Many fitness fads have grafted onto yoga in the last couple of decades, which is partly why she steers clear of cute puns. Her intent is to honor the extensive training and credentialing that is integral to becoming a physical therapist, as well as a yoga instructor. She should know, because she is a pioneer in this hybrid holistic fitness regime. YogaCity NYC’s Sharon Watts wanted to learn more.
Sharon Watts: How did you begin this merge of modalities?
Diana Zotos: Three years after graduating from CUNY Hunter College, I landed my dream job at Hospital for Special Surgery, and finally got my chance working in the outpatients’ sports clinic. It was here that I had my “a-ha” moment.
There were three of us—a hip-specialized PT, a running-specialized PT, and me— talking about “new” exercises to get knees more neutrally aligned. They had a combined 20+ years experience—me, two. They were demonstrating all sorts of crazy ideas to strengthen hips and glutes, and one of them showed a version of Warrior 3. I said, “Did you know that you just did yoga? He replied, “It’s not yoga, it’s an exercise for hip strength and core strength.”
His form was off, his alignment was poor, he was hiking his standing hip while side-bending through his trunk. But he was doing reps, and thought that was enough.
I realized then that yoga asanas are great functional movement transitions to use in rehab, and that physical therapists may not really care about the transition in and out of the movement (which is the most functional part of it), and if it is aligned well. After becoming yoga-certified, I have used more than just asana transitions in my physiyoga practice. It has grown to include mindful awareness, breathwork and psycho-social-emotional considerations.
SW: Which came first for you: yoga or physical therapy?
DZ: Yoga. I practiced throughout college; when I was pre-med at American University it helped me deal with the intensity. During those years, I decided that physical therapy, with its strong roots in medicine while being movement-based, was a better fit. Most appealing was how physical therapists were experts in kinesiology and could practice completely autonomously, without constant overseeing from a physician.
SW: Did your personal background contribute to formulating your own way of self-healing?
DZ: In high school I was a very competitive softball pitcher, as well as a multiple marathon runner and snowboarder. My injuries, mostly to my hips and mostly from overuse, occurred in my twenties.
I have a extreme drive to get to the root of the problem—in life, with my kids, with EVERYTHING—especially in my physical therapy practice. I never accept a band-aid approach to anything. I used this mentality to unravel the causes of my recurring hip pain—saw all the experts first, then physiyoga’d my way back to health.
SW: What kinds of injuries do you treat, and how?
DZ: My approach works well with repetitive stress/strain injuries, including those from yoga. Most complaints are of hip pain, shoulder pain, and lower back/sacroiliac dysfunction. The technique for treatment is the same: find the root cause, release the muscles that may be overly toned or tight, uptrain those that need to work in order to gain the correct strategy, mindfully realign, and then encourage functional movement with full awareness.
SW: What is the biggest culprit in today’s lifestyles that leads to injury?
DZ: Sitting, totally. It is trauma for the body. But I could also make a case for walking, especially in New York City. Walking with optimal alignment and movement gives great, amazing benefits to the entire body, breath, and nervous system. Walking poorly, glued to devices, or carrying heavy bags or even a backpack deprives you of many of those benefits, as well as the opportunity to be mindful and present, using it as a meditation.
As a result, we can become lazy walkers, relying more on joint structure and momentum than muscle and postural work. We can develop suboptimal foot striking patterns, which can cause improper mechanics up the chain and into our knees, hips, spines, shoulders, head and neck. Simply walking well can provide mindful awareness, and better balance and strength.
SW: What would a typical private session with you include?
DZ: An initial evaluation session includes a thorough history of injury, surgeries, illnesses, as well as emotional and social input. We start with a standing posture assessment, moving into physiyoga global asana-based movement assessment. We decode movement breakdowns, and then start to release (with balls, foam rollers, bolsters, hands, and breath) and rebuild. Small exercises are followed by postural and activity modification into larger, more difficult movements, until finally we have broken down, rebuilt, and reached your goal movements.
There is a lot of subtlety in the work. The hardest part is the focus and awareness required, but that is how we make impactful changes in your brain that can get you to move differently.