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  • Writer's pictureDeborah McDermott

What is Yoga Therapy?

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

TKV Desikachar, a leader of yoga therapy before his passing, summed it up nicely:

Yoga therapy is a self-empowering process, where the care-seeker, with the help of the Yoga therapist, implements a personalized and evolving Yoga practice, that not only addresses the illness in a multi-dimensional manner, but also aims to alleviate his/her suffering in a progressive, non-invasive and complementary manner. Depending upon the nature of the illness, Yoga therapy can not only be preventative or curative, but also serve a means to manage the illness, or facilitate healing in the person at all levels.

~ TKV Desikachar & Kausthub Desikachar

Yoga therapy is ideal for clients with specific mental or physical imbalances or for those just starting yoga. It can be used as a safe path back from disease, injury, or pregnancy - or to manage ongoing pain or disease. Yoga therapy specialties are vast - covering everything from high-performance athletic recovery and conditioning to teaching aging yogis, veterans, trauma survivors, and recovering addicts.

Even if the client is a yoga student just seeking a health and wellness "refresh," yoga therapy always sees the person whole, and empowers wellness in body, mind, and spirit.

Recent History of Yoga

Yoga is ancient and - in its current manifestation - extremely varied. Most group classes in the West are created for athletic, healthy adults. The most popular forms of yoga – vinyasa, Ashtanga, power yoga, and hot yoga – descended from a man named Krishnamacharya (as did Iyengar, viniyoga, and more). These classes can all be a part of a healthy lifestyle – especially if you are generally healthy and athletic already.

But Krishnamacharya did not spend most his career teaching group classes. Instead, he met with individuals one on one – assessing them Ayurvedicly and assigning a personal, holistic yoga practice to meet their needs and empower their health. Yoga therapy continues the tradition of yoga chikitsa - or yoga medicine - using its vast techniques for balance, health and wellness.

Yoga Therapy in the West

Yoga Therapy is an emerging professional field that is integrative – taking into account the whole person – and so compliments and supports Western medical care. Yoga therapy is grounded in the ancient world view of yoga and influenced by Ayurvedic medicine – as well as cutting-edge neuroscience, kinesiology, soma-psychology, and yoga research. Yoga therapy uses 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. Along with other mindful practices, yoga therapy excels at prevention, and focuses on the uniqueness of each individual person and situation. Because certified yoga therapists have studied for two years more than a beginning registered yoga teacher, they have prepared to complement medical care – taking into consideration any diagnoses when teaching yoga and mindfulness.

Yoga therapists take the long view of health and see the importance of small shifts in their clients. Healing is viewed as a process. A good yoga therapist takes into consideration the advisement of doctors and caregivers, then chooses an entry point to yoga/mindfulness that is 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 benefit from constructive rest, guided meditation for pain reduction, and seasoning their food with different herbs and spices to improve digestion and inflammation.

Yoga Therapy and the Nervous System

One of the most powerful and valuable effects of yoga is its ability to calm us down -- to regulate our nervous system and bring it into a stable, relaxed, and aware state.

For instance, the vinyasa format of physical exertion followed by focused rest is a tried-and-true way to bring our nervous systems back to their natural state of calm. A yoga therapist can modify this format during an injury recovery period to bring a client that same health benefit.

What meditation, yoga therapy, and the evolving Western neuroscience approach to trauma know is that regulating one’s nervous system is a skill. As a skill, it is teachable and learnable. Cultivating this skill positively affects the choices one makes 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; and less interest and engagement in harmful behaviors, such as drug and alcohol consumption, smoking, and more.

Yoga therapy excels at teaching clients how to manage stress - and therefore is deeply valuable when managing stress-related diseases and conditions.

Yoga Therapy Empowers the Client’s Health

Yoga therapy, above all, seeks to empower individuals to take the best care of themselves as possible. Yoga therapists can teach practices and techniques to manage pain and discomfort, to calm and relax, and/or to strengthen and energize. The foundational goal of all of these practices is to engender love and compassion for the self. Practicing yoga postures, meditation, breathing techniques, Ayurvedic eating principles, and improving one’s outlook are all actions of selfcare.

Yoga Therapy Research

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. 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 Therapy Standards and Education

Yoga therapists are also trained in the views and language of Western medical science (including 100+ hours of university-level anatomy and physiology and 50+ of psychology) 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. IAYT has created rigorous certification standards for schools, and is in the process of developing a licensure examination. The Veteran’s Administration, certain state disability programs, and integrative hospitals and clinics have all used yoga therapy as part of a complimentary approach to wellness.

Yoga Therapy is bringing integrative yogic techniques and practices to the Western healthcare system. Because of its unique ability to address the body and mind, to empower health, and to manage stress, it is a perfect complement to Western healthcare.

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