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,
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.