“Low back pain? Neck and shoulder issues? Come try some yoga therapy!”
I’m standing in a white marble hallway on the second floor of the Rayburn building attempting to entice passersby to stop in and sample a treatment. Just behind me are tables covered in boxes of Arnica gel and acupuncture brochures. I’m waiting for congressional staff, who I’ve been told may or may not show up for their appointments, in the “integrative therapy room.”
The event on Capitol Hill last Wednesday was organized by the Integrative Health Policy Consortium (IHPC), a group of practitioners and policy wonks dedicated to bringing integrative therapies into health care. The consortium organized this day of treatments and presentations to bring attention to the potential for integrative therapies to address the chronic pain/opioid epidemic and make headway towards integration into the health care system. One of the things the IHPC is committed to is promoting collaboration between all therapies so there’s a friendly, supportive feeling in the room.
“We are looking to put together examples of models of care to present to Congress,” the event organizer, Kallie Guimond, IHPC Director of Government Affairs, had told me on the phone a few weeks earlier. “The new Congress is highly interested in integrative therapies.”
According to Guimond, these models, in addition to acupuncture, massage and homeopathy, may include mindfulness, meditation, and yoga – but yoga and yoga therapy are problematic because they are still not licensed, which means they’re not reimbursable by insurance.
“If we can reimburse yoga by offering it through licensed providers,” she said, “then it becomes one of the most important tools in the toolbox.”
But last Wednesday the chiropractors, massage therapists and acupuncturists where seeing lots of clients. My schedule was a little anemic. Upon seeing my empty “office” in the corner of the therapy room, Guimond told me to talk it up out in the hall and try to get people to drop in. “You can do it,” she tells me, “I’ve heard you speak about yoga, you know what you’re talking about.”
Right. Got it. (Is there a pranayama for sales pitch embarrassment?)
“Sorry,” a guy says as he passes, “Hydraulic Fracturing.” He continues to sashay by, “Wrong issue.” Next a group of people wearing National Education Association lanyards bustle by completely preoccupied. Then three women wearing hijabs and “Turkey is a human rights violator” t-shirts. It’s basically a parade of diverse, hurried, really busy looking people.
Suddenly, a fast-moving short woman with a bouncy ponytail stops in front of the table, “Love what you’re doing. Love that you’re here. It’s great! I’m a member.”
“Of what?” I responded cluelessly. (like a member of Costco?)
She introduces herself as Madeline Dean representing Pennsylvania’s fourth district. But I cannot retrieve the words that have mindlessly sprung from my oral cavity. My face is burning.
She smiles and kindly ignores the blunder. I explain a bit about the caucus and the work with chronic paid and the opioid epidemic and ask her to join. She tells me she’ll look into it, thanks me for being there, and heads off.
Later a staff member from Katie Hill’s (California) office shows up for her scheduled yoga therapy session. She tells me that she loves yoga and is really interested in learning more about yoga therapy and believes that it should be part of the healthcare system. They’re from California (and Katie Hill is only 31!). It’s nice to have a few minutes with someone who gets it.
Then I’m back out in the marble hall hawking again.
People walk by with responses like, “I can’t do any yoga, look at how I’m dressed!” But mostly they ignore me. I’m having a fun conversation with Doctor Doug, the MD representative of the American Academy of Medical Acupuncture sitting behind the table sharing brochures. In between my sessions we talk about shamanism, sound therapy, and the yamas and niyamas. I ask him again if he’s a doctor because. . . that’s just not typical MD conversation. He is. So he gets a hip emoji 😎.
Still not many takers, so I switch my sales pitch to: “Would you like to try some gentle stretches and breathing for low back or neck pain?”
Now more people are stopping and asking questions.
“I could use that,” says a young guy as he rubs the back of his neck. His colleague nods in agreement. I show them to my “office.”
They tell me how about their 12-hour days on the hill and that they, and everyone they work with, have trouble sleeping. I lead them through some basic chair postures and show them how to put their legs up the wall for a few minutes before bed. They leave with a stick figure handout, and offer gratitude and enthusiasm for what we’re doing.
Then there’s a lull in foot traffic because apparently all the bustling crowds have settled into committee meetings. So, I find my way downstairs to check out what’s going on in the Integrative Health and Wellness Caucus, a non-partisan group co-chaired by California Democrat Judy Chu and Indiana Republican Jackie Walorski. Before I quietly sneak into the session, someone sitting at a table in front of the room hands me a small bottle of CBD oil. ?
Leonard Wisneski, MD, the IHPC Chair of the board of directors is speaking. I’m inspired to see that some of his slides, which describe the work of the VA and the Department of Defense, are filled with many of the same facts and figures that I present in my Yoga for Chronic Pain workshops and my presentations about yoga therapy at health care conferences. He talks about the biopsychosocial spiritual etiology of chronic pain, the excessive costs, the poor outcomes of western treatments, and the need for scalable, innovative solutions.
At this point I need to sit on my hands so I won’t stand up and shout, “Yoga is a low-cost, low-risk, patient-centered, population health piece of the puzzle!”
I am happy to hear him cite the American College of Physicians recommendations for chronic pain control that include yoga:
Recommendation 2: For patients with chronic low back pain, clinicians and patients should initially select nonpharmacologic treatment with exercise, multidisciplinary rehabilitation, acupuncture, mindfulness-based stress reduction (moderate-quality evidence), tai chi, yoga, motor control exercise, progressive relaxation, electromyography biofeedback, low-level laser therapy, operant therapy, cognitive behavioral therapy, or spinal manipulation (low-quality evidence). (Grade: strong recommendation)
Dr. Wisneski and another presenter mention yoga a few times, lumping it into the above list. Oh well, I think to myself, at least it’s on the table, even if people don’t yet really understand the unique benefits.
I trek back up to the therapy room. Two young women from the House Committee on Labor and Education arrive for a neck and shoulder yoga therapy session. They are grateful for the simple stretches and seem to like my idea to consider using them as mini breaks during their long days on the hill.
I give them a stick figure handout. “I can do this at my desk,” one of them tells me. That’s the idea. Yoga can be a part of daily life, not just a thing you do at a studio after work. They kindly agreed to this selfie!
Suddenly it’s 2:30 and two logistics guys tell us they need to set up for the next presentation. The chiropractors, acupuncturists, massage therapist and I start to scramble to put away the screens and pack up the tables. Then we thank each other, exchange business cards, and say goodbye.
Did I overwhelmingly convince anyone that yoga and yoga therapy need to be included in the health care system?
Maybe, a little.
What makes me optimistic is that yoga has become part of the conversation and there’s some growing awareness. That, in and of itself, was worth spending half a day in a bustling, noisy hallway.
I have been training yoga professionals for the past 16 years in the adaptable healing practices of Subtle Yoga. And because I train, I’m committed to finding places for my teachers to work. I think the natural fit and the greatest opportunities exist in the broad, diverse field of health care.
Last Wednesday might have been a baby step. But small well-placed steps can gain momentum quickly.