Tiffany Caronia lies on her back, fidgets for five seconds, and then slips into Savasana—palms up, legs ever so slightly externally rotated, a gentle smile across her mouth. It’s a pose the 35-year-old vinyasa yoga teacher in Los Angeles knows well, which is why it comes so naturally to her here, on her acupuncturist’s table.
The fact that Caronia is able to quiet her mind and drop any attachment to external senses—the practice of pratyahara, the fifth limb of Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga—is one of the reasons she experiences such great benefits from her acupuncture sessions, says Caronia’s acupuncturist, Maria Villella, LAC, a vinyasa and Ashtanga Yoga teacher in Los Angeles. “With any healing modality, the more you’re able to put yourself in a deeply relaxed state, the more benefits you’ll receive,” says Villella. “I think it has a lot to do with the mind-body connection we develop on our yoga mats.”
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Caronia says her trust in Villella is also key: “I truly believe that what Maria does will help me,” she says. There’s scientific proof Caronia is on to something. Researchers are seeing time and again that our expectations of healing play a big role in the psychological and physical benefits we experience. In one recent study published in the journal Science Translational Medicine, scientists looked at people with recurring migraine headaches over the course of multiple attacks and found that when docs told patients they had high expectations that a treatment would work well, it did—even if it was a sugar pill, and even when the patients were told they were getting the placebo. Other research has found that when patients believe in the effectiveness of a therapy—whether they get a vote of confidence from their practitioners or not—it can stimulate real physiological responses, including changes in heart rate, blood pressure, and even chemical activity in the brain that decreases pain, anxiety, and fatigue.
“This research is proof that there are a number of psychological factors that play a role in how well a treatment works,” says Kristin Skotnes Vikjord, a clinical psychologist and yoga teacher in Amsterdam. “The bottom line is that if you seek out treatment that you believe will work, it has a better chance of working.” Gail Dubinsky, MD, a physician and yoga teacher in Sebastopol, California, adds that treatments that really resonate with you have another benefit: It’s more likely you’ll stick with them and stay compliant with the other suggestions the practitioner offers.
Of course, there are other important factors to consider when deciding which healing modality will work best for you. For starters, you want to be sure your choice is a safe option for your condition: You might do some research, talk to your doctor, and reach out to others with your same ailment to learn what helped them the most. There’s also the convenience factor: It’s probably not realistic to drive an hour each way for hydrotherapy when there’s massage and reflexology in your neighborhood.
Finally, it’s important to be aware of your changing needs and be willing to shift your treatment course as necessary. Say your back pain gets so much better that you no longer need regular Rolfing sessions and instead are able to stay pain free with occasional acupuncture. Yoga can help with gaining that awareness.
“Yoga is a process of connecting to the present moment, and by doing that, connecting to the self, which gives yogis access to an inner knowing that helps guide our decisions and prompts us to ask, ‘What do I need right now?’” says Rachel Allyn, PhD, a licensed psychologist and yoga instructor in Minneapolis. “It’s important to trust that you’ll know how to answer that question, which can be so beneficial when you’re healing.”
With so many complementary healing modalities available, it can be a puzzle finding the right one. To help you sort through your options, ask yourself which of the following statements resonates most with you right now, and consider the treatment options in that section. Keep in mind there’s a good chance you’ll find many of these therapies beneficial, so use this only as a starting point.