An Interview with Timothy McCall, M.D.
What yogis realized thousands of years ago—and what the western medical community and researchers are just now catching on to—is that practicing Yoga can make a critical difference in one’s health and wellbeing. In this interview, Dr. Timothy McCall, a leader in the Yoga therapy field and author of Yoga as Medicine, discusses how Yoga principles can be applied holistically to evaluate, treat and research various medical conditions.
Integral Yoga Magazine (IYM): It’s been six years since the publication of your groundbreaking book, Yoga as Medicine. Have your views on Yoga therapy changed since then?
Timothy McCall (TM): I’ve always believed that as Yoga therapists, we need to evaluate people holistically but I believe that more passionately now than ever. This idea is still foreign to most health practitioners in the West. In fact, holism is a word that’s often used as a synonym for alternative medicine or natural medicine, but that’s not really the meaning. I define holism as: evaluating and treating the individual in their entire context. We live in a world dominated by western medicine and a medical model that is primarily based on a diagnosis. If someone has diabetes or arthritis or hypertension, we then shape our treatments based on that diagnosis. That’s the Western medicine model, which is reductionistic—we reduce the complexity of the person and base treatment on the diagnosis. In Yoga therapy, Ayurveda, and Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM), that’s not how we work. We work in a holistic way. Yes, we look at the medical diagnosis, which can be useful, but primarily we should look at the whole person
IYM: Can you give us an example of what that looks like?
TM: I was working with a woman a few years ago who had low back pain and she began exploring Yoga therapy. In researching her condition, she found out was that those who have low back pain may have a disc problem, so rather than doing forward bends—which she read were contraindicated because they can exacerbate sciatica—she began doing gentle cobra and other poses that were commonly recommended for those with back pain. When she came to see me, I examined her and then asked her to show me how she did her asana practice. I observed that she was overarching her spine—hyperextending her upper lumbar spine whenever she did back bends. I asked her to point to her pain and she pointed to the vertebrae where she was overextending her back. The prescription I gave her was to stop doing the back bends as she had been doing and to start doing forward bends. In other words, the medicine I prescribed was exactly what the books said was contraindicated. I then retrained her to do her back bends differently.
Someone else I saw during one of my “Yoga as Medicine” workshops was a woman who had debilitating back pain. She was a chiropractor and she had a dedicated Hatha Yoga practice. She knew alignment and anatomy well and she had done everything to get into good alignment, but she still had this debilitating pain that was interfering with her life. Through some psychological exercises I led as part of the workshop, she came across some resentment in her life and she began to work with the resentment, to write about it, and she had a major emotional release. Guess what? Her back pain went away!
IYM: Can you give us an example of how you work holistically with patients using a holistic Yoga therapy model?
TM: I like to say that with holism we treat any individual condition by improving the overall condition of the individual. I embrace tools of standard western reductionistic medicine when they make sense. There are those who need pharmaceutical drugs or surgery and they can be a godsend. While right now, those tools are grossly over-used; true holism embraces the selective use of reductionist tools. In my workshops, I teach Yoga therapists how to assess people individually using five categories. I use an acronym I devised called SNAPS: Structural, Nervous System, Ayurveda, Psychology, and Spirituality. In the structural evaluation, I’m teaching people to look at the postural habits, bony alignment, to look for patterns of muscular overwork and underwork. Where does the person hold tension? Does the person have a slumped posture? Do they hold the head forward of the spine? We are looking for patterns, structural samskaras. . .
Read the rest of this article in the Fall 2013 issue of Integral Yoga Magazine.