Heather Dermyer, Psychology

Photograph of Heather Dermyer

Heather Dermyer

Psychology

Yoga gave Heather her life back, and now she's devoting her life to helping others.

When she was 17 years old, an athlete who'd been accepted to college on a diving scholarship, Heather Dermyer was running through the woods and tripped on a the root of a tree. It was a stupid accident, and at most she was worried about being on crutches for a couple of days.

Instead, her injury developed into a neurological disorder that kept her from walking for years, left her in chronic pain, and derailed her entire life.

"I went from training 3 - 5 hours a day to not being able to walk a quarter of a mile without pain, and it lasted for years," she remembers. She went through every traditional medical procedure that was available: physical therapies, drug therapies, surgeries. Some helped, some didn't: none gave her life back.

At that point, her spirit never flagging, she started exploring alternative treatments. "I knew that I had a long recovery ahead of me, I knew that it would take a lot of work to teach myself to walk again, but at that point I was hopeful and eager to try some new therapies." Eventually she tried yoga.

It was a revelation. "It seemed like the perfect fit for me; it was low impact, involved stretching, and reduced my symptoms. I liked the way it focused on my mind and my body, and the way it facilitated natural healing – it was great."

But "great" wasn't good enough. She ended every yoga workout thinking it could go further – that her body could use more.

So she started experimenting. "I began supplementing yoga at home with some of the stretches that just seemed to work with me," she says. "I developed a whole head-to-toe yoga program for myself, so that felt like it got every single nook and cranny of my body moving in a healthy way."

Once she had a workout that worked for her, she started doing the program two hours every day – one hour in the morning, one at night, and quickly started to see results. Her energy increased, her flexibility increased, and there was less and less pain.

"Over a period of years," she says, "I saw an incredible physical transformation."

She's been doing that regimen for 14 years now, "and I'm free of neurological symptoms, and I'm also free of physical limitations. I lift weights, I kayak, I hike, I bike, I'm very physically active."

She also got her college diploma, despite her physical challenges – earning a bachelor's in behavioral psychology from Western Michigan University. She enjoyed psychology, and wanted to go further in it … but also wanted to push boundaries. She wanted to learn more about the kind of physical therapy … holistic, comprehensive, rooted in both 21st century science and an ancient spiritual practice … that had helped her get back on her feet again.

She chose Saybrook. "A humanistic program appealed to me because I wanted to broaden my horizons," she says. "The philosophy of Saybrook really seemed to fit with my interests and professional goals, and once I took at look at the faculty at Saybrook and did some homework exploring their backgrounds; it seemed like a really great fit."

To her delight, the faculty said she could make her personal yoga program – which she now calls call "Yoga-Stretch" – the subject of her doctoral dissertation.

"It was such an integral part of my own healing - I wanted to explore the way in which it would affect others," she says. "I thought it would be nice to share it with other people."

After much thought, she focused her dissertation on Yoga-Stretch and General Anxiety Disorder: would putting people with GAD through a regular regimen of Yoga-Stretch reduce their symptoms? With the help of Saybrook's faculty, she conducted a long-term clinical trial to find out.

"I was stunned," she says, "really shocked to see that to date there had not been any type of clinical trials using any type of yoga intervention for GAD."

She conducted the first ever study, and it paid off: Yoga-Stretch has a strong positive impact on people suffering from GAD.

Today Heather has opened her own studio, teaching conventional Yoga and Yoga-Stretch. She has clients ranging from people with chronic illnesses such as HIV and cancer, to world class athletes. She's seen her technique help change other lives – and is continuing her research, using what she learned to test yoga's impact on other health conditions, like Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

"Saybrook gave me the skills to conduct this research on my own, in a way that will be recognized as rigorous," she said. "But looking back, I would say that, in addition to the all the academic benefits at Saybrook, I was able to meet the best life-long friends. People I met there, even though were in completely different areas of the world, we're still supporting each other. That counts too."