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Yoga on the NHS? East meets West

We are living 24 years longer now, compared to 1920, but we are not living those extra years in a healthful state. In fact, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), the percentage of life we anticipate will be spent in good health has decreased in recent years.

Chronic health conditions i.e. long term health conditions that are managed rather than specific diseases that can be cured, now account for the highest percentage of cases that GPs see on a daily basis. People are living longer, but are spending those extra years in poor health.

Dr.Amit Bhargava, GP Senior Partner of Southgate Medical Group, a Practice that looks after more than 10,000 patients, estimates that 80% of his patients fall into this category, living with long term health conditions.

Examples of long term health conditions:

  • Diabetes (Type 2)

  • Arthritis

  • Cancer (some types of cancer)

  • Obesity

  • Asthma

  • COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease)

  • Depression

  • Back pain

Medication on it’s own is not enough to manage these life conditions. Yoga, Yoga Therapy, plus associated complementary therapies, are increasingly being seen by a number of GPs and other medical professionals as a way to help their patients to alleviate some of the symptoms of these conditions, and also to help them to adopt useful longer term management strategies.

Why is the NHS looking at Yoga now?

Chronic health conditions can benefit from a range of different physical, mental and spiritual approaches. We all know that our state of mind can significantly impact how our body feels – but this holistic approach is traditionally more present in Eastern medicine than the Western paradigm.

Western medicine has in the past relied heavily on ‘evidence-based’ treatments, Randomised Controlled Trials (RCTs) being the ‘gold standard’ measurement of true effectiveness. This approach is understandable when the tested substance is a drug to cure a disease, but is not so appropriate for measuring the effectiveness of a holistic management process.

RCTs are expensive, and the drugs companies cover their costs by the charges levied on the final approved drug. Yoga teachers do not have access to significant funding in the same way. However, the Yoga community has been working hard to produce scientific evidence to support our long-held belief in the efficacy of holistic practices.

For example, a number of recent studies have underlined the effectiveness of Yoga in helping people to manage conditions such as back pain (Ned Hartfiel et al Dru Yoga study is an example), and Yoga has long been associated with helping cancer patients to manage the side effects of their cancer treatment. Nicky Turner, Macmillan breast care nurse specialist said, “Research has proven that yoga for cancer patients is very beneficial both physically and mentally.”

This closing of the gap between Eastern and Western approaches, and the emergence of evidence-based research, has meant that the NHS as a whole has become more comfortable with offering Yoga as a complementary therapy.

What is on offer via the NHS?

Access to Yoga, Yoga Therapy, or other forms of complementary therapies, varies from region to region, and from GP practice to GP practice. There are GPs enlightened enough to hold Yoga sessions based at their Practice (Southgate Medical Group, Crawley), or to prescribe Yoga to their patients (The Docs, Manchester) but there are other ways to access Yoga on the NHS.

NHS Referrals

Leisure centres and gyms may offer membership at a reduced fee for clients referred by their NHS GP, or NHS physiotherapy services. Many of these facilities will include Yoga in their timetables – just be careful to check that the instructors have the necessary training to help with your particular condition. Don’t be afraid to ask – bona fide trainers are always happy to discuss their qualifications. After all, they have probably spent years attaining them!


GP referrals are not always required. If you have a particular condition such as Arthritis, check with local charities to see if they offer Yoga, for example Arthritis Support Leicestershire offers adapted Yoga for arthritis sufferers at a reduced cost.

A number of cancer charities such as Maggie’s hold free Yoga classes specifically adapted for cancer patients, run by qualified teachers who donate their time.

How can you access Yoga on the NHS?

As the availability of services differs across the regions, it can sometimes be difficult to find out what is available in your area. Here are some suggestions of people who may be able to help.

  • Ask your NHS GP: your GP may be able to write a referral for you to your local gym or leisure centre

  • Ask your NHS physiotherapist: in some areas, NHS physiotherapists may be able to signpost you to free or reduced cost services

  • Ask your NHS Social Prescriber: Social Prescribers work alongside GPs to offer help in the broader community (currently, not all GPs have access to Social Prescribers)

  • Ask your NHS hospital consultant: consultants may have access to information about e.g. cancer charities that provide free services

Get Involved

If you have an interest in Yoga and the NHS working together, there are a number of current initiatives, from Government to grassroots. Check out the College of Medicine and the Yoga in Healthcare Alliance for more information.


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