In this interview, Dr. Mala 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.”

Integral Yoga Magazine: 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.

IYM: 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?

MC: 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.

IYM: 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?

MC: The course I teach at the University of Virginia is called “Theory and Practice of Medical and Therapeutic Yoga.” 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.

IYM: Do you see a need for medical clinicians, physicians, and therapists who would offer certifications and trainings in Yoga?

MC: 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.

Also, very few organizations offer Yoga and medical Yoga certifications through existing academic programs. The International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT) is doing a stellar job of outlining standards and competencies for Therapeutic Yoga for Yoga teachers, and I’m very impressed with what they have put together. Unfortunately though, it’s very difficult for healthcare and medical professionals to access this 800 to 1,000 hour training track without putting their careers at risk. I believe we can create a certification option for medical professionals that includes credit for existing academic experience and knowledge.

IYM: How would you like to see Medical Yoga integrated within the framework of higher education?

MC: My dream is to format a Medical Yoga Teacher Training Program for health professionals that will be integrated into existing academic programs and serve the needs of medical professionals worldwide. I have many ideas for both the mental health and the medical areas, and I’m very eager to see where we can take these concepts and integrate Yoga, mindfulness, and meditation deeper into healing options.

My further thinking is that Medical Yoga should be housed in a particular department, such as the nursing department, but it must be interdisciplinary. For example, the religious studies department could offer the coursework in the philosophical underpinnings of Yoga. The anatomy and physiology coursework could be housed in the nursing department. The neuropsychology, positive psychology, and mindfulness perspectives could be housed in the psychology department. If Medical Yoga is truly going to be launched, it must be at the intersection of neuroscience, psychology, nursing, and religious studies. That is what will fully prepare a clinician to integrate Yoga.

I believe that Medical Yoga necessitates certification. If a student can get a degree and a certification at the same time, that is helpful for the entire health profession. One of the glaring problems related to certification in medical or Therapeutic Yoga in the medical profession (which includes doctors, nurses, and exercise physiologists) is that the members have no simple way to go through an 800-hour Yoga Therapy training certification program. It’s not an easy option for most. We need to look at competency-based learning models so that physicians will not have to repeat anatomy and physiology when they study Medical Yoga. We need to build on what they have already learned. We need to teach them the material with which they are not familiar, such as the meditational, philosophical, and Yoga components. I’ve spoken to many health care professionals who would love to be certified in Medical Yoga, but currently no options exist for them to become certified. That is a problem that higher education institutions are well poised to address.

We have to think about how we can best serve the public, how we can provide access to trainings that will advance our understanding of living healthy and productive lives, and how we can provide patients with the tools they need for healing.

IYM: You’ve had an extremely prolific career in Medical Yoga. Can you talk about what started you on your path and how you knew this was a field you wanted to dedicate yourself to?

MC: I’ve always been intrigued with Yoga, but in particular I was interested in how Yoga heals. When I started my Yoga practice in 1971, I was fascinated by the healing power of Yoga. I became aware of how Yoga was able to help me and others feel better and more relaxed.

I became involved with Yoga at an early age. That has been a real blessing as it set a foundation that has become the background of my academic and professional career. Before I went to graduate school, I had already gone to India, met Sri Gurudev Swami Satchidananda, and been practicing Yoga for many years. That foundation merges with my professional life; there is no difference between my practice and my professional life. Staying present through mindfulness has allowed me to fulfill my life’s path—my dharma—both personally and professionally.

I was in Florida teaching a group of 800-hour Yoga Therapy students, and several of them commented that they felt insecure and unprepared to interface with the medical field. Of course they are at the beginning stages of their training, but one of the things that is central for those new to Yoga and Yoga Therapy is that they develop a clear vision of what they want to bring to the world. This clarity and opening to their intuition is the means by which they can meet their goals of bringing Yoga into the medical field.

IYM: How might those new to Yoga find their path and what they are meant to bring to the world?

MC: I think it’s very important to learn the art of stillness. I believe that it’s central that we begin listening to ourselves, quieting down enough that we can begin to understand what we want to bring to the world, listening internally for direction and guidance for what our path is supposed to be. I don’t believe there’s any need for jealousy or envy of other people’s success. There is so much physical, psychological, and emotional pain and suffering in the world that there’s room for everyone in Yoga who wants to bring healing energy to our planet.  The need is just so great. There’s room for all Yoga teachers and others to contribute and the more we contribute, the better off our world is.

IYM: How did you know you had found your path?

MC: I’m an action-oriented person. When I see a need, my response is to take action. I love taking a concept from its initial formulation to completion, to see what can manifest to address a need or a concern. I enjoy the idea of brainstorming, formatting goals and objectives, and bringing ideas into manifestation. There is such a need in the world for what Yoga has to offer, and it feels right for me to focus my attention and energy on how to bring Yoga into the academic and medical fields in the best, most comprehensive way possible.

Gurudev was always 100 percent supportive of any idea that I had related to Medical Yoga: workshops, conferences, developing complementary and alternative health taskforces, and so on. I was so appreciative that he never said, “That’s not a good idea.” Whenever I shared my ideas with him, he would always get this excited, sweet sparkle in his eyes and tell me, “Go for it, yes, do it.” I’m truly grateful that he gave me that support and enthusiasm. He really nurtured and supported my entrepreneurial spirit.

About M. Mala Cunningham:

Rev. M. Mala Cunningham, Ph.D. is an Integral Yoga minister and has lectured extensively both nationally and internationally. She is a widely recognized authority in health and business psychology, sleep enhancement, stress management, and Medical Yoga. She founded and directs the renowned training program, Cardiac Medical Yoga. Dr. Cunningham is also a counseling psychologist in private practice in Charlottesville, Virginia. She is an assistant professor at the University of Virginia School of Nursing where she teaches a course in Medical Yoga. She is the author of two innovative books: Medical Yoga: A Gentle and Modified Practice of Yoga for Assistance in Healing and Cardiac Yoga and has produced two popular CDs, entitled Healing Journey and Before and After Surgery: Guided Imagery & Relaxation for Surgery Patients.