OUWB faculty member recognizes benefits of yoga in medicine

By Cara Catallo

J. Matthew Voci, M.D., knows well that the path to wellness and disease management often takes shape in ways that transcend traditional medicine, textbooks and pharmacology, and he hopes to instill that understanding in Oakland University William Beaumont (OUWB) students.

Voci, the director of Neurology at Beaumont Grosse Pointe Hospital and an OUWB associate professor of Neurology, believes that incorporating mindfulness and adaptive yoga into health care helps patients regain function and restore a sense of control. Similarly, he says physicians who practice it themselves can find relief as well.

Voci’s prior interest in the benefits of adaptive yoga gained greater momentum when he heard an early 2015 National Public Radio (NPR) segment about ALS patient Bruce Kramer. In the segment and his book We Know How This Ends, Living While Dying, Kramer includes references to adaptive yoga with Matthew Sanford, a yogi renowned for his work helping people with neurological or mobility challenges achieve a mind-body connection. Though paralyzed at age 13, Sanford discovered yoga as his calling while in college, and exhibits an almost ethereal understanding of poses he can’t demonstrate himself. 

“I saw a perfect opportunity of an empowering activity to help patients. Not a pill to relieve a symptom, but power to achieve a balance in life,” explains Voci, adding that yoga brings both physical and mental balance, and an opportunity for patients to actively engage in their own health care and recovery.

Through yoga poses some paraplegic patients can sense, feel or regain some sensation in affected limbs. Voci says it’s important to not consider a spinal cord injury as all or nothing because some pathways can survive certain injuries, allowing some signals to get through.

The practice isn’t limited to patients. Sanford now works to help health care practitioners find the same focus and relaxation to help them successfully navigate stress-filled days. Voci sees this as a valuable tool for the medical community to embrace.

“The time has come to bring this into the forefront of how patients empower themselves to get better, and how physicians empower themselves to do better,” says Voci, who is quick to point out that adaptive yoga and meditation can’t take the place of pharmacology for many patients, but it can restore a sense of balance, both physically and emotionally.

“This whole issue of mindfulness and mind-body interface is growing,” Voci says. “People with a disability, whether its physical or emotional, can gain better control, but so can people without disabilities, who are just under duress. You can see how everyone benefits: The provider benefits, the patient benefits. I can potentially imagine this nice placid environment where we can take a deep breath… let it in, let it out and tackle the day.”

At OUWB, the importance of nurturing wellness and personal growth has been integrated into the curriculum.  In their first year, students quickly discover that the process of becoming a physician consists of taking care of their own health so that they can take of others.  It is through the PRISM program, which stands for Promoting Reflection and Introspection through Support and Mentoring, that students focus on their wellness.  PRISM provides them with a physician faculty mentor who supports them throughout their four years at OUWB.  The program along with other offerings from the Student Affairs Department, encompasses regular instruction on mindfulness-based stress reduction such as yoga, Tai-Chi and meditation, as well as, guided imagery and nutritional health.

When the opportunity came to practice yoga with Sanford last fall, Voci invited several OUWB students. There, Sanford explained that certain yoga poses can give him that sensation in his legs again despite what science says about never being able to feel these sensations when you’re a paraplegic. Learning this, as well as different ways to heal patients, keeps OUWB student Lauren Lendzion motivated.

“I appreciate that yoga has physical and mental benefits for patients, and I would be really excited about integrating it into my medical practice some day,” Lendzion explains. “It will make me a more well-rounded physician.”

Students Ishani Shah, Jessica Dzubnar and Eric RaynaI attended the seminar along with Lendzion; all of them grateful for the chance to hear more about the impact that yoga has on patients who suffer physical and mental trauma. The instructor explained that the yoga classes offered these patients a safe place, described Dzubnar.

“An exercise that we participated in involved listening to the person’s story for three minutes to understand where they’re coming from.  We need to be aware of their vulnerabilities. We need to understand how they feel from the inside,” says Shah. “Integrating various ways of healing is a nice way to care for a person as a whole.”

Reaching medical students on the ground level, ensuring they understand that medicine is more than book knowledge and prescription knowledge, makes all the difference, says Voci, who believes Sanford’s book Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence should be required reading for medical students.

Yoga Instructor Mindy Eisenberg, founder of Yoga Moves MS, occasionally trains with Sanford and hosted him on his recent visit. She believes that by integrating yoga principles, patients and doctors can make the mind-body connection and bring the human side back into medicine. In a survey, Eisenberg asked her students what they want that they don’t get from their doctors.

“They all said time. It didn’t have to be a huge amount of time. Five minutes,” she says, adding that too often doctors are looking at their computers or iPads, rather than the patient, in exam rooms. “Patients are more than diagnoses. Physicians should model mind-body principals. There’s a difference between listening and hearing.”

With professors such as Voci to prepare them and a curriculum that explains how to listen to a patient with focused intensity, OUWB students are well on their way to being the compassionate physicians Eisenberg describes.