Our Health System, Yoga Therapy & Body Wisdom

There is nothing I can see which is physically wrong. Your spine looks like a normal spine of its age. So what was it you said you were experiencing? Severe back pain you mentioned?”

This may be your husband, wife, mother or father, may be your child. They could be your best friend or a colleague at work. It could even be an experience that you have gone through. Many people suffer various health conditions but not all sufferers are able to seek support and answers through our health system. GP, “While acute care, emergency medicine, surgery and drugs, are much needed, often life saving, there is an increasing number of people living with chronic illness for whom modern medicine has few suitable remedies. There’s a growing need for preventative health care and lifestyle medicine that support wellbeing no matter what your diagnosis’.

At the beginning of the year I knew it was time to embark on a post graduate course that had sparked my curiosity for some time; Yoga Therapy. With any additional study, like me, you may think long and hard about how it will help improve the lives of those around you.
I didn’t quite understand the role that Yoga Therapy plays in a country’s health system but I felt compelled to interview one lady who has worked and researched this field of specialty for over 15 years, Chandrika Gibson.

In light of the last 4 months with the spread of COVID-19, it won’t surprise you when I say that meeting my tutors online, has been the natural alternative that none of us had prepared for. However, like all post graduate courses, students are eager to be there, arrive on time with pens and textbooks at the ready, even if we have children dancing around us in the background.

I have never met Chandika and normally meeting someone online has its limitations. But Chandrika’s warmth and passion for her work can even be felt through a mere screen of pixels.
Chandrika offers her qualified yoga teachers and students a rare opportunity to study Yoga Therapy coupled with her extensive years of professional experience rooted in research. With the completion of a Masters Degree and a currently immersed in a PhD, Chandrika has focused her work on identifying the needs of, and providing support for, people who have experienced a cancer diagnosis.

We all start from small beginnings. We all have our own stories to tell. I couldn’t help but be curious about what Chandrika’s “small beginnings” looked like. 

I also realised, many people around me had not heard of Yoga Therapy as a synonymous, mindful, movement modality which is gaining international recognition.

So I felt compelled to ask Chandrika to share her past and her knowledge around this fascinating therapy.  Chandrika kindly agreed for me to interview her.

Image by Gerd Altmann

How did you “Find” yoga and what differences did it make to your life?
What inspired you to become a teacher?

My brother and I discovered a small Indian yoga book on our parents’ bookshelf. We tried all the poses, which I found fairly easy as I was only about 7 or 8 and loved gymnastics. We experimented with drinking lemon water and scraping our tongues. It was probably a brief phase but that was the beginning for me. I had some experiences with progressive muscle relaxation and Feldenkrais methods through drama classes at school and university, then first attended a class in a hall in Far North Qld when I was about 20. I was hooked! I read widely, attended satsangs, kirtans, retreats, and developed a dedicated meditation practice. During my naturopathic studies I chose yoga electives, and was a regular student at the local ashram in Fremantle. After practicing as a naturopath for a few years, I felt that sitting and talking about health and wellbeing was good, but I wanted to ‘bring the body into therapy’, both to be less sedentary myself, and also because I kept thinking, ‘oh the best thing for this person’s hormones would be regular yoga’ and was even at that stage recommending yoga to most of my clients. When I was 28 I embarked on an 18 month teacher training course, and began teaching at 30.

You are so passionate about Yoga that you explore it on an academic level.
Can you tell us more about this?

I suppose I always approached it as a study on every level – I am a compulsive reader, so practice was always backed up with reading of both spiritual teachings, and more academic style texts. I have a vast book collection which is now part of my studio’s lending library. I don’t think you have to do it that way, and I believe the practice is where the real learning happens, but it’s my style to soak up knowledge and I found I could remember the Sanskrit terms quite well, it felt comforting and comfortable for me.

Formal study started with the Yoga electives at Perth Academy of Natural Therapies. When I had my first child I took my little premmie boy to baby yoga which opened up more of the social justice, attachment parenting and women’s health intersections, prompting me to consider studying a Masters in Women’s Health – I had proposed to research breastfeeding rates in developing countries but the practicalities of needing to travel weren’t right at that time, and instead I did my Yoga Teacher training. After my second child, I was finally ready for more formal study and fortunately by then I could do a Masters of Wellness online through RMIT University. Again I chose yoga subjects including two detailed Yoga Therapy units under the guidance of Simon Borg-Olivier. My research project looked at the effect of yoga on breast cancer survivors’ psychological and physiological stress responses. During this time, around 2010 I started practicing Ashtanga yoga in the Mysore style. This was a big shift into the physicality of the practice, which integrated well with the more subtle, mindful approach I had developed. I guess you could say I like to throw myself into things with both feet and all of my heart and mind!

From the time I became a yoga teacher in 2005, I had been offered opportunities to teach people with cancer, and that led to teaching the staff at the Cancer Council of WA. It was very meaningful work, especially as my dad had died from lung cancer that year, and he and mum had received wonderful support and accommodation from the Cancer Council. I wanted to serve more in that space. I was contracted to write a report on the Life Now yoga classes, and later wrote a report on patient education too, which led to a role coordinating programs for people affected by cancer. In 2014 the Cancer Wellness Centre opened in Cottesloe and I moved to Cancer Support WA where I became the Director of Client Services. I used all my skills in that role – researching, writing, delivering courses, recruiting facilitators and supporting the counselling team, I was in my element. When Cancer Support WA merged with Solaris Cancer Care my role shifted to have more focus on research, and I was looking for further training. When a scholarship was advertised through Curtin University to investigate the psychosocial education and support needs of people with head and neck cancer, I went for it, and was grateful to be accepted. I’m now in my third year of PhD study and have dived deep into trauma, body image, self-compassion and compassion focused therapies, amongst other areas of fascination. I am loving the experience and learning so much – this is actually my dream life – I get to practice in peace, spend my day reading, contemplating, and writing, then in the evenings, my dedicated students come for classes. How did I get so fortunate I wonder sometimes?

What lured you to Yoga Therapy? Why?

Yoga Therapy was introduced to me through the senior teachers I had studied with. I had quite naively been bringing all of my naturopathic knowledge of the body, human behaviour, and the yogic physiology subtle bodies together, with personal attention to my students. While the training I did was a comprehensive teacher training, a year or so later it became an RTO with a government recognised Yoga Therapy qualification.
(RTO – Registered Training Organisation i.e. a qualification nationally recognized)

What is Yoga Therapy? Why is it a growing movement modality?

It is an emerging, complementary and personalised therapy with a growing evidence base. Yoga Therapy draws on knowledge of yoga principles of maintaining a balance in the harmony between body, mind and the environment; through diet, good nutrition, yogic breathing and health sciences to support people to manage their health and well-being using all the tools of yoga. Recently re-defined by the International Association of Yoga Therapists:

Yoga therapy is the professional application of the principles and practices of yoga to promote health and well-being within a therapeutic relationship that includes personalised assessment, goal setting, lifestyle management, and yoga practices for individuals or small groups.

Yoga Therapy is more representative of what Yoga education used to be, when a teacher and student would be in deep relationship, and the yoga was not just confined to the mat, but spoke to the person’s whole life, their sense of meaning, purpose, relationships, community, and values too.

Image by Gerd Altmann

Why would someone see a Yoga Therapist? 
The Gap and how we turn our “garbage into gold”?

People seek Yoga Therapy for many reasons. Yoga therapists are really well placed to support people who perhaps find themselves with some gaps or unmet needs in terms of how supported they feel in the conventional health system.

What are these Gaps?
Let’s consider various health conditions and challenges most people face on a daily basis such as generalised anxiety disorders, digestive disorders, chronic pain, injuries, post-surgery, hormonal imbalances, arthritic conditions, trauma, and also side-effects as a result of toxic treatments. Regardless of their health status, anyone facing a health issue will quickly find that it impacts on all areas of life, including financial wellbeing, relationships, roles, self-image, and more. While the conventional health system is very good at treating the disease, the person with the illness may feel they are barely seen, heard, or acknowledged in the business of diagnosis and treatment.

Once the most urgent or treatable aspects have been managed, people commonly experience being moved out of medical care and left to their own devices. They may or may not have symptoms of a severe health condition, but they have ongoing unmet needs in their recovery or management, so they begin to shop around in a very crowded market place of service providers with various out of pocket expenses likely. The majority of people fall into this gap. We could even call them the “worried well”. Not quite sick enough to be under a physician’s care, but not feeling well either. If we find ourselves in this category, how can we use such challenges in our bodies, and our lives, to heal and instill positive change? How can we turn the “garbage into gold”?

Yoga therapists are experienced yoga professionals who are extensively trained to work with all kinds of people, with all kinds of health experiences, who are seeking an empowering complementary approach to improving their health and wellbeing. Yoga therapists also have a detailed understanding of the bio-medical model and do not contradict the good work of any health practitioners instead we support and complement all their hard work by using the evidence base of what yoga can do for people with various conditions. Yoga Therapy is evidence-informed, meaning there is a growing body of scientific evidence for what we do, so when face to face with an individual, there is a blend of clinical experience, up to date research knowledge, and the collaborative relationship with the client to draw from in the creation of an individualized Yoga Therapy management plan.

“I’d say that having suffered cancer myself, yoga is my personal medicine and I try to take a good dose every day, but of course the prescription changes when circumstances change. For a while after my immunotherapy I couldn’t stand up, let alone walk, so that was a mental challenge which I believe my years of practice prepared me for as well as possible. When I started to move again I sought a physiotherapist and yoga therapist for a complementary approach. I still use the knowledge gained which I have integrated into my own practice.”

In Yoga Therapy, we help people find new, more health promoting patterns on every level. To figure out what is best suited, we may use a very useful model, such as the pancamaya kosha, as a map – looking at the body (annamaya kosha), energy and breath (pranamayakosha ), conscious mind (manomaya kosha), wisdom or values (vijnanmaya kosha) and hope to unveil the bliss sheath (anandamaya kosha) by helping the person remove the obstacles to their full flourishing. There are many such models Yoga Therapists use to map the person’s lived experience, and help with clinical reasoning when deciding what will be the most effective, suitable, sustainable practices for them.

Yoga Therapy sessions typically emphasise interoception, or feeling from the inside. No matter what is going on in the body, it’s the mind that makes the biggest difference. In this way, people map their own mind and, therefore, body more accurately. They are supported to investigate, experiment, and collaborate with their therapist to find ways of moving, breathing, and being in the world that bring out their constitutional strengths and ameliorate their suffering where possible.

Wisdom Yoga Institute, how did it develop and why?

Wisdom Yoga Institute is an egalitarian collaboration between Yoga Space (Jean) and Surya Health (me) and our husbands. We are all dear friends. Jean’s husband is a Clinical Psychologist and pain researcher, Satyam, my husband, is a counsellor and palliative care social worker.

The Wisdom Yoga Institute is both a path and a goal, like yoga itself. Our aim is to be able to offer a very high standard of training to service providers, not just yoga practitioners. We hope to continue to inspire others to be agents of change in a really healthy way. We want to see the evolution of yoga in a benevolence sense and continue to support those that wish to serve their communities.

If you wish to find out more about Chandrika and the wonderful services she offers, please visit:

http://suryahealth.com.au/

Yoga Therapy Training and Resources:

http://wisdomyogainstitute.org/

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2 thoughts on “Our Health System, Yoga Therapy & Body Wisdom

  1. Thank you Heather and Chandrika for this very informative and interesting article explaining ‘Yoga Therapy’ as a means for people to maintain wellness in their daily lives, particularly when they have a health issue to manage. I can relate to your article very well having had breast cancer . The treatments certainly cured my cancer but it was Yoga, meditation, good nutrition, naturopathic support and the support and love of my family and friends which assisted me in a complete recovery.

    1. Thank you Gail for the lovely feedback. It is also touching to read about your own health journey with both it’s challenges and insights.

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