THAT’s Yoga - The Healing Power of Yoga in the NHS by Kate Binnie


In honour of the NHS 70th year of service in the UK, we asked Kate Binnie, a Yogacampus Yoga Therapy Lecturer on Palliative Care, who has done extensive work within the NHS and across hospices and various communities, specialising in therapeutic applications of music, yoga and mindfulness for people living with chronic and life-limiting illness, to give us insight on the current relationship between yoga and modern medicine. 

"Our wonderful NHS was set up post-war to treat a very different society where infectious disease and child mortality were still a significant problem. Seventy years on, chronic illness, lifestyle-related disease, mental health and effects of ageing (including dementia) have placed untenable demands on our health and social care system. 

It may be going too far to say that yoga can fix the political, economic, health and social problems our country faces, but bringing the philosophy and practices of yoga into health and social care may be a good start.

Yoga offers patients across the spectrum a pathway to self-care – but this involves an important shift of mind set right through, not only healthcare systems, but within society at large.  I see this in my work within palliative care settings where illness, loss of function and death are seen almost as an outrage and something to be “fixed”…..  but when did we stop understanding that death is an inevitable outcome of being born? Couldn’t we balance the fact of death with the potential for wellbeing, joy and connection while we are alive?

Every week I see patients with life-limiting illness flourishing within the held space of mindful yoga.  I watch them gain confidence in a body that may have begun to break down, but that has life and breath in it yet. I see patients turn towards their fear and pain, soften, and feel it subside. Breathless patients with non-malignant lung disease learn to stop fighting their breath, and breathe more easily, gaining a sense of control. I watch partners learn simple tools from yoga to help soothe their loved one and to stay steady as they let go (of each other, of life). I also watch healthcare professionals working in settings such as care homes, hospices, hospitals and primary care using yoga to stay steady, balanced and resilient in the face of stress and suffering.

I think a realistic way forward is not necessarily to push yoga as a discrete, new intervention - as in – yoga teachers and therapists coming into settings to set up classes for patients. This would be wonderful…. But, there is little money, the evidence-base is not robust, and in any case, there is generally an 18 year lag from evidence being translated into clinical practice! The potential is, perhaps, for us yoga teachers and therapists to offer our skillset to enhance the competencies of those who already work within specific health and social care settings. They already have the knowledge, training and skills to work with specific populations - yoga can only enhance this. By improving communication skills and encouraging compassionate communication, and providing strategies for dealing with ‘hard to treat’ symptoms (such as distress, anxiety, chronic pain and breathlessness from neonatal units to care homes, from mental health settings to A & E) through the introduction of yoga, midnfulness and meditation practices, we can begin to see a real shift in the way we treat patients, but also the way in which we observe our relationship with ourselves. 

One lived example; a respiratory consultant came to a talk I delivered over a year ago in a healthcare setting, about my work and research with yoga; one year on, I received an email from her:

"…. I am working closely with my local hospice now to support patients with non-malignant end stage respiratory disease with non pharma therapy to relieve symptoms…. I was so inspired by your talk that I’ve set up a campaign locally  - you may be aware of the “hello my name is...” campaign.  I’ve added to this and challenged junior doctors and colleagues to add “How are you?”  AND stay quiet listening to the patients for an entire minute. Been amazing and feedback good from patients and colleagues."

Is this “yoga”?  Not technically – but the practice that consultant experienced (gentle body movements, body and breath awareness, an invitation to relax, lots of space to be and breathe) changed her practice and that of her colleagues in a small way. 

Those patients will simply experience the healing power of being listened to properly, of being cared for. That’s yoga!

We look forward to developing trainings that will enhance the toolkits of HCPs working across settings.  Join us if you have ideas, skills, experience and a passion to deliver high quality yoga-based trainings. Let’s train people within all communities to look after themselves and each other – let’s democratise healthcare! That’s yoga.  Namaste."

Kate Binnie runs the Mindful Yoga in Supportive and Palliative Care and into Bereavement workshop and teaches the Palliative Care module on the Yoga Therapy Diploma at Yogacampus. She is also a Senior research associate at the University of Bristol, Life of breath project (www.lifeofbreath.org)Read more about her here.