Ancient and modern approaches to whole-person health

Has your doctor mentioned whole health to you yet? 

“Circle of Health” from the Veterans Administration presents an image of the components of whole-person health. Image from

The movement toward whole health, or whole-person health, is being led in the United States by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) and the Veterans Administration (VA). Other healthcare systems and organizations are embracing whole-person health, too, because it is effective. This model recognizes that health and disease are created by much more than the physical aspects of ourselves: Physical, mental, emotional, and social conditions are interrelated and all contribute to our well-being.

And you guessed it: Yoga, a complete system for living, offers many practices, guidelines, models, and tools that support healthy choices and behaviors, so it can be a major component of whole-health approaches to care.

Although its implementation varies by organization, a few key ideas of whole-person health efforts are that

  • More than the physical affects health, illness, and disease. 
  • Health and disease are points on a continuum, not an either/or relationship. Our choices can support movement toward health or toward disease and illness, and whole-person health emphasizes choosing to move toward health. 
  • Self-care, preventive care, and a healthy lifestyle are foundational to health.

According to the VA,

Whole Health focuses on what matters most to each of us. It empowers people through mindful awareness and self-care, recognizing the fundamental importance of healthy nutrition, activity, sleep, relationships, surroundings, and the many other areas of our lives that contribute to our health and wholeness.

Ancient whole-person healthcare

Many of us have experienced the relationship between our bodies and our emotions. Perhaps we’ve noticed that prolonged illness can lead to a low mood or even depression, or that persistent pain can trigger irritability or anger. You may have also experienced a relationship between certain thoughts and the emotions and even physical reactions that follow them. 

Yoga has a nuanced system of understanding and working with these relationships within ourselves to bring about health and maintain balance—it’s called the kosha model. Yoga also offers guidelines for how to behave toward ourselves, other living beings, and the environment. These are called the niyamas and the yamas, and together they prescribe a lifestyle that guides us to choices and behaviors that support health rather than illness. 

Most people reading this blog are familiar with yoga postures, and perhaps breathing and meditation practices. Embedded in all of yoga’s practices, guidelines, and models are many of the ideas behind whole-person health. Additionally, yoga offers a focus on and practices to support spirituality and finding meaning and purpose in our lives, also integral to health. 

The future is whole-person healthcare

Many illnesses and their Western treatments affect all parts of a person, not just the area involved in a diagnosis. On this blog we have shared stories about TBIs, cancer, dementia, and many other conditions that affect every aspect of a person, and how yoga therapy has helped people to heal. One reason yoga practices can have this affect is because they address the wholeness of a person—their thoughts, emotions, body, and what the experience of health changes means for them. 

We will continue to post about whole-person healthcare and yoga therapy, so bookmark this blog and check back soon. Learn more about how the whole-person methods of yoga therapy work in our three-part series: