So what can Yoga Therapy do for me, anyway?

A trained yoga therapist collaborates with clients by seeing through the lens, and using the tools, of yoga to generate, stimulate, and maintain in them the best possible state of physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being.

 

So, enlisting the services of a yoga therapist is markedly different from participating in a roughly-streamed (eg., beginner, experienced, gentle, yin, restorative, astanga) class with a multitude of others in which you make your body-mind conform to a series of twelve to thirty poses with perhaps an occasional adaptation, a guided relaxation at the end, and incidental therapeutic benefits.

In fact, working with a yoga therapist even is different from going to a “Yoga for Backs” or “Yoga for Depression” class or workshop, if the yoga professional hasn’t assessed you independently in a wholistic, yoga-based fashion and made your practice in some way specific to you and your needs and goals.

So usually, yoga therapy is a one-on-one or one-on-two scenario in which the therapist works with you, in the best interests of your whole self, in the context of your life, to work toward your optimal well-being, using the tools and view point of yoga.

Some therapists do offer group classes in which they complete an individual assessment and ongoing treatment plan for each participant.

And all therapists started off as yoga instructors, so they are entirely able to teach standard, non-therapeutic classes if they desire, as well as offer therapy.

Generally a person can teach yoga after a 200-, 300-, or 500-hour training in subjects like teaching methodology, yoga philosophy, competently performing and demonstrating yoga poses and breathing practices.

By comparison, therapists certified by the International Association of Yoga Therapists (denoted by C-IAYT) have both the yoga teacher training and additional and quite specialized training.  Generally they have at least 800 hours, and more often, in excess of 1000 hours of training and experience in all kinds of additional areas such as anatomy, physiology, pathology, yoga therapy applications, therapeutic relationship, assessment, treatment plans and medical terminology. Yoga therapists are expected to work collaboratively with and / or alongside, not instead of or in isolation from, medical professionals.

These are basic requirements. Yoga therapists often go on to specialize in certain areas, such as working with people who suffer from mood disorders, central nervous system disabilities, or back problems.

So, for example, a yoga therapist may specialize in working with people who have musculo-skeletal issues such as knee or back pain or health problems like cancer or headaches or depression.  But the therapist doesn’t treat the issue or disease; they treat the person, and they do it from a yoga lens, not a physiotherapist’s or psychologist’s point of view.

Larry Payne, a co-founder of the IAYT, writes,

“One way to think of yoga therapy is as a replacement therapy, that is, replacing old bad habits with better new ones. As such, yoga therapy encompasses not only the body and the movements we do on the yoga mat, but how we live and treat others and ourselves off the mat, which is ultimately what matters for a healthy and whole life.”
In a way, yoga therapy is like life-skills training or working with a life coach, with a yoga slant. Gary Kraftsow, in a 2016 Yoga International article puts it this way:  “Rather than focusing on yoga methods and practices, yoga therapists fundamentally focus on their clients’ needs. Their job is to understand why their clients have come to see them and determine what they can do to support them.”On a related but slightly different note, you may want to know that the tools of yoga go beyond yoga poses or deep breathing.

While certain, targeted, carefully-tailored sets of postures, movement and breath practices may be part of the work adopted by the yoga therapy client, the therapeutic toolbox also includes practices like meditation in a variety of forms and for a variety of reasons (eg. to become more aware or more focused or creative), intention setting, using sound and imagery, structuring daily routines around energetic reserves, identifying problematic beliefs and adopting new ones.

Although much more could be written about this, you may want to think of a yoga therapist as a specially trained and experienced confidante, guide and coach who sees through the eyes of yoga and helps you to apply yoga tools to promote the well-being of your whole self.

Some additional reading if you’re interested:

Case Study Example of Yoga Therapy – Marlysa Sullivan of University of Maryland
2016 Yoga International article Gary Kraftsow (excellent, in my opinion)
IAYT definition of yoga therapy
2013 Huffington Post article Larry Payne
IAYT’s main site

I am honored to be among those who the IAYT has certified as a duly qualified yoga therapist, and I am very passionate about working with people using yoga to be more effective and at ease.

Some Thoughts on the Conundrum of Getting to Yogic Self-Practice

A seemingly universal refrain amongHawaii suptapadanusthasana yoga enthusiasts is that they miss their usual class when it is interrupted for some reason and they find it difficult to practice on their own what they have learned between formal classes lead by others.

This complaint tends to apply to novice and experienced yogis alike.

A notable exception are students of ashtanga who have memorized a series and go to practice in early morning at a Mysore-style studio or teachers or therapists who have made a routine out of getting to the mat every day.

Let’s consider why this difficulty with adapting yoga to the ups and downs of life might exist.

Perhaps the most likely possibility is that the melange of thinking / doing / experiencing offered in a class is difficult to achieve on one’s own. 

In a formal offering such as a class, workshop or retreat lead by someone else, the facilitator typically has done all of the thinking and preparation: the organizing theme, the uninterrupted time and appropriate space and materials, the order of the component pieces, and how the pieces will be executed, for example.  (When the offering is specifically therapeutic, yet another layer of individualization and holistic consideration come into play.)

Suffice it to say that, in an organized yoga offering, participants are mostly free to act and feel. 

While the relative amounts of doing and experiencing will differ based on class style and purpose, one or both of activity and experiential qualities will be more intense because the thinking aspect has been taken out of the equation.

And let’s face it, we tend to like intensity, especially when we think it feels good or is associated with achieving some desired result.

So why are the ashtangi and the daily-practice-committed yoga professional able to bypass the need of a teacher-induced intensity?

How able we are to practice on our own seems to largely be a matter of motivating factors, or purpose.

Using the ashtanga practitioner as an example, there customarily is an established series of poses on which to work and the yogi usually wants to improve performance on one or a few of them.  Often there is the carrot of perfecting this series so as to be permitted to move on to the next, more difficult and showy series.  There are many rules set by a guru and enforced by junior gurus, a community of regular practitioners and a consistent practice time and space into which one would like to fit, and arguably some bragging rights that all work together to motivate the practitioner.  This situation can play out in other styles of yoga, too, but generally to a lesser extent.

Aside from an ashtanga practice, the dedicated daily yogi may have any one or more of a number of motivators.  Some experience their daily time on the mat as their spiritual practice which, for certain people, can be an overarching driving force.  (There are a number of different paradigms that guide a practice that has spiritual growth as its purpose.)  Others find it to be a self-care time during which they can maintain their health or address aches and pains or energy or moods, or simply be with themselves, in their bodies, in the present moment (this sounds trivial and yet is fundamental in working with trauma).  Yet others have certain proficiency goals or are working out how to share an understanding with others.

All of these purposes presume some level or degree of understanding or knowledge of yoga.  Attentive class participants, over time, should be able to transfer some material or process from their formal training to their home mat although it may not constitute a long practice.

One way to increase the viability of informal yoga practice is to form a group or duo with whom to be “yoga buddies” – people who get together regularly or occasionally to practice together.  But this solution still leaves the sole yoga aspirant at a loss most of the time.

Facilitating such a transfer of knowledge from class to personal practice truly is my passion. Those who have spent time “yoga-ing” with me know that I like to give reasons or purported benefits, provide background info, encourage feeling into practices, give permission to do something different, show various ways of approaching a pose depending on purpose, and so on.

I do not subscribe to formulaic answers as a rule; rather, I like to work on principles.

Recently I saw this comment on a Yoga International online post:

I’m in India now for some months and have the blessing to learn from great teachers here. There is one big difference that I keep seeing back compared to the classes I experienced in the West. Yoga is down to earth here. Natural like taking a shower. There is no fluff. It is part of life. It is part of maintaining health, maintaining physical and mental cleanliness. I do think that is how yoga should be. ~ Orsi Hegyi •

Orsi, I wholeheartedly agree!  Even though my life circumstances haven’t allowed me to be in India, what you describe as the Indian yoga class experience is what yoga continually is to me, and it is what I try to impart in my classes and private sessions.

Yoga as part of life, for the maintenance of life, for and adapted to the individual and their situation.

A Life Lesson (or Two) Learned from Yoga

I am a yoga devotee and (usually) proud of it. Largely due to yoga, I have adopted an evolving awareness and acceptance of my body’s capabilities, ways to keep body and mind healthy, as well as ideas that help me get along in the world.  But that’s not to say that I have all the answers or that I do not value, or even adopt, aspects of other forms of exercise, lifestyle or philosophy.

I’ve come to be suspicious of quick fixes, one-size-fits-all solutions, quotations and one-line “words of wisdom.”  For concrete thinkers, slogans can be deadly.

For concrete thinkers, slogans can be deadly. 

Let’s take the sage piece of advice, “live each day like it’s your last,” for example.  Most days, I read this as “make amends, extend friendliness to others, and make a positive difference in the world.”  But on other days when all seems like drudgery, I can see how someone might construe it to mean “throw all caution to the wind, spend all your money on frivolous things, and party like there’s no tomorrow!”

If slogans were meant to stand alone, scriptures for the various faith traditions would be one sentence long. 

Seriously, when it comes right down to it, slogans are not meant to stand alone.  If this were so, scriptures from the various faith traditions would be one sentence long.  Invariably, people need more explanation because they interpret a quotation or one-line catchphrase in the context of their own history and circumstances.

People interpret a one-line catchphrase in the context of their own history and circumstance.

But, we can convey a meaningful message by stringing a few key sayings together.  The word “yoga” is both a noun and a verb:  a state of such perfect balance that all appears still; and practices that lead to that balanced state.

yoga balancing rocks

In yoga philosophy, balance is a key theme: balance is the goal, at virtually every level and in almost every conceivable way.

But it also is very yogic to be attentive.

A noted meditation master says, “Treat your life like an experiment.”  (Yes, meditation is part of the yoga toolbox!)

Balance, attentiveness, experimental approach:  a worldview begins to congeal.

When you put these last three concepts together, you start to see a worldview congeal:  undertake routine and new endeavors alike with a view to enhancing equilibrium and see what happens.  Make adjustments and try again.  Like a scientist, use educated guesses to formulate your hypotheses with an intended effect of harmony, not chaos.  And observe the results, ready to make adjustments or even completely change tact!

As we move into fall, I invite you to make yoga out of everything you do, be it working at a desk, playing with children, running, eating, partying.  While honouring both yourself and all creation, experiment and then pay attention.

If you’d like to do this in a group with guidance, consider signing up for a class or inquiring about dropping in if you can’t make a regular commitment.

Revised from a community newsletter submission, 2008