Dr Matt Joslin’s open letter calling upon the NHS to put yoga on prescription had me banging my fist on the table and saying, “Yes, yes yes!” Not because I see yoga as the panacea to treat all health ailments or because I want more students (although that’s always nice). Rather, I know first hand how empowering the practice of yoga is and the transformation that occurs physically and mentally.
Let’s look around our current situation. Obesity is sky rocketing and resulting illnesses such as diabetes, heart problems, cancers are following suit. On the other side of the spectrum, eating disorders such as anorexia amongst teenagers and young adults are increasing with the mental effect of such illnesses diminishing vitality and health both now and in later life. Depression, anxiety, stress, insomnia – most of us have been afflicted by at least one of these states at some point in our lives and we have to face up to the fact that in large part, these have occurred through the life choices we’ve made.
My partner, Christoph Seiland, who is a yoga teacher and doctor recalled his year in vascular surgery. Involving the amputation of feet, hands, and limbs, he said that nearly all patients lying on the operating table was there because of the choices they had made. It may seem like an extreme example, but the snowball effect of one single choice can result in chronic poor health.
As I write this now, overworked junior doctors have gone one strike for the first time in 40 years against a proposed contract that will see them working longer and harder. It’s easy to blame the Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, for imposing such a contract, and sure most of the blame lies at his Whitehall Door, however, what about us? What can we do? Let’s start by looking after ourselves, treating our wonderful bodies with the full respect they deserve. And this is where yoga comes in.
In yoga, we have a mat and a body. We listen intimately to the signals of the body conveyed through muscles or the breath, and we learn to see the discrepancy between what the mind tells us is and isn’t possible and what we are actually able to do. No machines required, the mat can be rolled out at any time, simply manipulating the body to create leverage, weight bearing, and cardiovascular elements. Slowly we cotton on to how bloody brilliant the body is, regular practice takes our hands closer to our toes, and we realise that our volition pays dividends as vitality from within and not an outside substance leaves us feeling lighter, more alert, and most importantly, empowered to make more beneficial choices.
It is this empowerment to make the right choices that cuts through the snowball effect of choices that lead to bad health, and ultimately a strain on NHS services. Whilst living and teaching in Berlin, I noticed a huge contrast to the UK: people are generally leaner and are willing to invest in their health regardless of their income. Recognising the health and mental benefits of yoga, the German health insurance companies (private and state run) reimburse almost 80 percent of the yoga class fee every year or two years. For them, the reimbursement acts as a preventative measure and helps to reduces the costs of hospital stays and treatments – this is probably a huge factor in why so many people in Berlin practised or taught yoga!
I truly believe that optimum health starts from within, and whilst yoga certainly does not make us immune to ill health, it does make us more empowered to be aware of what we are saying yes and no to, and provides a space in which to offer ourselves respect, love, and vitality. We have one body and one life, it is up to us how we choose to live it.