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The Health Benefits of Yoga

Feb. 5, 2020

This post is by Darshan Shah, M.D., MBA, a board-certified family physician who runs Whole Health Austin, and David Ring, M.D., Ph.D, the associate dean for comprehensive care in the Department of Surgery and Perioperative Care.

In our experience as clinicians, people seeking our advice about wellness are already aware of changes they could make that would improve their health. For one it might be quitting smoking, for another drinking less alcohol and for others it might be exercising more and eating less sugar. We have found over time that we are just like the people we care for. Though the particular lifestyle issue might vary, we all share the challenge of motivation and gathering the energy to actually make improvements.

For one of us (Shah), whose father passed away from a heart attack when he was in his 40s, lifestyle modifications to reduce cardiac risk have been of deep personal interest and led to an interest the science behind healthy lifestyles. Backed by over 37 years of dedicated scientific research, Dean Ornish, M.D., and his colleagues have shown that changes in diet and lifestyle can reverse heart disease and make a powerful difference in our overall well-being. Today, Medicare and many private insurance companies even provide coverage for his program for reversing heart disease.

Looking back on our medical education and residency training, we were never introduced to this line of inquiry — we discovered it ourselves. Additionally, nutrition and stress reduction were not part of our medical curriculum in any meaningful way. Fortunately, this is changing as Dell Medical School and other schools increasingly place emphasis on healthy habits as a key to good health: healthy intake, healthy activity, healthy mindset and healthy circumstances. A notable percentage of mortality is now traced to unhealthy habits.

Yoga is a discipline with spiritual origins that has motivated many in the United States to attend to their mental and physical health, often as part of a larger motivation to adopt a healthy lifestyle. At its worst, yoga in the U.S. is branded as something for white, wealthy people involving specific settings, clothing and techniques. At its best, yoga is an inclusive and individualized practice of attunement of the mind with the body in a way that fosters health and wellness. The science behind cognitive behavioral therapy, the relaxation response, meditation, exercises, etc., all support yoga practices that are part of a more than 2,000-year-old wisdom tradition.

As part of this process, Shah’s family medicine practice, Whole Health Austin, is privileged to be co-sponsoring the Yoga and Science conference in Austin on Feb. 29, where the Dell Medical School community can get vital exposure to world-renowned researchers who will be presenting on topics related to yoga, mindfulness, stress-reduction and nutrition. The keynote speaker, Larry Scherwitz, Ph.D., will present his more than 20-year journey as a research director with Ornish to discovering how a four-component yoga-based lifestyle-change program can reverse a host of related chronic diseases including coronary artery disease, diabetes and prostate cancer.

We are also fortunate to have Dell Medical School and The University of Texas at Austin represented at the conference. Ring and Kristin Neff, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Educational Psychology at UT Austin, will both speak that day.

Learn more and register for the Yoga and Science conference on Feb. 29, 2020.

Darshan Shah, M.D., MBA, is a board-certified family physician who runs Whole Health Austin, an integrative and holistic family medicine practice in the Mueller neighborhood of Austin. As part of his practice he incorporates yoga, nutrition and mind-body skills groups to promote wellness and help reverse disease.