Heather Lensgraf: Taking a Stance on the Physical and Mental Benefits of Yoga

by Sheila Julson

“I think that a lot of people in the U.S. believe yoga is more for physical fitness,” says Heather Lensgraf, registered yoga teacher at Cardinal Yoga, “but it’s so much more than that. Increasing studies show the benefits of yoga for various psychiatric disorders as well. Yoga is quickly entering the realm of integrative medicine, rather than alternative medicine, so that’s exciting.”

Lensgraf would know, as she is not only a yoga teacher but also a licensed psychiatrist who has been in practice since 1985 (under her maiden name, Heather Geis). She has taught yoga in several psychiatric settings and developed specific yogic programs for these settings. She has also observed firsthand how yoga helped with equanimity in adolescents and adults. She has given several presentations on yoga’s positive effects on mental health, including Live Long and Prosper—Evolved Ancient Practices for Modern Healers, in 2014 at the Zarrow symposium, a state-wide mental health symposium; Yoga at All Levels of the Mental Health Continuum of Care, at the International Association of Yoga Therapists conference in Austin, Texas, in 2014; and for the Central Oklahoma Psychiatric Society—Yoga and Psychiatry, in 2012. 

Yoga wasn’t always a part of Lensgraf’s life. In 2000, she was diagnosed with colon cancer. After she completed chemotherapy treatments, she researched ways to stay healthy and noticed how frequently yoga was recommended. She tried it and enjoyed the practice so much that she became certified as a teacher in 2007 through Karen Prior at Samatva Yoga, in Oklahoma City.

Lensgraf found it a natural fit to join yoga with her professional practice, as she noticed how yoga’s principles of mindfulness could benefit her psychiatric patients. “Many current treatment regimens, such as dialectical behavioral therapy and mindfulness-based cognitive behavioral therapy, incorporate mindfulness skills, so I often teach those to my patients, in addition to breathing techniques and relaxation practices,” she explains. She cites yoga as beneficial for focus and restful sleep—two elements that can greatly affect one’s state of mind.

According to the article “A Systematic Review of Randomized Controlled Trials on the Effects of Yoga on Stress Measures and Mood,” published in the September 2015 issue of Journal of Psychiatric Research, 25 randomized control studies suggest that practicing yoga leads to better regulation of the sympathetic nervous system and hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal system, as well as a decrease in depressive and anxious symptoms in a range of populations. Research pertaining to yoga’s effects on mental wellness is ongoing.

While mindfulness has always been an essential aspect of yoga, Lensgraf also promotes the physical benefits—particularly for older people—through her free weekly gentle yoga class at Cardinal Yoga. “It’s my way of giving back to the community for those that want to try a yoga class but may be prohibited by cost,” she notes.

While some people may be deterred from even attempting yoga because they think they have to be in top physical shape to do the poses, Lensgraf emphasizes that yoga is for all ages and physical levels. “That’s why I like to bring yoga to a lot of different settings,” she states. “In the class I teach at Cardinal, there are several different aspects for older yogis and those new to yoga that may not be so athletic.”

Lensgraf also teaches mindfulness classes to psychiatric residents at the University of Oklahoma. She’s certified in silver age yoga (yoga designed for seniors) and is participating in an ongoing study with Becky Gelatt, a viniyoga teacher in Louisiana.

Cardinal Yoga is located at 2412 N. Olie Ave., Oklahoma City. For more information, call 405-226-1177 or visit CardinalYogaOK.com.

Sheila Julson is a Milwaukee-based freelance writer and contributor to Natural Awakenings magazines throughout the country.

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