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Yoga Gets into Med School

Students learn to relax patients, and themselves


Emily Holick thought yoga was for sissies. But as a graduate student hoping to reduce stress, she gave it a try. And hated it. What irked the former college tennis player most was her inability to do a move that everyone else had perfected—the wheel, a complex pose that contorts the body into an upside down bridge. Holick says it was only her competitive spirit that kept her going.

Four years later, Holick (MED’14) believes that yoga has transformed her life. Although her first year of medical school was brutal, leaving her stressed and questioning whether she had what it takes to be a doctor, her yoga practice helped her cope. Then a curious string of events pulled her out of the abyss.

Holick took a healing arts class with Robert Saper, a School of Medicine associate professor of family medicine and director of integrative medicine, known for his research involving yoga and lower back pain relief. He recommended that she meet Heather Mason, a yoga therapist and trainer interested in creating a class for medical students, an idea Holick had toyed with herself.

“We met in a coffee shop in Cambridge and started dreaming,” Holick says. “It was amazing to meet someone who independently said this is something that medical students need.”

That java-infused dream has become a reality since, as Mason, Holick, and a team of medical students lobbied for its creation. Starting spring semester, MED will offer an elective called Embodied Health: Mind-Body Approaches to Well-Being. Mason will lead a weekly hour-long yoga session, followed by a half hour discussion of the practice’s medical benefits. The class will also be part of a research study led by Saper, Mason, and Allison Bond (MED’14) that will attempt to document changes in the students’ mental health. A pilot of the elective, called MED Yoga, or Mind-Body Education and Development Yoga, ran this semester, quickly attracting a following of 30-plus students.

While yoga sessions for med students are not unique (the University of Connecticut Medical Center and Georgetown Medical School both offer them), teaching students about yoga’s physiological and neurological effects is. Saper, who will be one of several guest speakers addressing issues from positive thinking to the neurobiology of stress over the 11 weeks of class, says the class “targets the unique challenges and stressors medical students face as well as offers a fairly advanced level of intellectual content appropriate for the medical students.”

And there are stressors: according to a 2009 study in Academic Medicine, nearly 25 percent of medical school students will be depressed at some point during their education. The Journal of the American Medical Association published a study in 2010 showing that the empathy medical students feel decreases as they progress through their four years.

BU MED yoga, Heather Mason, Embodied Health: Mind-Body Approaches to Well-Being

Yoga therapist Heather Mason leads a breathing exercise before a yoga session designed for medical students at the School of Medicine.

Mason believes that yoga can be a powerful antidote. On a recent Wednesday late afternoon, she tinkered with speakers that send a low chime through the airy space of the MED student lounge where the class was meeting. While she adjusted the sound, nearly three dozen students unfurled yoga mats toward a bank of windows facing the setting sun. Some had come directly from cramming at the library for a pulmonology exam the next day.

Mason, a petite 35-year-old brunette, spent three years in Southeast Asian monasteries as an out-of-the box method of battling chronic depression. That experience led her to earn master’s degrees in Buddhist studies and psychotherapy, and another now in progress in neuroscience.

The New York native paces methodically as she leads the class into a rhythmic ujjayi breath, a diaphragmatic breathing technique. “The chime is like an anchor bringing you back to the breath,” she says. “Inhale, lift, and open your heart center.”

Some students stumble from move to move; others slide into position as if into a second skin, eyes forward, bodies steady. After an hour, Mason directs them to close their eyes, lie down, and relax. Their limp bodies rest on a rainbow of yoga mats.

Mason asks them to count their breaths per minute. She knows that the ideal count of five or six has been shown to increase heart rate variability, which can ameliorate problems like depression, epilepsy, post-traumatic stress disorder, and cardiac disease.

Breaths counted, Mason segues from the practice of yoga to a short dissertation on the neuroscience of yoga, something that has been studied by Chris Streeter, a MED associate professor of psychiatry and neurology. In one study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, Streeter used magnetic resonance spectroscopy to explain why yoga practitioners report a greater improvement in mood and a decrease in anxiety than people who simply walked for relaxation. Streeter found that the yoga group had higher levels of the neurotransmitter gamma-amino butyric acid, or GABA, the likely cause of positive mood changes.

Mason explains to the class how the ujjayi breath and the chiming work together, medically, to bring about a healthful biological balance of breath, heartbeat, and other functions. When the lecture ends, Mason bows, and thanks her class with a namaste, a customary gesture on parting.

Mason says the first goal of MED Yoga was to let doctors know how yoga could help their patients, but then she realized how it could help the doctors themselves.

That message resonates with Holick, who feels refreshed by yoga and has renewed faith in her career choice. The past year has “made me realize that I can make medicine my own thing,” she says. “It’s an amazing profession that I really can help people in. Sometimes I really lose sight of these bigger things.”

For more information about the Embodied Health elective, visit the School of Medicine’s Enrichment site. Interested first- and second-year medical students can contact Ana Bediako to enroll.

Leslie Friday, BU Today, Boston University
Leslie Friday

Follow Leslie Friday on Twitter at @lesliefriday.

6 Comments on Yoga Gets into Med School

  • Kim Relick on 12.08.2011 at 11:43 am

    Sounds like a great course. Does Heather Mason have classes open to general BU students and faculty? Can you let me know if she teaches at a Yoga Studio in town?

    • Leslie on 12.08.2011 at 12:10 pm

      Hi Kim,

      Right now, the class is open to first and second-year medical students. Heather is based in London, and does not have a studio here in Boston. However, that’s not to say it will never happen. If you’re interested in more information about her work, check out here web site, again listed here: http://www.yogaforthemind.info/

  • Jon Jensen on 12.08.2011 at 7:40 pm

    Great article! One step toward stress physiology being a more central part of preventing disease and the practice of medicine. I’m happy to see that BU is a leader in this. Now when can non-MED students enroll in the course? :)

  • Philip Stevens on 12.08.2011 at 9:36 pm

    It is interesting to see that other universities now taking on yoga for medical students. While they may think it is unique, particularly at a higher intellectual level specific to medical students, Monash University in Melbourne Australia has run “Clinical Yoga” as an elective specifically tailored for medical students for the last 5-years. Monash also is the only university in the world to offer a BMedSc (Clinical Yoga) as a research-based honours degree for medical students to explore evidence-based applications of yoga in clinical practice.

    See http://adm.monash.edu/records-archives/archives/memo-archive/2004-2007/stories/20090527/yoga.html

    and http://www.med.monash.edu.au/bmedsc/docs/2010-2011projects/clinicalyoga2011.pdf

    and http://www.monash.edu.au/news/monashmemo/assets/includes/content/20101103/stories-60-seconds.html

  • Kenneth Loch on 12.10.2011 at 11:03 am

    I’m working on bringing Tennis into the practice of Mind / Body Medicine. I call my project Tennissance , the renaissance of tennis. I’m claiming to be the first athlete to be healed from the gap between the mind and body. Based on the fact that I’ve been healed, I can now heal others. I have my work cut out for me, when it comes to explaining how competition makes an individual mentally and physically unhealthy, because it is so ingrained in our educational system and society. I’m promoting Tennis as an ambidextrous exercise, which provides the means for understanding the connection between Tennis and Holistic Health. I’m hopeful that one day Tennis and Yoga will become yoked together.

  • Mandeep kaur on 06.13.2013 at 7:32 am

    I just did my b.ed in yoga .. I won’t joining this course what is the criteria of this course

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