The time for yoga therapy is now: How one healthcare provider works without labels to support chronic illness

By Donna Mueller

The overall perception of the COVID-19 pandemic being “over” has negatively impacted an already-marginalized group of people in the disability community, who exist day-to-day in a delicate balance in society. Some now fear that a run to the store for basic supplies or a trip to the doctor could be fatal. Alongside that fear may live the feeling that their government and society don’t value them enough to enact measures such as universal masking or improved air quality standards for public spaces.

The pandemic has come at a time when the skills of a yoga therapy professional are more needed than ever. So many issues face all kinds of people right now, all of them challenges that can divide us from our true nature, and yoga literally unites in so many ways—mind and body, breath and movement, communities of practitioners—in fact, to yoke, or unite, is the definition of yoga!

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The pandemic-affected population that I have had the most experience with is people dealing with cancer. Prior to COVID-19, one would see the occasional surgical mask being worn in public by those undergoing chemotherapy, which leaves people immunocompromised (and therefore more vulnerable to viruses like the one responsible for COVID-19).

The advent of “biologic drugs” for conditions such as rheumatoid arthritis and Crohn’s disease means that there are now millions of additional immunocompromised people walking around—and you would likely never know they were facing this challenge. The ability to safely navigate through social situations is greatly diminished for immunocompromised folks by a world that allows the unchecked spread of infectious disease. Yoga therapy can offer these populations something else to deal with their illness, often something more than just physical or mental therapy could provide alone.

A yoga therapy doctor

Out beyond the ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field. I’ll meet you there. When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about. Ideas, language, even the phrase “each other” doesn’t make any sense.

—Jalaluddin Rumi, from “The Wagon”

As a yoga therapist, the thing I am most conscious of when I interact with clients is neutrality.

As a physician, I have a different perspective when seeing patients, one of ascribing medical judgment that involves labels.

The kind of discernment I use as a medical doctor is not about labeling “good” or “bad,” or even negative actions; instead, I’m looking for the pathology creating the underlying suffering. I look for things like fractures, infections, and malignancy.

What I love about yoga therapy is that we do not seek to label. And what’s so wonderful about the practice is that one can use it to address just about any issue that comes up as part of the human condition. You do not need to even do physical yoga practice: Yoga is also—primarily, actually—a mental discipline. As I often tell people, as long as you can breathe, you can practice yoga.

How yoga therapy helps—even in a hospital setting

I began my yoga therapy career working with people who have breast cancer at Fox Chase Cancer Center in Philadelphia, and I spent a year during the COVID-19 pandemic at UPMC working with the same population. Often for a time after surgeries folks are physically unable to perform yoga postures due to soreness from healing tissues, altered anatomy, or open incision sites. Doing gentle practices—as the body and the medical team allow—can be cathartic for people, in a sense taking back what the disease has stolen from them. The mental effects of cancer are many, too, and although yoga allows people to form a new relationship with their physical forms, for me the whole process is one of overcoming the physical body.

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As a yoga therapist, I need to be flexible (!) about using postures as “yoga” and am always ready to offer variations or come back to the breath. There is so much the yoga may offer, from ethical inquiry to meditation and transformation. This is what inspired me to continue my education in yoga therapy, despite already having yoga teacher credentials—to be able to offer patients and clients much more than just physical postures. I may not be able to alter the world or how it treats people, but through the yoga therapy people can alter how they treat themselves.

Yoga is taking action on your issues, even if that action is remaining completely still and silent, sitting with those issues for a time. Often the healing occurs in this quiet, still point. Yoga therapy teaches us to sit with our issues, usually uncomfortably at first, to get to that quiet understanding of how to heal.

Beyond that, yoga therapy allows us to move through the uncomfortable feelings that inevitably come up. It provides us with a set of tools with which to address some of our most basic needs—the need for fresh oxygen to be delivered at the cellular level (breath, or prana), and the need for healthy movement (exercise, or asana)—all while providing physical and mental relief.

Artwork by Anaia Mueller

Yoga therapy helps people find the space where they can discern their true best selves. The practice is the field of action where we can find connectedness to one another, the Earth itself, and the entire universe within.

Donna Mueller, DO, O-NMM, MS, C-IAYT, has been practicing yoga therapy since 1998, when she began working with patients at Fox Chase Cancer Center’s “Complete Care.” Now affiliated with St. Luke’s University Health Network, she is a board-certified ACLM Lifestyle Medicine physician.