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From Asanas to Health

Oct/30/2022 / by Pratika Yashaswi

It is no secret that yoga is an underrated weapon to fight against various illnesses, and Dr Savitha Elam-Kootil certainly believes so. A progressive, forward-looking physician, Dr Elam-Kootil is a strong champion for the transformative power of yoga, pranayama and meditation in mental and physical healthcare. “I tell patients that yoga is not just a physical practice with difficult poses, but also a mental practice that can help with breathing, posture, and feeling better emotionally,” she says.

Board-certified in internal medicine, Dr. Elam-Kootil has practiced at Kaiser Permanente in Atlanta since 2002. A recipient of Kaiser’s Golden Stethoscope award, she is currently the physician lead for depression care management, a primary care initiative to improve patient behavioral health. 

Dr. Elam-Kootil’s awareness of yoga began when she was a young girl growing up in Southern India. Through her ongoing practice of yoga as an adult, she became more cognizant of yoga’s powerful mind-body relationship and began recommending it to patients of all ages experiencing a wide range of issues–hypertension, diabetes, obesity, sleep apnea, insomnia, depression, anxiety, chronic low back pain, and chronic addictions. 

Dr Elam-Kootil is also medical advisor to MyYogaTeacher, an excellent platform teaching yoga online. We decided to pick Dr Kootil’s brains about yoga and its benefits for mental and physical health.

  1. As a doctor, what is your perspective on yoga? 

As a doctor, I take a holistic approach towards health and strongly believe yoga has beneficial effects for physical and mental health. By yoga, I am referring to both physical poses (asanas) as well as various breathing, meditation and mindfulness techniques which are grounded in yoga philosophy. I tell patients that yoga is not just a physical practice with difficult poses, but also a mental practice that can help with breathing, posture, and feeling better emotionally.

  1. Can yoga  really cure/impact diseases like  hypertension, diabetes, obesity, sleep apnea, insomnia, depression, anxiety, chronic low back pain, and chronic addictions? What makes it so effective?

I believe yoga is an adjunct to treating many of these issues, and can help lessen the detrimental effects of many health issues as well as greatly improve one’s overall mental and physical well-being. However, the effects of yoga can range greatly from person to person, and each individual will approach the yoga practice differently as well as perform the yogic exercises and techniques in varying measures.

As a specialist in hypertension as well as depression care management, in addition to being a yoga practitioner, I believe that practicing regular yogic breathwork, and “dhyaan” which is really where mindfulness came from, as often as possible, is a highly effective means to calm the mind and reduce stress and anxiety. 

As a doctor, knowing that most chronic disease is inflammation-based, I’ve seen how treating the mind (through yoga) affects markers of inflammation. For example, I have seen blood sugar levels come down in diabetic patients and similar positive effects in hypertension patients. 

In cases of chronic stress, where the sympathetic nervous system is triggered to produce adrenaline and noradrenaline which in turn raises the heart rate and blood pressure, and breathing gets fast, the yogic breathing and meditation exercises help to dial down activity in the sympathetic nervous system. They restore balance through the parasympathetic system which slows down the heart rate, evens the breathing and tones the stress response down.

  1. You’re primarily an internal medicine specialist, but are also a physician champion for depression management. What is your approach to treating this disease? 

First, I always recommend that everyone who may be suffering from mental health issues, to always see a licensed professional to get properly diagnosed. Some aspects of mental health, such as chronic stress, when left untreated, can lead to very serious and potentially dangerous health issues.

In my experience, treatment of depression is almost always a dual approach–medication added on to behavioral interventions only if needed, and solid attention to the basics like diet, exercise, and sleep.

  1. Do you have any unique recommendations for readers who might be suffering from mental health problems?

First, I always recommend to those who may be suffering from mental health issues to get formally evaluated by a professional first, and then I suggest they practice some form of adjunctive stress-reducing exercises twice daily.

The point of this is to develop awareness toward their thoughts which really is the first step, so they can identify thought patterns that don’t serve them well.

For example, when I see an acutely anxious person in the exam room, l walk them through a pranayama or breath management exercise as follows:

  • l make them inhale and exhale, progressively increasing the length of the exhale, as they pay attention to their breath.
  • Or l may have them do a guided alternate nostril breathing technique, where they shift their attention between left and right nostrils while they breathe attentively.
  • I might even have them do kapalbhati breathing or “bellows breathing,” where the focus is on the forced exhale. This invigorating technique improves mental focus.

Basically, I demonstrate how they can calm down instantly with a 3 minute sequence!

Thanks to the techniques of pranayama and dhyana, from which breathwork and mindfulness meditation are derived, patients can recapture precious reaction time before they run away with disordered emotions and thoughts.

Finally, I ask them to imagine separating themselves from their thoughts and also from their body.  While their body may be attached physically, they can start to separate from it, from the events taking place around them, from things in their personal lives and, above all, from all negative thoughts.

  1. Tell us about MyYogaTeacher. What sets it apart from other platforms or learning in person?

l chanced upon MyYogaTeacher as they were rolling out their program . It was exactly what l had been searching for. As a physician mom, l have a lot on my plate and very little time to make it to the yoga studio in person. The time flexibility l get from MyYogaTeacher, thanks to a plethora of virtual classes offered multiple times each day, in addition to the very high quality of instruction, is what keeps me committed to attending their classes.  I like their wide range of India-trained yoga teachers who focus on physical asana work as much as the breathwork and meditation, which help people connect more deeply to themselves. Furthermore, all the classes are all live, meaning they are not recorded. Because classes are always online, I can take them from work or home. 

Plus, if you like the group class exercises a lot, you can consider taking once-weekly private classes (one hour each) with a highly trained instructor and learn privately at an affordable rate (actually, for the same exact price you will pay to take the group classes only). 

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