What is Yoga Therapy?

What is Yoga Therapy? Most people in the West know what yoga is, as about 1 in 3 people in the U.S. have tried yoga in some way. Is Yoga Therapy a more focused or private yoga class? Isn’t yoga, generally, healing and therapeutic? What then is the difference between yoga, yoga classes and Yoga Therapy?

Yoga is ancient and, in its current manifestation, extremely varied. However, yoga began as a healing practice and its healing power has remained intact and fascinating to this day. So much so that, even though yoga is radically and fundamentally different from the dominant Western medical practice of healthcare, Yoga Therapy is making its way into hospitals, clinics and doctor’s offices and being sought out by people seeking gentle, effective, holistic care for their minds and bodies.


Yoga Therapy is an emerging professional field grounded in the ancient world view of yoga, as articulated in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutra, the Bhagavad Gita, Samkyha philosophy and Ayurvedic medicine. Yoga Therapy uses the many practices born of these philosophies: yoga postures, breathing techniques, philosophical understandings of our thoughts and emotions; meditation techniques; and Ayurvedic food practices to care for the body, mind and spirit as an integrated whole.


Yoga Therapy is both highly individualized and deeply integrated. Yoga for back pain was perhaps the first iteration of yoga for specific physical (and now also mental) ailments. However, this approach is characteristically Western and at odds with both how Yoga Therapy is practiced and how it works. Western medicine is very good at categorizing and organizing physical and mental complaints into groups and then prescribing a generalized treatment. Yoga Therapy focuses on the uniqueness of each individual person and situation while seeking a treatment that works through that person’s body, mind and spirit.


Yoga Therapists take the long view of health and see the importance of small shifts in their clients. Healing is viewed as a process. Entry points to this process vary by person and the Yoga Therapist seeks to find the entry point that will be most manageable and supportive for each client. For example, one person with lower back pain may be best treated with a practice of flowing postures that bring warmth and energy to the body. Another person with a similar complaint might be started with restorative postures and guided meditation such as yoga nidra. A third client with lower back pain might be best treated with rest, guided meditation for pain reduction, and seasoning their food with different herbs and spices to improve digestion.


Yoga is often thought of as physical postures only, or perhaps some breathing practices as well, as is typical in most group yoga classes. However, yoga and certainly Yoga Therapy is vastly wider in scope, with postures being one of many tools or practices that are used. One of the most powerful and valuable effects of yoga is its ability to calm us down — to regulate our nervous systems and bring them into a stable, relaxed, and aware state. Physical exertion followed by focused rest, as in the classic yoga class format, is a tried and true way to bring our nervous systems to calm (which, by the way, is the natural setting). 

What the ancient yogis (and most lineages of meditation practice, and now also Western neuroscience and approaches to treating trauma) know is that this ability to regulate one’s nervous system is a skill and as a skill is teachable and learnable. Cultivating this skill affects how one views being alive and therefore the choices one makes on how to interact with self, others and nature. With this skill on board, these choices tend toward what we know to be healthier: less anger and irritability; more kindness and generosity; more connection; better sleep habits; better food choices; less interest and engagement in harmful behaviors, such as drug and alcohol consumption, smoking, etc. These shifts are indicative of a healthy lifestyle and as such constitute preventative medicine.


Most people have a pretty good idea of what is good for them and what is bad for them, especially in terms of eating, sleep, drugs and alcohol and smoking. Information is not the issue. Authority, as in a doctor telling someone what to do can motivate some people, but generally is not effective in changing behavior for the long term. What is effective is empowerment. Yoga Therapy, above all, seeks to empower individuals to take the best care of themselves as possible. Yoga Therapists teach practices and techniques to relieve pain and discomfort, to calm and relax, to strengthen and energize, but the foundational goal is engender abiding love and compassion for self and the skills to continuously act in support of this love and compassion. Practicing yoga postures, meditation, breathing techniques, Ayurvedic eating principles, and considering the world view these practices are born of is in itself self care.


Yoga Therapy has been researched and found to be effective in the Western medical model for a variety of ailments including heart disease, back pain, diabetes, cancer care, stress, depression, and anxiety and yoga is used to treat and manage many more symptoms and conditions. For many reasons, not the least of which is the individualized, integrative and holistic approach of Yoga Therapy, it is difficult to study how yoga works. Some of the most interesting and provocative research is happening in the fields of neuroscience and trauma. Manifestations of trauma have traditionally been viewed as mental health issues, yet new research is showing that trauma is not only “stored” in the body, but often the body is the best (and in some cases only) access point to healing from trauma. The relatively new Polyvagal Theory of human nervous systems also suggests that mental and physical health issues are not only inextricably intertwined (despite centuries of effort to see, speak about and treat them as separate), but that effective treatment requires an integrated approach.


Yoga therapists are trained to see people as whole beings and their ailments as imbalances in their system. Yoga Therapists are also trained in the views and language of Western medical science so that they can communicate effectively within the prevailing healthcare system. Increasingly clinics, hospitals and doctors offices are seeking out Yoga Therapists as complementary providers. The International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT) is the governing body for Yoga Therapy and as such has created rigorous certification standards and is in the process of developing a licensure examination. National and state licensure of Yoga Therapists would be commensurate with other healthcare providers such as doctors, physical therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists, and mental health counselors. IAYT is currently evaluating insurance coverage of Yoga Therapy practices. 


Western society is inordinately plagued by diseases of stress for which we have been relatively ineffective at treating. Yoga Therapy excels at treating stress and has a significant impact on the adverse manifestations of stress. Yoga Therapy is the profession that is bringing yogic techniques and practices to the Western healthcare system.

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