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Local doctor pushes health benefits of yoga

When she was a child in India, Veena Gandhi and her four siblings greeted the sunrise with a half-hour run to build their courage and 45 minutes of yoga poses to stoke their souls.

Veena Gandhi practices yoga in her Voorhees, N.J., home. The physician has a series of instructional DVDs due for release next year. ( APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer )
Veena Gandhi practices yoga in her Voorhees, N.J., home. The physician has a series of instructional DVDs due for release next year. ( APRIL SAUL / Staff Photographer )Read more

When she was a child in India, Veena Gandhi and her four siblings greeted the sunrise with a half-hour run to build their courage and 45 minutes of yoga poses to stoke their souls.

All followed by prayer and meditation, it was the routine their father insisted they follow, even before they ate breakfast.

"My dad was very big on spiritual living and physical fitness," she says in her Voorhees gynecology office. "He wanted us to learn to be healthy, to appreciate nature."

Now, Gandhi, 66, is a modern doc who increasingly relies on ancient techniques, an unabashed advocate of mainstream as well as alternative health treatments.

She not only spends about 90 minutes each day practicing her own yoga, she also teaches it to others at Virtua Voorhees hospital. Gandhi will broaden her yoga instruction in February, when a set of three instructional DVDs she made in India is expected to go on sale.

While no statistics seem to be kept on how many doctors double as yoga instructors, the number likely is small.

"I think it's pretty uncommon," says Joanne Perron of Gandhi's dual approach to medicine. "What she's doing is great."

Perron, 51, herself an ob-gyn and a yoga teacher in Pebble Beach, Calif., serves on the board of the Yoga Alliance, a nonprofit group with headquarters in Arlington, Va. Its mission includes setting national educational standards for yoga instructors.

She says the medical establishment is only starting to realize yoga's health benefits. Some hospitals, including Thomas Jefferson University Hospital in Philadelphia, offer yoga under the heading of "integrative medicine."

"They haven't been quick to embrace a lot of 'alternatives' - and yoga is seen as out of the mainstream," Perron says. "A lot of people think it's the pretzel poses. It's really about mindfulness and breath awareness."

Gandhi's zeal for mainstream medicine and yoga is why a poster of revered Indian leader Mohandas K. Gandhi (yes, they are related, she says) hangs in her office next to her medical school diplomas.

It's why, on a wall underneath a rack of pamphlets discussing yeast infections and colposcopies, leans a poster with photos of the doctor conducting a yoga seminar.

Loretta Carbonaro was passing Gandhi's office in 2001 and decided to visit her because other doctors couldn't diagnose the cause of pain she was having. (Gandhi stopped delivering babies years ago when malpractice insurance premiums soared.)

"I go to this woman and she diagnoses me from across the waiting room," says Carbonaro, 46.

Gandhi found an ovarian cyst, removed it, and urged Carbonaro to try yoga for her general health. The Gibbsboro artist has been a devotee ever since.

Even though she is doing it on a limited basis now, Carbonaro says yoga is helping her heal from health problems associated with a 2006 car accident.

Just as yoga goes back to Gandhi's childhood in the town of Botad, so does her ambition to go into medicine. She was looking for a career that was noble, respectable, and financially stable, she says, so she could use her income to help others.

Along with spirituality and physical fitness, her family also emphasized the importance of social service and giving back to their community.

Gandhi's desire to give back to her adopted country, she says, is why she charges $100 for 11 weeks of two-hour classes (typically, yoga instruction starts at about $12 a class).

"I lived in this country with a joy, I learned a lot. I need to give back to this society," she says.

It was in India, though, that Gandhi earned her medical degree and married her husband, Sharad Gandhi, in 1967. He moved to New Jersey before his wife to work as an electrical engineer; she joined him in 1969 after finishing medical school in India.

But her residency at Temple University Hospital, the birth of two children, and the start of a solo ob-gyn practice in New Jersey left little time for practicing breathing techniques and postures.

So it wasn't until 1984 that she rediscovered yoga, at an international conference on Hinduism in New York City. It was there that she met a teacher from Bangalore, who became her first guru, giving her readings on yoga and opening her eyes, Gandhi says, to the fullness of its mental and physical disciplines.

In the late 1980s, she began teaching yoga to youth groups at her Hindu temple.

"The group needed to learn yogic postures as I did as a child," she says.

Soon after, Gandhi expanded her teaching to adults outside of her congregation, fueled by a desire to correct many Americans' misconception that yoga is no more than body-buffing exercise.

"In my opinion, not even 10 percent is physical exercise," she says.

Yoga, Gandhi says, is about balancing life physically and mentally through controlled breathing techniques, meditation, diet, and the postures.

Cheryl Nelthropp, 48, of Voorhees, says Gandhi's class, especially learning yogic breathing techniques, has helped ease digestive problems and arthritic pain in her knees.

Other yoga teachers Nelthropp encountered didn't talk as much about yoga's philosophy and history and didn't emphasize proper breathing.

Gandhi also injects the knowledge she has from being a physician, says Nelthropp, a special-services supervisor for Camden City public schools.

"I think it gives her more credibility," she says.

Gandhi would argue that yoga's results are the best form of credibility.

If done properly, she says, it can ease or avert numerous medical conditions, she says.

A growing stack of research agrees.

A study from Georgia State University and Emory University published in November found that yoga practiced by African American patients who survived heart failure complemented standard medical care by improving cardiovascular endurance, flexibility, and quality of life.

A study by a yoga research foundation in Bangalore concluded that women who were stage two and stage three breast cancer outpatients, and who practiced yoga prior to radiotherapy treatment, had improved "physical function, role function, social function, and global quality of life."

Jacquelyn Tillery, 61, of Glassboro, who heard about Gandhi from her cousin, doesn't need a study to prove yoga's benefits.

"I started going to yoga class because I was having health problems," she says. "It relieves my stress. It helped me with my lung problems, my breathing, it strengthened my body."

While Gandhi enjoys teaching classes, she wanted to spread yoga's benefits to more people. After watching all of the yoga DVDs at her local Camden County library and declaring that they were insufficient, she decided to produce her own.

She arranged to make the series in India after her father died in the spring at age 96, and she planned to go with her brother and their 92-year-old mother, who both live in Kentucky, to scatter his ashes in the Ganges.

It was glorious, she said, to do the "Salutation to the Sun" posture as the sun was rising over the river. It was a blissful experience - just like the bliss Gandhi believes her students will feel from yoga.