Yoga Therapy: What is it?
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.
Yoga therapy uses the tools of yoga-- postures, breathing practices, meditation, etc.-- to empower individuals to find optimal health and wellness. Typical yoga classes offered in gyms, yoga studios and health clubs are geared toward healthy people as a form of exercise. Yoga therapy differs in that the yoga therapist modifies the practice of yoga to meet the specific needs of the individual or group with the intention of assisting clients manage their pain, fatigue or depression. According to Gary Kraftsow, a leading expert in the field of yoga therapy, "When clients seek out a yoga therapist or a therapeutic group, they are usually not coming to learn yoga, but to get help with or relief from some symptom or health condition that is troubling them. In most cases, the instruction focuses on their condition and how the yoga techniques can help them feel better or improve their function, rather than on the techniques or methods of yoga practice."1
Most often yoga therapists work one-on-one with clients to create an individualized, tailor-made practice that addresses an person's unique combination of physical, mental and emotional needs. "Therapists look for ways to help their clients reduce or manage their symptoms, improve their function, and help them with their attitude in relation to their health conditions." 2 Each session begins with an intake and assessment of the client's current symptoms, a discussion of the client's goals for the session, and then on yoga practices to help the client manage those symptoms. Therapist usually provide a written follow-up detailing those practices so the client can use them at home for self-care.
So how do yoga therapists differ from yoga teachers? Yoga therapists receive special training on how to work with students who have various conditions, such as arthritis, depression or MS, to ensure their safety. To become certified with the International Association of Yoga Therapists (iayt.org), yoga teachers must complete an additional 800 hours of study beyond the 200 hours required in basic yoga teacher training. Their training includes learning the contraindications for various medical conditions and ways to modify poses to bring the greatest benefit without causing further injury. For example, for someone with arthritis in their hands or wrists, a therapist would modify downward dog by showing the client how to practice the pose using a chair or with the forearms on the wall.
Yoga therapy can be paired with other practices, such as physical therapy.3 In fact, some experts recommend yoga therapy in addition to physical therapy, OT and other treatments. Because yoga is a mind-body practice, people learn methods for coping with symptoms such as anxiety, sleeplessness and stress that often accompany certain conditions. A yoga therapist equips their client with tools such as deep breathing, guided relaxation (or yoga nidra), meditation and mindfulness practices which have been shown to improve mood, promote relaxation, relieve stress, and increase overall quality of life.
To learn more, visit these websites:
1 Kraftstow, Gary. "The Distinction Between a Yoga Therapy Session and a Yoga Class", Yoga International, February 3, 2016, https://yogainternational.com
3Liao, Sharon. "Yoga as Therapy," Arthritis Today, July/August 2016.