Today we have another awesome guest on the show, Tiffany Crookshank. Tiffany’s an international Yoga teacher who has been teaching for over 20 years. An author, health and wellness expert, and the founder of Yoga Medicine. She’s also internationally known for her focus on fusing the two worlds of Eastern and Western medicine together, and applying it to the practice of Yoga in an accessible and relevant way. Tiffany, welcome to The Science of Success.
Tiffany: Thanks for having me, Matt.
Matt: Well, we’re super excited to have you on here. To kind of kick things off, I’m curious, tell me: How did you get started in the field of Yoga?
Tiffany: I was actually really young. I was a little bit of trouble maker in my early teens and my parents sent me off to a wilderness rehab program, kind of to get me back into shape. It was a really empowering experience for me; learning how to survive, and there were herbalists out there that took me on plant walks and kind of taught me how to use the plants around me, and it kind of began my investigation into holistic health and really wanting to help others in health and wellness.
As soon as I got home I saw this little sign that said “Yoga” and a phone number. At the time there weren’t really any Yoga studios, and eventually I remembered, and I went. And, being an athlete- growing up and being really athletic- the physicality was really interesting to me, but there was always something kind of “more” that I don’t really know that I knew, or was really even conscious of at the time, but there was something really intriguing to me. And, as a fourteen-year-old girl at the time, it was these moments of also just being comfortable in my skin, but also being able to explore with my background.
And in healthcare, as well, is kind of this intermingling of how Yoga can also be really an adjunct to our healthcare.
Matt: And, kind of dove-tailing off of that, tell me a little about how your unique blend of sort of Western science and Eastern medicine helps inform your study of Yoga.
Tiffany: Once I got really interested in Yoga and herbal medicine, I quickly finished up my high school and started college at sixteen, and went off to college and did my premed in nutrition, and then went off to Chinese medicine school. I was really intrigued by how the art of Chinese medicine, and this kind of ideal balance and health; and did my Chinese medicine and then went off to do a specialty in sports medicine and orthopedics.
When I started seeing patients, one thing I noticed really quickly was that the people, the patients who came and saw me- I had many of them who were Yoga students as well- got better so much quicker than my patients who weren’t Yoga students. And so one day, finally, a light went off and I was like, “Well, maybe I should start giving some- what I called at the time- Yoga prescriptions to my patients who were not Yoga students”. And I did, and it was usually only one to three poses that they would do each day on their own for a few minutes, and found that their response was really great. Their response to my treatments improved and things seemed to be going a lot easier. So I… over time, over the past twelve years or so of running teacher trainings, I’ve slowly integrated that into what I do training other teachers.
One thing that I’ve always enjoyed as a healthcare practitioner, as well as a Yoga teacher, is for me what’s really important is people understanding how things work. We know now the power of the mind and how important it is in health and healing, and then being able to bring that into our work, whether as patients or students, just in this understanding in how East and West meet. How we can kind of look at this Eastern philosophy of Yoga, or Chinese medicine, in a Western mental context, and kind of bring in anatomy and physiology. Not only to make it more effective, potentially, but also really so that our students and patients are- or my students and patients at the time could really make sense of it. I really think that’s an important part of your body’s ability to integrate, and also respond to treatments.
Matt: So, I’m a total novice about this. I’ve taken like one Yoga class in my entire life. What kind of differentiates Yoga from other forms of exercise?
Tiffany: You know, I’d say the biggest thing is… especially now because Yoga’s changing and there’s so much that’s getting pulled into this modernized Yoga, which is great, but I think the big over-arching theme is this “mindfulness”. You know, that it’s not just calisthenics or cross training- which we do see a lot of cross training stuff in Yoga now, and Pilates and calisthenics- and it really is a mindfulness that’s over-arching it. There’s a purposeful awareness of the body and the breath. And, this kind of “orchestration” of how the mind and the body connect, and reconnecting that awareness in the body. And, as a healthcare practitioner, I think it’s really big part of using Yoga in the medical sci- kind of, communities, because it’s, for me, the foundation of working with patients. You know, it’s really difficult, as a healthcare provider, to work with people who have no body awareness. Right? To come in and be like, “I don’t know, my shoulder just hurts,” and not be able to answer any questions. One of the great things, if nothing more- and I think there’s a lot more to it than this- that Yoga just gives you this body awareness that I think is helpful both within your context of your relationship with your doctors, but also as kind of like an owner’s manual to your unique body. Whether that’s finding a diet that works for you, or finding an exercise protocol that works for you, or so many other things, you know? So that we can really notice, “What is this mindful awareness that is Yoga?” in some context, outside of our Yoga practice as well.
Matt: Tell me more about the concept of body awareness.
Tiffany: Yeah, I mean, it’s just a general phrase that we use to talk about really becoming intimate with the experience of sensations that happen under your skin. Which, really isn’t very different form meditation. I’m a huge fan of meditation, and I think meditation can be- it is a part of Yoga, it is a branch of Yoga as well, but it’s this ability to translate that into movement; into how we are in our world and our relationships; to be able to feel the sensations in my feet when I’m standing or hanging out in the grocery line; or to be able to feel this experience in maybe my back even, while I’m sitting at my desk. And, you know, body awareness to me also implies a lack of judgement. Yes, you know, obviously we want to be able to take these cues in Yoga and be able to move away from pain, and stay safe in our world and our lives, but there’s also this ability just to observe and to notice how these things influence us.
One of the pillars of Yoga philosophy is this ability to kind of… what we talk about is soften the fluctuations of the mind. These ups and downs. You know, the high points and the low points, so that we can find some place in the middle where we can really just be reflective and be able to notice. Whether that’s body sensations, or meditating, or playing with our family.
Matt: So, meditation is something that I’m a huge advocate of, and we’ve had a number of episodes and guests in the past talk about meditation. One of the questions- or one of the things I’m really curious about- and you just touched on it is: How does Yoga sort of relate to meditation? And also, how is it different from meditation.
Tiffany: Well, I think, first off, most people in the Yoga world would agree that meditation is a part of Yoga; is a type of Yoga. Though, now-a-days meditation can kind of live in its own world sometimes, as well. I don’t think you have to- many people think of Yoga as the Asanas, or the physical postures that we put our bodies into, but meditation is, to most people in the Yoga world, considered a branch of Yoga.
In really traditional Yoga, the way it’s been taught in the past, is that the first step is really learning the Asanas. These physical postures: downward facing dog, or upward facing dog, or triangle pose. With Yoga medicine we do a lot of training our teachers of how to apply this as more… not physical therapy per say, but more of a physical practice to be able to tune the body in a way that’s more therapeutic. The whole purpose of the Yoga then was to create this sense of body awareness, but also comfort in our bodies. Which, you know, is a constant fine-tuning process as our bodies change depending on the circumstances we put them in, but it allows us to kind of train the body to be able to sit. And, the next step would be the breathing practices. So, the breathing practices are made to train the nervous system so that eventually the final practice is meditation.
Traditionally the Asanas, the physical postures, are really kind of like… you could think of them like the gateway to mediation. Some traditionalists might say, “If you’re able to meditate and sit, great! Maybe you don’t need the physical postures. Maybe you don’t need the Yoga.” I think, in our modern world, that all of it has different important things. You know, this was back in a time when the purpose of Yoga was to become enlightened. I think there’s many translations of what that might mean in a modern day context as well, but I think the different branches of Yoga- the physical, the breathing, and the meditation- all provide us with very different things that all feed off of each other as well.
Matt: And that reminds me of the book, Autobiography of a Yogi, which he kind of talks about the concept of Yoga, which was written many, many years ago and really today seems more like he’s talking about meditation than Yoga. I guess I’d never really conceived of it as that meditation’s essentially a type of Yoga. In which case, then I practice every day.
Tiffany: Yeah, that’s an old school text. I mean, there’s some far out stuff in there. My first [00:13:03] was actually from the yogananda lineage, which is “Autobiography of a Yogi”, and I think a lot of it’s still very relevant as well, but it is looking at the meditation, and a lot of the older practices. The oldest practice of Yoga they can find really is around meditation. Before they started to see the Asanas- the physical postures- coming about.
Matt: So, focusing a little bit on the Asana side of the equation, what are some of the health benefits that you see from people who practice Yoga on a regular basis?
Tiffany: Well, I think in a modern context the physical practice is really relevant because… one big thing, I think many of us are sitting in desks for long periods, or maybe in cars, or maybe that’s carrying babies around, or kids around. We have very awkward scenarios that we do, and maybe your job is very different from that, but we have repetitive movements that we have to create, whether you’re an athlete or a desk worker, that have our bodies really changing to accommodate this. And you know, this experience in our body, the sensations, really change how we see the world around us. They change our perspective. They change how we both interact with ourselves as well as the people around us. So, I think just the physical postures themselves, if nothing more than to just feel more comfortable in your body, is a really important part of that.
We look at this ability to have balance of both elasticity of the soft tissues. The ability to be pliable and have the right amount of range of motion, but also strength in the tissues to stabilize and support the joints for the integrity of the long-term health of the joints. To me, I think Yoga for most people, because whether they’re an athlete or a desk worker, we have very repetitive movement that we do, or stationary postures that we take, that Yoga kind of challenges us to move in new ways. Which, when we look at it from a physical medicine standpoint is really important. That our bodies are moved and challenged and stretched and strengthened in different ways so that the deeper structures of the joint aren’t getting worn, or irritated, over time from constant movement in the same patterns. I think there’s a lot more to it, but I think that’s one big part of it for the physical practice.
Again, I’m sure as a meditator yourself, there’s this sense of when you can sit more comfortably, and a lot of the Yoga postures are focused around hip openings so that there’s this ability to sit comfortably so that you can meditate. So that you’re mind’s not constantly going, “Ah my back! My back! My back!” There’s these moments of just being able to sit comfortably.
Matt: And I think that… going back to the idea of many people today are sort of knowledge workers, or desk workers, there’s a phrase that gets thrown around that “sitting is the new smoking”. So, it seems like Yoga may be a really beneficial tool to help your body recover from the fact that you’re sort of have these repeated stresses again and again of sort of sitting, typing, that kind of thing.
Tiffany: Absolutely. One of the things we really love- I love to teach our teachers, and we really specialize in with Yoga medicine, is really fine-tuning it for the individual. So if there are physical injuries, or repetitive motions, or illnesses, that the practice really should be applied in a very different way for each person. That really not only helps with the physical therapy side of things, but also really this mind-body connection.
The breath, the nervous system, the ability to kind of retrain how the nervous system perceives both stimulus, as well as our awareness of ourselves in our bodies, and our awareness of ourselves in the world around us. And this regulation of parasympathetic tone, which is so- I mean, gosh we could talk another hour just on that- and how important that is in the Yoga, both in the effects we see so much in the research now in Yoga- a lot of it is really looking at how it affects the parasympathetic nervous system. We know that the parasympathetic nervous system really has effects on this global system of the body, whether we’re talking organs, or muscles, or cognitive function. And, so we see pretty potent effects from that work as well.
Matt: Dig in a little bit more about the concept of the parasympathetic nervous system. That’s not something that we’ve talked about before on the podcast, and I’m sure listeners would love to kind of understand that concept fundamentally. And also, maybe some of the research behind how that’s related to Yoga.
Tiffany: Yeah, it’s actually something we’ve known for a long time, and many people probably have taken anatomy and physiology in college, or otherwise probably have learned about it at some point. These simple such systems of the nervous system. The autonomic nervous system is broken down into parasympathetic and sympathetic. It’s getting a lot more hype in the media, on the internet now, but this idea, the sympathetic is really more of the fight-or-flight, and the parasympathetic is this relaxation mode. What’s important though, is the fight-or-flight was really designed to get us out of trouble. When there was a bear coming we would run really quickly, or maybe in a modern day context lifting a car off of someone, potentially. These really serious significant situations where our body releases stress hormones to really help us respond to significant situations by putting more energy and blood in our muscles. By taking it out of the organs to really deal with this acute stressor. What that means though is that all of the other functions of the body are really put off for a while; they’re put on hold. So, it’s really helpful at the time, but when our bodies need to slow down and do things like digest our food, extract nutrients, sleep at night, heal, repair, detoxify. All these really important processes that happen inside the organs, inside the body that we don’t see, that we don’t really feel so much, need to happen in that parasympathetic mode, and do happen during that parasympathetic mode.
So, it’s an interesting conundrum, I think, because in our modern world we’re so focused on our to-do list, right? We all are. I am the same. We’ve got things we’re trying to accomplish each day, or maybe our goals even potentially for the year, or our lifetime. We’re constantly checking off what we’ve done, and it’s really difficult to check off- who puts on their to-do list, “Today I did nothing?”; “Today I just sat and relaxed”, but the reality is that time when we slow down, that time when we’re relaxing a little bit more- whether that’s still doing a little bit of work on our computer or not- but those times when we can find that relaxation mode is when our bodies can actually take care of themselves and start to process, not only nourishment, but also elimination of waste or toxins in the body that you need to get rid of. So it’s a really malleable part of our bodies that happen internally that we don’t see, and so it’s hard to put a value on them. You know, it’s hard to say, “Gosh, I really need to spend more time just relaxing.” I think many of us are getting that now as we start to understand how important stress is, but when we look at the nervous system and this parasympathetic versus sympathetic, being able to relax is really important. I like to think of it like a light switch, it should be something where our bodies can flip back and forth just like flipping a light switch from going and doing and creating, which is also a very important mode- sympathetic mode is still also significant- but then we should be able to flip right back into parasympathetic. That’s where we often run into trouble is we lose what we call “parasympathetic tone”, which is just like a muscle in the body that needs to be built up through learning, and training, and really experiencing this relaxation mode over and over again so that our bodies can flip back and forth from our worktime day, to being able to sleep at night, to slowing down to eat, to slowing down during our day for those moments of relaxation where the body can really nourish itself. Just a simple Yoga practice can be great at that, it doesn’t really need to be anything fancy.
Matt: So, Yoga is a potential tool that you can use to kind of build that parasympathetic muscle…
Tiffany: Absolutely, and I think just having body awareness. It starts to tune the nervous system in to what’s happening inside of the body versus all of these external stimulus. Which is part of the traditional path of Yoga is to take your mind away from all these distracting stimulus to be able to draw it to one point so that whether you’re trying to focus on your work and improve cognitive function, you’re able to focus on the one thing at hand, or be able to relax and allow your body to digest. There’s this sense of pulling our body awareness into itself so that our bodies can focus on what’s important.
The body awareness within a Yoga practice of just being able to show up to Yoga class- whatever class that might be. Or, maybe you’re working with a teacher and lie on your back and go from- maybe you’ve gone from a long day at work and you lie on your back and all of a sudden you notice it: “Wow, I was really tense.” It’s not so much about having to relax, but part of it is just noticing those sensations, “Wow, I really hold a lot of tension here all day long.” Before the nervous system can change it has to notice that there’s something wrong. So, the body awareness is the foundation of that, and then learning what it feels like to relax; learning this parasympathetic response-this relaxation response- through even just gentle Yoga practices, restorative poses, yin practices, breathing practices. Meditation, obviously, is a part of retraining the parasympathetic nervous system. However, for people who are maybe more tense, or stressed out, or unable to relax, it can be much harder to start in meditation, for many people.
Matt: So, that dovetails into another question I had about the different types of Yoga, and I’ve done a single bikram Yoga class before, for example. I’ve done one or two sort of regular Yoga classes. What are the different sorts of Yoga practices, and are there different benefits from the different types? Or, I guess, could you kind of go into that a little bit?
Tiffany: Absolutely, I mean there’s a lot of difference from one style to another. There’s the more vigorous styles of “bikram” or “hot Yoga”, “vinyasa Yoga”, “power Yoga”, ashtanga Yoga, which are really more movement based, definitely more strength based and, and more active, I guess, then some of the other forms. Definitely within those they’re going to have different attributes. I’d say, for someone who’s looking for more active practice, who feels like movement is really helpful for them… I like to teach my teachers a brainy understanding of why and how to use things, but with my patients and my students, and my teachers as well, I think one thing is really important- of utmost importance- is that you recognize how your body feels both during and after these practices to know how to apply it.
So, if you go to an ashtanga or a vinyasa class, or one of these more vigorous classes; bikram class; and you feel really tired afterwards, it might be that your body really just needs something more mellow. People who need to move, who’ve got to let some energy out and need to exercise, often feel really invigorated after a really vigorous movement based practice. But, obviously there’s differences between teachers and levels, and each one of those. So, if you’re new to Yoga and you just want to start with it, find a place that offers some beginner’s classes to help you learn the proper alignment and form and things… and just trying one out to find one that you like.
There’s the other side of it, which is more the relaxation side of it, which is more mellow practices for people who need to destress, who need to relax, who need, in many ways, more of the parasympathetic stuff that we talked about. Restorative Yoga is one where you’re using a lot of props to support the body so that you can really relax and notice the breath; notice the sensations. Yin Yoga is a type of Yoga where poses are held for three to five minutes in order to really affect the connective tissue. Which is really great for range of motion; for people who are really tight. And then there’s pranayama practices that really focus on the breathing. And then all sorts of combinations in between there.
There’s many different styles. Iyengar’s a great one; Iyengar’s also very alignment based. Kind of more of a set system developed by a man named “Iyengar”, and is very alignment focused. Hatha Yoga is kind of a general term for really any of the Asana practices, but also can be used as a term for more moderately paced that have some movement, and also some relaxation and body awareness, which can be like a nice middle ground if you’re not sure where to begin. But, I really recommend that people sample out; not only teachers because every teachers going to be slightly different, as well as styles. And if you’re new, to try and find beginner friendly classes because it is helpful to get a little extra insight. There’s so many people practicing Yoga now days that the intermediate classes often skip over a lot of the beginning stuff assuming that people know that and have heard it. Then you ever really feel like you understand it. It’s nice to kind of understand what you’re doing first in a beginner class, or even just working one-on-one with a teacher for a little while, but there’s a lot of variation out there within those as well.
Matt: And that’s something personally, I’ve felt a little bit of… almost “overwhelm” of being interested in Yoga, but also being like, “Well, I don’t know if this class, or that class, is the class I should take.” I’m curious, for someone who’s listening… or someone like me, even, who maybe wants to get started, but hasn’t really ever done it, what is the best first step for somebody to take?
Tiffany: I would say just to be really simple. If you’re looking for something more active, I’d look for something that’s vinyasa based; that’s kind of a very big category of Yoga that you can find in most places. If you’re looking for something more mellow, looking for more restorative or yin. Then just searching Yoga in your area and reading the descriptions. I think you learn a lot from someone’s bio. The beauty of Yoga now days is in most places there’s a lot of options, so you can find a teacher who sounds interesting to you. But, it should be enjoyable to some extent, though it might be more difficult and challenging, whether that’s to relax or to, in the more vigorous classes too; in a physical sense.
Find something that feels helpful to you, which is going to be very different from one person to another, and to kind of let your gut guide you on that one.
Matt: In terms of other exercise styles; other types of exercise; would you say there’s certain things that maybe work well in conjunction with Yoga? Or certain things that you might want to gravitate towards?
Tiffany: There’s a lot of different takes on that. I think, you know, I do a lot with athletes and training teachers to work with athletes. I think it’s – for any sport- can be a really great adjunct because most sports have repetitive motions, or injuries associated with them, and working through different ranges of motion, restoring range of motion, as well as working the smaller-maybe deeper-muscles that really help to stabilize a joint in a different way than they would in their sport-kind of like a cross training mentality- can be really helpful. We see a lot of help with Yoga as cross training for athletes.
You know, if you have a specific sport, especially if you’re high caliber athlete, or you have a really specific injury, I think you really should be working one-on-one with a teacher so that it can really be accommodated to your unique body. If you can find someone who can work with you one-on-one that’s always preferred, especially for specific things, but you get a lot out of a group class as well. Being able to just go through a general practice; that can be helpful too.
As far as specific exercise, I think it’s nice to find what you like. Something I really believe in as a healthcare provider is that I always encourage my patients to find something they enjoy. I think exercise is more valuable, in a health sense, if you can enjoy doing it. The benefits of it will be much more than if you’re one of those people that just feels like they’ve got to go pound the pavement for however any miles a day, and they feel like that’s just what they have to do to lose weight. But, there is some benefit from the enjoyment of something. Whatever that exercise might be.
Matt: As an experienced Yoga instructor, when you see people starting out, what do you typically see people struggle the most with?
Tiffany: I think the hardest thing is the unfamiliarity with it. Most people come and do Yoga class, and especially nowadays that Yoga has become so popular and common; most people, when they’re new, they go into Yoga class-and maybe even a beginner class-and they’re surrounded by people who know the words; they know the names; they’re comfortable. They have their Yoga clothes on and they’re comfortable. Someone who’s new might come in in shorts and a tee shirt and not really be able to move so well. It’s finding clothes that are comfortable to move around in, which doesn’t really necessarily have to be spandex, but something that’s comfortable for you to move around in. You know, it’s getting comfortable.
If it’s a vigorous class-sweating-not everyone loves sweating. And then most people who come to Yoga are a little bit tighter, and though it’s really not about being flexible, it’s kind of being okay with not being the best in the room, and not having to touch your toes. Not having to do the pose this perfect way, but being able to just kind of not worry about what the people are doing around you, and listen and tune in to your body, and breathe, and be in the experience rather than be distracted by all of the things around you. To just allow yourself to enjoy it as it is; to not have to be able to do the poses a certain way, but be able to really appreciate the experience for whatever that might be as a beginner. Whether that’s even just starting to understand what they’re saying and looking around and kind of figuring it out, and then getting more comfortable with it. That takes, for some people, a few classes, for some people, many classes. For most people, though, even just after one or two classes they’re starting to get the hang of it and feel more comfortable there.
Matt: Tell me a little bit about the concept of Yoga medicine.
Tiffany: For me, as a healthcare provider, I saw a really big gap. I really wanted to- I saw a lot of other healthcare providers wanting to provide Yoga to their patients. I think it’s a great adjunct to so much. I think our medical system is so overwhelmed by people with pain, in particular, but also ongoing care. People, even with a physical therapist, often only go for four to ten visits, and that’s a lot more than they go to their doctors or anyone else they see, potentially. Even as an acupuncturist, there’s something really great about having continuous care with people as a Yoga teacher, or sending them off to have continuous care with a Yoga teacher- with someone who can check in with them on knowing that Yoga is really great because our health is not an endpoint, it’s a constant state of fluctuation depending on the circumstances we’re in, our environment, our work, our families; emotionally. So it’s a nice kind of ability to have these tune-ups for our lives; for our health.
As a healthcare provider I saw the biggest missing link there was for people to be able to find Yoga teachers that they could refer to. In the Yoga world, it’s fantastic now, we have so many different types of Yoga and so many great things out there, but as a healthcare provider I’ve always wanted to send my patients to someone who could talk to them on a- in a Western sense. Who understood the anatomy and the physiology, and was going to be able to work with their unique body rather than- maybe as a doctor you might send someone to a Yoga teacher, they might end up going and chanting. Which could be great too, could be very helpful, but I think as a doctor you want to have some idea of who you’re sending them to.
My whole purpose with Yoga medicine was to create some kind of continuity; of reliability; for a resource for doctors to be able to refer their patients to; to work with them on an ongoing sense. Especially now that we have so much research around the effects of Yoga on the nervous system, on disease and illness and injuries, and the body in general. For me, the really big missing link was them being able to have a referral source.
So, on our website we’ve got our “find a teacher” site where people can go and type in their zip code, and it’s really transparent. They can see all the teachers around them; they can see exactly the training they’ve completed with us so that if they have a shoulder injury, or their patient has a shoulder injury, they can find a teacher who’s done the shoulder module. They can see exactly what they’ve studied and how much they’ve trained with us, and where they are, and how to get ahold of them. We’ve got over a thousand teachers on there, or so now, all over the world. So, o it’s a really great resource for people to connect with teachers more one-on-one. Which, in a medical sense, as a healthcare provider, it’s really difficult to be like, “Just go to a Yoga class”, because as you know now, from this talk so far, there’s a huge expanse of differentiation between different types of Yoga practices, and one might be really helpful for your patient, and one might be not helpful- it might even make things worse, potentially. I think for the most part Yoga’s going to help many people in a general sense, but when you have a significant injuries or illnesses, or high caliber athletes really wanting results and needing help, I think it’s really important to have someone you can work with one-on-one who also is really familiar with the body from both an Eastern and a Western perspective.
Matt: Within your practice, what results- or maybe some specific examples, or stories, of things that you’ve seen- from prescribing people Yoga, for lack of a better term?
Tiffany: I’ve used it for a lot of different things. Most of my specialty is in sports medicine, so most of what I’ve worked with has been injuries. I was at the Nike World Headquarters for six years or so and started their acupuncture program there, and taught Yoga there. So a lot of it has been with orthopedic injuries, physical injuries, but definitely seen people with long-term sleep problems; I’ve worked with people with fertility issues; athletes. I lived in New York for a while and saw all sorts of interesting celebrities and things. I would say 70% of my practice, though, is orthopedics. People with back pain is a big part. Anything from herniated discs, to chronic lower back pain that’s been undiagnosed; hip issues; surgical patients who have had a lot of surgeries and not been able to find any relief there. I’ve seen, I think, 25,000 or so patient visits over the past 12 years or so.
Tiffany: Yeah. It’s been a big mix.
Matt: You also touched on-a moment ago- the research, and some of the science behind the effects of Yoga on the body. I was wondering if you could share a few of the findings, or some of your favorite examples that you’ve seen…
Tiffany: A lot of my current res- the work that I’ve been doing really looking at research lately has been really around meditation; because of my latest book on meditation. Really, to be honest, the research that we see around the actual physical practice is actually much less. Most of the research is around really simple things like breathing practices and meditation, and really its effects on anything from eating disorders, to people’s experience going through cancer protocols- really more of the side effects, to eating disorders-bulimic, bulimia- anxiety, depression… there’s a lot of them.
I think recently I’ve been looking-and really interested in- a lot of the research around how meditation really affects our relationship, both to food and to metabolism. My book, “Meditate Your Weight”, is really about how meditation affects the metabolism, and not just the obvious one. I think the big part is looking at how it affects the nervous system for the parasympathetic mode. That stress response is a big part of the cortisol release, and really intimately influences the metabolism and how our bodies hold on to fat, or release fat, in the body. But also, a lot of the research that we’ve seen around people’s relationship to food and how we eat, and how we feed ourselves. Looking at research around people who have eating disorders like bulimia and their ability to do a really simple practice like meditation, where they’re just simply noticing, without judgement, without any desire to fix or change. Just starting to notice our natural tendencies. Research around people’s food choices and how having the regular meditation practice can really influence that.
There’s a lot around meditation. In fact, you’re probably familiar with it. I definitely would say there’s less around the physical practice, which is coming. We’re actually starting. We’ve just hired someone at Yoga Medicine from Brown University who is leading our own research branch within Yoga medicine where we’re running our own research experiments looking at more the physical practice of Yoga because that is definitely an area where research is lacking comparatively to meditation. I think it’s time for it to come of age.
Matt: For listeners who are curious about meditation, we have done a very in depth episode on it in a podcast in the past so that’s definitely something to check out. We also had a great interview with a meditation teacher and entrepreneur, Vishen Lakhiani. So, if those are things that you’re interested in, I highly recommend checking both of those episodes out.
I’m also curious, Tiffany, tell me a little bit about how meditation impacts metabolism. That’s something I’m fascinated with.
Tiffany: The first part was what I was just mentioning around the connection to the parasympathetic response, and the stress response, and the cortisol release. You would see a lot around the cortisol and insulin response, and how our holds on to fat. How it really tells our body how to process the food that we take in. There’s a big part of it around that simple response that I’ve already talked quite a bit around, the parasympathetic response, which is really tied into that stress response, and the cortisol, and the hormonal response of stress, in both an acute and a chronic sense. As we start to get into more of that stress response, which is the sympathetic response, the fight-or-flight mode that I talked about before, we see this release of cortisol, this release of insulin, and how our body then starts to hoard fat and hold onto fat. It has a very difficult time releasing fat. And by fat, I’m talking about adipose tissue, not to be confused with the fat that we eat, but also how we process the fat that we eat. So, by really teaching the body to kind of steer clear of that stress response; that chronic stress response. I found for myself- my first book was on optimal health, it was called “Optimal Health for a Vibrant Life” and it was really looking at Yoga and nutrition home remedies, and a lot of the things I’d used with my patients, and one thing I found afterwards-after working with people for a while with that- was that there was a pretty good segment of people who were seeming to really do all the right things. With the internet, and media now, we have so much access to eating well and exercising, but that weren’t really changing; that weren’t able to lose weight; weren’t able to feel healthy. I think, for me what I noticed was that a big part of it, in my experience was one, the stress- there was this common theme of stress in many of those people- with most of those people- and their ability of then to kind of slow down and relax and integrate this parasympathetic response.
The beauty of meditation for me is that it’s not just that. There’s this very physical, chemical component to it of looking at the regulation of the nervous system and the stress response, and cortisol and insulin, but what we’re looking at, really primarily, is not just that but really how we relate to food. How we nourish ourselves. This mindfulness that meditation allows us to really examine, “Why am I eating this?” You know, to even just to take a second before you sit down for a meal and notice how you feel. Notice what you need in your body. It sounds kind of esoteric and vague, but to be able to check in and notice, “Do I need to eat this plate of sugar or bread”, or whatever it might be? “Is this going to feel good?” “How do I feel after I eat?” Again, the key is really without judgement. They have actually done a lot of research around this ability to slow down and savor food, and feel more satisfied connected with a meditation practice, and helping us understand what real physical hunger and fullness feel like. Dealing with things like cravings; helping us just look at those cravings that come up and notice what it is our body is actually needing.
To me, meditation also really helps people- there’s so many diets out there, and it really helps people understand for themselves what’s really helping. This concept of eating the right diet is really more of a brainy mentality versus actually experiencing what feels best in my body, because there’s a diet that works for everyone. Knowing which one to choose can be a lot. So, really understanding not only that, but our relationship to food, our relationship to our body image; how we see ourselves. This concept pf people that have been really overweight for a long time, and lose weight. Maybe they had to shift to go through a doorway or move differently in their day, and they still move in those patterns. The counter side of that is people who can’t lose weight, who can’t wrap their head around this new concept of change; this concept of them in a different body weight. So, looking at our self-concept, how we see ourselves, what we expect of ourselves… and it’s very different than going through counseling- which is fantastic; I think very helpful; but it’s this common thread of being able to observe without judgement, without having to fix. Without even having to change, but being able to see how our habits- how they reflect on our bodies and our minds, and our spirit. To have the option to change if we want, or not, if it feels like it’s something we don’t want to change, or isn’t helpful. But, the option just to be able to observe.
I think there’s multiple layers to how meditation really influences us. Not only for our metabolism, but for health in general, which is always to me of the utmost importance. More important than anything is just: How do we feel better? How do we allow ourselves to be healthier and more functional, and more connected to the people around us?
Matt: Really insightful, thank you so much for sharing that. I think that was an amazing description of not only the power of meditation, but also specifically in the context of health, and body image, and eating.
What would one piece of homework be that you would give to somebody listening to this episode?
Tiffany: I think, with our understanding, we’ve talked a lot about the nervous system on this call. With our understanding of the nervous system that we’ve talked about- with the parasympathetic mode and the sympathetic- one of the most important things we start to learn now with this concept of neuroplasticity-which is simply the concept that the brain and the nervous system can change. We used to think that once they were created- the neural connections were created in the body that was it. Now we know that they can change, what’s really important to that, whether you’re practicing Yoga, or meditation, or just starting to be more mindful in your day, is that we do it really regularly. So, whether you find a Yoga pose that you like, or a meditation practice that you like, the small things that you do really regularly- meaning every day, even if that’s for three or five minutes a day- are going to be much more significant, much more powerful in whatever kind of change or transformation you’re looking for, or healing process you’re looking for, or health, will be much more impactful than the things that you do for long periods of time infrequently. So, whether it’s something really simple like lying on you back for a few minutes every evening when you get home from work, and just taking a few minutes to just breathe deeply. To maybe count inhale for four counts and exhale for four counts, and just take a moment to relax and allow your body to kind of slow down. Maybe it’ll help with your sleep, or just your ability to relax, or how you feel in your body; or maybe that’s meditating. But, to find just a few minutes that you can tap into that a day will be much more helpful than just going to one Yoga class a week or a month. But, the Yoga class once a week or a month can be a great way for you to learn that process, as well. So, small things done regularly make a big impact. Finding something that you can daily is really helpful.
Matt: And what are some other books and resources you’d recommend listeners check out who want to dig in and do some more homework about this topic?
Tiffany: There’s one that’s a really great book called Yoga as Medicine, which is a great book. There’s an orthopedic doctor who talks about using Yoga for different remedies. There’s- gosh, there’s so many Yoga books, I’m not really sure even where to begin, but that’s probably a good one that comes to mind. One of the things I really like to reinforce with people is that there can be this barrier of feeling like you have to learn a lot, or know a lot, before you start things. I’m such a big fan of the “just do it”-not just cause I worked at Nike- like, jump in and start trying it and see what works for you. I wouldn’t say there’s any specific books that stand out. There’s so many now, I’d kind of go and kind of graze through the shelves and see what you like, but more importantly I would go and experience the classes and find something you like so that you get out of the brainy mentality and really into your body.
Matt: It’s all about that body awareness.
Tiffany: Yeah, I think its key. We spend a lot of time at our computers, and in our brains, and I’m such a huge fan of books and reading- I’ve got so many- but, I think for many people in the modern day world, getting away from that and just getting into your body can be more helpful.
Matt: Where can people find you online?
Tiffany: All of my information is on justtheyogamedicine.com website. Most of our social media’s under Yoga Medicine as well. They can follow us on Instagram, or Facebook, or… mostly those two, I guess. On the Yoga Medicine website we’ve got a “find a teacher” tool there for patients, or students, or doctors, as a reference, and all sorts of information on there as well… articles and things for people.
Matt: Awesome! Well, Tiffany, thank you so much for being a guest on the show, and I know listeners are going to have a ton of really informative takeaways about Yoga and meditation from this interview.
Tiffany: Thank you, Matt. It was great to chat.