Integral Yoga-based Therapy Programs

Swami Ramananda, one of the founding members of the Yoga Alliance and president of the Integral Yoga Institute of New York (IYINY), was invited to speak as part of the lead panel during the 2008 Symposium on Yoga Therapy and Research (SYTAR) sponsored by the International Association of Yoga Therapists. He shares insights from the symposium, his views on what the Integral Yoga teachings uniquely offer the field and what programs and trainings Integral Yogis are offering in the name of Yoga therapy.

I feel what Sri Gurudev’s (Swami Satchidananda) teachings point to is that every practice of Yoga is therapeutic in the sense that it heals us from the illusion of a separate self. The ultimate form of suffering or, in Sri Gurudev’s words, dis-ease, is the sense that we are incomplete and that we are in need of something to feel whole and to feel naturally peaceful in this world.

We can approach therapy from the point of view of diagnosing the muscular imbalance creating pain or tension in the body; but from the other perspective, Yoga can be done just by chanting or breathing—and healing the root cause of the tension. Both methods are useful. Obviously, if the problem someone has is acute physical pain, then approaching it through the body is a way of becoming more compassionate toward oneself. But, ultimately, so many of our injuries or tension ultimately come from pain in our hearts.

I was able to give the following example at SYTAR. We have a teacher named Prema Pleva (who, as many know, is Swami Asokananda’s mother); she’s a senior citizen and she teaches an HIV Yoga class at the IYI. She may not even practice Hatha Yoga regularly, but she’s been teaching the same class, at the same time of day, for 20 years. Her students love her because she loves them. She gives more or less the same script each week.

Prema doesn’t have all the kinds of variations and technical expertise others may have, but she loves her students and she sees the Light in them and touches their hearts in the way she teaches. She has a great following. In fact, she was designated New York 1 (a cable TV station) Person of the Month by her students. Groups of people have to sign a petition in order to nominate someone. To me, that is a beautiful example of how Yoga therapy is such a broad topic and that what Sri Gurudev was able to do was to show us how to get to the very root cause of our problems.

While within Integral Yoga and Sri Gurudev’s sangha there are people who have brought his teachings into medical settings—like Dean Ornish, Jnani Chapman, Michael Lerner, to name just a few—each of his students carries that essential message that should be a part of any session: a deep love and respect for each person and knowledge of each one’s innate wholeness.

Rachel Naomi Remen, MD speaks beautifully about the difference between fixing someone and healing someone. When you fix someone, you are in a position of power and they are broken. When you heal someone, you heal with the broken parts of yourself and you are in a position of equality. It’s a whole different relationship. You heal with the wholeness of who you are, the wounded person; it is a cliché, but for a good reason.

Sri Gurudev gave a classic teaching to us when he was invited to speak at the University of Virginia Medical Center’s medical hour after Grand Rounds with Dean Ornish, who was a visiting lecturer. During his talk, Gurudev walked up to the white board and he asked, “Do you want to know the difference between illness and wellness?” All the doctors and other medical staff in attendance leaned forward in their seats as they watched him write two words: I/llness, We/llness. He stood aside and pointed to the words and underlined “I” vs. “We.” That’s the difference. And that’s the majesty and incredible nature of his teachings. He could make the most profound truth totally digestible, simple and humorous. As he always explained, as long as we think only of “I, me and mine,” we are in distress.

What we see is that people who really get that message from Gurudev can reach out to populations in need by developing technical skills and sometimes just by having compassion for those in need. It’s so inspiring to see people like Dean Ornish reach so broadly into the western medical world with all the scientific studies that create a profound impact, as well as with his many books. And, it’s so beautiful to see people like Prema Pleva.

We also have people like Sonia Sivakami Sumar, a longtime student of Sri Gurudev, leading trainings all over the world, teaching Yoga to parents and their children who have special needs. She recently trained 22 people in back-to-back programs at the New York IYI. People who don’t know anything about Yoga take her trainings, and she’s not teaching them in depth assessment skills, she’s teaching them to give loving attention and to hold the special child in loving regard, with total respect and without seeing them as broken.

We’re excited here at the New York IYI, that recently an ex-marine took our basic Integral Yoga Hatha Teacher Training (TT) and now has begun Yoga for Vets NYC at the IYI, and she’s had a great response. There has been great interest from a whole spectrum of veterans, from Vietnam vets to those just back from Iraq. She has no specialized training but she’s devoted to serving that population. People respond to someone who understands who they are, holds them with respect and introduces them to things they can do. That’s the beauty of Yoga—anyone can do Yoga.

Judi Hamsa Spagnola, similar to Prema, took her TT in the late 1980s, and she was inspired to create a more gentle form of Yoga for those with limited movement. By exploring that field she found herself teaching people with conditions like Multiple Sclerosis (MS). She found, through her own experimentation and trading information with other teachers, ways to adapt the Integral Yoga class for MS patients, and she’s been conducting classes for many years. She’s become one of the main trainers for Integral Yoga Gentle Hatha TT.

Hamsa has trained most of those involved with a new program we’ve developed. For the past three years, the New York University Hospital for Joint Diseases’ MS Care Center has held patient wellness day retreats at the New York IYI. These incredibly brave people come, some in wheelchairs or with walkers, to have a day of lectures, art therapy, meditation and Yoga.

The positive response to the Yoga classes, led by IYI teacher Thea Tripti Pratt inspired us to look for ways to offer more Yoga classes specifically for people with MS. The Balm Foundation, which funds our Therapeutic Yoga Program, generously gave us a grant so that this fall we will be able to provide Yoga classes, at a very low cost, to MS patients. This is all part of Integral Yoga’s continuing commitment to providing customized Yoga classes for people coping with a huge array of medical challenges, from chronic to life-threatening.

Dr. Rich Panico and his wife Reverend Manjula Spears, are also doing beautiful service. Rich had a background in family practice and then specialized in psychiatry. He first took TT in the mid-90s. Manjula has been an Integral Yoga teacher for 18 years, founded and ran the Athens Yoga Center in Georgia for many years and is also an IY minister. About seven years ago, Rich was approached by Athens Regional Medical Center—the largest hospital in that area—to start a wellness center as a part of the hospital operation. Rich has been working ever since as the director of the Mind Body Institute, which uses Yoga, meditation, acupuncture, herbs, massage, nutrition, cognitive restructuring, biofeedback and so on.

Rev. Manjula was responsible for developing the Yoga program at the Institute, and she specializes in Yoga for cancer patients and also teaches therapeutic classes that focus on structural mobility. They also offer Yoga classes for back care, for diabetes and cardiac patients, prenatal Yoga, chair Yoga and gentle Yoga. The Mind Body Institute sees some 800-1,000 patients a month and is one of the leading complimentary medical clinics in the country. It serves another 200-300 patients through outreach programs. Rich is also teaching at Florida State University’s College of Medicine where he trains medical students, family practice residents and faculty in Yoga-based mind-body therapies.

There are numerous examples of those who took Integral Yoga Stress Management Teacher Training (SMTT), who are teaching in all kinds of situations in the corporate world and having great success in reframing both the Yoga practices and teachings in a healing way that is accessible to a corporate population. At the root of a good deal of the stress in our modern world is the feeling that who we are is not enough—we’re not making enough money, we’re not getting ahead fast enough, we’re not fulfilling the expectations of our employers or our families and so on.

What we try and convey through SMTT is that the way we choose to use our time, how we nourish our well-being tends to be governed by societal norms rather than positive lifestyle choices. The way we can empower people to handle stress better is to give them tools to help them make better choices. It’s impractical to think we will avoid stress or we can move to a cave somewhere. What is possible is to respond mindfully to stress and to have a healthy respect for one’s peace of mind as an important element of a happy life. Our conditioning of “its never enough” can be replaced by learning to be here now, to recognize that we are safe and have enough in the now.

At the Integral Yoga Academy, we are in the planning stages of a comprehensive Yoga therapy program that make use of the skills that our Yoga teachers (such as Nischala Devi, Mala Cunningham, Jnani Chapman, Bhagavan Pisman, Rich Panico and others) have developed in different fields and that combines those skills and that experience into a program that has both a practical and technical level that’s rooted in the essence of Integral Yoga—the knowledge of the true Self and the ability to touch people or awaken that knowledge in them. It will be a program that is available to those who have completed basic TT and are grounded in the classical Yoga philosophy and teachings of Raja Yoga. It will take place over a period of time so that they would be able to be trained in a number of different areas. We’re excited about the potential and possibility to provide a forum for Yoga teachers to receive a comprehensive Yoga therapy training. Later, they can specialize if they so chose and avail themselves of the number of specialized programs we already provide.

One of the newest of these programs, of which we are very proud, is the Integral Yoga Accessible Teacher Training program that certified its first graduates—people who have disabilities themselves—in June 2008. I’d like to conclude with an update about this program from its founder, Reverend Jivana Heyman of the Integral Yoga Institute of San Francisco:

“The pilot program was a great success. Seven of the original ten students were certified as Integral Yoga teachers and, in the last few months, most have started teaching their own classes. The idea behind the program was to make the basic Integral Yoga Teacher Training available to people with disabilities who might not otherwise participate. The slower pace of the program (eight months) and supportive sangha (spiritual community) made the most difference in giving the trainees the time and space that they needed. Many of the trainees had cognitive issues—such as memory loss—from brain injuries or Multiple Sclerosis. I was concerned about their ability to learn the script, but their incredible dedication helped them overcome these obstacles.

“I so admire their commitment and how they practiced over and over until they learned the class. Observing the final qualifying classes was a very moving experience for me. The trainees seemed transformed by their new roles as teachers and they were all powerful instruments for Sri Gurudev’s teachings. Many of the graduates said that they spend most of their lives on the receiving end of care, which can be depressing. Teaching Yoga is giving them a way to serve others and bringing new meaning to their lives.

“Piedmont Yoga Studio, which hosted our program, has already invited the graduates to start a community Yoga class, which they are now take turns teaching. One of the graduates, Radha Alexander, is starting a Yoga class in American Sign Language at the San Francisco Integral Yoga Institute. As far as we can tell, she is only the second deaf person in the country teaching Yoga. Also, the California Yoga Teachers Association, which gave us a grant to run the program, has offered us a grant to run the program again. So, I’m currently planning our next Accessible Teacher Training, which will also take place at Piedmont Yoga Studio, in Oakland, California, starting on October 14, 2008.”

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