Redwood: How has yoga changed your life?
McLanahan: The basic questions of life that we all face are: Who are we? And what are we doing here? I was raised as a Methodist and I was taught about God as being the Supreme Being. So I kind of envisioned this Merlin-like presence. Then, as I began to study yoga and reflected on my spiritual understanding, I began to go deeper. I realized that if God is omnipresent, then it can't be a supreme being, but more like a supreme state of being. So I began to understand who we are more deeply from the inside, who we are and what we are doing here. Yoga provides tools that help people stay healthy, physically, mentally, and then deepen their own spiritual understanding and experience.
Redwood: How did you become involved in Dean Ornish's research on heart disease and how would you characterize its importance?
McLanahan: I wrote an article about the medical benefits of yoga, which I had been studying by going to India and also studying here in this country with Swami Satchidananda. He has Integral Yoga centers around the country. It is a very gentle, ecumenical, and open approach to yoga which I appreciate. Dean read my article after he had met Swami Satchidananda in Texas. His sister had heard him speak and invited him to their home. After Dean read my article, he invited me to speak at his medical school, so I came down there with my slide show about the medical benefits of yoga. And after I gave the talk, he came up to me and said, "Let's do research together."
We started our first research in Texas, with a small group of heart disease patients, who we had in a hotel for a month. I taught the yoga, and Dean did the research aspects. We showed really spectacular results, but we wanted to get even more precise in our work. Some of the patients in the hotel were sneaking out for pepperoni pizza. So we took them to a resort for a month, where they couldn't have access to such food, and the results were even more impressive. Then the third study where I worked with him in San Francisco was a controlled study, where we had an experimental group and a control group. I moved to San Francisco for a year and taught yoga to all the patients there. It was that research which was the most remarkable, showing a major difference between the experimental group and the control group in terms of being able to reverse heart disease.
Redwood: How did you show that heart disease was actually being reversed?
McLanahan: We did repeat angiograms, but we also did PET scans [positive emission tomography], which show the function of the heart. A PET scan is not invasive and does not carry a risk. So that's how we've been following the patients since then.
Redwood: So this shows how much blockage is present in the vessels?
McLanahan: The angiogram shows the physical blockage, but the PET scan shows how much the physical blockage is actually blocking blood flow. It gives you a 3D picture of how much blood flow the heart is getting. So the PET scan is, in a way, a much better test, and it doesn't carry a risk to the patient.
Redwood: I referred a patient to you about 10 years ago who had been told by a cardiologist that she probably would need a heart transplant. After following the dietary and other changes you recommended, over a period of a few months her cholesterol levels dropped from the 300s to the 100s, she stopped being short of breath, and she never needed the transplant. The question I want to ask is, how does this actually work? How can these dramatic results be possible?