I’ve been practicing yoga, sometimes more fervently than others, for 35 years, and teaching it for over fifteen of those years. In 2008, I came to the realization that my true passion lay in using yoga therapeutically, that is to apply the teachings and practices of yoga when working with individual clients to empower them to progress toward improved health and well-being. I investigated various ways to learn more and develop competency. I embarked on two different and fairly major complementary trainings and by 2010, both were complete. Nevertheless, I find myself continuously seeking out more knowledge and opportunities to practice and I rather doubt that my lifelong learning will cease soon, if ever.
Yoga therapy is not something that just happens by chance, although one can receive helpful and sometimes unexpected benefits by practicing yoga in a general way. One of my teachers, Richard Miller, specifically includes in his definition of yoga therapy that there is an objective of achieving a specific goal, and that the steps to get there are intelligently conceived. Much of what is offered by yoga practitioners, studios and even self-styled “yoga therapists” out there falls more in the “chance” and “general” categories.
Nor does a group yoga class that is directed toward a specific problem, life stage, body type, or disease process necessarily qualify as therapy. For example, while a person with a problematic back may experience relief from a yoga class specifically offered to address back pain, that yoga is only therapy (according to Educational Standards of the International Association of Yoga Therapists or IAYT) if the participants in the class have been separately assessed and the class’ offerings are specifically customized to the individuals within it. In other words, it is the individual who is receiving the yoga therapy, not the disease condition being treated.
Further, while the assessment and resulting treatment program can be informed by other methodologies, to qualify as yoga therapy it must be based on the philosophy and body of knowledge of yoga. Hence, sets of physiotherapy or fitness exercises that resemble yoga on one hand, or psychotherapeutic counseling on the other, do not constitute yoga therapy if they do not view the various aspects of the human individual and his or her circumstances from the viewpoint of yogic teaching and practices.
Yoga has some interesting ways to look at life and illness and wellness of which not everyone is aware. Some helpful yogic models are the chakra system, the sheaths or bodies known as pancha maya koshas, and the tri-doshas or elemental makeup, for instance. All three of these systems look at more than just the physical, just the mental, just the emotional. They make sense of the person’s current functioning in a wholistic way, using ideas that come from the vast and ancient tradition of yoga. Most yoga therapy makes use of these or other yogic perspectives on health and disease.
While most people can envision a certain yoga pose that might mitigate a certain condition or a type of breath that could help with stress, each person’s situation and constitution is different and even those remedies aren’t going to be the best choice in every case. Additionally, the yogic toolbox extends far beyond than the old standards of posture and breath from hatha yoga with which most people are familiar. According to Richard Miller, the practices and teachings of yoga from which yoga therapists can choose include but are not limited to the components of Ashtanga Yoga (from the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali) which include the educational teachings of yama and niyama (guidelines for living with self and others), asana (intelligently applied postures), pranayama (control of energy using breath), pratyahara (withdrawal of the consciousness from external senses), dharana, dhyana, and samadhi (three stages of concentration). Also included are the application of meditation, textual study, spiritual or psychological counseling, chanting, imagery, prayer, and ritual to meet the needs of the individual. The whole field of ayurvedic (Traditional Indian) medicine also informs yoga therapy.
More and more, yoga therapy is receiving attention from the academic and scientific communities and more yoga therapy is becoming evidence-based. That is a good thing. Yet I am happy to know that it is balanced with the acknowledgement of the therapeutic relationship and the presence and intuition and art implicit in the yoga therapy practitioner.
What excites me perhaps most about yoga therapy is that it can improve almost anyone’s life. It is capable of addressing equally the complex needs of highly-driven athletes and bedridden invalids, happy people and sad people, the disenfranchised, destitute and compromised as well as the privileged and rich. Some yoga therapists specialize more with a certain population or type of issue. However, overall, it is part of yoga therapist’s skill set to determine how best to work with individuals to unearth the ways in which they are suffering, explore how their constitution and life circumstances are involved, and together develop and enact a yoga-based plan for moving forward in a way that will help them to GROW through life joyfully.
Interested readers can see the IAYT’s Educational Standards for a comprehensive picture of the skills one can expect in a competent yoga therapist.
Each week I see a handful of people for individual yoga therapy. My special interest is in using yoga to manage energy, mood, and chronic pain, heal from trauma, and find hope in otherwise discouraging circumstances. I also offer individual yoga sessions to improve physical functioning in a variety of ways for a variety of reasons, or simply to just play! If you are interested in exploring any of these for yourself, please contact me.