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How An Obsessive Runner Became An Osteo Champ.

Cathy Lilly, an energetic fifty-something brunette was introduced to yoga in college, and for years would go to yoga classes just when she wanted to relax. Then one day her hip froze. Her doctor gave her some startling news - she had the osteoarthritis of a 60 year old, and she was only 42. Unexpectedly the M.D. suggested yoga class, and that Lilly, an avid athlete, also give up certain key aspects of her workout routine, including running, something she loved, and now knows she was using to deal with the grief of the loss of her mother. So off she went to Bikram and the Integral Yoga Institute - using the different methods to strengthen her body, spirit and mind.

While she thought that hanging up her running shoes meant she was being put out to pasture, it was quite the opposite. This was the beginning of a new way of life. Mediating, eating right, and giving up alcohol were all a new part of her new existence. While she was considering becoming a yoga teacher she wasn’t there yet, but a run in with some boxes at work, resulting in back and neck injuries brought her closer to being comfortable with taking the personal and financial leap to becoming one.

So in 2005 Lilly started the 500 hour teacher training at Be Yoga studios with Alan Finger, to study ISHTA -Integrated Science of Hatha Tantra and Ayurveda. She had been teaching for three years when she met Dr Loren Fishman at a yoga symposium in LA, who just happened to have launched a study looking at the effects of 12 yoga poses including Tree, Triangle, Warrior II, Cobra and Locust, Seated Twist, corpse on osteoporosis with yoga therapist Ellen Saltonstall. Intrigued by this work, Lilly struck up a conversation with him at the event.

Meanwhile back in New York at Fishman’s Manhattan Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation center, initial participants in the study were given a DVD to get them started. But they wanted an actual class and Fishman’s new acquaintance from the conference, stepped up to the yoga mat to teach weekly in Fishman's office five years ago.

During the time she's been teaching Yoga for Osteoporosis, she has developed additional ways to help her students, who often struggle with their condition and its effect on their bodies. She wants them to release old ideas of how their bodies should function and bring new ones into the equation. When asked for an example she says “I introduce new patients/students to the important intricacies of each foot and ankle, exploring how choice of stance and mobility of joints can determine how easily they can balance and live with good posture”.

She also teaches gentle warm ups to help with individual injuries and conditions, and she's found that these breath based movements, which are inspired by Viniyoga, allow her students to do a fuller expression of the study’s Iyengar-based asanas. In fact she says “Much of what I do is teaching my patients how to discover and live in their proper tadasana.”

Lilly points out that certain forward flexion poses that you may expect to find in the sequence used in this study, are not included, namely child’s pose and forward bend. There's definitely a reason for this omission. “The Research of Dr. Sinaki of the Mayo Clinic has warned that pushing to bend too far forward can place too much stress on the thoracic vertebrae” she says.

According to Lilly most participants in the study who did the poses have reported increases in bone density in the hip region. When I asked why she thinks the sequence of poses has been effective for her students, she definitely has an answer. “Dr Fishman elegantly describes in their book, Yoga for Osteoporosis, how creating dynamic muscular tension while holding the hatha poses may be the key.”

According to the New York Times, pain and injuries from yoga continue to rise. While the Yoga vs. Osteoporosis clinical study continues, in the future we may have some more concrete results to examine what is being done incorrectly, why, and how to change it. In the meantime, if you’re interested in learning more about using yoga to strengthen your bones, check out Cathy Lilly's classes at Ishta, Yogaworks, and Manhattan Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation.

--Dar Dowling, to see more of her work click here

--Illustration: Shelby McChord

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