A therapist new to using yoga in rehab asked me in the winter of 2015 (February to be exact) about my story. How did I come to yoga through the lens of physical therapy practice? In short, how did I begin using yoga in physical therapy practice?
My response was to pen this post. I realized I’d only ever told the full story in person, during lectures and teaching CE, over the last 15 years. But, I’d never actually written the story down. I was about to change that!
Yoga in Physical Therapy
People in chronic pain are often labeled, and the labels are not helpful or person-centered or even nice. Often deemed failures of the system, they get stereotyped, dehumanized by such labels as diagnosis seeker, prescription drug addict, wimpy complainer, or motor moron.
But I don’t see people in pain that way. To me, those people are not failures of the system. Rather, I believe the system has failed them. The system I speak of is, of course, the American healthcare system.
Please let me share my story with you, albeit the greatly abbreviated version.
Sharing My Story: From PT to Integrative PT
Over 20 years ago I was scurrying along, working in an underserved and generally low income area in rural North Carolina. I was a full-time physical therapist and the clinic’s director by day; by night, I was a yoga teacher and music director.
I was, as the cliche goes, “burning the candle at both ends,” but it worked for me at the time. I loved my daytime and nighttime work.
I was childless, but not by choice, so my patients became my children. I threw myself into my practice. I didn’t mind scheduling patients super-early, before daybreak even, in order to meet the special needs of these people who were traveling as far as 3 hours round trip to see me.
What did all of these patients have in common, and why were they coming to see me from such a distance?
They were all in chronic pain, and the overwhelming majority of them were not just women, but mothers. Read more on how America’s healthcare system fails mothers.
The secret to why they were coming from so far away to see me has everything to do with my “aha” Oprah moment.
My “Aha!” Moment
One day I was in the middle of a treatment session with a patient when I looked up and realized two things:
- Everyone on my schedule had a very complex history of chronic pain and yet,
- I hadn’t deliberately set out to only see people in chronic pain.
What’s more is most of those people – were women. Not just women, but mothers. Mothers with histories of fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue syndrome, depression, back pain, weight management issues, self-esteem problems, pelvic pain, and more…
So what was my “aha” moment?
It was realizing that yoga was the key ingredient in the success of my physical therapy practice. Physical therapy ALONE was not enough to help these people in pain. People needed the holistic, mindful approach of yoga combined with the science of physical therapy. Yoga as medicine was what I was offering my patients, and they were getting better.
The story doesn’t end there though. And it isn’t pretty.
It was years before I knew how much trouble yoga would get me into –
I knew yoga worked, but the reality was – my supervisors and colleagues were less than thrilled with my methods. Me and my integrative physical therapy interventions were deemed “high maintenance” because I needed to work 1-on-1 with a patient for a whole 45 minutes. I was told by superiors, “No one can work with your patients when you are gone…it’s just too difficult to see them and no one can recreate what you are doing. This yoga thing…is just too…too specialized.”
Long story short, I was pushed out of the practice and asked to leave. Point blank.
And so I did. I quit my job.
But I didn’t quit physical therapy. And I certainly didn’t quit integrative physical therapy.
I started my own practice.
And I kept plugging away, happy to serve the patients that frankly, no one wanted to see. I just continued on in a more healthy, happy work environment. I opened my own integrative physical therapy practice and yoga studio. I didn’t know it at the time, but it would be one of the first Integrative PT practices in the country. For me, I was just answering a need I saw in my community, and Living Well Studio & Physical Therapy was born!
Yoga and physical therapy together were a match made in heaven. It was a happy, blended family.
That was 2000.
From Bad to Worse
But there was a MORE murky reality lurking for me. This new path of pursuing yoga as medicine was risky. I was the primary breadwinner and in an instant – I no longer had my salary or benefits.
What’s more, I would go on to terminate my insurance contracts so that I could (finally) give patients in chronic pain what they needed, not what insurance mandated (or didn’t approve).
So I set out on my own. And yes, if you are wondering, I was scared. Thrilled to be free, I was also fearful of failing.
My experience did go from bad to worse. Personally, I realized more than just my workplace was abusive and damaging. I had a reckoning in my personal life as well. (If you want to read more about my personal story – click the blue button below.)
But I am overjoyed to say that my practice, with bumps and bruises along the way, even relocating to a different state and starting my personal life completely over, grew steadily over the next 15 years.
From that experience of being pushed out, I learned a massive life lesson. When you know you are doing the right thing, push back. Don’t quit. Use your God-given voice and speak up. I would go on to feel pushback in the yoga industry, in the medical industry – neither industry wanted to integrate with the other. But I have persisted. I also learned this valuable lesson:
You cannot embrace the future if you are still clinging to the past. There was no way that I could receive any blessings that were to come my way if I was still hanging on to dusty old relics.
This was true both professionally and personally. I finally cultivated the courage not just to walk away, but to WALK TOWARD a better life.
So, I let it all go and walked away.
Why? Because I knew that yoga worked. I didn’t need any research to tell me, I had seen it with my own two eyes. I knew not just randomized controlled trials mattered. The N = 1 mattered too.
For years I “kept my head down and worked hard.” I didn’t complain about insurance limits or caps or the way I was treated at my old job – but on that “aha” day – I looked up.
My world changed.
I saw that if health care was going to change, then I needed to, as Gandhi said, “be the change.” Change had to start somewhere, and if patients were driving as far as 3 hours, one way, to see me, then I must be doing something right.
Yes, I could be that change.
That moment I knew that stepping out of the safety of a conventional practice was not only optional, it was necessary. Insurance companies often prove unreliable for people, especially if they in suffering from chronic pain. An insurance company may deny patients needed treatment, and I knew it was up to me to figure out how to make using yoga affordable and accessible as a physical therapist.
My leaving conventional PT settings doesn’t mean all therapists should abandon conventional practices. The point is you should constantly assess whether or not your workplace is healthy and supportive of optimizing patient experience, satisfaction, and outcomes.
The Best Decision Ever
Taking that risk, which all its trials and triumphs, was the best career decision I have ever made. Taking that risk has allowed me to reach more people and be a more effective health care provider.
Using Yoga as Integrative and Lifestyle Medicine has transformed me in many ways:
- Yoga makes me a better woman, wife, and mother.
- Yoga helps me remain dedicated to self-care in myself and others.
- Yoga transformed the way I treat patients, and helps me get better results in shorter time frames with longer lasting results.
- Yoga aided in resolving my own long-standing chronic illness and pain.
- Yoga has helped me find the work-life balance and self-care practice I wanted.
- Yoga led me to found Living Well Institute, (formerly Professional Yoga Therapy Institute® from 2000-2020). There I write and teach healthcare providers like PT, OT, ATC, and more, how to do what I do as an Integrative & Lifestyle Medicine practitioner.
In my humble opinion, the lifestyle medicine of yoga works, and it works better when it’s combined with physical therapy and the science of similar rehab professions.
Yoga has massive implications for improving health care and its delivery in the US today.
Especially given that health care has lost its moral compass, according to a recent poignant post by physician, Dr. Lissa Rankin, and that prominent physician Dr. Andrew Weil states in the documentary film Escape Fire, “We don’t have a health care system. We have a disease care system.”
Today, I am so very grateful I had the courage, and the resilience, to stick with this path. It hasn’t been easy, but it has been the best possible path for me. It is rewarding, fulfilling, and it saved me from burnout and compassion fatigue. It has saved not only my patient’s lives, but mine as well. Time and time again.
To read more about my personal story on how yoga saved my life, download a free copy of the preface from my book Medical Therapeutic Yoga (MTY), as well as a copy of the first chapter. You’ll also get access to my FREE MTY Basic Video Library, 24 videos shot on location in gorgeous coastal North Carolina.
See the link below to sign up!
Our broken sickcare system is long overdue for reform – for embracing a full circle return to low cost, low tech, proven methods for achieving health and well-being – via embracing solid science in nutrition, sleep, movement, mindfulness, avoiding environmental and relational pollutants, and optimizing your stress management and response.
Together, we can put the “health” AND the “care” back in healthcare.