How yoga therapists work: Research, practice, and bridge building

By Smitha Mallaiah

When I arrived in the United States, I was astonished to find that yoga is perceived as a very physical practice, often stripped of its philosophical, spiritual, and cultural roots. I am a yoga therapist, educator, researcher, and, above all, a lifelong yoga enthusiast. My yoga education is from Swami Vivekananda Yoga Anusandhana Samsthana (S-VYASA), headquartered in Bangalore, India. S-VYASA is both a research organization and the first university to offer degrees in yoga. I came to the United States because I was hired as a mind-body intervention specialist to teach yoga for a breast cancer study at MD Anderson.

SYTAR, June 2019, in Newport Beach, CA.

A yoga therapist—and an educator

One of my first challenges was to raise awareness among my research team about yoga, its history, practices, and the differences between instructors and therapists. Throughout my professional journey I’ve primarily worked alongside medical providers, and when I introduce the concept of yoga therapy, I encounter a range of reactions from sheer astonishment to genuine curiosity. I’ve therefore dedicated myself to building bridges and fostering connections with various professionals while actively educating people about the therapeutic potential of yoga.  

Building bridges to yoga in the clinic…

Over my 12 years at the MD Anderson Cancer Center, I have had the privilege of working with wonderful colleagues, as well as thousands of people with cancer, of all ages and with all kinds of cancers, in clinics and in research studies. Many of the people receiving care have never done yoga, so one of my jobs is to culturally tailor the yoga therapy to meet their needs. I have witnessed the transformational power of yoga—reducing the burden of a person’s symptoms and enhancing their well-being during the most challenging of times. This rich clinical experience informs my yoga research role.  

…And in research

I have developed yoga research protocols, standardizing practices and variations, documenting effects and how well people are able to stick to the practice (adherence, in research-speak), and studying how other yoga professionals deliver the practices (fidelity to the intervention). This experience and collaboration led to the opening of the first yoga therapy clinic at MD Anderson 4 years ago; today, we offer inpatient and outpatient yoga therapy and group classes for patients and caregivers. The yoga therapy clients with whom I work have taught me humility, acceptance, and grace—and they remind me every day that research can benefit us in the real world. 

 Smitha Mallaiah, MSc, C-IAYT, is a senior mind-body interventions specialist at the MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas. She works with integrative medicine clinicians, using yoga therapy for people with cancer from diagnosis through treatment and beyond. Smitha is also the program director for S-VYASA USA.