What is Yoga Therapy?

Ann Swanson
What is Yoga Therapy?

The number of people doing yoga, specifically for therapeutic reasons, is rising. More and more doctors and healthcare practitioners are recommending yoga to complement usual medical care. The rise of the popularity of yoga in America, for example, is clear.

A large survey just released in January 2016 shows that the number of yoga practitioners in America alone is now 36.7 million, up from 20.4 in 2012. This is a huge number and a dramatic increase. Also, scientific research is beginning to support yoga for various health conditions.

More and more reviews and meta-analysis (the gold standard of research) show promising results of yoga for trauma, depression, cancer, and conditions like low back pain and arthritis. It is becoming known that yoga seems to work therapeutically for a lot of people!

What is a Yoga Therapist?

I am a yoga therapist. No, I am not a psychotherapist or physical therapist. Yoga therapy is an emerging field in response to the popularity and effectiveness of yoga for healing. The most common question I get is: “Since all yoga can be therapeutic, all yoga is yoga therapy, right?”

My response is: chatting on the phone with my closest friend can be quite therapeutic, but that doesn’t mean she is practicing psychotherapy. Yoga therapists have additional and specialized training.

To be a yoga teacher, it usually takes 200 hours of training. To be a yoga therapist, it takes at least 1000 hours. Also, yoga therapy is usually done one-on-one or in small groups of people with similar conditions or life situations. For example, a group of people with anxiety or depression may go to an eight week course together with a teacher that adapts the practice specifically for them.

It is key that yoga therapy is adapted for individuals by a highly trained therapist. Despite a lot of hype in the media, research shows that because of these adaptations, yoga therapy is safe, even for those with compromised health. This is particularly true when comparing a therapeutic class to a more vigorous general class routine.

What Should You Expect?

Like psychotherapy or physical therapy, yoga therapy deeply relies on a therapeutic relationship. This involves deep listening and tailoring the practice to the subtleties of what comes up.

Yoga therapy is not confined to the psychological or physical. Instead, it uses traditional yogic models to look at the whole person. This may mean looking at the koshas, or layers of self, which include the physical, energetic, emotional, wisdom, and spiritual parts of our being. Energy (called “prana” in yoga) is often also assessed in terms of chakras (areas of increased energy in the body) or vayus (the direction and quality of the flow of energy).

Yoga therapy addresses the underlying root causes of our pain and suffering, which are often subtle and deep.

In a typical one-on-one yoga therapy session, you could expect:

  • A thorough intake inquiring into your medical history, along with your physical, mental, energetic, and spiritual needs.
  • An analysis of your breath, posture, gait, and various yoga poses.
  • Physical poses chosen and adapted for your needs.
  • Breathing, meditation, and relaxation practice.
  • Homework (yoga is like magic, but in order for the magic to work, you have to practice!)

Have you been to a yoga therapy session? What have you gained from it? Share your stories with the community in the comments below!

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