Is yoga therapy right for you? Have you tried everything under the sun to eliminate an ache, pain or chronic condition? If your doctor has suggested that you try yoga therapy (and not just yoga classes), the first step is to find a great yoga therapist to steer you into a customized practice that may potentially improve the conditions of self-healing in your body, mind and spirit.
Charles* practices Yoga Nidra meditation (yogic sleep) with me once weekly at the advice of his general practitioner to help reduce his teeth grinding, which is creating destructive TMJ in his jaw joints.
Defining yoga therapy
Like many of my colleagues in the yoga profession, I have spent years trying to explain exactly how the therapeutics of yoga are distinguished and different from other movement, fitness or spiritual healing modalities. Yoga can encompass so many different approaches inside of its big 8-limbed umbrella that some of what we do as teachers falls into a blurry territory. Is it corrective exercise or assisted passive stretching? Is it breath training or stress reduction techniques? Is it spiritual advisement or personal development?
Anna* has had two surgeries in her low back to relieve nerve compression. Years of soccer and track have created imbalances in her hips, which sheared her lumbar discs. Her physical therapist sent her to me to retrain her abdominals, back and hip musculature. We have completely eradicated her pain by integrating proper breath support while working her core.
My introduction to yoga therapy
I feel very lucky that from the outset of my training, I had a template of how to work with students who sought to build a yoga practice as a way out of their agony. Twenty years ago, when I first assisted my mentor Glenn Black, he taught a workshop at the Omega Institute for Holistic Studies called “Yoga Therapy.” It was full of people with injuries and chronic conditions. His years as a manual therapist gave him keen insight into how to work with “the broken body.” His students trusted him, and they were able to move beyond their pains and find new freedom of motion. They also transcended the mental and emotional constrictions that also often accompany chronic pain because of the deep mediation practices yoked together with the physical explorations.
Being the daughter of a doctor, I have always been drawn to the healing arts and love the nuts and bolts behind scientific proofs. But I also thrive on the creativity that the yogic arts offer. My current Yoga Tune Up® practice involves sharing students with a circle of physical therapists, pain medicine specialists, psychiatrists, chiropractors and rehabilitation specialists to help students of any condition to live better in their body. With a mutual respect amongst all of these professionals, I am able to support my students at every phase of their journey from injury to empowered wellness.
After decades of decline with a rare neurological disease, Mark* was referred by his M.D. and occupational therapist to learn relaxation techniques and to improve his muscle function and coordination. Three years later, he has nearly eliminated pain medication, and has lost 60 pounds.
Where do yoga therapists train?
For yoga teachers who are drawn towards the therapeutic side of the spectrum, there are now approximately 66 yoga schools that offer instruction specifically to train yoga therapists. The International Association of Yoga Therapists acts as an umbrella organization for teachers and schools worldwide who are seeking to raise the bar of the yoga therapy profession so that it is recognized as a respected therapy. They also support research and education in yoga and hold annual conferences where cutting-edge research in the field of yoga is presented.
Even Gaiam’s beloved Rodney Yee has created a training program with Donna Karan called Urban Zen Integrative Therapist training: “The UZIT program includes training in yoga therapy, essential oil therapy, Reiki, nutrition, and contemplative care giving.” UZIT includes clinical rotations in their training and are building a presence at several hospitals nationwide. Part of their mission is to also influence a paradigm shift in care-giving towards a more holistic model.
What to expect during a yoga therapy session
A yoga therapy session will likely create a practice that is modified and tailored to one’s personal issues and needs. A great yoga therapist will create a practice for each individual as an individual. A session may consist of breathing (pranayama) and specific poses carefully constructed to reduce pain and to improve biomechanical function. A yoga therapist may use a novel variety of yoga props to help clients to access poses, positions and alignment. Sessions might include extended meditation to help with stress reduction and to influence psycho-physiological change.
A yoga therapist will research resources for students who may need some guidance towards additional care and consult with other professionals. They are also an advocate for their students’ emotional well-being, understanding that the depth of a person’s pain may go beyond the physical and into the neurological, emotional and spiritual. A great yoga therapist will support all the dimensions of their student.
Here is a listing of some yoga therapy programs that are a great place to begin searching for a local yoga therapist or professional program.
1) American Viniyoga Institute, Gary Kraftsow
2) Loyola Marymount , Larry Payne
3) Yoga Tune Up® Integrated Therapist, my program
5) New England School of Integrative Yoga Therapeutics, Bo Forbes
How do you think yoga therapy can help you? Post your story below!
*No students’ actual names are used in this blog.