YOGA OF THE HEART: CARDIAC AND CANCER CERTIFICATION TRAINING REPORT
(Published in International Association of Yoga Therapists Magazine)
In July and August 2007, I was one of 35 participants in Nischala Joy Devi’s Yoga of the Heart®: Cardiac and Cancer Certification Training. The training is a 10-day program offered to both Yoga teachers and healthcare professionals.
The course is an intensive and holistic program focusing on asana, pranayama, deep relaxation, imagery, and meditation for individuals with cardiac disease and cancer and other life threatening diseases.
The course is both didactic and experiential. For example, we both learned about, and lived with, the virtues of a low-fat vegetarian diet. We were given the opportunity to practice what we were learning in one-on-one and group sessions, and we had the pleasure of a therapeutic Hatha class including the transformational deep relaxation each day under the guidance of Bhaskar Deva.
The course went beyond providing skills for teaching Yoga to people with cardiovascular disease or cancer; it deepened my knowledge of Yoga, dis-ease, and spirituality. We learned about the psychosocial aspects of disease, and we were encouraged to integrate personal and professional experience. In this way, the training provided a full and rich experience of ourselves as divine beings, teachers, and practitioners.
Nischala, our guide and teacher, is a practiced expert in all areas offered in this course. She was a Swami (monastic) for 18 years under Sri Swami Satchidananda and has been an international teacher for over 35 years. Her book The Healing Path of Yoga is a classic in Yoga therapy, and her new book The Secret Power of Yoga has brought the ancient Yoga Sutras into modern times. She led us in both theory and practice, complimented with the timeless teachings of Yoga.
The training was supported by two assistants, both Yoga of the Heart graduates with successful practices. The assistants were very knowledgeable and extremely helpful, assisting in class set- up, demonstrating asanas, modifications, and use of props, leading small groups, offering music suggestions, and making themselves available outside of class to answer any questions.
To help participants take the instruction home, the training includes a 300-page manual, Nischala’s book The Healing Path of Yoga, and 4 CDs of guided practice.
INTEGRATED APPROACH TO HEART DISEASE
Having worked at the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, I learned and practiced Western Medicine Cardiology from the “best-of- the-best.” But despite all I learned about cardiovascular disease treatment and prevention, something seemed to be missing. For the most part, Western Medicine concentrates on the removal of the disease-causing agent or mechanism (treatment) or its avoidance (prevention). These are all things related to the material self. The potential role of the spiritual self in disease treatment and prevention is often ignored. Through this course, I learned that the root of dis-ease runs deep in Spirit. As Nischala told us, “When people touch the Spirit, they get well.”
I have witnessed this as a Western- trained nurse and as a spiritual being with patients, family, and friends. During the past thirty years, Western medicine has made tremendous progress in the treatment and, to a lesser extent, prevention of cardiovascular disease. Yet heart disease remains the number one killer of adults in developed countries, including the United States. Ironically, because of the large population affected, the success of Western medicine means there are many more individuals living with rather than dying of heart disease.
Western medicine, in many cases, provides a second chance at life. We, as Yoga teachers, have the opportunity improve the quality of life. We must address the true underlying dis-ease and teach how to live from the heart. Over the years, I have witnessed the fear and anxiety experienced by patients undergoing Western medical testing and treatments. Some rely on medication, and some will have the assistance of the hospital chaplains to bolster their Spirit. This teacher training has formally provided me the skills to teach how to use several different breathing techniques, guided imagery, relaxation, and meditation to connect to spirituality for patients and Yoga clients alike.
BEYOND HEART DISEASE AND CANCER
Although heart disease and cancer are the main focus of this teacher training, all systems were addressed. Special attention is given to how each system functions and dysfunctions, and how this is related to prana (energy) flow. As Nischala took us through each system, she guided us through asana recommendations, contraindications, and modifications, to prepare us to create an effective practice with patient/client safety in mind. The koshas were explained in comprehensive terms, and sutras are weaved in as well. I am now empowered to create, develop, implement and/or incorporate into current practice these teachings safely, effectively, and comprehensively.
The course did a great job explaining the psychosocial aspects of heart disease, cancer, and many other diseases. But what really drove home the psychosocial information for me was having the opportunity to meet with participants of a very successful Yoga of the Heart program. The instructor, a Western-trained nurse and Yoga of the Heart graduate, was invited to bring her class to our training. She was very knowledgeable and extremely helpful with answering all questions, from the content of a class, to where and how to advertise, to reimbursement, and so on.
Her students were the living proof that this practice works. All were eager to share that this practice has improved their quality of life ten-fold. We saw and heard how the program helped these patients achieve harmony and balance through learning how to breathe, how to reach deep into the root to open that space behind the heart to receive compassion, and how to release the underlying dis-ease through deep relaxation. These participants have benefited from a reduction or elimination of heart medications, by stabilizing heart rate and blood pressure, and changing the nature of their coronary artery disease through these simple Yogic practices. They have fewer episodes of angina and less need for intervention related to cardiac events, as the original research on this program demonstrated.
COLLABORATING WITH MEDICAL CARE
As a researcher, I know the difficulty one can encounter when attempting to introduce a new perspective. Incorporating a Yoga program into cardiovascular care will be a challenge. This teacher- training program identified the keys critical to interfacing with the Western medical community, including what information to pitch and how to pitch it, and how to establish open communication with and feedback to referring healthcare providers. Yoga of the Heart programs are evidence-based, safe, and effective.
PRACTICING WHAT IS PREACHED
Nischala says, “Compassion is the key!” But how does one teach compassion? The only way to teach compassion is to live compassionately. Nischala lives Yoga; she lives compassionately and is a model for us all. For example, during the training, a woman who had just finished her chemotherapeutic regime was staying at Kripalu for R&R. She found that the gentlest of Yoga classes were still too much for her. By chance she stopped by our training and dropped off a note to see if there was anything that would meet her needs. She was welcomed with open arms and open hearts to practice deep relaxation and gentle Yoga with us each day.
I learned quite a bit about ceremony, ritual, and community by opening my heart and immersing myself. The regard, respect, and love conveyed and received during this teacher training was like no other that I have experienced. We value one another as Divine Beings. I feel blessed to have been with this particular group, a true family. All heart lights were radiating by the end.
To my group and teachers, I offer the Sufi Chant we celebrated during our graduation puja: “All I ask of you is forever to remember me as loving you.” I am ever grateful for the opportunity to study with Nischala Devi. When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. I was ready; Nischala appeared.
For more information about the Yoga of the Heart training, visit
LYNNET TIRABASSI, RN, BSN, RYT has been a practicing
Registered Nurse with the Johns Hopkins Medical Institutions, and Nursing Director and Program Coordinator of the Hopkins- based Cardiovascular Patient Outcomes Research Team.