In my experience, all the tools that Yoga offers can be applied in a therapeutic way to reduce and/or alleviate suffering. It is also my experience that the tools of Yoga are not always used for therapeutic means… and that’s OK, because not everyone is using Yoga for the same purposes, goals, or intentions.
Let’s begin to clarify! According to the International Association of Yoga Therapists, the definition of Yoga Therapy is as follows:
“Yoga therapy is the process of empowering individuals to progress towards improved health and wellbeing through the application of the teachings and practices of yoga.
The yoga tradition views humans as a multidimensional system that includes al aspects of body; breath; and mind, intellect, and emotions and their mutual interaction. Yoga is founded on the basic principle that intelligent practice can positively influence the direction of change within these human dimensions, which are distinct from an individual’s unchanging nature of spirit. The practices of yoga traditionally include, but are not limited to, asana, pranayama, meditation, mantra, chanting, mudra, ritual, and a disciplined lifestyle. Yoga therapy is the appropriate application of these teachings and practices in a therapeutic context in order to support a consistent yoga practice that will increase self-awareness and engage the client/student’s energy in the direction of desired goals.
The goals of yoga therapy include
· Eliminating, reducing, or managing symptoms that cause suffering;
· Improving function;
· Helping to prevent the occurrence or re-occurrence of underlying causes of illness; and
· Moving toward improved health and wellbeing.
Yoga therapy also helps clients/students change their relationship to, and identification with, their condition.
The practice of yoga therapy requires specialized training and skill development to support the relationship between the client/student and therapist and to effect positive change for the individual.
Yoga therapy is informed by its sister science, Ayurveda. As part of a living tradition, yoga therapy continues to evolve and adapt to the cultural context in which it is practiced, and today, it is also informed by contemporary health sciences. Its efficacy is supported by an increasing body of research evidence, which contributes to the growing understanding and acceptance of its value as a therapeutic discipline.“
Yoga therapy is not quite the same as taking a yoga class. There are some obvious and subtle differences:
1. It is generally taught one on one or in small groups.
2. Therapeutic yoga tends to be gentle and nurturing. It has a strong focus on body awareness and the belief that the keys to healing are found within each individual.
3. The movement portion (if there is one) tends to be done with relaxed breathing – focusing on the essential or natural breath.
4. There is a strong emphasis on relaxation.
5. The approach tends to be tailored to the individual or to individuals with a specific condition.
6. The practice can be highly modified, using many props to support the individual as they practice.
7. There is a strong emphasis on a home practice, which is derived from the in person work the student and teacher do together. This facet is critical to the effectiveness of the therapy – the students must engage in their own healing process for it to be effective.
8. It is holistic in nature, approaching the individual as whole and not simply one part of the person.
9. YT is as much an art as a science.
10. The teacher will need a strong background in anatomy, physiology and medical knowledge in order to determine the proper treatment protocol/practices.
BKS Iyengar writes the following about Yoga Therapy in his book Yoga: The Path to Holistic Health:
“Yoga can heal parts of our bodies that have been injured, traumatized, or simply ignored and neglected… The ancient yogis realized that the cure for diseases lay within ourselves. They formulated a therapy which worked on our very natures, and enabled the systems of the body to function as effectively and efficiently as possible, both preventing and curing disease.
“Yoga’s system of healing is based on the premise that the body should be allowed to function as naturally as possible. Practicing the recommended asanas will first rejuvenate the body, and then tackle the causes of the ailment.
“The four pillars of yoga therapy are the physician, the medication, the attendant and the patient. In the yogic worldview, the sage Patanjali is the physician, asanas are the medication, the yoga instructor is the attendant, and the student is the patient. Asanas are recommended to ‘patients’ according to their ailment and their physical and emotional condition. This has to be done with care. If a doctor’s diagnosis is wrong or the dosage is inappropriate, the treatment can actually harm the patient. Similarly, asanas that are not suited to an individual’s requirements can adversely affect his or her health.”
Whether a yoga class is considered therapeutic or not does not change that general yoga classes are great preventative medicine for health seeking individuals! I believe that as our practice deepens, our awareness increases, and from this place of being seated in the Self we develop a yoga practice that is therapeutic to ourselves – we know what works and how, we know what doesn’t work. The entire practice of yoga is a process of refinement – the more refined our practice becomes, the more therapeutic it is.
Enjoy your practice!
Mona teaches Ayurvedic Yoga at the Janati Yoga School in Kingston Ontario, where she lives with her wonderful husband, their enthusiastic dog, and ninja kitten. When she’s not teaching, practicing or talking about yoga, you might find her enjoying a good meal, kayaking, climbing a mountain in Ireland, or zip-lining over a forest in Costa Rica, Roatan, or Whistler BC.