Timothy McCall, M.D.

by Charles Platkin, PhD

Timothy McCall, M.D. is a board-certified internist, the Medical Editor of Yoga Journal and the author of two books, Yoga as Medicine: The Yogic Prescription for Health and Healing and Examining Your Doctor: A Patient’s Guide to Avoiding Harmful Medical Care. His articles have appeared in dozens of publications including the New England Journal of Medicine, the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), Public Citizen’s Health Letter, American Health, Redbook, the Boston Globe, the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Los Angeles Times. His column appeared monthly in the newsletter Bottom Line Health from 1995 to 2003. From 1996-2001 his medical commentaries were featured on the public radio program Marketplace.

Timothy is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Wisconsin in Madison, where he also attended medical school. After completing his residency in primary care internal medicine, he practiced for more than 10 years in the Boston area before devoting himself full time to writing. His main focus since the year 2000 has been investigating the therapeutic aspects of yoga, as well as the scientific explanations of yoga’s effects. He currently lives in the San Francisco Bay area.

Thursday, 31 July 2008

Diet Detective: Hello and thanks for agreeing to do this interview! I’ve interviewed you before for a column I did on yoga, and found you to be helpful, kind, and with a great understanding of yoga. And now you have an exciting new book coming out. What is it that we don’t know about yoga or that hasn’t been written that we should know?

Dr. McCall: Well I’ve tried to do a number of things in the book that are different than what’s been done before. One is that I’ve used the language of science and my training as a physician to try to explain how yoga works, though it’s written so that you need no background in either yoga or science to follow it. The book has the most comprehensive review of the science of yoga that’s been done. It also has the most thorough coverage of contraindications to safe practice for people with a wide variety of health conditions that anybody’s ever done. Another key difference is that the book is ecumenical. There are lots of different styles of yoga and many books have been written advocating and describing one type or another. I’ve gone in and tried just about everything and reported back to readers, so they can understand what the styles have in common and how they differ. The book also features the work of some of the most prominent yoga teachers from various styles including Patricia Walden, Judith Hanson Lasater, Gary Kraftsow, John Friend, Rodney Yee, and Richard Freeman.

Diet Detective: I’ve heard that often times when a writer/ researcher is gathering intelligence for a book he or she typically discovers a few things that the writer wasn’t aware of prior. What was the biggest surprise you found in researching your book?

Dr. McCall: Well this book is based on ten years of intensive research, so there have been many surprises. I’d say one of the biggest surprises is that in every style of yoga I’ve investigated I’ve seen healing. My own practice has a strong emphasis on anatomical alignment of bones and muscles in poses. But I found in India, where such detail isn’t emphasized much at all, that patients do really well. What those styles do well though is incorporate other elements of yoga including meditation, breathing techniques, chanting, etc. I’ve come to believe that there’s a synergy between the different techniques. In other words, add a little meditation or pranayama (yogic breathing) to your asana (the physical poses) and you’ll get more bang for your buck.

Diet Detective: If someone has never done yoga before, and he or she is reading this interview, can you briefly explain why and how he or she should start?

Dr. McCall: I think yoga is the overall most effective method to achieve health and happiness that I’ve ever seen. It’s great preventive medicine and useful for a wide variety of health conditions. And surprisingly, people who think they’d be terrible at it because they’re stiff, out-of-shape, or their minds go a mile a minute seem to benefit the most. It’s important though that you choose a style and teacher appropriate for your fitness level, and I guide readers through that in the book.

Diet Detective: I keep trying to incorporate yoga into my life, and I must say it hasn’t been simple. I already do about an hour of exercise each day. I watch my diet, have lots of work, a family—it is sometimes difficult? I think many readers have similar issues. Any suggestions?

Diet Detective: I also wonder if only 5 or 10 minutes of yoga is better than no yoga?

Dr. McCall: I’m going to answer these two together because they are related. For people with busy lives, 5 or 10 minutes per day is a great way to start. You are trying to build new habits, which create new neural pathways in the brain. The best way to do this is frequent repetition of the activity you are trying to encourage. So fit yoga into the cracks of your day. Do Leg Up the Wall pose for a few minues instead of taking a coffee break. Stretch your arms on the door frame as you walk through the door. Do a few poses instead of reading the paper or watching TV. Those things actually often leave us more stressed (especially watching the news) even though we do them to relax.

Diet Detective: The concept of yoga, being centered, and spiritual, it almost seems contradictory in today’s world. How does yoga fit it?

Dr. McCall: Yoga has a spiritual side which you can either pay attention or ignore. A lot of people get freaked out by the word spiritual. Whatever you want to call it, yoga quiets the mind and puts you in touch with a calmer place inside. Some people call that spiritual. Some people call it relaxation. The words don’t matter. Yoga teaches that when you can deeply relax, you have more access to your inner wisdom. I liken it to sitting on the beach and getting absorbed in waves crashing into shore. Sometimes in that peaceful moment you come to realizations about what’s important and what isn’t. From that quiet place, yoga teaches you also have more access to creativity and healing.

Diet Detective: Your book Yoga as Medicine focuses on how yoga can impact our lives and reduce the risk associated with a wide variety of diseases (including: panic attacks, carpal tunnel syndrome, depression, infertility, cancer, etc.)? I’ve heard that, yoga has even shown promise in improving symptoms associated with depression, anxiety and epilepsy. What are some of the more persuasive medical claims yoga can make? I know this may sound silly, but it would seem that people that do yoga on a regular basis would all be healthy?

Dr. McCall: I’ve uncovered more than 100 studies which document the health benefits of yoga. Yoga does tend to make people healthier but it’s no guarantee. Yoga can also make you happier and can help you not suffer so much, even if the condition you have cannot be cured. The mind can make a lot of things worse, and yoga teaches you how to slow it down. And, who knows, maybe even people who do yoga and have health problems, would have been worse off, or have developed other conditions, were they not practicing. Even with yoga we all will eventually get sick and die. I think yoga gives you the best chance to live as well as you can as long as you can, and likely will minimize the time of disability before death, but it will not make you invulnerable.

I think some of the most impressive evidence for yoga healing abilities has to do with heart disease. People who followed the Ornish program, for example, which includes yoga, a low-fat vegetarian diet (contrary to popular belief diet is part of yoga!), and exercise, did better than those who took cholesterol-lowering medications. Some of the people in the program came in with angina (heart pain) so bad they couldn’t even walk more than a few steps and emergency surgery was recommended, but they managed to quickly improve their symptoms and never need those operations. Heart testing showed that the blockages actually got smaller as time went on. When I went to medical school that wasn’t even considered possible.

Diet Detective: What do you consider the world’s most perfect food?

Dr. McCall: Well I think there are a lot of perfect foods, and that variety is part of the key. But one food that I’m a big fan of is sweet potatoes and yams. They taste like dessert and deliver the nutritional punch of brussel sprouts!

Diet Detective: What’s your workout or activity routine (aside from yoga)?

Dr. McCall: I love to hike the hills of Northern California, where I now live. I dance fairly often, walk quite a bit and ride my bike to get to yoga class, and work out on the elliptical machine at the Y a few times a week.

Diet Detective: What’s your favorite breakfast?

Dr. McCall: I make oatmeal with organic whole oats and add bananas, a few different kinds of organic berries and walnuts.

Diet Detective: Do you have a pet?

Dr. McCall: We have a chicken coop in the backyard with five hens. They all have names such as Mrs. Baxter and Lucy. Pretty soon they’ll be giving us organic eggs.

Diet Detective: What’s your favorite healthy ingredient? What’s the one thing you’d suggest people keep in their kitchen if they want to cook healthy meals?

Dr. McCall: As you know, there’s increasing evidence that spices like curry powder and ginger have lots of health benefits. They are low calorie and add nice tastes to foods.

Diet Detective: Do you have a favorite healthy recipe or cooking tip? If so would you share it?

Dr. McCall: I bought a rice cooker a couple of years ago and I use it all the time. I cook organic brown basmati rice and it comes out perfect, with a nutty taste. I also steam vegetables like baby spinach in it, which is incredibly quick and easy.

Diet Detective: Last book read?

Dr. McCall: I’m always reading five different books at a time: novels, self-help books, yoga books. The last one I finished was called The Exceptional Presenter, which is a really useful guide to public speaking, that I read in preparation for all the lectures and workshops I’ll be doing now that the Yoga as Medicine has come out.

Diet Detective: What did you want to be at the age of 5? (as far as a career)?

Dr. McCall: For a long time, I had no idea what I wanted to do. I was not one of those kids who wanted to be a doctor starting at a young age. That’s just what happened. I know when I was five I idolized the paperboy, so maybe that’s what I wanted to be.

Diet Detective: What was your worst summer job?

Dr. McCall: I worked as a dishwasher as a summer job when I was 16. It’s was unbelievably hot and humid in the kitchen, I worked too late to connect with my friends in the evening so missed out on loads of parties, and the chef played the most atrocious easy listening music, such as a brassy instrumental version of “King of the Road,” that will forever be etched in my brain.

Thank you!!!!

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