Dr. Amrita Sandra McClanahan

by Abha Gupta, Ph.D. , YSN Editor-in-Chief
(YSN Vol. 5, No. 1 – May 2017)

Amrita Sandra McClanahan, M.D. and Abha Gupta, Ph.D.

Amrita Sandra McClanahan, M.D. and Abha Gupta, Ph.D., in front of an 8 ft x 8 ft painting of Durga Devi in the Madhubani style, by Shika Sarkar 

Dr. Amrita Sandra McLanahan is a graduate with High Honors of Swarthmore College and an M.D. degree from Wayne University, with a Family Practice Specialty from the University of Massachusetts. For 20 years, she served as director of Stress Management for Dr. Dean Ornish’s research using yoga and lifestyle changes to reverse heart disease and cancer, and now practices Integrative Medicine at Yogaville, Virginia. Dr. McLanahan has made multiple study trips to India and Asia, where she visited centers that use yoga and other natural means to prevent and treat disease. She is the co-author of the book Surgery and Its Alternatives and helped to write the books Dr. Yoga and After Cancer Care. She also appears in two DVDs: Living Yoga and Health, Yoga, and Anatomy.

After Taksha Institute’s recent Yoga Therapy Retreat, at which she was the guest speaker, I sat down with Dr. McLanahan at an informal dinner gathering near a beautiful painting of the Hindu Goddess Durga, the divine form of the universal feminine Shakti – power, force, and transformative energy of creation and protection.

AG: It is wonderful that you are here today and I would like to ask you a few things for our readership of the “Yogasetu Newsletter.” Tell us about yourself and what attracted you to yoga.

Dr. Amrita: Well, I first came across the idea of yoga when I was in medical school, at a time when I had a fair amount of back pain from sitting for long periods of time. Someone suggested a yoga class. So I went, thinking I would have to tie myself into knots, and I found that just the simplest, gentle stretches made me feel so much better. And then, when I did deep relaxation and let go of some of the tension and stress, in that final complete relaxation, I said to myself, “This is a kind of medicine.”

I looked into it further, and found out that there was this whole tradition. I found Swami Satchidananda’s book “To Know Yourself,” which sort of explains the background of yoga, the broad vision of yoga, and a talk that he gave. In the talk, he said two things that really struck me: “You have a natural state of ease and when you lose it, you get dis-ease.” Nobody was saying something so clear in medical school, but it made sense that we start out in ease, but something comes in and disturbs it. He also said, “If you can’t take a pill to become a doctor, why do you think you can take a pill, a drug, to be enlightened?” This was in the ‘60s, so people were doing that—taking drugs, and still, taking marijuana. It made sense to me.

I went on my first yoga retreat in the fall of 1972, a ten day silent retreat with Swami Satchidananda during which I had the most wonderful relaxation that inspired me physically, mentally, and spiritually. I decided to finish my yoga training near where Yogaville East was at the time, in Connecticut. I went to India with Swami Satchidananda in 1974 for the first time, spending three months with him. We traveled to yoga hospitals that used just yoga to treat illness, and learned about their research on how yoga worked.

When I met Dean Ornish, he asked me to come and speak at his medical school about how yoga works. He approached me afterwards, to conduct research together. We set up our initial research project with heart patients, and in a month, we were able to show very significant reversal of disease. It was not well known at all that heart disease could be reversed. We did a second project for a longer period of time, and the third project for a year. We put patients on a lifestyle program of four components, including an hour and half of yoga per day: half an hour of asana practice, half an hour of meditation in the morning, and half an hour of meditation at night. The other components were a vegan diet, an hour of walking, at least five times a week; and group support. We gave them the food in Tupperware containers, trained them, and got them to participate in group and individual yoga classes. At the end of the year, we did actual angiograms, the gold standard, which showed significant straightening out of the arteries and clearing of the blockages. We went on to find in subsequent studies that this program could also reverse/prevent diabetes and prostate cancer.

The year before last, we presented the study results at the White House, showing that the changes begin immediately after you change your diet and start doing yoga. The body has a great capacity to heal itself, so from the very first day, it starts to heal itself. We also showed that it actually reverses the aging process, by examining the telomeres, which are the little ends of the chromosomes that heal themselves. Gradually, as we age, these telomeres become unable to duplicate themselves well, so they shorten; our program results in lengthened telomeres that produce more telomerase, the repairing enzyme that helps repair our cells and the ends of our chromosomes. When our cells duplicate in the constant course of aging, as we age, they don’t duplicate as well, creating wrinkling and other signs of aging. This process is also reversible, and it starts right away, with the telomeres.

Also, you’re not stuck with your biology. You’re not defined by your biology; you’re defined by your lifestyle. Whether or not you’re born with certain genes with certain diseases that are later expressed, which depends on lifestyle, is called epigenetics. Our program turns off the genes that promote disease and turns on the genes that fight diseases. It turns off the genes that promote heart disease, and turns on the genes that fight heart disease. It turns off the genes that promote cancer, and turns on the genes that fight it. Amazing, amazing work.

Dr. Ornish has continued to study these people over time, and they get better and better and better, the more yoga they do. It’s kind of dose-related; the more yoga they do, the better they get. Also, paradoxically, the patients in the most pain did best. The patients that were sickest did best. You would think they’d do worse because they were the sickest, but they were the most motivated, so they stayed on the program and did brilliantly, because they were motivated.

So as a doctor, I’m always looking for ways to motivate patients, and myself, too, as a human. What are the things that motivate us to make healthy choices? I think that ultimately, the most helpful thing is yoga class, because you feel so good afterwards, and are motivated to do more. And you become motivated to have a healthy diet and to make healthier choices as you go through your day.

AG: Wonderful. Tell us now how long have you been practicing yoga?

Dr. Amrita: Since 1972. I’ve actually had 35 years with Swami Satchidananda before he left the body. I went 12 times to India with him, studying and looking at yoga research centers. Dean Ornish went with us for some of the trips, so we actually traveled together. I produced the book called “Surgery and its Alternatives” with my brother, who is a surgeon, a general surgeon, where he argues in the favor of surgery and I argue against, for 200 different diseases. And then we come to compromise where sometimes surgery is necessary, and how to get people through surgery using all these different tools like yoga, and relaxation and visualization. And so I had a whole introduction to integrated surgery and integrative medicine in general, as well as an introduction to alternative and complimentary approaches in general. Also, how to help yourself avoid surgery, or if you have to go through surgery, how to go through it more successfully.

AG: What are some of the changes you’ve seen in yourself personally, that you can attest to?

Dr. Amrita: Well my first experience was as a stressed medical student who used yoga of any kind to make a difference in the stress level. So that’s what allows people to focus more, and now that I’ve studied it, about 175 different diseases that have been studied with yoga have shown that yoga has an effect, and this kind of research is coming along at a very fast pace now. As I said, one in ten Americans practices yoga regularly. And one in three is thinking about doing it within a year. We are becoming a yoga nation. This is happening around the world, in many different countries. Everywhere, you see yoga studios. Yoga, yoga, yoga!

Audience member: The thing you were talking about, about changing the aging process, what do you do?

Dr. Amrita: This has to do with the chromosomes inside the cells. Our cells are constantly dividing. They should be the right length, as they age, but they gradually get shorter and frayed, like a shoelace, at the end. The repair work is not as good; what yoga does is reverse that process. Our brain gradually shrinks down, and yoga does the opposite.

AG: What is your advice, or what recommendations do you have for our readers (not only yoga practitioners and enthusiasts, but also those thinking about doing yoga)?

Dr. Amrita: I would say that gentle practice is enough, especially in the beginning. The word asana means comfortable seat. So your yoga practice should be very comfortable to you. And I have three basic rules for beginners: 1) Go half as far as you think you can go in a pose or a practice; 2) Honor your own body, doing what feels comfortable to you, even starting yoga in a chair; and 3) Straining is actually counterproductive, so relax into the pose, as the aim of yoga is relaxation.

AG: Can anyone practice?

Dr. Amrita: Anyone can practice.

AG: A patient, a sick person?

Dr. Amrita: Yes, anyone. And the simplest yoga poses and practices are breathing. That’s the simplest, and that you can do anywhere. Also gentle stretching, you can do, anybody can do. So it’s really something you can incorporate into your daily life. And the idea is that it should be a part of every action. Every action has a little bit of yoga.

As we finished our conversation, I felt Dr. Amrita’s words were imbued with the power and forceful energy reflecting the symbolic depiction of the Divine Mother painting on the wall.