An Interview with Rev. M. Mala Cunningham, Ph.D., by Laura Sevika Douglass, Ph.D.
In this interview, Dr. Cunningham discusses the growing field of Medical Yoga and the new, groundbreaking course she’s developed for the University of Virginia: “Foundations of Medical Yoga for Health Professionals.”
Laura Douglass: Integral Yoga has a rich history in bringing Yoga into the medical and therapeutic arena.
Mala Cunningham: Yes, Integral Yoga has played an important part in bringing Yoga into the medical and mental health fields and IY teachers and therapists are part of a historic lineage. Sri Swami Sivananda (the Guru of Sri Swami Satchidananda) was a medical doctor who brought Yoga to the forefront as a preventative and curative force. Swami Satchidananda (Sri Gurudev) ran medical Yoga camps across India before bringing his teachings about Yoga and wellness to the West. Beginning in the West in the early 1970s, Sri Gurudev was invited to speak at some of the leading medical schools and hospitals, as well as to medical associations and conferences. In 1976 he began one of the first Yoga therapy centers in America. Then, in 1984 he inaugurated the Yoga and nature cure hospital in South India which was founded by his uncle Mr. Krishnaswamy Gounder that now has 60 beds.
Integral Yoga’s reputation worldwide has been clearly established, many of our teachers having pioneered service in developing programs for medical implementation. Among them are Dean Ornish’s Program for Reversing Heart Disease through Yoga; Michael Lerner’s Commonweal Cancer Help; Sonia Sumar’s Yoga for the Special Child; Jnani Chapman’s Yoga in Cancer and Chronic illness, Dr. Sandra Amrita McLanahan’s work in Therapeutic Yoga, as well as many specialized programs in Cardiac Yoga, Yoga for Arthritis, Yoga and Psychotherapy, and so on. The Integral Yoga tradition prepares the way for us to contribute to research and address pressing needs through these specialized applications.
Laura Douglass: In addition to being a leader in the field of Medical Yoga, you have been actively engaged in academia. Can you discuss some of the ways that higher education and academia are beginning to embrace Yoga studies?
Mala Cunningham: One of things I am noticing is the amazing way that mindfulness, meditation, and Yoga practices are seeping into and merging into K-12 education, higher education, and academia. For example, the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, a research center in Madison, Wisconsin, just received a 1.5 million dollar grant in part to create a new faculty position that is dedicated to doing research on well-being, socio-emotional skills, and the impact of mindfulness on learning. What is happening is phenomenal. The whole field of Yoga and mindfulness is definitely on the rise and that is reflected in how higher education and medical facilities are investing their resources.
Laura Douglass: Higher education is beginning to integrate comprehensive courses in Yoga studies with their religious studies, psychology, and nursing programs. Can you tell us about the course you are teaching at the University of Virginia?
Mala Cunningham: The three-credit course I teach at the University of Virginia is called “Foundations of Medical Yoga for Health Professionals.” The course is located in the nursing department and is designed to prepare students to obtain a foundational understanding of theories of wellness, become acquainted with the growing body of research on Medical Yoga, and to learn the basic principles of Yoga for a clinical care setting. Specifically, the course enables students to: obtain a foundational understanding of Medical Yoga in terms of history and theory, and research as it relates to health and wellness; gain understanding of the growing body of research on Yoga used in medical settings; experience Medical Yoga practices in relation to self-care; and learn basic Therapeutic Yoga principles and techniques that could be applied in clinical care settings.
Students are introduced to the historical perspectives of Yoga as well as the foundational ideas of Yoga philosophy, Yoga chikitsa, and Ayurvedic medicine. In addition to this academic work, students are required to engage in self-care throughout the semester, including the practice of Yoga four times a week. We want students to leave with an experience of what it is like to engage in self-care and to articulate what they are discovering about themselves as they participate in the process of Yoga.
Our hope is that we may be able to move this initiative further and eventually offer a Medical Yoga certification for health professionals through the department. There appears to be an interest in the medical community in obtaining certification in Yoga and mindfulness practices, principles, and concepts. We haven’t established what the certification is going to look like, but it would be coursework designed for medical professionals.
Laura Douglass: Do you see a need for medical clinicians, physicians, and therapists who would offer certifications and trainings in Yoga?
Mala Cunningham: More and more individuals who are working at medical centers and clinics are taking a look at what Medical Yoga has to offer patients. People working in hospitals and clinics simply do not have the time to take a month off for a Yoga teacher training and then take another 500 to 800 hour training in Medical Yoga. They need solid education and training that fits within the expectations of their medical careers. Allopathic medicine is opening the doors, welcoming meditation and treatment plans based in Yoga and mindfulness.
At this point, no one has formatted a training for medical professionals that would allow them to be certified in Medical or Therapeutic Yoga in such a way that their career paths are not jeopardized because they’ve had to take a lot of time off to get certified in Therapeutic Yoga. We hope to format a Medical Yoga certification for health professionals so that they have an opportunity to be certified in this area without derailing their careers. The training would include integrating their existing academic training in the medical arena with additional training in Yoga principles, philosophy, concepts, theory, and practice. . .
Read the rest of this article in the Summer 2015 issue of Integral Yoga Magazine.