Next time you head in for a check-up, don’t be surprised if your provider prescribes a course of mind-body therapy (MBT) to your adjunct care. A recent study found that nearly 1 in 30 (roughly 6.36 million) Americans are physician-referred to MBT, a category encompassing yoga, tai chi, qi gong, deep breathing, meditation, progressive muscle relaxation, and guided imagery. And if you’re already practicing some form of mind-body therapy, count yourself among the 34.8 million Americans who are self-referred. The survey suggests that roughly 18.4% of the US population practices some form of MBT.
The most common mind-body therapy prescribed by doctors is deep breathing (84.4%), followed by meditation (49.3%), yoga (22.6%), progressive muscle relaxation (19.9%), and guided imagery (13.9%), with similar trends observed in the self-referred group.
The survey indicated a dose-response relationship between higher usage of conventional care and likelihood of physician referral to a mind-body therapist; as office visits increased over a one-year period, MBT usage likewise increased. Patients with more chronic conditions were shown more likely to employ physican-referred MBT, as well as those who had visited a mental health professional in the prior year.
Nerurkar, Yeh, Davis, Birdee, and Phillips (2011) comment: “Our data suggest that conventional health care providers treating sicker patients with more frequent office visits may offer referrals for MBT as a last resort once conventional therapeutic options have been exhausted or failed.”
This survey raises several important topics for discussion. The increasing prescription of yoga by doctors is surely laudable, yet the trend toward prescribing it as a last-ditch resort, when all other routes have failed, is far from ideal. Much of yoga and other MBTs promise lies within the realm of preventive health, where they have been variously theorized to facilitate optimal health via numerous psychological and physiological pathways.
Future work should research the impact of initiatives encouraging doctors to prescribe MBTs as an adjunctive to first-line conventional treatment, and during routine physical exams. Sat Bir Khalsa, a yoga researcher at Harvard Medical School, likes to refer to yoga as the ultimate in preventive health by relating it to dental hygiene; it should be prescribed, taught, and practiced widely from a young age, as well as prescribed to populations with ill health who have been shown to benefit.
Lastly, the percentages of self-referred and prescribed MBTs show yoga lagging far behind deep breathing and meditation, despite the fact that traditional yoga incorporates both deep breathing (pranayama) and meditation. Decades of scientific research have firmly established the benefits of meditation and deep breathing, while yoga research is just beginning to scratch the surface. With promising preliminary research and centuries of yogic lore supporting yoga’s effectiveness, yoga appears an optimal adjunctive approach suited to many medical concerns and conditions, as well as preventive health.
Have you received a prescription from your doctor to practice yoga or any other mind-body therapies?