Getting back to the baseline with Yoga Therapy: An interview with Elaine Oyang
Can you tell us a little about yourself and what you do?
Sure! My name Elaine Oyang and I am a certified yoga therapist. What I do is I see chronic pain clients on a one on one basis and apply therapeutic applications of yoga meaning postures, gentle movement, breathing exercises, mindfulness meditation, and stress management to help them manage and recover from pain that they might have.
In particular, I specialize in low back pain and pain associated with fibromyalgia, lupus or autoimmune disease or chronic fatigue syndrome. Especially in the modality I specialize in, it’s very useful for migraines headaches. I can get into the modality and technique I use a little while later. So that’s me in a nutshell.
What is yoga therapy and how is it different from people taking a yoga class?
I like to explain it in a way that you go to a yoga class to get general in strength, flexibility, you might get some ways to manage your stress and feel calmer afterward and there might be certain classes where you feel it’s very beneficial and helpful for some mild pain that you might have on and off through the years.
You go to a yoga therapist if you really want targeted support for a specific condition or pain that you have and you want to be able to improve or manage your pain in a very safe way and with lots of hands-on on approach and support along the way and get very specific home practices. You get very specific suggestions drawing from the history of your own pain, your other medical history, your personal history, and your goal - where you want to be, what do you want to get out of it and what's your idea. So getting from point A to point B in the most effective strategic way is when you want to go see a yoga therapist, or if you have a condition that is beyond the scope of what a yoga teacher can help you with.
In terms differences in training between a yoga teacher and a yoga therapist - this is the standard as of pretty recently: there are two organizations basically that govern the standardization of yoga teachers and the other organization that governs the standardization of yoga therapists. Yoga Alliance is the international organization that standardizes yoga teachers so this is the basic and foundational 200-hour teacher training. You need at least this minimum requirement to teach at studios and gyms I think basically pretty much around the world but now in the US, this is the minimum requirement
For Yoga therapists, training is run by the International Association of Yoga Therapists. In addition to your 200 hours you have at least another 800 hours of training of and at least another 150 hours of clinical practice. So within 800 hours you get a lot more training in terms of how you work with clients, how you work in clinical setting, how you see disease pathways and pathologies through both western and eastern lenses. How do you communicate with doctors if you're seeing a patient who has a lot of providers? But at the same time how do you see your client from this more holistic viewpoint drawing from eastern medicine, in particular, Ayurveda which is the traditional Indian sciences?
You get a more well-rounded approach and get a little bit of yoga philosophy in the context of how do you work with a client to help them spiritually and emotionally manage a lot of the stressors that come their way, when they are in and out of hospitals all the time. Or sometimes they don’t even have a diagnosis that the doctor can give them because they just haven’t figured it out yet. It can be very stressful and lead to things like anxiety, depression, insomnia. Yoga philosophy serves as almost a lifestyle tool, as almost a spiritual tool to help cope with these underlying things that people really don't think about when it comes to chronic pain patients. It’s starting to in the Western model but it's only emerging as of this point.
That's not to say that yoga teachers, even without the credentials are not experienced or trained to work in the capacity of yoga therapists because they may have been teaching for 20-30 years and their interest may have taken them to work with people with pain. It really, really comes down to the teachers’ background and training, but right now the International Association of Yoga Therapists or IAYT, what they’re really trying to put in place is a more regulated process of training yoga therapists in the hopes that yoga therapy can be included in insurance and in complementary and alternative medicine.
Why did you decide to study yoga therapy? How did you find out about it?
I initially started just as a minimally trained teacher back in 2011 and this was just after I got a degree in biology after college. At that point I really didn’t feel like I was super passionate about that route, going into academia. I thought, ok, I love yoga and I'm gonna take a teacher training and see where this takes me. So I did and I started teaching around in gyms or local community centers and started to refine my skills as a teacher. But from my personal practice, and I do some sort of training or continued training every year and just through these trainings, the more I see that there is more than just the physical postures that you do.
Yoga is really an umbrella and, like I was saying, there is the philosophy context, there's lifestyle, there’s personal growth in it as well and I see there's so much more it can offer that’s really not seen especially in the westernized mainstream yoga industry.
I just want to be able to bring this out and be able to work in a more intimate 1-on-1 setting. Personality-wise I also thrive a little bit better in the more intimate setting and this is something I've discovered over the years. I'm not built to lead 30, 50, 100 people. I’m very good at giving the care and attention on the 1-on-1 seething.
Then around 2014, I got an opportunity to teach a weekly yoga class at a pain rehab center in the East Bay in Richmond that opened my eyes to "OK, there's something here." It was beginning to be recognized that yoga can be applied therapeutically and to people who cannot assess regular yoga classes. I started looking for additional trainings I could take locally.I didn't know what to call and I just started googling around and fortunately there was a center in Marin, It was their first year of holding yoga therapy training with the standards of IAYT so I just jumped into and 2 1/2 years later I’m a certified yoga therapist. During the time I was training I was starting to see 1-on-1 clients and just bring the theory that we learned into practice.
It’s been continued growth of how do I bring this practice to more people who cannot access what the yoga industry is nowadays but can still reap the benefits of it and to also hold the traditions of yoga teaching which is more in a 1-on-1 setting or an intimate group setting.
I’ll talk about this as much as you are comfortable with it: It seems like the yoga industry is about exercise classes to help you lose weight.
That’s unfortunate because it’s not really what yoga is about.
Correct. I’m ok talking about this because I take every chance I can really to educate people. You know, it's not what you see on magazines or social media. Really a lot of classes are nowadays are about, as you say, weight-loss, detox, get in shape. It’s very catchy and always trendy. And that's the strategy from marketing and business to grow and popularize yoga. To a certain extent I get it, but at the same time when something becomes so big a lot of the essence of what it is gets lost and with marketing nowadays it’s all about visuals and the visuals of someone doing a very impressive pose will attract more attention than someone just sitting in meditation or lying down on the floor.
I guess Savasana is not the most appealing picture sometimes.
It’s not but in my line of work is the most used, the most effective, the most therapeutic one that I use all the time. Sometimes half a session in my 1 on 1 is just dedicated to savasana because we're just so tired but at the same time so wired all the time and we’re just functioning at a level that our adrenaline is currently ongoing on going without a chance to really dial down. That's why we have sleep problems and insomnia nowadays because people don't know how to bring it back down. They’re just constantly on the the go with emails that can read and news that you can also listen to on your phone. We’re just never quiet and still anymore. Savasana itself can be very very therapeutic, not just for the physical body but for the nervous system as well.
I think Savasana and when people lie down on the acupuncture table are some of the only times when people are not sleeping that they get to have this kind of rest.
Exactly. It’s a time when they don’t have to think of anything else, they put down all of their to-do list for an hour or so and that's already such a unique and rare thing for them. They really value it.
I love Savasana!
As do I! As you can see so far, Savasana is one of my favorites.
Can you talk more about the conditions you work with?
In terms of conditions, I briefly touched on chronic low back pain and that ranges from anything from degenerative disks to SI joint to sciatica. Headaches and migraines, pelvic floor issues, autoimmune diseases that have pain with it, anxiety and depression which usually always go hand-in-hand when someone has been in pain for a long time.
With anxiety and depression, I mentioned breathing techniques with guided meditation and guided relaxation. That can be very helpful for those who do struggle with anxiety, depression or just a sense restlessness, of fear, of uncertainty about where their lives are heading. Suddenly they have - for the most part - it’s a pain that came unexpectedly and they had to change their lives completely. So there's actually a lot of restlessness, anxiety, and fear with that which some breathing techniques, some guided relaxation, and meditation can help with.
I specialize in a very unique type of restorative yoga that is called Spinal Release Yoga. I learned this from my teacher Kaya Mindlin. She was based in Emeryville. She’s not there anymore, she’s in the state of Washington. She learned it from her teacher who teaches a lineage called Svaroopa Yoga. It's a restorative style of yoga. There’s definitely a lot of savasana involved. There’s definitely a lot of poses where you're just lying down with a lot of props to support your body. There are some seated and standing poses but for the most part, it really is targeted at helping the body decompress really deep tensions.
Going back to how we are living today where there's always this constant low-level stress in the background whether it’s traffic or emails or just 1000 things you have to do and it keeps getting longer and longer. Subconsciously our body is just holding this tension. Every time we need to do something our spinal muscles and other muscles around it tighten just so that we can get through the day, so so we can push through it with enough adrenaline to get through the day. We don't get a chance, nobody teaches us how to dial back down to come back to the baseline.
When these spinal tensions get too rigid it starts to inhibit the flow and information sent from the nervous system to the organs in your body, to the hormonal systems in your body. It can also start to pull on the bones and joints of your spine causing compression of the disks, inflammation of the disks, and general pain through the low back or anywhere else up through the spine. With this method, we’re really targeting at effectively releasing these deeper muscles. Whereas a lot of conventional yoga, even the therapeutic methods we’re stretching and strengthening but they're not quite as effective going into these deeper muscles that are close the bones and joints and helping it release.
I’ve tried a variety of different yoga styles and lineages and my clients have tried a variety of different complementary modalities. And for me for a lot of my clients, [spinal release technique] is one of the keystones in terms of continuing helping their body whether it’s recovery or continuing to maintain and continuing to thrive.
So that’s the technique that I specialize in and work a lot with. It’s very beneficial for any kind of spinal tension issues, back pain, migraines, pelvic floor issues or chronic hip tension, but someone who is also very depleted and chronic fatigue because it's so quiet, you are supported by the floor for the most part. It’s restorative and can really help restore the nervous system.
Everybody's nervous system is just so shot nowadays that just by treating the nervous system just for helping the body to get back down to where the baseline is already will pave the way for the body to start its own healing. It really is just undoing all the effects of living life and getting out of our own way to let the healing happen.
Is there anything else you want to add about the work that you do?
That pretty much summarizes what I do. I definitely have more information about spinal release yoga on my website, which is www.elaineyoga.com
There's a tab under about with “What is spinal release yoga?” with more information about that in case anyone is interested in learning more about it. On my website, there are also other resources. I have an e-book where you get four poses for low back pain that is kind of my go-to when I work with my clients. Four poses that have proven to be the most effective. And through working with a lot of clients they always come back to these four sets when they say “I don't have time for 30 minutes. If I have 10 minutes, I do these four.” I’ve compiled the four most common ones that clients use and I found most effective for them.
I’m pretty active on YouTube and Instagram both with photos and videos (I’m more active on Instagram.) I post videos on Instagram, short videos either it's a yoga pose that we can do for specific things or little things during the day. I'm all about creating positive habits during the day to off balance the negative habits we have like sitting at the desk for a long time. I usually post about that on my Instagram and YouTube. It’s usually a little longer with my commentary about three to five minutes and it's usually a pose and I usually specify what it is on the video. Or positive habits that people really don't think of but can be very helpful in just offsetting all the stressful things that we put on ourselves during the day.
I can’t wait to look at all of your accounts. I’d heard of yoga therapy before I met you but it’s nice to be able to tell more people about it. Where can people find you in the Bay Area?
Physically I am at Advanced Health which is at Clay and Webster in Pacific Heights by the medical building. It’s shared with Doctor Payal Bhandari who runs SF Advanced Health. My other time I spend at an Outer Sunset Studio called The Heart Studio and that space is also shared with massage therapists and acupuncturists. So I'm split between those two. I do teach a couple of classes per week at a small studio in West Portal called Thriveability Yoga and I teach yoga for back care class on Wednesdays at 10:30 AM and a senior yoga class on Fridays at 10:30 AM. That’s where you can find me physically.
Thank so much for your time.
Thank you for interviewing me. At this point I'm all about educating providers like to you about what it is and how it can be a collaborative work for patients too between acupuncture and yoga therapy, between chiropractic and yoga therapy, between massage and yoga therapy or all of the above because in a way I'm teaching people how to manage these symptoms on their so that they can start to feel a little bit more in control rather than feeling lost, feeling confused, feeling scared to move because of the pain they have.