to mitigate some of the cost of treatment for yoga and other lifestyle altering courses, if your doctor feels the treatment is necessary or will have a significant impact on your health. As a result yoga is practiced by a reported 12% of the adult population, and is particularly prominent in rural areas, where access to primary health care is often difficult.
If you’re interested in learning more about implementing yoga in healthcare, we recommend The Principles and Practice of Yoga in Health Care, which expertly combines science and practice.