|Sandra McLanahan is a holistic medical physician who practices in rural Buckingham, Virginia. She was Director of Stress Management for the pioneering research team led by Dean Ornish, MD, which proved that heart disease can be reversed by natural methods including a very low-fat diet, yoga, meditation/relaxation and social support.
McLanahan is a graduate of Swarthmore College and received her medical degree from Wayne State University Medical School. She is the author or co-author of several books, including Surgery and Its Alternatives (co-authored with her brother David McLanahan, a surgeon), Dr. Yoga: Yoga for Health, and The Healthy Vegetarian.
You’ve been a yoga practitioner and yoga teacher for many years, as well as a holistic medical doctor. How do these roles fit together for you?
While I was in medical school, I began to see that most diseases had a preventive aspect. Even the word “dis-ease” is a clue that we start out, most of us, with a natural state of ease, and that something then comes in to disturb it. What’s helpful about yoga is that it addresses all the things that might disturb the initial ease, and gives tools to return to that ease. So in a way you could say that it is using tools to assist the body, mind and spirit to heal.
There are wide range of health problems that can be helped by the body-mind-spirit potential. I would say that it’s really five components—body, mind, spirit, our connection to nature, and then community. Those are the five areas that we need to address as our basics for health.
Is yoga helpful for people who are basically healthy as well as those who are ill?
Absolutely. It addresses the fundamental questions of life: Who are we as humans? Where did we come from? What are we supposed to be doing with our lives? All of those questions are addressed by the components of yoga. Yoga consists of five different immediate tools: physical relaxation through the postures, breathing exercises, meditation, visualization and guided deep relaxation.
You were the Director of Stress Management for Dr. Dean Ornish’s heart disease studies, which showed for the first time that heart disease can be reversed, something previously thought to be impossible. The Ornish diet is the best-known part of that project, but yoga and other mind-body methods were also part of the approach. To what extent do you think yoga and the other aspects contributed to heart disease reversal?
It’s very exciting to tell a patient who has heart disease that they can help make their heart healthy again and keep it healthy. Very exciting. The components of the program are a vegan-type diet with no added fats, yoga for one and a half hours per day, which means half an hour of stretching and half an hour of meditation in the morning, and half an hour of meditation at night. This is sort of a minimum daily yoga requirement. Some people did even more and got even greater benefit. Then the third component is walking, so that they get some exercise for at least an hour, three to four times a week. And the final component is group support, because to stay on a healthy lifestyle, you need as much support as possible, community support. So those are the components of the reversal program.
What we discovered was that the reversal [of heart disease] started right away, that we could show benefits within a few days and signs of reversal of [arterial] blockages within about six weeks.