Interview Series Part 2 of 5: Katie Allen

Exercise, Experts and Spine & Joint Health

(Back for more? skip the introduction and go directly to Part 2)

The health benefits of regular exercise are well known.  We exercise for weight loss, physical therapy, enhanced performance, aesthetics, and general well-being.  I see patients from all walks of life and each one of them faces his own unique set of challenges to health and fitness. Injuries can pose short-term or long-term challenges and frustration.  It’s easy to feel as if you’re backsliding rather than making strides toward your fitness goals.

As a chiropractor, I know that spine and joint protection are key to avoiding injury during exercise. I look at exercise through this lens and attempt to educate my patients about the structure and function of their spines and joints.  I also want my patients to enjoy the fulfillment which comes from exercising in a variety of ways while experiencing pain-free training.

With that goal in mind, I’ve created a 5-part educational series in which I interview a master Pilates instructor, yoga therapist, physical therapist, strength coach, and a spin instructor.  I want to introduce you to different types of exercise with an emphasis on spine and joint protection.  I hope you’ll benefit from the unique insights provided by these fitness experts.

Katie ALLEN, Director of yoga therapy training

My second conversation was with Katie Allen, Co-Founder of Be The Change Yoga, Yoga Therapist, and School Director of Yoga Therapist Training.  I talked with her recently about healthcare, yoga, and integrative wellness.  You can learn more about Katie by visiting: Be The Change Yoga. Here are the questions I posed to her and excerpts from her responses.

Because I have a family practice I work with a wide spectrum of patients. I see young athletes to baby boomers to geriatrics. Some incorporate yoga for injury prevention and others take to the mat for increased range of motion.

Is yoga concerned with flexibility or is it more for strength, balance, and coordination?

Answer: The physical aspect of yoga is known as asana. Asanas are always adapted to meet the needs of the individual student, so the goal and application of postures is never the same.

Generally speaking, yoga asanas do all of the above, they are designed to increase flexibility in areas that have become tight or restricted (such as shoulders, hip flexors, hamstrings, neck and shoulder muscles), as well as improve strength in areas that have become over-stretched or chronically weak such as low back muscles.

Yoga is a mind-body therapy that seeks to bind the mind to a single-pointed focus; which in turn makes it a meditation practice. Balancing poses improve the circuitry from the central to the peripheral nervous system; which improves coordination and neuromuscular patterning. Hence, practicing asana with a focused mind has been proven to improve flexibility, strength, balance and coordination.

How is yoga a departure from other more traditionally western exercise modalities?

Answer: Traditionally the word yoga has been defined as “to yoke” or “to bring together.” The practice of yoga seeks to harmonize body, breath, mind and spirit (if you have a spiritual practice – it is optional, as yoga is not a religion). The goal of the yoga practice is to move the mind to a single-pointed focus by connecting it with the breath; which then connects it to the body.

If someone is working out on an elliptical machine, they could be reading a magazine or watching television. Their body is engaged in repetitive movement but their mind is elsewhere, making them disconnected rather than integrated.

As a yoga therapist, I am constantly reminding my students to bring their minds back to the present moment, back to the breath and that this practice is just as much about coming back to sustained focus, as it is about maintaining it.

As a yoga evangelist, is there a deeper reward beyond the physical benefits?

Answer: For thousands of years, yoga has been a path to alleviate suffering by transforming the mind from a state of distraction to a state of direction. When the mind is calm and clear, it in turn, makes better choices; which leads to improved self-care, better relationships and a healthier, happier life. A great teacher, TKV Desikachar says, “the way to know that your yoga practice is working is that your relationships are getting better.”

What about yoga makes it unique and does it lend itself as a therapy for special conditions?

Answer: What makes yoga therapy unique is the wide array of tools we have at our disposal. Yoga therapists use tools such as: postures, breath-work, meditation, relaxation, sound, visualizations, lifestyle and dietary advice according to the yoga therapy framework.

Yoga also views each person as a multi-dimensional being (physical, energetic, mental, emotional, spiritual) and what happens on one layer will affect the other layers. We have assessment models to identify primary and secondary imbalances and offer customized treatment plans that are unique to each individual.

For example, if someone is overweight and then becomes depressed, we will offer practices to address the physical body first as the primary imbalance and then offer tools for the mental / emotional body to address the secondary imbalances. These practices will be different when compared to someone who has been chronically depressed since childhood and as a result has become overweight. These two cases may present with the same symptoms but the primary and secondary imbalances are different and will warrant different tools and practices.

How does yoga resonate with you on both a personal level and from a public health perspective?

Answer: Personally, yoga provides the lens in which I view the world. It is a daily practice of refining my mind, taking care of my body and connecting to my inner wisdom so I can be the best version of myself and manifest my highest potential in this lifetime. The self-awareness that comes from a long-term yoga practice allows us to choose the best response to each unique situation rather than reacting out of past conditioning and remaining a prisoner of our unfulfilling habits and patterns.

From a public health perspective, yoga provides a sound methodology to empower each person to make healthier choices. We are amidst an epidemic of chronic diseases and the underlying causes of these conditions can be largely prevented or reduced with changes in diet, movement, lifestyle and stress management. I wrote my masters thesis 10 years ago about yoga’s ability to prevent and treat chronic disease and it has been my life’s work ever since.

How are you utilizing yoga therapies as part of an integrated healthcare delivery model?

Answer: Our yoga studio, Be The Change Yoga, is home to Orange County’s first Yoga Therapist Training Program. Given our visibility as a therapeutic yoga center, we have been approached by numerous healthcare systems to provide yoga therapy solutions for their patients. We have built out a yoga therapy department at Hoag Hospital’s Center for Healthy Living where we offer classes for underserved communities in English and Spanish. We are also working to create an internship placement site for our yoga therapy interns to work alongside social work and nursing interns at Hoag.

In addition, we’re currently developing specific yoga therapy applications for patient groups at UCI’s Susan Samueli Center for Integrative Medicine and presenting on the benefits of yoga therapy to physicians at Kaiser Permanente.

Katie Allen handstand

Where do you derive the inspiration to orchestrate this paradigm shift?

Answer: Honestly, I do this work out of passion and I believe it in wholeheartedly. I have witnessed thousands of lives positively change through yoga therapy. Dr. Art Brownstein states, “yoga is the highest and most effective form of preventative medicine.” Yoga therapy research has doubled from 2008 to 2012, so now our field has the data to support the work that we do and the medical systems are ready to embrace integrative medicine.

In your 10 years of teaching how has yoga surprised you?

Answer: What’s surprised me most is how large and well established this field has become. Back in 2005 when I was in graduate school, I was not even aware of yoga therapy. I myself experienced the benefits but it wasn’t well publicized or mainstream. The amount of progress that this field has made under the leadership of the International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT) is remarkable and I am in awe of the expansion of this field and the opportunities that continue to arise. I feel as if we are on the cusp of something huge and it’s so exciting!

Yoga has the innate ability to change mind and body. How would you like to see Yoga utilized on a larger scale?

Answer: The goal of the International Association of Yoga Therapists is to integrate yoga therapy into the educational system and the healthcare system and my efforts are aligned with this vision. People today are stressed, overworked, disconnected from their bodies and thus become chronically ill. Yoga provides a low-cost intervention that can have a profound impact on physical, mental and emotional wellbeing.

What are you thoughts on its ability to optimize movement and enhance joint and spine health?

Answer: They say that the spine is the fountain of youth and we are only as young as our spines are flexible. Yoga asana provides a means to move the spine safely in every direction to improve mobility and strength as well as axially elongates the spine to improve posture and maintain intervertebral disc health as we age. In addition, the deep breathing practices we employ improve mobility of the rib cage by stretching the intercostal muscles between the ribs; which is an important component of spinal health.

The biggest overall benefit is the sense of awareness that results from yoga practice. People find themselves correcting their posture while they’re driving, working, eating etc. Taking a few moments throughout their day to stretch their necks when feeling tense, or stretch their wrists to prevent carpal tunnel after many hours at the computer. They receive tools on the yoga mat that can be used as they move through daily life and also develop the awareness as to when to use those tools.

What is a common injury for newbies and experienced yogis? Do you have any suggestions for ways to avoid injuries?

Answer: Many people are told to go to yoga for low back problems. Given our sedentary lifestyle and forward flexing culture, most people have weak or strained low back muscles, especially if they have excess abdominal weight. Since we are a therapeutic yoga studio, we hardly ever teach seated or deep forward folds in our beginners, gentle or therapeutic classes because it will exacerbate strained low back muscles and herniated discs.

People often times get injured when going to a gym-based yoga class, hot yoga or more advanced class that is inappropriate for their level or health conditions. Hence these classes will include a lot of forward folds or fast movements; which will exacerbate low back issues or cause other types of injuries. In addition, many group classes do not ask about injuries and offer a one-size-fits-all model, where students feel as if they have to do the poses even though they are inappropriate for their bodies.

Experienced yogis on the other hand can become ego-driven and often times attach their identities with their ability to master advanced postures. With this mentality, then can push themselves past their edge; which can cause injury. We always offer modifications in all our group classes and encourage our students to choose the most appropriate option for their bodies from a place of self-care rather than ego.

I thank Katie for this thought provoking interview.  I applaud her decision to pursue and reframe the way yoga is used while expanding the field of yoga therapy.  She sees healthcare from a distinct vantage point and understands how yoga can be a vital part of health and wellness for all of us.  As a prime mover in the integration of yoga with traditional healthcare systems, Katie provides an affordable intervention which can have a positive impact on both physical and mental health.  If you have questions for Katie, please visit her website.