Are Yoga and Western Medicine Incompatible?

This entry was posted on Nov 13, 2020 by Charlotte Bell.

A few years ago, a yoga teacher posted a blog about the evils of Western medicine and the healing powers of yoga. I’m in complete agreement with the power of practice to help a person maintain strength, flexibility, vitality, and calm. I’ve practiced yoga asana since 1982. But, with age, I also recognize that there are physical/mental/emotional conditions that yoga and other natural means just can’t heal.

The Blog

This blog was quite controversial, sparking a lively and long-lasting discussion on the compatibility of yoga practice and Western medicine. The author of the article expressed shock and disappointment at the use of antidepressants and anti-anxiety medications by yoga teachers. Claiming they were just taking a “happy pill” rather than doing the hard work of dealing with their issues. She then offered suggestions as to how to get yourself over the hump of depression. These included practicing yoga, taking baths, dancing around your space, and going outside and breathing in the light.

As you might expect, the blog was met with a fair amount of vitriol. I don’t believe mean-spirited comments are helpful, but I do agree that the blogger overstepped her authority in dangerous ways.

Yoga Teachers (Usually) Aren’t Psychotherapists

I don’t know the author’s experience level as a yoga teacher, but I suspect she has not been trained in psychotherapy. Otherwise she would be aware that chemical depression is a life-threatening illness. Breathing in the light does little for someone who’s struggling just to get out of bed.

While I tend to agree that antidepressants are often overprescribed, there are many people—including people I respect and care about—whose lives have been saved or at the very least, made bearable by them. I respect their choices and am glad these tools are available.

My Judgmental Past About Western Medicine

I’ll admit that I’ve been guilty of being suspicious of and reluctant to use Western medicine in the past. For most of my life I’ve lived in a low-maintenance body. As a vegetarian since 1978, I am interested in maintaining vitality through eating healthy foods and using natural means to deal with illnesses when they arise. Since I couldn’t afford health insurance for most of my adult life, I learned about natural remedies for the occasional imbalances I experienced. I also visited an experienced acupuncturist when I couldn’t get on top of a particular condition.

In the past I looked askance at people who resorted to pharmaceuticals to deal with physical imbalances. When someone told me they were starting some sort of Western treatment for a condition of imbalance, I offered what I felt to be helpful alternatives.

Then about 10 years ago, I found out, almost by accident, that my blood pressure was off the charts. My mother took blood pressure meds from her early 40s until she died at age 90. My dad passed from a heart attack at age 63 due to his unusually small arteries.

Despite my genetic predisposition, I proclaimed that I would not go on Western blood pressure meds to fix it. I doubled down on acupuncture, Restorative yoga, meditation, herbs and supplements. Nothing helped. I went to a naturopathic doctor, also trained in Western methods. After a few visits he said, “You already do all the things I’d suggest first: You don’t smoke or drink alcohol; you practice yoga and meditation; eat healthy, organic food; exercise. You need medication.”

By then I was alarmed enough by my elevated blood pressure was alarming enough that I took his advice. With a minimum amount of daily medication, my blood pressure has been stable since then.

Think of the Pills as Magic

Still, there was the shame. My own belief, and that of the larger yoga culture, was that my practice must not be strong enough or committed enough. I wrote to my friend and teacher Judith Hanson Lasater because I always appreciate her perspective. Her words were perfect: “Think of the pills as magic, because they are.” She was right.

The average human life span in the past was much shorter than it is now, and part of the reason is we didn’t have access to these minimally invasive medications to help control common issues. My dad’s father died of a heart attack in his mid-50s, probably because he didn’t have access to medications and procedures that could have given him a longer life. I never got to meet him.

During the course of trying to balance my blood pressure, many well-meaning friends gave me helpful advice, hoping to help me stay off the dreaded pharmaceuticals. While I appreciate their caring and generosity, and know they intended only to be helpful, their advice fueled my shame and embarrassment at having “failed” to take care of the problem with natural means. I had tried everything else, and I truly needed pharmaceutical assistance.

In the past, I have given similar advice to others. I no longer offer unsolicited suggestions, but when asked, I do refer people to the many capable therapists and providers I know. And I feel comfortable answering questions about yoga and meditation practice.

Use Whatever Works to Keep You Healthy

Now I believe that yoga and Western medicine do not have to be at odds. The intention is the same for both: wellness. The methods are different, but both aim to balance what is out of balance in our bodies and minds. I still keep up on the latest information on natural remedies, and I always use natural means as my first defense against common conditions. But there are some things that need Western intervention, and we are fortunate to live in a time when these methods are available.

We all come into the world with different genetics. Every one of us will encounter illness in our lifetimes. It is up to each of us to decide the remedy that is best for us in each instance. Rather than using yoga as a bludgeon to shame those who need Western intervention, can we use yoga to be open and supportive of everyone’s path, even if it doesn’t look like ours?

About Charlotte Bell
Charlotte Bell discovered yoga in 1982 and began teaching in 1986. Charlotte is the author of Mindful Yoga, Mindful Life: A Guide for Everyday Practice, published by Rodmell Press. Her second book, Yoga for Meditators (Rodmell Press) was published in May 2012. She writes a monthly column for CATALYST Magazine and serves as editor for Yoga U Online. Charlotte is a founding board member for GreenTREE Yoga, a non-profit that brings yoga to schools and to underserved populations. A lifelong musician, Charlotte plays oboe and English horn in the Salt Lake Symphony and folk sextet Red Rock Rondo, whose DVD won two Emmy awards in 2010.