Ask the Expert
We recently caught up with Dr. Vasant Lad, the eminent Ayurvedic physician, author, and professor, and asked him to share his knowledge and thoughts on good health, Yoga therapy, and what qualities he believes make for a good Yoga therapist.
Dr. Vasant Lad has authored numerous articles and books on the subject of Ayurvedic medicine and Yoga. He serves as the director of the Ayurvedic Institute in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and this coming June, he will join other doctors, Yoga therapists, and Yoga practitioners to give one of the keynote speeches for the Fifth Symposium on Yoga Therapy and Research (SYTAR) in Boston, Massachusetts.
RT: In your opinion, what makes Yoga therapeutic?
Dr. Lad: Yoga has great therapeutic value because every Yoga posture carries the body’s energy. We are constantly pulled by gravity to the center of the earth; we rely on the qualities of ojas (heartiness) and tejas (intelligence) to channel the flow of prana (vital energy) into a proper direction. When a person does not regularly practice Yoga, their prana always moves in a one-way direction, resulting in accumulated chi in the kidneys, bladder, prostate, cervix, and ovaries. Problems arise due to this accumulated congestion, including maladies such as swelling, slipped disks, hernia, high blood pressure, and even lower back aches.
By doing Yoga according to the individual’s prakriti (constitution), the direction of flow caused by gravitational force changes, improving or eliminating congestion in the liver, joints, or the lower back. This directional change also improves the lymphatic, arterial, and venous circulation.
Yoga can improve circulation and nutritional absorption and overall has a great therapeutic value.
RT: What are some of the changes you have seen in Yoga therapy and the mainstream acceptance of Yoga therapy?
Dr. Lad: Just by doing Yoga regularly, a person’s blood pressure can return to normal. Yoga can help reduce cholesterol and blood sugar. So many people are on medication to control these problems, but if, along with medication, one also practices Yoga, the medicine can be more effective. By doing Yoga asana, pranayama, and mudras, along with following a proper diet, the body will become more flexible. Cholesterol and blood pressure are stabilized, and the function of the endocrine system — the thyroid, parathyroid, and thymus glands – can become normalized. You can even see the individual’s blood and brain chemistry coming back to normal. That is why Yoga is becoming so well accepted by the medical community and by medical practitioners as well as healers in other modalities like chiropractors and acupuncturists. Yoga aids all these therapies.
One other thing I should mention is that a person should not do Yoga on his/her own. A person needs the help of a Yoga therapist or Yoga instructor because improper practice can be injurious to the tissue. It is very important to have the appropriate guidance so things such as a slipped disk or any other misalignment that may cause pain can be avoided.
RT: What are the some must-have qualities that a Yoga teacher or therapist should cultivate to create an atmosphere for healing?
Dr. Lad: A basic knowledge of human anatomy and physiology, as well as comprehensive yogic knowledge of Yoga therapy and practice. Acquiring this basic knowledge of Ayurveda is a great help in transforming Yoga therapy into a science. According to Ayurveda, every individual has a unique prakriti, and every individual has a unique vikruti (state of dis-ease). Yoga therapy becomes a practical, clinical application of Yoga in our daily practice.
One should not take Yoga lightly: “Oh, it’s so simple; anyone can do it.” No. There are some postures that are not good for certain prakriti. For example, holding headstand for a long time (5-10 minutes) is not recommended for pitta (fire element) people because it will increase pitta by increasing blood flow to the brain, which could result in a headache. Not understanding the individual’s prakriti and vikruti can create imbalance because of not being able to recognize one’s true relationship with a particular Yoga posture and prakriti/ vikruti paradigm.
RT: Besides the understanding of physiology and Ayurvedic energetics, are there other qualities you feel are important?
Dr. Lad: Every individual has a unique body type. For example, some people have a broad pelvis, while others have a broad pectoral area. The way people stand and walk can further cause the development of a unique physiology. If a Yoga therapist understands that, then it becomes easier to perform Yoga without any strain. As Patanjali says in the Yoga Sutras, Sthira sukam asanam, which means while doing any posture there should not be pain, strain, or stress. Each posture should be easily achieved along with the proper breath. One should breathe deeply to bring about beautiful harmony between the body, mind, and consciousness. This is what makes a person feel happy, healthy, and energetic throughout the day. So perfection of asana and breathing is absolutely necessary in Yoga therapy.
RT: Do you think that it’s important to have a certification process for people to become Yoga therapists?
Dr. Lad: Absolutely. It is going in that direction. Here in America, a massage therapist needs a certificate to say that s/he is a massage therapist, and a barber needs a certificate to say s/he is a barber. Any healer needs a certification to authenticate that he or she has undergone a particular educational training, as well as to ensure his or her knowledge of anatomy and physiology, along with a little bit of an Ayurvedic perspective of the doshas. In ancient times, every yogi was a great physician, every yogi was a great psychotherapist, and every yogi had great knowledge of Ayurveda in order to choose the proper course of Yoga necessary to heal individual ailments. One has to have a thorough understanding of the human body.
RT: How is Yoga most beneficial in a person’s healing process?
Dr. Lad: Yoga can be both preventative and curative. If we know that in a person’s family history there is diabetes, hypertension, or arthritis, then certain Yoga postures can be very beneficial. To direct this, it is necessary to have a thorough understanding of different regions in the body because each is energetically connected to particular asana, which help create internal harmony.
RT: What is your favorite go-to practice or pose that helps create healing and peace?
Dr. Lad: If a person has vata (air element) disorder then the person should do camel, cobra, spinal twist, and cow pose to help balance vata. If a person has high pitta (fire element), boat, bow, fish, and bridge pose are recommended, while a person with high kapha (earth element) should practice lotus, locust, lion, and palm tree to help balance the kapha dosha. There are many other postures but these postures should be emphasized for proper balancing.
The gravitational forces in these postures help us to redirect prana. This is the language of Yoga and Ayurveda, which are very concurrent and inherent. Each of these ancient modalities work together to elevate healing energy in the individual based upon his or her prakriti/vikruti paradigm.
RT: What do you do in your own practice to help stay in balance?
Dr. Lad: I am pitta-vata guy, and because my pitta is high, I do not practice headstand or shoulderstand for too long. I do boat, bow, and bridge to balance my pitta, and to balance my vata I do camel, cobra, spinal twist, and cow pose. Then I practice savasana to relax, and include gentle, cooling pranayama sitali (cooling breath) to balance pitta, and ujjayii (victorious) breath, bhramari (bee humming) breath, or alternate nostril breath to balance vata.
RT: If someone wants to begin using Yoga therapeutically in their own lives, where would be a good place to begin?
Dr. Lad: One should begin with a gentle Yoga stretch to bring awareness to the body. If we do not bring awareness to the body and we are doing Yoga asana for a long time, then we are pulling and straining the muscles, ligaments, and blood vessels, and they will become sore. Soreness or pain is the body’s way of saying, “Hey, I can’t bear this. Stop!”
Doing Yoga helps us learn the language of the body, and helps us learn to listen to the body. We have to bring awareness to the physical, emotional, and mental levels as well as awareness on the conscious level. Yoga brings harmony to the body, mind, and consciousness.
RT: Is there anything else related to Yoga therapy you would like to add?
Dr. Lad: Yoga is an ancient art of longevity of life and harmony in our relationships. It makes the body, mind, and consciousness work together; in that togetherness, we practice awareness. When looking at trees, birds, the shape of the mountains, the beautiful color of the flowers, the flow of the river, and the shapes of the clouds, you are uniting with the beauty of all these things. The beauty of the cloud and the flower directly meets with you, and there is union between the observer and the observed. This union is the highest Yoga.
Yoga is a skill in awareness, a skill in action, and therefore Yoga can take us to that dimension where every moment becomes the moment of Samadhi, the moment of bliss, the moment of joy, the moment of love. These are the highest manifestations and flowering of life through Yoga.
For more information about the Ayurvedic Institute, visit: Ayurveda.com.
This coming June, Dr. Lad will join other doctors, Yoga therapists, and Yoga practitioners to give one of the keynote speeches for the Fifth Symposium on Yoga Therapy and Research (SYTAR) in Boston, Massachusetts.To register for the International Association of Yoga Therapists’ Symposium, visit: sytar.org. The early bird discount is in effect until April 12.
Rita Trieger is a contributing editor to Find Bliss Magazine, and the author of Yoga Heals Your Back (Fairwinds, 2005). She teaches yoga therapy for both cancer and heart patients at Stamford Hospital, in Stamford Connecticut. Ritatude.blogspot.com
 Sthira sukham asanam. The posture should be steady, stable and comfortable.
Yoga Sutras of Patanjali, Chapter 2, Verse 46