Healthy Ambitions

Twelve years ago, Stephen Penman had a “good job” in finance and administration when he experienced a health crisis that set him on a

Healthy Ambitions

Twelve years ago, Stephen Penman had a “good job” in finance and administration when he experienced a health crisis that set him on a journey of recovery.

Interview by Tamsin Angus-Leppan

He trained as a yoga teacher, quit his job and returned to university. It was during this search for healing, that Stephen became frustrated with a lack of holism in the healthcare system, which led him to look for solutions in yoga. He completed a Masters degree by research in 2008 that produced the Yoga in Australia survey and is now undertaking a PhD to develop an online lifestyle change program that doctors and patients can use to promote and support change based on principles of yogic lifestyle.

Why do most Australians start yoga?

The Yoga in Australia survey showed that people are self-prescribing yoga for stress, anxiety, depression, poor sleep—people are practising yoga to deal with the stresses and strains of life. Of all the medical conditions that people are trying to treat through yoga, more people are doing it for their mental health than for musculoskeletal conditions.

How did you start with yoga?

About 12 years ago I got very sick. To get well again, I had to make dramatic lifestyle changes. I researched my condition and looked for assistance, but it didn’t come from the medical profession. I made as much change as was humanly possible without moving into a more spiritual dimension; I had stopped smoking and drinking, exercised religiously and became vegan. Then one day I walked into a yoga school—I’m not sure why. Before that, if anyone had suggested I try yoga, I would’ve laughed. I was attracted to yoga not so much for the postures, but because a lot of my questions were answered by what was being presented. I really like that yoga is about a progression towards balance. My teacher used to say sometimes you need rajas [activity] to “shatter” the tamas [lethargy]. Yoga seems to have a built-in acceptance that we are somewhere in a pendulum swing between extremes, but moving towards sattva [balance]. Then there are a number of practices in yoga that help to bring yourself back into balance.

How are you combining your experience of yoga with your research?

Lifestyle change addressed my health crisis, but it made me angry that there was nothing in the health system to help people with lifestyle change. I was resourceful; I got on the internet and did so much research. I found scientific studies and texts and support groups, and wondered why my specialist didn’t tell me what was possible. I felt like a statistic—if you take the medication and follow some basic guidelines, you have an expectation of living a certain length of time with a certain quality of life. What about hope and the ability to influence your own outcome, let alone the possibility of recovery? It was then that I thought there needs to be a mechanism for supporting people to make lifestyle change and that was where the idea for the PhD was born, back in 1999.

How are you utilising the research?

I’m developing an online lifestyle change intervention, including stress management, exercise, nutrition, social, spiritual, environmental factors; all ultimately based on the principles of yogic lifestyle, with parallels to ashram life, karma yoga [service], community and social support, physical practice and recognition of our inherent spirituality. I believe it’s possible to translate yogic lifestyle principles into a healthcare intervention and build them into an online mechanism that people can engage with easily, so that your GP can sign you up to a program that supports you to make lifestyle change.