Dr. Yoga: Yoga for Health

HerizaNirmala Heriza, director of the Integral Yoga Center in Los Angeles, continuously works to spread the word on the transformational power inherent in the teachings of Integral Yoga. Her new book, Dr. Yoga: A Complete Program for Discovering the Head-to-Toe Health Benefits of Yoga, does exactly this. In this interview with Laura Sevika Douglass, guest editor of Integral Yoga Magazine, Nirmala shares her vision for Yoga therapy and the role she hopes to play in sharing the teachings of Integral Yoga with a wider audience.

Sevika Douglass:  What led you to write Dr. Yoga?

Nirmala Heriza: I was actually invited by Penguin Books to write this book. When I was first approached with this invitation I said to the publisher, “My Guru has already written “the quintessential” text on Hatha Yoga, Integral Yoga Hatha.” I never would have dreamed of writing a book on Hatha Yoga because his book tells it all. Penguin Books thought it would be valuable to have a book with a little more medical information that was geared toward the mainstream.

Dr. Yoga is a book for people who want to find health alternatives and to keep themselves healthy. I have designed programs they can use at home for the heart, the kidneys, the reproductive system, and other vital organs. It is a therapeutic guide that will also be helpful to Yoga therapists who are interested in case studies and working with different populations. I hope it will be of value to physicians and physical therapists, as well as the layperson. Ultimately, I hope Dr. Yoga will introduce people to Sri Gurudev and his teachings.

SD: Would you tell us about your program at a prominent medical center in Los Angeles?

NH: I was invited to write the book based on my private Yoga therapy practice, my role as a consulting Yoga Cardiac therapist  for Dr. Dean Ornish and  my work at  a high-profile Los Angeles-based medical center. I have developed a program for heart patients based on the teachings of Sri Gurudev and Integral Yoga that I use in my private  therapy practice and with the medical entities I’ve mentioned. The addition of a Yoga therapist at the medical center, is truly groundbreaking. It is the only medical center that has a Yoga program on their premises. I was also encouraged to write the book because of my role on the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports.

SD: What is your role on the President’s Council?

NH: The President’s Council was formed in the 1950s as an incentive for Americans to be active and healthy. It includes anything to get you up and active—running, playing baseball, golf. In 2001, the director of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services declared that their program would be preventively-oriented. They had read about my work at Cedars-Sinai in Time magazine (May 2001) and they thought Yoga would be appropriate. 

SD:  What does the position on the President’s Council entail?

NH:  At the behest of the Executive Director of the  President’s Council, I created the United Council on Yoga. The Yoga Council is really still in its genesis. It has gone through trial and error and testing to see what works. Sri Gurudev gave his blessings for it and to have his teachings be a foundational part of the Council. The Integral Yoga Teaching Academy, and Dr. Dean Ornish are all part of the Yoga Council. Cedars-Sinai Medical Center is an associated medical entity.

SD: Do you see a shift in government in its openness toward embracing spirituality as a basis for physical and mental health?

NH: They still don’t call it “spirituality.” We emphasize the scientific aspect. I feel Integral Yoga does have a scientific basis and I explain it scientifically.

SD: Do you feel that helps Yoga reach a larger audience?

NH: It does. This program is really developed for the everyday citizen. Program participants who do so many hours of physical activity a week, get an award from the President. Because of the relationship I have with so many celebrities, we are looking into doing some media and press about the benefits of Yoga and how the President is endorsing it.

SD: Did your work with celebrities evolve out of your work with the medical center in Los Angeles?

NH: As I have mentioned, I have a private practice as well. I worked with an acupuncturist for about eight years and he was involved with celebrity clientele, and he started referring patients to me. Jane Fonda solicited me to do an Integral Yoga class at the legendary Jane Fonda Workout Program. I became her private therapist and from there it was a chain reaction of celebrities. Of course, some were introduced to me through Sri Gurudev.

SD: What influences has Sri Swami Satchidananda (Sri Gurudev) had on your work?

NH: He is the foundation of it. I was a sannyasi (Integral Yoga monk) for nine years. Integral Yoga is the basis of what I do at Cedars-Sinai. The program I developed for heart patients is Integral Yoga-based. Obviously I have to modify the poses for the heart patients—supported poses, modified versions of the shoulder stand, and things like that. My postgraduate studies in Chinese medicine, acupressure and myofascial (muscle) therapy; and five years of working as a clinical orthopedic assistant have contributed to my understanding of the clinical needs of patients with specific  physical conditions. 

I try to stay as close to the way that Gurudev taught as possible. My personal experience and understanding is that the Guru works through the teachings and the more you change it and make it something else, “your own thing,” you lose it and dilute it.

SD: Do you include chanting in your classes?

NH: I do “Om Shanthi” at the end. My patients are very mainstream. The greater proportion of my students are very skeptical. They have been prescribed Yoga by their doctor, so they come. Invariably after the first class they are convinced. It is a great experience to see these people become convinced of the benefits of Yoga.

SD: Do you feel it is the teaching of Integral Yoga and Sri Gurudev that allows you to work with this broad range of people? From heart patients, to celebrities, to informing the President of the benefits of Yoga?  

NH: Sri Gurudev was the master of adaptability and service. I have been with our Guru since I was twenty-years-old—most of my adult life. He has informed everything about my life. He changed my life completely. Gurudev was so diverse and I am sure that influence has helped me. I would say that being with him has enabled me to be in many different worlds quite comfortably. I think there is a transformation that happens when you do Yoga, and I find myself able to be very comfortable among a broad range of people.

SD: What do you think makes Integral Yoga so adaptable to different people, and to different health issues?

NH: I think the lack of dogma. In both my  private practice and my work with patients at the medical center—that range from  high profile  professionals in the film industry to all  walks of life—I recommend Gurudev’s To Know Your Self , “Guided Relaxation and Affirmations for Inner Peace” CD, and Integral Yoga Hatha. They can see right away that there is nothing ungrounded about this approach. It has a very scientific core.

SD:  Can you clarify what you mean by “lack of dogma?”

ND:  It isn’t like a religion. There is a flexibility. In my medical practice eighty-five percent of the work is on the science of Hatha Yoga. It is a formula for health. There isn’t any dogma. You don’t have to join anything. It is a very easy, adaptive system.

There are a lot of misconceptions about Yoga. Yoga has been taken into an athletic direction, “power yoga,” “pumping you up”—that kind of terminology. One of the main inspirations for the book Dr. Yoga was to make a distinction that traditional Yoga is an easeful practice. It isn’t really an exercise at all.

SD: Do you find yourself coming up against that more, now that Yoga has gained in popularity?

NH: A lot. The competitive, athletic approach to Yoga is scaring people away from the tradition. People are getting hurt in some of these aggressive Yoga classes. It is confusing to new students. Yoga has become very celebrity- and athlete-driven. I have been given an opportunity to speak up about that. I consider it to be a blessing to have the endorsement of a high profile medical center and its physicians, and the President’s Council. I can really speak up about traditional Yoga, Integral Yoga, and the message of Sri Gurudev. I am trying to take advantage of my incredible leverage to share the deeper messages of Yoga with everyone.

Nirmala Heriza’s book Dr. Yoga (with Dr. Sandra McLanahan as medical consultant and a forward by Dr. Dean Ornish) is widely available. For additional information visit: dr-yoga.com

Reprinted from Integral Yoga Magazine, Winter 2005

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