Yoga Therapy: Yoga As a Therapeutic Tool

Girl on pink yoga mat during therapeutic yoga session in London

Yoga has become very well known as a physical practice that can offer the practitioner greater strength, flexibility, and even peace of mind. Due to its widening popularity, yogis are discovering more about the yoga practice. They are finding out that it is more than just a physical practice.

Although it may begin with the physical body, it goes deeper. The yoga practice permeates the physical being and taps into one's psyche as well. Yoga is starting to be seen more as a therapeutic tool for psychological healing as well as physical healing.

Yoga Therapy primarily focuses on the use of yoga postures, breath-work, and meditation to deal with presented issues.

This could range from physical ailments like stiff joints, chronic back pain, or sore muscles. This approach can also help treat conditions like anxiety, depression, substance abuse issues, and even some types of autism in children. However, not just every and any yoga instructor can provide this service. There are specific criteria and standards for being a yoga therapist.

Yoga Alliance was founded in 1997 with the premise to offer national standards for the growing trend of yoga classes and yoga instruction. They established the guidelines for yoga certifications and yoga school accreditation so that there would be a consistency of yoga policies and standards across the board. Over these past twenty years, as yoga has grown in popularity and shown to be therapeutic in many ways, another standardization agency was established: The International Association of Yoga Therapists. This organization, established in 1989, started to acquire research supporting the notion that yoga is a therapeutic tool. Their mission is "to establish yoga as a recognized and respected therapy."

Further, they designed a code of ethics and laid out a scope of practice for future yoga therapists of which to abide. After several years of refinement, IAYT began certifying yoga instructors that met the qualifications of practicing yoga therapy. These "therapists" had taken further training in accredited yoga therapy training programs focusing on how asana, pranayama, meditation, and Ayurvedic medicine can be applied in a therapeutic setting.

Benefits of Yoga Therapy

When you go to a yoga class, you can certainly experience therapeutic benefits from the guided practice.

What's special and unique about a yoga therapy session is that it is typically a one-on-one experience. It is a personal yoga lesson with your yoga therapist.

In this setting, you are able to speak directly to the yoga therapist about what is going on with you physically and emotionally. The yoga work is then personalized to fit your specific condition and state of mind.

Zenagoy mandala yoga mat purple pink
Yoga Therapy also adds another dimension that is often missed in traditional therapy settings. While in a therapist's office, the context and structure of the session are centered on the discussion: talk-therapy. This could be considered a one-dimensional approach to treatment that a small percentage of people relate to. That is, in talk-therapy, it is more cognitively based; it is more cerebral. With yoga therapy, other aspects are introduced. Not only is there talking, discussing, and problem-solving, but there is also the movement of the body and a focus on the breath. For those that find it challenging to only relate and learn through verbal interaction, this style of treatment offers the kinesthetic component of learning; you experience change and growth through actual movement. You feel the body in motion, which makes the changes within you more apparent. This makes it easier for you to remember what you've learned in your session so that you can try it outside the therapy space on your own.

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Non-medical Treatment

Yoga Therapy is also a non-medical treatment. It can be considered complementary to treatments like psychotherapy or psychiatry, where medication may be prescribed. In this non-medical approach, the body and breath are used as additional resources for self-healing. For example, one may need a particular type of medication to help deal with anxiety. Adding yoga therapy to the treatment mix can teach the client how to use breathwork and meditation to help ease stress and anxiety, too.

What to expect in Yoga Therapy

Every yoga therapist will have their own style and expertise, but here is a sample of what may occur when you pay a visit to your yoga therapist. Just like any other private therapy session, information remains confidential unless there is a risk of harm to self or others, where it would be an obligation to report.

Your yoga therapist would certainly take the time to get to know you, listen to what you've been experiencing, and how yoga therapy may help.

If you're experiencing stress and anxiety, you may begin your session with breathwork. This is called pranayama; it is the focus and full awareness of breath as a tool to help you reduce stress.

Breathing with intention is a mechanism that can alter your parasympathetic nervous system. That is, you can learn ways to reduce the stress response in your body with the use of breathing exercises. The two of you will practice the techniques together and allow for time to ask questions about how it feels, how it may help with stress, and how to use it at home.

Yoga therapy using Mandala yoga mat of Zenagoy yoga brand
In regards to the asana practice, your yoga therapist may guide you through a series of yoga poses that relate directly to your stress. For example, they may ask you where in your body stress manifests. If you hold tension in your shoulders and chest, some specific yoga postures may be introduced into your session that works on these areas. Some postures that may relate to these areas include Extended Mountain Pose, Bridge Pose, Child's Pose, and others. The idea is to bring movement into the shoulders to help release any tension. Backbends help to open the heart and chest area to bring focus and awareness to this area. A relaxing pose, like Child's Pose, allows for rest, release, and internal introspection to be part of the therapeutic process.

Yoga is practiced together during the session. Still, there are also opportunities for more discussion and processing so that you have a chance to talk about how these physical components help or not. As the session draws to a close, some mutual agreements on the advantage of the techniques practiced in the session are made. Your yoga therapist may then "prescribe" some of these exercises for you to try on your own at home. These are meant to be complementary modes of treatment if you are currently on other anti-anxiety medications.

Continue to see all of your therapists and doctors; discuss with each how and what you are using to help achieve greater self-care and well-being. Track your progress and notice the positive shifts over time.

If this looks like something that would serve you well, try yoga therapy for continued health maintenance. Visit www.IAYT.org to find a certified yoga therapist in your area.

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