BY CHRISTINE SCHRUM
At the Hatha Yoga studio run by mother and daughter team Christina and Sveta Ports in Fairfield, students stretch their way to wellness. Photograph by Mark Paul Petrick © 2004
When she was just 25 years old, Martha Patt was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS), a chronic inflammatory disease that attacks the central nervous systems of an estimated 400,000 Americans, causing impaired vision, numbness, muscular tightness and pain, slurred speech, and in severe instances, paralysis and death.
“It was devastating,” she recalls, “My whole life started falling apart.”
Not knowing what else to do, Martha turned to the ancient East Indian practice of Hatha Yoga, whose gentle stretches and breathing exercises eased her discomfort.
“I took my first yoga class with my sister at a small studio apartment in Berkeley, California,” she remembers. “My mind was racing. The yoga provided immediate relief to the chronic pain in my legs. I found virasana, or the hero pose, very soothing and calming to the mind. [Yoga] would help me to wake up and go to work and do what I needed to do to survive.”
Martha’s not the only one who’s turned her life and health around through therapeutic yoga. Today, an estimated 18 million Americans incorporate some form of yoga into their health and fitness regime. Moreover, doctors and researchers nationwide are becoming increasingly aware of the immense potential of “yoga therapy,” the increasingly popular treatment that has shown promising results in addressing the symptoms of a host of chronic complaints, including backache, asthma, depression, and cancer.
“The term ‘yoga therapy’ is a relatively new thing. Yoga itself is therapy,” says yoga teacher and therapist Shweta Ports, who, with her mother Christina, runs a Hatha Yoga studio in Fairfield, teaching in the style of Svaroopa Yoga. “The physical benefits of yoga therapy are only a by-product of yoga.”
The Ports claim that although yoga postures have been used for thousands of years in India as preparation for meditation, the West has only recently adapted the practice into a therapeutic modality. “Over the years, more and more people have discovered that the practice of yoga is highly beneficial for their health, and are turning to yoga therapy as an alternative treatment,” says Shweta.
Yoga therapy is difficult to define as a discipline, largely due to the breadth and depth of the tradition of yoga itself. There are a number of different schools of yoga, from Iyengar to Bikram, and many of them have their own particular “brand” of therapy, with one-on-one or group sessions involving yoga poses (asanas), breathing (pranayama), and/or meditation techniques.
“I’ve seen yoga therapy help everything from high blood pressure to chronic fatigue to depression to fibromyalgia,” says Tel Franklin, M.D., a nationally recognized speaker on integrative medicine, and the author of Expect a Miracle. Dr. Franklin regularly prescribes yoga therapy to patients, and he sees powerful results. “Yoga really helps to quiet the mind, to stretch the muscles, and to call forth the body’s innate healing systems. It empowers people to take control of their own health.”
Even the esteemed National Institutes of Health (NIH) is catching on. The institution’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine recently funded promising clinical trials to study the health benefits of yoga in treating a wide range of maladies, including back aches, insomnia, and chronic emphysema.
“Many types of yoga therapy work directly in relieving muscle tension deep in the body, especially Svaroopa Yoga,” says Shweta. “Svaroopa works not just in the muscles on the surface layers of the body, but it relieves tension deep in the pelvis and through the layers of the muscles on the inner side of the spine, between the spine and the internal organs. When there is less muscle tension, there is more space for the internal organs to function, and more blood and nutrients can flow more easily to all parts of the body.”
In their studio, thePortses offer “a one-on-one yoga therapy whereby the therapist acts as a catalyst to jumpstart the healing process within the client’s body,” says Shweta. “Emphasis is placed on the base of the spine, as it is the main key to unlocking tension in the whole body.
According to Dr. Franklin, yoga’s capacity to unlock tension and reduce stress is, in fact, largely responsible for its ability to effectively address disease.
“Stress levels are incredible these days,” he says, “In this post 9/11 society—whether it’s stress from work, relationships, or just turning on the news—our stress has become like an independent misfactor in causing illness. Yoga really helps to manage stress.”
Ports agrees. “Tension in the body is one of the root causes for disease, and therefore yoga therapy can help alleviate a number of physical discomforts—for example, problems related to poor circulation, digestion, elimination, low energy, depression, as well as back problems.”
Dr. Franklin stresses that while yoga should not be used in place of prescribed medications, it can work wonders alongside them. Or, better yet, as a preventive measure.
“Yoga should be done on a daily basis in order to manage stress, so it doesn’t get to that critical point of manifesting symptoms of disease. If we can practice on a daily basis, then when a crisis comes into our lives, we’re more able to just deal with it. We’re talking about being proactive instead of reactive,” he says.
Both Dr. Franklin and Martha Patt agree that the holistic approach of yoga helps people take their health into their own hands. “It’s very empowering and encouraging,” says Martha, who, 20 years into her own practice, has also been teaching yoga to people with MS and other disabilities for a decade.
“People come from miles away on public transit to come to the class,” she says. “They really enjoy it, and they leave with big smiles.” Martha has received several Betaseron Champion of Courage grants for her work.
Dr. Franklin has seen many positive changes in his patients through yoga therapy as well. He recalls, “I had a woman who came in and saw me about three months ago, and she literally handed me her bottle of anti-depressants, saying ‘I don’t need these anymore,’ after taking a six-month course in yoga classes. Through yoga she really felt a calmness and centeredness and peace that she’d never felt before in her life.”
That’s not to say yoga is a cure-all that will necessarily eradicate disease altogether, especially in more severe instances—Martha admits that MS still causes her to suffer pain every day.
“The pain is always there, especially if the stress is there,” she says. However, Martha’s twice-daily practice of yoga makes her discomfort infinitely more manageable. “When I lie in shivasana [the corpse pose], if I work with my breath very well, it’s like the pain just sinks into the floor. It just sinks away. It’s like clearing the mind and bringing yourself inside yourself.”
Dr. Franklin sees yoga therapy’s increasing popularity as a signpost for the positive shift in the healthcare system, as it moves from disease management to self-empowering, preventive medicine.
“Health is about lifestyle, how we deal with everyday situations,” he says. “There is nothing more powerful for healing than our own immune systems, and yoga really helps us optimize healing from within.”