|Door by Brad Gibson|
One of the best ways to find the answer is to get a private yoga lesson. As it turns out, yoga goes about prescribing home practice in a very different manner than doctors prescribe medications or other treatments. In western medicine, we always try to diagnose the condition first, and then give drugs or other treatments to address that problem. If we can’t diagnose the condition, then all we can do is give treatments to relieve the symptoms.
In yoga therapy, the western medical diagnosis certainly can influence the treatment, but it’s only one of the many factors we consider. Two women, for example, may have the same diagnosis of Stage 1 breast cancer, and would likely get very similar recommendations from their doctors about how to treat it. But the appropriate yoga approach (used as a complement to medical therapy) might vary a lot depending on how fit they are, how much yoga they’ve done (and what styles), how much time they have to dedicate to their practice, how spiritually oriented they are, and so on.
Good yoga teachers always consider the broader context. When I evaluate a student, after interviewing them, I often start out by looking at them structurally. How is their posture? Are their shoulders rounded? Is the head forward of the spine? Are they stiff or flexible? Are there certain joints that are giving them problems, and, if so, how well are the bones on either side of those joints aligned?
After structure, I tend to move onto the nervous system (and breath, since the two are intimately linked). Are they suffering from excessive stress? Agitated? Sleeping poorly? Can’t get out of bed? What’s the balance of the sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) vs. the parasympathetic (rest and digest)? Is their breathing smooth and deep or is it shallow and choppy? Is it primarily in the upper chest or does the abdomen move out and in with each breath?
In a similar manner, I evaluate each student’s balance as seen through the lens of Ayurveda, India's indigenous holistic medical system, as well as their psychological functioning and such spiritual matters as their level of joy, compassion and fulfillment. In my Yoga as Medicine workshops, we divide our student assessments into five categories, using the acronym SNAPS: Structural, Nervous system, Ayurveda, Psychological, and Spiritual. Each student winds up with a different constellation of findings, which we then try to address with the yoga routines we recommend.
Although I developed the SNAPS protocol to use on people seeking yoga therapy, the same process can help determine a good routine for someone who is simply interested in using their yoga as preventive maintenance, to build strength and flexibility, or to work off some of life’s inevitable stressors.
Say a student looking for a home practice has a slumping posture, a restless mind, shallow upper chest breathing, and an increase in the Ayurvedic dosha of vata or air (see my post on vata, Autumn, Healthy Aging and the Ayurvedic Dosha Vata). If I considered only structure and breathing in developing her routine, I might think that focusing on backbends would be helpful. But too many backbends, or more intense ones, like full Wheel pose (Urdhva Dhanurasana), could increase her mental agitation and push her vata further out of whack.
Perhaps I would end up settling on some gentle, restorative backbends done over folded blankets to open her shoulders and chest, while simultaneously allowing her to rest physically and mentally. I might also recommend daily alternate nostril breathing to balance her nervous system, and quiet her mind to the point that seated meditation would be more effective. Often, we reach the final recommendations based on trial and error, for example, putting the student in a potentially helpful pose and seeing what it looks like and how it feels. Maybe we change the blankets a bit and look again or try a different pose entirely.
What I am describing is what a good yoga teacher or therapist would do in a private lesson. Not everyone can afford a private lesson (price varies based on the experience of the teacher, the length of the session and the geographical area), though some teachers have a sliding scale, or take on a few cases as karma yoga for those in need. But once you get home, yoga is free, of course, so a lesson could end being cheaper than a series of classes. (If you don’t know a suitable yoga teacher or therapist in your area, check out the database of the International Association of Yoga Therapists at iayt.org.)
Although science has yet to test the idea, it is my belief that a well-designed practice tailored just for you will likely be better than a standardized protocol used in a study or a sequence printed in a magazine. All those approaches, good as they may be, are determined without ever laying eyes on the student—and that’s simply not the best yoga has to offer.
To me, it’s a testament to the power of yoga that so many people are helped by these one-size-fits-all yoga fixes. However, to most of us working in the field, there is little doubt that a tailored approach can be safer, more efficient, and much more effective. As a scientist, I’m all for testing these notions, but yoga research hasn't progressed to the point where such studies are being done (or funded). In the meantime, my advice is, whenever possible, to tailor your practice now, and ask questions later.
Even if you don’t have a medical condition, working one on one with a teacher can help you create the home practice that suits your particular body, needs, and goals. And if such a tailored approach moves you more efficiently in the direction you’d like to go than an off-the-shelf routine, you’ll likely notice the benefits and be more motivated to stick with it. And that, of course, is the key to success in yoga.